When Tintin Was Abducted by the Irgun in Haifa

Why was Mandatory Palestine changed to the imaginary "Emirate of Khemed" in "Land of Black Gold", the 15th volume in the comic series, "The Adventures of Tintin"?

“Residents of the Land of Israel, be on the alert: a Belgian citizen with a tendency for trouble has been spotted in Haifa disguised as an Arab. The individual calls himself ‘Tintin.’ He is known to be sniffing around where he shouldn’t and asking far too many questions. Anyone with any information regarding his whereabouts is requested to notify the police.”

The above was not a public safety message issued by the Israeli police or the Shin Bet, rather, this was a fictional scene that played out in the world-famous and beloved comic book series, The Adventures of Tintin. This particular story in the Tintin series, Land of Black Gold, was first published in serialized form between September 1939 and May 1940.

English translation of The Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

The story revolves around a secret plot to sabotage oil reserves in the Middle East. In keeping with the times, the identity of the story’s villain is revealed as none other than the evil German physician, Dr. Müller. As part of Tintin’s investigation, our hero makes his way to British Mandatory Palestine, where he wanders the streets of Haifa dressed as a local Arab. He is even kidnapped by the Irgun, the Jewish underground organization which fought both the Arabs and the British.

Hergé, Tintin’s creator, drew the story’s first comic strips while on a month’s leave from the Belgian army. He was drafted into the military when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, but even as a soldier, he continued sending the comic strip installments to Le Petit Vingtième, the newspaper that had been publishing the illustrated adventures of the young reporter for the past decade. After contracting sinusitis, Hergé was released from his military service on the same day Germany invaded Belgium.

Naturally, under the new circumstances of German occupation and given the villain’s German nationality, the series was discontinued, and readers following Tintin’s adventure as a respite from the terrible war erupting around them had to wait several years to find out how the young man managed to escape the deadly sandstorm after evading the clutches of the evil doctor.

After the conclusion of World War II, Hergé initially sought to distance himself from his popular character, but pressured by his wife and friends, he soon returned to drawing the adventures of the curious investigative reporter. The original plan was to send Tintin and his dog Snowy to the moon, which indeed happened later on, but first, he resumed the adventure he had left unfinished when the Nazis invaded his country.

Abdullah, heir to the Emirate of Khemed, sprinkles an itchy powder down Dr. Muller’s shirt, The Adventures of Tintin: Land of Black Gold

The second serialization of Land of Black Gold was published between 1948 and 1950. Importantly however, this was not the final version…

In the 1960s and 1970s, The Adventures of Tintin were introduced into Great Britain. It is not clear exactly what motivated Tintin’s legendary creator to redraw Land of Black Gold, but this time it took a surprising turn. In the English version of the beloved comic, Mandatory Palestine became the imaginary “Emirate of Khemed”. The story of Tintin’s abduction by the Irgun due to a mistake in identification—the story that appeared in the original version—was replaced by a tale involving the military police in Khemed.

Let there be no doubt, Tintin— among the bravest of all illustrated detectives—had no qualms about becoming embroiled in our local war of narratives. Yet that was not the reason for the change. The substitution of historical Mandatory Palestine with an imaginary oil-rich principality, was probably done to avoid offending the British readership Tintin’s creator was hoping to attract.

L: Tintin in Mandatory Palestine. R: the same scene in the mythical Emirate of Khemed

Sadly, regarding Land of Black Gold – neither the version which takes place in the Land of Israel nor the version featuring the imaginary land of Khemed were ever translated into Hebrew…

How France Nearly Snatched Half of Jerusalem From Britain Over Lunch

If not for a crucial lunchtime intervention by General Edmund Allenby, who apparently had his mouth full, half of Jerusalem could have come under French control. In fact, had Allenby remained silent, there might never have been a British Mandate in Palestine, not to mention a State of Israel…

It could have all been very, very different, if things had actually gone to plan…

In late 1917, Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, received urgent orders. He was to immediately put aside his work in helping to stir up the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, and join General Edmund Allenby in Palestine.

It was the late stages of the Great War – within days Jerusalem would fall to the conquering British Army, after nearly three grueling years of fighting against the Ottomans and their Imperial German allies in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

General Allenby rides at the head of the procession down Jaffa Street. He would dismount upon entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate. This photo appears on a souvenir postcard found in the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

This was a landmark event in history – the Holy City was changing hands. The international press, who had paid little attention to the Palestine Campaign until now, were caught up in the excitement. After all, General Allenby had succeeded where even Richard the Lionheart had failed.

Comparisons to Richard the Lionheart and thoughts on the “Zionistic Dream”…The Jewish News of Northern California reports on Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem, December 21, 1917

 

Lawrence managed to secure an invitation to the highly anticipated handover ceremony on December 11. He was lacking the proper attire for such an event, needing to borrow a clean uniform and a brass hat, but he entered the Old City through Jaffa Gate, several steps behind Allenby who strode on foot as a mark of respect. Lawrence was present as the general announced to the dignitaries gathered in front of the Tower of David that the city was now officially under martial law. Though he wrote little else about the ceremony, Lawrence noted that, “for me it was the supreme moment of the war”.

The ceremony outside the gatehouse of Jerusalem’s Tower of David, December 11, 1917. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

Allenby speaks to the gathered dignitaries. His declaration of martial law signaled the beginning of British rule in Jerusalem. This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

 

In his classic book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Englishman did however elaborate further on a peculiar exchange that unfolded in the immediate aftermath of the ceremony, over a fairly impressive lunch (by military standards) in the quaint, nearby village of Ein Karem.

The aides pushed about, and from great baskets drew a lunch, varied, elaborate and succulent. On us fell a short space of quiet, to be shattered by Monsieur Picot, the French political representative […], who said in his fluting voice: ‘And tomorrow, my dear general. I will take the necessary steps to set up civil government in this town.’

[…] a silence followed, as when they opened the seventh seal in heaven. Salad, chicken mayonnaise and foie gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched, while we turned to Allenby and gaped. Even he seemed for the moment at a loss. We began to fear that the idol might betray a frailty. But his face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward (in the way we loved), whilst he said, grimly, ‘In the military zone the only authority is that of the Commander-in-Chief – myself.’

Picot protested further, but was cut short by Allenby, who made clear that the civil government would only be established when he saw fit.

It seems that François Georges-Picot was under the impression that France and Britain would share administrative authorities in Jerusalem, now that the city had fallen to the Allied Powers. Allenby was clearly having none of it.

T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, photographed by Lowell Thomas in 1919. Lawrence was present at both the ceremony at Jaffa Gate, as well as the lunchtime diplomatic incident

 

It’s possible that the exchange was even worse than Lawrence described. Another eyewitness, a French officer by the name of Louis Massignon who was part of Picot’s delegation, later wrote that “Allenby threatened Picot harshly with arrest if he interfered”. The British general, nicknamed “The Bull”, stood 6 foot 2 and was known for his unpredictable temper and imposing appearance.

General Allenby, “The Bull”, depicted in a sketch from 1917

 

The truth was that Picot had a point. The French diplomat, along with his British counterpart Mark Sykes, had been one of the chief formulators of the famous “Sykes-Picot Agreement”.

François Georges-Picot was appointed France’s High Commissioner in Palestine and Syria in 1917, but never held any effective authority in Palestine due to Allenby’s objections

 

According to the terms of this secret agreement signed in January 1916, Jerusalem and most of what had been Ottoman Palestine was to come under international administration with the conclusion of the war. Until then, according to Picot, all conquered sections of Palestine were meant to be ruled by a joint Anglo-French administration.

At this stage however, the British had other ideas. After all, they had fought and bled in this region for years. There were major setbacks along the way, including two military defeats at Gaza. They would suffer over 60,000 battle casualties with nearly 17,000 killed over the course of the campaign (it’s worth noting that much of the rank and file came from the far reaches of the British Empire, including India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand). The French contribution in Palestine was minimal in comparison. The British had no intention of now ceding control of the great prize because of a confidential agreement that was not even public knowledge.

With Allenby’s declaration of martial law, any serious talk of joint or international administration was put off indefinitely. British martial law effectively remained in place until the summer of 1920, when a civil administration was finally established, under the British Mandate, with no French or international involvement.

A Hebrew Hanukkah greeting card from 1917 celebrating the “Liberation of Jerusalem”. It features Allenby in colonial attire, soldiers from the Jewish Legion and a depiction of Mattathias, the Jewish priest credited with helping to spark the Maccabean Revolt. This item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

 

The brief and rather informal diplomatic tussle described above by Lawrence may very well have changed the course of Middle Eastern history. What would an Anglo-French Jerusalem have looked like? One can only imagine…

If not for General Allenby’s verbal resistance, raised as he chewed on his fois gras sandwich, there might never have been a British Mandate in Palestine. If an international administration had indeed been established in Palestine as per the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, would the State of Israel have ever come into existence? Arguably not.

The name of Edmund Allenby (who was later raised to the rank of Field Marshal and given the title “Viscount of Megiddo and of Felixstowe in the County of Suffolk”) today graces countless streets, bridges, parks and city squares across Israel. These honors celebrate the officer’s considerable military exploits, but his lunchtime stand against French intervention may have been just as crucial.

 

 

 

Further Reading:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, Dell Publishing, 1926

The Fantasy of an International Jerusalem, by Martin Kramer, Mosaic Magazine, 2017

Heinrich Himmler’s Books at the National Library of Israel

Even a mass murderer can have a personal library. Some of the books from Heinrich Himmler’s private collection, containing his signature, can be found today at the National Library of Israel. How did they get here?

Shlomo Shunami, a former senior staff member at the National Library of Israel, devoted his life to locating Jewish libraries that remained scattered across Europe after the Holocaust, and bringing these books to Israel. Over decades, he managed to transfer hundreds of thousands of books to the Jewish State, many of them ended up at the National Library of Israel.

In an interview conducted in 1977, Shunami recounted that among the books that had come from Germany were some from the private collection of none other than the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime.

I set out to find them.

Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS

Himmler was a talented administrator who successfully ran many complex governmental and policing systems while raining terror down on the citizens of Germany and the rest of Europe. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the deportation of the Jews to ghettos in Eastern Europe, the establishment of concentration and extermination camps, and the murder of six million Jews and millions of others. Unlike other senior Nazis like Joseph Goebbels, Himmler did not have an extensive academic background. Yet he spent a great deal of time developing dubious racial and pseudo-scientific theories intended to “prove” the supposed superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of other peoples. It is easy to imagine him surrounded by books on history, folklore and science written by German and other scholars.

Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS

Adolf Hitler’s personal library, discovered after the war, was transferred to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The library of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer was deposited at the Yeshiva University Library in New York. But what ever happened to Himmler’s books?

Himmler was very interested in mysticism and the supernatural, and many of his books dealt with these subjects. Some of these books, collectively dubbed “the witch library,” were discovered a few years ago in the Czech Republic.

But what of the more traditional, classic antisemitic material that he most likely owned?

As luck would have it, this intriguing question has been solved. After years of searching, I stumbled upon a book from Himmler’s personal library in the collection of the National Library of Israel.

The book Der Aufstieg der Juden by the journalist Ferdinand Fried is a historical description of the Jewish people from the destruction of the Second Temple to the Roman period. Fried joined the SS and was promoted within the organization by Himmler himself. What’s more, the copy of Fried’s book in the National Library contains his own dedication to Himmler, who Fried described as his loyal partner in their joint struggle.

A year and a half after Fried penned the dedication, Himmler signed his name at the top of the page in large letters in green ink, with the date 28.12.38, probably the date on which he finished reading the book.

Ferdinand Fried’s book, featuring the dedication to Himmler. Himmler signed his name at the top of the page

I have held many of the library’s treasures in my hands, but the thought that 84 years ago, the blood-soaked hands of the architect of the Holocaust also held this very book was chilling, to say the least.

This book led me to another title from Himmler’s library. This time, it was the book Schriften für das deutsche Volk, by the Orientalist and antisemitic biblical scholar Paul de Lagarde, on the subject of government and politics. Himmler had signed his name at the top of the book’s title page.

The next book I found was Die Vererbung der Geistigen Begabung, which deals with issues of heredity and race and their impact on character and intelligence. Himmler signed his name as usual, with the date 22.1.39.

Two other books I discovered on that occasion did not belong to his personal library, but were sent by Himmler to the Nazi movement’s branch in the city of Haifa. Yes, there was indeed such a thing!

The first of three pages detailing the books kept in the library of the Haifa branch of the Nazi party in Palestine. Himmler’s book is the twelfth on the list. Photo: Israel State Archives

Before World War II, less than 2,500 German citizens were living in Mandatory Palestine, most of them in the Templer colonies. The Templers (not to be confused with the medieval Knights Templar) were a religious group with roots in the Pietist movement of the Lutheran church in Germany whose members immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in the mid-19th century. Karl Ruff, an architect born in Haifa to Templer parents, founded the Palestine branch of the Nazi party. Nazi groups were established in the Templer colonies of Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Sarona (Tel Aviv), and by the end of 1933, they had 121 members. The Palestine branch continued to expand, and members were emboldened to march through the city streets in Nazi attire, carrying flags emblazoned with the swastika. To encourage the members of the branch, the Nazi movement in Germany sent pamphlets, books, and even cheap radios for listening to propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Towards the outbreak of the war, some of the men were drafted into the German army and returned to Europe. The rest of the Germans in the country were imprisoned or deported by the British Mandatory authorities (you can read more here).

These flags were used by the Nazi party branch in Mandatory Palestine

Among the books that reached the Nazi library in Haifa were those sent by Himmler himself. Eventually, the British dismantled the organization in Haifa, and the books found their way to the National Library in Jerusalem. So far, I have located only two of them. The first, Bauernbrauch im Jahreslauf, describes the country life, nature, customs and folklore of Germany. The second book, Die Schutzstaffel als antibolschewistische Kampforganisation, is Himmler’s own book on the history of the German people, the founding of the SS, and the racial and mental qualities required of its members.

Both books open with a short dedication to the Nazi group in Haifa from November 9, 1937. Both also feature Himmler’s personal signature along with his rank, Reichsführer-SS.

Himmler’s book, donated to the Nazi library in Haifa

I carefully closed Himmler’s books, returned them to the National Library’s rare books storeroom, and went to look for some hand sanitizer…

Jews in Keffiyehs? – The Headdress That Became a Symbol

Nowadays, people identify the keffiyeh as the unequivocal symbol of the Palestinian national movement. However, going back a few decades, we find documentation of senior members of the Zionist movement wearing the traditional headdress as well as members of the Palmach and even soldiers in the IDF. What changed along the way?

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on a tour of the Negev with Yitzhak Rabin as a young officer. May, 1949. Photo: Government Press Office

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.

Aminadav Altschuler, a leading figure in Jewish land purchases in the Negev, wearing a keffiyeh while planting a tree on Tu B’Shvat in the desert near Beit Eshel. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

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.

The Emir Faisal (on the right) and Chaim Weizmann (on the left) in keffiyehs, in the city of Ma’an in Jordan, 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.

Studio portrait of Rachel Slutzki, among the founders of the cooperative agricultural settlement Nahalal (on the right wearing male garb and holding a rifle) and her cousin Liza Slutzki in a woman’s “Bedouin” dress holding a clay jar. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

 

Yitzhak Shmilovsky, a young Jew, wearing a keffiyeh and agal—the keffiyeh is actually a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, repurposed here as a keffiyeh. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

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.

Schoolchildren at Ein Ganim, dressed in white and wearing keffiyehs. The school building is visible in the background. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library 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.

Yitzhak Hoz, a member of the Hashomer organization, pictured in a studio portrait by Abraham Soskin. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Ada Tamir Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Members of the Hashomer organization, two of whom are wearing keffiyehs, while others are wearing the Turkish kalpak and fez. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Ben-Zion Israeli Collection. Collection source: Aharon Israeli, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Israeli soldiers in a Jordanian jeep with a framed photograph of Jordan’s King Hussein in a keffiyeh on the front fender, in Jerusalem after the conquest of the city in 1967. The Meitar Collection, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, with a keffiyeh tied around his neck, during a tour in the Negev with a group of officers including Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon. May, 1949. Photo: Government Press Office

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.

“The Girl with the Gun”, wearing a keffiyeh; Ziva Arbel, communications officer in the Yiftah Brigade’s 3rd battalion, in Ben Shemen Forest after the capture of the village of Barfiliya. July, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Keffiyehs and “Tembel” hats: 1958 IDF military parade, soldiers in keffiyehs at a tent encampment, 1958. The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

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.

Yasser Arafat on a visit to Gaza, wearing the keffiyeh that became one of his signature features. July, 1994. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Supporters of Arafat in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The keffiyeh’s symbolism is clear. July, 1994. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

A poster criticizing former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, edited to show him wearing a keffiyeh. The Hebrew text reads: “The Liar – Elections Now!”, the Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.