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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Strike Zone: Music and identity in Israel and Palestine


During the formation of Israel, aspects of two distinct cultural groups — European Ashkenazi Jewish people and Arabic Mizrahi Jewish people — were fused to form a shared national identity within the supposed Jewish homeland. However, Israeli society remains hierarchical; many Ashkenazi Jewish Israeli individuals have long suppressed both Mizrahi Jewish individuals and Palestinians, who claim indigeneity over much of Israel but have long been confined to the margins of Israeli society by the government.

This dynamic has manifested in the Israeli music industry; in her article “Dueling Nativities,” anthropologist Amy Horowitz explores the appropriation of Arabic themes in Israeli music. Per Horowitz, asymmetrical appropriation involves a dominant group appropriating the culture of a “subordinate” group, in contrast with pan-ethnic appropriation, where each group influences the other’s music; however, these categories incorrectly indicate a binary between “Israeli” and “Arabic” culture. In response, Horowitz presents the concept of rhizomatic appropriation, which moves across cultural boundaries, challenging the notion of a “pure” Arabic or Israeli style of music. Rhizomatic appropriation — in music and culture as a whole — can bridge the gap between conflicting cultures, as Mizrahi and Palestinian pop artists have utilized supposedly contradictory aspects of their identity to unite and inspire their listeners.

Rhizomatic appropriation in Israeli music is exemplified by Dana International, a transgender Mizrahi woman whose underground cassette-tape recordings gained international popularity but provoked criticism from Israeli conservatives and Egyptian nationalists. Dana’s identity as a transgender woman in a conservative society was groundbreaking during the 1990s and her victory in the 1998 Eurovision contest brought trans identity to mainstream culture in her homeland

However, Dana International’s gender identity was not her defining characteristic. Her music uniquely utilizes polysemy, ingraining multiple meanings into a single text. In her song “Susu Ya Susu,” Dana speaks a line that sounds like “kiss me” in English and “Gismi ya Susu” (“My body Susu”) in Arabic, thus appearing “sexier” to an Arabic speaker than an English one. Dana’s multilingualism effectively communicated sexualized “Western” messages to impressionable Egyptian youth, a trait that was more dangerous to Egyptian nationalists than her transgender identity. Dana International’s music exemplifies rhizomatic appropriation, as her identity as a transgender, Arabic-speaking Mizrahi woman transcends boundaries of gender, language and nationality, allowing her to cross traditionally rigid cultural borders.

Additionally, contemporary Palestinian artists use aspects of their identities to influence their artistic pursuits. Bashar Murad, a gay Palestinian artist, turned to music as an outlet to express his frustration over his homeland’s political turmoil and intolerance towards his sexual identity. Many Palestinian artists struggled to establish a musical identity due to pre-existing stereotypes regarding Arabic music; however, Murad was eventually able to gain global traction. Sadly, due to authoritarian travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, many artists struggle to leave Palestine and perform elsewhere. Therefore, Palestinian artists such as Murad and MC Gaza use their music to protest the status quo. Palestinian artists use their music to contest the social and cultural barriers that restrict them in their homeland. Rhizomatic appropriation challenges the problematic Israel-Palestine binary by blurring the cultural borders between these nations, by which greater intercultural understanding can be forged.