Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Taglit-Birthright Doesn't Deserve Hip-Hop

Six months ago, I ran into someone I knew in college. She was a couple of years ahead of me, but in the same department. During my sophomore year, she lived in the apartment adjacent to mine. I never had a particular affinity with her; we ran in different circles. Nonetheless, I thought it would be polite to simply catch up and exchange the usual niceties.

She asked what I was up to. I told her I was writing a book about how the global upsurge against neoliberalism is shaping music, starting with the Arab revolutions. She balked, but only a slight bit, and I figured she just found it a little strange.

Then I asked what she was doing. Turns out she worked for Taglit-Birthright, the non-profit organization that sponsors heritage trips to Israel for young Jews in the United States in Canada. “So I know a thing or two about what the Arabs are up to,” She said. “But then I’m biased.” The conversation didn’t last much longer.

I didn’t think about her again until last week when +972 Magazine reported that Taglit-Birthright, in collaboration with a group called “Artists 4 Israel,” was now planning tours“specifically offered to hip-hop heads.” That’s right: hip-hop tours of Israel. A music and style that gestated in reaction to the willful neglect and apartheid treatment of African-Americans and people of color is being used to burnish the image of an apartheid regime among young people.


It might be easy to ask how something like this could happen. But hip-hop can be treated as a commodity and have its soul sucked out just like any music genre. Ironies like this can be found in the use of Clash songs to sell mobile phones, 50 Cent selling Vitamin Water and just about any example of a rock star endorsing a product assembled in third world sweatshops.

Still, there’s something that stings about the brazenness that this kind of ploy requires. The use of hip-hop to sell the continuation of Zionist colonialism is particularly irksome considering the way in which Palestine’s own flourishing rap scene has gained worldwide fame of late. DAM, Sabreena Da Witch, Palestinian Rapperz, not to mention the instinctive solidarity with Palestine that many artists associated with the Arab spring evince in their rhymes. This vein of sympathy has even made its way to the mainstream with Lupe Fiasco’s line “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit,” on top of many other even more straightforward statements of support for the Palestinians.

Contrast this with the recent revelations of the ongoing dehumanization of Palestinians practiced by Israeli soldiers. Try though they might to make the crosshair Instagram photointo an isolated incident, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s getting more attention than ever.

Taglit-Birthright is complicit in this kind of dehumanization. Kyle Matzpen (not his real name), a Jewish anti-Zionist and Palestinian solidarity activist was coerced into going on one such ten-day trip by his parents as a way to “knock some sense into him.” His trip began, interestingly enough, right as Israel launched its “Operation Cast Lead” attack on Gaza in 2008. As he recounts:

The amount of racism I heard on the trip, from both my fellow Birthrighteers and the actual American and Israeli tour guides, was mind-boggling.

For example, a tour guide informed us as our bus was driving on a Jewish-only access highway through the West Bank that Palestinians “went to the bathroom in the street and bred like rabbits.”

One afternoon, they took us to the Israeli-Lebanese border to get a better view of “the enemy.” From our vantage point next to a rather plush Israeli suburban town — which wouldn’t look out of place in Orange County — we were assured by our tour guide that somewhere in those bombed-out buildings in Lebanon, Hezbollah was waiting to kill us. The tour guide then taught us about the dangers of Islam. He said, “To me, ‘radical Islam’ is a misnomer since 80 percent of imams preach Jihad. Just saying.”

I would find out after returning that, oddly enough, at the same time that this lecture was happening, a UN-controlled school in Gaza that was being used to distribute aid was being shelled, killing 40 civilians…

As the slaughter in Gaza was intensifying, and bits of information began floating in to us by rumor, the trip organizers found it necessary to intensify our propaganda education with “structured discussions” and a lecture from an IDF lieutenant colonel. We were told candidly that the siege was not, at its core, a response to the rocket attacks, but was an attempt to wipe out Hamas — to “squash out the cockroaches.”

To quote the lieutenant colonel, “We gave them [the Gazans] democracy, and the land, and opened up the borders to goods and services, and what do they do to repay us? They voted for Hamas. They failed our test…I don’t understand what they mean by ‘innocent bystanders’ in Gaza, because they all voted for Hamas.”

This is the kind of hard ideological barrage that Birthright participants have crammed down their throat on these trips, despite public claims that they are “non-ideological” in nature. Replace “Muslim” or “Palestinian” with “Black” and you start to get a clear idea of how utterly offensive it is that hip-hop culture be used as, in Artists 4 Israel’s own words, “the security fence against cultural terrorism.”

Unreconstructed gutter racism

Thinking about all of this — the absurdity of Taglit-Birthright and hip-hop being used in the same short story let alone sentence — my thoughts naturally drifted back to the old college acquaintance that I had run into before. Then to my college years themselves. The small performing arts department we were both in was well-known around campus (and it was a big campus) for parties with elaborate themes. Some were innocuous enough: the yearly Halloween party, the spaceman party, the pirate party (that one was actually pretty fun).

Then there were the ones that not only lacked creativity but were outright offensive: the “cowboys and Indians” party, the “pimp and ho” party. These were party themes more befitting a fraternity of good ol’ boys in their unreconstructed gutter racism. I tried to steer clear of these events; I did go to a few out of sheer curiosity and to see if maybe there was more to it than just the idiotic themes, but always found myself leaving not long after. Whatever it might say about her, Ms. Birthright was an attendee at many of these parties, though to be fair I can only speculate as to what she thought of their racial implications.

In recent years, colleges have rightfully caught a lot of flak for allowing parties with racist themes to go off. Fraternities have provoked protests from Black and Latino student unions for these racist soirees. And every Halloween it seems like we’re bound to be treated to photos of some white kid slapping on blackface for his Lil Wayne costume. The thing that seemed ludicrous to me then, as it does now, is that most of these folks who would dress in the pimp costumes would be getting down to the likes of Jay-Z and Three 6 Mafia that very night. They’d count hip-hop acts among their favorites, and yet would see no bigotry in their behavior. It’s a warped irony, and on an ideological level is not too far from the idea of using hip-hop to promote racist apartheid. This, of course, flies in the face of hip-hop’s own roots.

Still, if one is possible, then the other isn’t too far off. Both navigate in the same superstructure where anything rebellious is seized upon by the powers that be like vultures to a fresh carcass. Give them enough time and they can shape anything real into a gimmick — or worse.

Colonizing hip-hop

This isn’t to say all is lost. I have a hard time picturing Artists 4 Israel’s hip-hop themed trips being very successful. On top of that, there is, as always, the potential to organize, as many hip-hop artists themselves doing. Look, for example, at the hip-hop tours of the West Bank and other brilliant work that organizations like Existence is Resistance are doing.

In the 1970s, after Eric Clapton went on a drunken tirade at a performance in Birmingham, England in which he shouted “we need to get the wogs out, get the coons out” and of the need to “keep Britain white” before it becomes a “black colony,” artists and activists called him out: “Come on, Eric, own up… Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.” And thus, Rock Against Racism, one of the most successful progressive cultural movements in history, was born.

It’s fitting that they called Clapton out as a “colonist,” because if there’s one word that describes what Taglit-Birthright and Artists 4 Israel are up to, it’s colonialism. The continued colonizing of Palestine and the colonizing of hip-hop. It’s the systematic whitewashing of a system that breeds racist brutality and the history of a style that at its best speaks more to the struggle of Palestinians than perhaps anyone else. Honestly, it’s probably also a fitting description for the thirty-year push at filing all of hip-hop’s dangerous edges off in order to make it more marketable. How else can we account for college kids that have no bones with engaging in racist behavior and yet call themselves “fans”?

Never was there a more stark illustration of the need for cultural boycott of Israel. Tours like these are designed to make a colonial state appear more culturally sophisticated and tolerant. A movement that can deny Israel its cultural smokescreen is crucial. And in the same fell swoop, we might just save the soul of our favorite music too.

First published at the Electronic Intifada

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