How the Australia Day lamb ad contributes to everyday cultural erasure

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Lee Lin Chin's anti-vegan Australia Day lamb ad

This year's Australia Day lamb ad, starring Lee Lin Chin, attracts complaints over its treatment of vegans.

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You've got to hand it to the Meat and Livestock Association (MLA). Operation: Boomerang, its latest attempt to convince us that eating lamb on Australia Day is some sort of venerated tradition, delivers a masterclass in both irony and cultural appropriation without even trying.

The spectacle stars Lee Lin Chin, who presides over a crack team of troops that infiltrate foreign countries to retrieve Aussies 'trapped' overseas. The irony, as Indigenous X founder Luke Pearson noted, is "that on a day many of us call Invasion Day there's an ad about Australia invading other countries to bring all those white guys 'home'."

'Home', as we all know but like to pretend we don't, is a country that was founded on the attempted annihilation of Indigenous culture. And that's where the cultural appropriation comes in. By invoking the boomerang, the MLA has taken a potent and recognisable symbol of the very culture that white Australia invaded, and used it to celebrate the triumph of colonisation.

Lee Lin Chin in the Australia Day lamb ad.

Lee Lin Chin in the Australia Day lamb ad.

Andrew Howie, the marketing manager for MLA, seems bemused by all the fuss. "The notion of boomerang is just something that returns and it seemed suitable given we were setting out to return Australians home," he told The Guardian.

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"Just something that returns." This is appropriation at its most brazen; when a specific aspect of an oppressed culture is taken, stripped of its origins, and used to promote the culture of the oppressor. Moreover, MLA has taken for granted that the boomerang would be recognised as a symbol of Australiana even though the ad neither features a single Aboriginal person nor mentions that Australia Day is a day of mourning and protest for Aboriginal people.

Another irony is that Operation: Boomerang erases Indigenous culture while aiming to establish a national tradition of lamb consumption - an animal that is not even native to this country.

Now, I can understand why MLA are intent on associating a specific food product they sell with a patriotic holiday; food and national identity go hand in hand. Maintaining a long-standing tradition and enjoyment of particular foods is a way of solidifying a connection to a place and forging a national identity (which in turn sells heaps of lamb chops).

I know this because for several years now I have watched in dismay as the food of my own people, the Arabs of the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria), has been rebranded and repackaged as the national food of Israel.

Last year, I was disappointed to see Broadsheet Sydney refer to the Palestinian owned and operated Knafeh Bakery, a food truck that serves traditional Palestinian desserts, as an "Israeli food truck". When challenged, Broadsheet amended it to "Jerusalem food truck", but without specifying its Palestinian origins.

But this origin matters because, like Indigenous Australians, Palestinians have been systematically erased from their land by the very people who are now appropriating their culinary culture. Referring to a traditional and much-loved Arab dish as 'Israeli' only cements this erasure.

Food is a huge thing for us Arabs. Family recipes and traditions have been passed down for generations. Arabs don't get together to drink but to eat, and certain foods are tied to the region in which they emerged. In the Levant, this includes knafeh, falafel and hummus.

But Israel claims falafel to be its national dish. It has launched an international hummus day to improve its image so people know "it started in Israel". I have seen eateries as far as New York buy into this appropriation by marketing falafel and hummus as "traditional Israeli street food".

It's difficult to relay how humiliating and devastating it is as an Arab to witness the way my culture has been simultaneously reviled and plundered. I can't begin to explain the devastation of watching the systematic oppression of Palestinians even as their food, which is also my food, is celebrated by the very ones enacting this oppression.

Love the food but hate the people.

While it might seem silly to be harping about hummus when Palestinians themselves are suffering, cultural appropriation is part of how this oppression is rendered invisible and so is able to continue. The rebranding of these quintessentially Middle Eastern culinary traditions as "Israeli" is a deliberate effort to legitimise Israeli national identity by erasing Palestine. 

You can't oppress a people that don't exist, you can't take a country that never was.

Does this mean that Israelis themselves don't share some food traditions with Arabs? Of course not. Jewish Israeli families have as much right to eat and enjoy these foods as anybody. But claiming them as "Israeli" does not celebrate a shared history, it creates a new reality of erasure and replacement.

And this is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. The latter, by definition, involves gratitude and respect. Appropriation is a form of theft and erasure. It's not about dictating who can eat what food, say which words, or wear this or that item of clothing - it's about who and what is ignored and erased in the process. Cultural appropriation is insidious because it allows a powerful mainstream culture to effectively erase the culture of those it oppresses.

To that end, it seems Australia and Israel have much in common. Both nations pride themselves on free and democratic principles. Both were founded on land already occupied by another people and have engaged in the systematic erasure of these people. And both deny this erasure by mythologising their own origins, invoking metaphors of a land previously barren and lifeless; where Australians talk of "nothing but bush", Israelis boast that they "made the desert bloom".

But Aboriginal people call Australia Day "Invasion Day," and Palestinians refer to the creation of Israel as Al-Nakba, "The Catastrophe." The days that the mainstream culture of these countries celebrate as their birth are the very days on which the culture of another people were marked for erasure. This is not something to be celebrated but a tragedy to be mourned.

No national holiday can be a cause for unbridled celebration when it hinges on erasing the reality of a violent past, no matter what is on the menu.