Israeli Jews’ Kaffiyeh Problem

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Bedouin wearing kaffiyehs at a protest in 2011.Credit: Emil Salman

President Reuven Rivlin is turning out to be more and more of a mensch, so the right wing has dumped all kinds of muck on him. Among the many things his opponents have done is to post pictures on walls, both real ones and Facebook walls, of Rivlin wearing a kaffiyeh. This tradition harks back to the days of Yitzhak Rabin.

The latest incarnation has made Rivlin’s supporters and the ostensible opponents of nationalism and racism cry out “Incitement!” But what’s inciting about drawing a kaffiyeh on someone? A kaffiyeh is an insult? A weapon? Or is it an anti-Semitic accessory?

No. All it is (quoting from Wikipedia) “is a traditional Middle Eastern headdress fashioned from a square scarf, usually made of cotton. It is typically worn by Arabs, Kurds and some Turks.” So what’s wrong with someone who lives in a desert climate wearing a kaffiyeh — a head covering against the sun, not a nuclear missile against Jews?

And what would we have said if Rivlin, when he attended the recent ceremony for the dead of the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre, had worn a kaffiyeh to honor and identify with his hosts? Our right-wing religious nationalists would have freaked out — or worse.

But why? Why is wearing a kaffiyeh, not just by Jews but even by a Palestinian, whose traditional dress it is, seen by us as a declaration of war? How, why and when did this happen?

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, November 3, 2014.Credit: AP

After all, in 1918, long before the state was established, Chaim Weizmann wore a kaffiyeh as a gesture toward his host, Emir Faisal. And Jews who lived in Arab lands also wore kaffiyehs, as did their Arab brothers. And during the state’s early days the kaffiyeh was a desirable fashion accessory for Jewish young people, certainly on trips and hikes.

The first time the Zionists saw the kaffiyeh as a weapon against them, it seems, was the 1991 Madrid Conference, when Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat turned up at the opening session wearing one. The Israeli delegation and media reacted with fury, criticizing this alleged provocation.

But why should a person wearing his traditional garb be considered a provocation or an attack? The attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein, appeared at the session wearing a kippa. Why is a kippa permitted and acceptable while a kaffiyeh is a provocation and aggression?

There are two answers to all these questions, one for Jews and one for Arabs, and together the answers are sad.

As for the Jews, those who depict a Jew like Rivlin wearing a kaffiyeh want to say he’s really “an Arab.” And an Arab in their eyes is something bad, a curse. So, for example, the media usually use the word “minority” instead of “Arab.”

This is racist thinking par excellence. They’re not using the bad term, they’re using the ostensibly better one. But “Arab” isn’t good or bad; it’s just a description of a “member of a Semitic people,” just like “Jew,” by the way.

As for the Arabs, just as with Erekat in Madrid, those who are viewed in Israel as the “other” and with whom we have a conflict over the land have an entire identity, including dress, flag, language and culture. We interpret this as an existential threat. After all, if — God forbid — they have an identity as we do, maybe we’ll have to treat them as we do ourselves.

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