Imagine for a moment the following scene: a man bearing a moustache and holding a shepherd’s crook stands silently as he stares straight ahead. On his head he wears a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabian headdress, while around him a herd of sheep graze quietly. Trees, rocks and clumps of grass dot the tranquil landscape. An idyllic image of a native Canaanite shepherd…
At this stage, the dream-like atmosphere is abruptly shattered when we notice a large camera positioned across from the man in the keffiyeh, and behind it a professional photographer. On closer inspection we see that the sheep, rocks, and blue sky are in fact a painted backdrop. The “shepherd” is actually a European-born Jew answering to the name of Zvi. Setting down his crook and taking off the keffiyeh, Zvi leaves the darkened studio and walks out into the sunny streets of early-20th-century Tel Aviv, dressed in his ordinary day-to-day urban clothes. To understand why Zvi would choose to dress-up like a shepherd and what he hoped to achieve by doing so, we must look to the history of the keffiyeh – an item of clothing that to this day arouses a whole range of emotions across different groups of people living in this land.
Today, this traditional headdress is a popular, political, and class symbol, particularly the black-and-white version that has become a definitive Palestinian national symbol. In retrospect, however, at the beginning of the previous century, the situation was different. From the early 20th century until the 1950s, even after the establishment of the state of Israel, senior members of the Zionist movement, as well as many other Jews, were documented wearing the keffiyeh. One of the most famous examples is the photograph of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann wearing an elaborate keffiyeh in his meeting with the Hashemite Prince Faisal in 1918.
Alongside Weizmann, members of Zionist military organizations such as the Palmach, HaShomer, and even soldiers in the IDF wrapped themselves in this particular item of clothing. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Jewish immigrants of the First and Second Aliyah would often have studio portraits of themselves taken while dressed in full Arab costume, complete with a resplendent keffiyeh.
The keffiyeh was also worn by Jewish schoolchildren and members of youth movements in the Land of Israel. How then, did the keffiyeh come to be viewed as an anti-Zionist symbol?
Adopting the Keffiyeh as a Means of Integration
The Zionist movement, as a fundamentally European movement, was naturally influenced by many typical, contemporary European intellectual trends, among them Orientalism. With the arrival of waves of immigration to the Land of Israel (then Ottoman controlled Palestine), the European Jewish immigrants found themselves to be very different from the local inhabitants. Many saw the Arab peasants that prevailed in Palestine-Israel at the end of the period of Ottoman rule, as the successors of the ancient Jews who had lived in the Kingdom of Israel before the exile. The Jewish community of Peki’in that had been living in the Land of Israel for centuries also served as a model for an indigenous, “authentic” way of life. Embracing this view, many of the new immigrants sought to imitate the lifestyle of the locals. The visual culture produced in the Land of Israel during the early days of the Zionist movement demonstrates the attempt to fashion the “New Jew” in the Land of Israel.
Abraham Soskin’s photography studio in Tel Aviv, one of the first Jewish-owned photography studios in the country, is a good example of this. Among the services that Soskin offered his customers was a portrait photograph displaying them in full local peasant or Bedouin dress. Soskin’s photos capture the Zionist movement’s zeitgeist at the beginning of the 20th century, which sought to transform the diaspora Jew into a “New Jew,” while appropriating an ancient national identity they perceived as the authentic Jewish identity. These images show how Westerners viewed and tried to emulate the locals. This perception persisted into the Third Aliyah, with Zionist Jews seeking to become like the indigenous inhabitants and imitating them in many ways.
Another notable example is the dress adopted by members of the Hashomer organization, most of whom were Ashkenazi Jews, but who wore keffiyehs and abayas in an attempt to resemble the country’s Bedouin residents.
It is important to distinguish between European-colonial orientalism, exemplified by Europeans photographing themselves dressed in indigenous attire out of a sense of paternalism and cultural appropriation, and the early Zionist immigrants who adopted local dress and wore the keffiyeh out of the desire for closeness and a sense of belonging to the place. The latter aspired to shape their image in the spirit of the ancient, historical Jews, whose legacy they believed they were continuing. This sentiment is also visible in the artwork produced by the early 20th-century Jewish artists who studied at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, who imagined the “New Jew” through an orientalist lens.
The pioneers, members of agricultural settlements, youth movements, and even military organizations such as the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun, and Lehi, also tried to promote their perception of the figure of the New Jew. Along with the return to the Land of Israel and the return to working the land, the keffiyeh was a clear visual expression of this. The familiar item of clothing, which was customary in the Arabian Peninsula even before the advent of Islam, was meant to protect the head and face from sand and dust, to shield those laboring in the fields from the summer sun and the winter winds. The keffiyeh has three familiar, traditional styles: the white keffiyeh is popular today in the Gulf States and among the Bedouin, but is also found in the region of Iraq; the red-and-white keffiyeh, which is very common in Jordan, but can also be found in other places; and the black-and-white keffiyeh, which is today identified with the Palestinians.
As the Zionist enterprise developed, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew, the Zionist Jews’ attempt to imitate the locals waned. In his book Pre-Israeli Orientalism: A Photographic Portrait, which reviews the phenomenon of studio photography in peasant and Bedouin clothes among Jews in the Land of Israel, Dor Guez points to the violent events of 1929 as a turning point in the Jewish attitude and the end of their desire to emulate the locals: “The naïve Orientalist perception of the first aliyot was shattered . . . and with it their passion to ‘Easternize’ themselves as the indigenous people.” Towards the end of the 1930s and the eruption of the “Arab Revolt,” when the Palestinian national consciousness was also largely shaped, the keffiyeh became a national-Palestinian symbol, replacing the Ottoman fez hat or tarboosh. The keffiyeh’s identification as a political symbol began to enter local consciousness, as did a process at the end of which the keffiyeh became a symbol holding an ideology completely opposite to Zionism.
The Political Nuances of the Keffiyeh
After the events of 1929 and the Arab uprising, the popularity of the keffiyeh began to decline and Jewish attempts to emulate the locals became less common, but throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the keffiyeh could still spotted in Israel, including around the necks of Jewish Israeli politicians and military personnel. One well-known image shows David Ben-Gurion during a patrol in the midst of the 1948 war, wearing a white keffiyeh around his neck, alongside young officers Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon.
Another famous photograph from that war, known as “The Girl with the Gun,” shows communications officer Ziva Arbel leaning against a tree, with a holster and gun around her waist and a keffiyeh tied like a kerchief on her head, shortly after the battle of Barfiliya.
These two photos, along with many others, show how in the late 1940s the keffiyeh was still a strong symbol of the Zionist ethos, despite its significance in Palestinian political identity that had begun a decade earlier. Boris Carmi, known as Israel’s “first military photographer,” documented IDF soldiers wearing keffiyehs in 1958.
The shift in consciousness that led to the Jews’ near complete abandonment of the keffiyeh only began towards the end of the 1960s. Behind this change was the key figure of Yasser Arafat.
The 1967 war and the great defeat of the Arab states led to the rise of the Fatah movement headed by Arafat, who presented himself as a leader who spoke on behalf of the Palestinian people. One of the most prominent features of his appearance besides his perennial “battle dress” and gun was the black and white keffiyeh. He began wearing it as early as 1956 when he first traveled to Europe as a member of the Palestinian student delegation from Egypt. From then on, he made sure to be seen wearing it, and thus, it became one of the Palestinian leader’s most identifiable signs. Arafat was even nicknamed abu al hata: (“hata” being the local Arabic word for keffiyeh). In his biography of Arafat, author Danny Rubinstein describes how the Fatah leader made sure to drape the keffiyeh in a particular way that gave it a pointed edge, supposedly creating the outline of the Holy Land. Arafat’s appearance strengthened the keffiyeh’s political status, and already in the first intifada, Palestinians were seen wearing it in their confrontations with the Israeli security forces.
In the 1990s, the status of the keffiyeh as an “anti-Zionist” symbol finally solidified, when a picture of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wearing a keffiyeh was published by far-right activists, as a way to demonstrate his supposed “betrayal” in signing the Oslo Accords. Since then, caricatures and images of various politicians in keffiyehs have been circulated to illustrate similar messages.
The Keffiyeh in the 21st Century
The 20th century ended with the polarization of the keffiyeh, so that at the beginning of the 21st century, public opinion in the country regarding this headdress had completely shifted from what it had been a century earlier. The keffiyeh had played a role during the various attempts to begin the peace process over the years. Apart from the Oslo Accords and the familiar image of Arafat alongside Rabin in a keffiyeh, an incident at the 1991 Madrid conference also sparked controversy, when the Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat wore a keffiyeh around his neck, thus angering those present, particularly the Israeli delegation. In less than 50 years, the Israeli attitude towards the head covering had completed a 180 degree turn – though Ben-Gurion had willingly wrapped himself in a keffiyeh back in 1948, by the 1990s, it was considered a threatening and unwelcome sign.
Interestingly, the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 have led to a kind of “Israeli renaissance” regarding the keffiyeh. Israeli tourists visiting the Gulf countries and Morocco have been photographed happily wearing the head covering in its white, Gulf States version as part of the local tourist experience. Once the Palestinian-political context is out of the picture, it seems that Israeli Jews are ready to return to wearing the familiar Arab headdress.
Over the years, there have also been attempts to create a “Jewish kaffiyeh,” somewhat reminiscent of the “sudra,” the Jewish head covering that was once common in Arab countries. At the same time, the Palestinians have continued to ensure the keffiyeh remains their representative symbol, including through popular culture, music, television, the internet, and social media. Singer Muhammad Assaf even won the popular singing contest “Arab Idol” in 2013, with his song “Wave the Keffiyeh,” whose words glorify the headdress as a Palestinian national symbol.
Looking back, the history of the keffiyeh seems to be inseparable from the history of the region and the struggles over the character of the Holy Land; yet, hopefully one day, this symbol and the significance that it holds for both peoples, will become less charged.
Thanks to Eli Osheroff for helping in the preparation of this article.