How do you know when the latest sartorial tchotchke in the red-tinged, Che Guevara and Bu$hitler-emblazoned, ironically lucrative world of radical leftist fashion has finally arrived to the mainstream of clueless actors, disaffected hipsters and identity-hunting college freshman? When it gets heralded in Los Angeles and declared officially passÃ© in San Francisco.
Of what do I speak? The kaffiyeh, of course – the Arab headdress that was transformed by Yassir Arafat and Leila Khaled from Bedouin sunblock to wearable identification with the Palestinian cause, and was further transformed by white left-wing Europeans and Americans who never met a gun-toting brown person they didn’t like into the perfect complement to a Che Guevara T-shirt and “Israel = APARTHEID” pin. Curiously, the same kind of people who cry “cultural appropriation!” when a white dude dares to sing reggae have no problem wearing traditional Arab head coverings as funky scarves, but I digress.
The aforelinked LA Times article delves into the usage, ancient and modern, of the kaffiyeh, and includes a soundbite from some random guy with a computer who likes to present himself as an expert when the media calls:
The donning of kaffiyehs is not exactly new. Left-leaning urbanites and activists all over, not to mention countless millions in the Arab world for whom these scarves are as commonplace as baseball caps, have been wearing them for decades.
But since last year, the kaffiyeh has begun showing up more and more on the streets, appearing suddenly in hip neighborhoods in New York, throughout Europe and here in Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park. Even hipsters in Israel are wearing it. “Want to make your parents angry and want to be provocative?” said Jerusalem Web designer David Abitbol, co-founder of the blog jewlicious.com. “Wear a kaffiyeh.”
I think that I may have to respectfully disagree with this Mr. Abitbol, whoever he may be. I don’t think many Israeli Jews wear kaffiyehs around in public, at least in Jerusalem, probably at least in part because everyone from their parents to the guy in the falafel kiosk would scream at them for jetting about the town wearing a scarf that, thanks to Yassir Arafat and has cronies, has come to symbolize mutilations of innocent people, stabbings, shootings, bus bombings and the collapse of any remote hope for negotiated peace. Say what you want about Israeli Jews’ lack of consideration for other people, most of them are quite cognizant that for many Israeli people, a kaffiyeh does not scream “Free Palestine,” it screams “blood.” Which is not to say that I don’t see plenty of kaffiyehs around Jerusalem, but the ones I see are draped around two groups of people: Arabs and the ubiquitous foreign, non-Jewish, non-Arab, Palestinian solidarity activists.
I don’t begrudge Arabs of their right to wear kaffiyehs. For starters, of course, it’s their culture. And insofar as the kaffiyeh is a nationalist symbol, if I want to keep defining myself as a Zionist, i.e. someone who supports the Jews’ right to national determination, I can’t deny the national expression of another people (as long as their national expression doesn’t deny the right of mine to exist, which is of course the problem around these parts).
But that brings me to those Palestinian solidarity activists. For them the kaffiyeh is only partly an expression of identification with the Palestinian cause – the other part, perhaps the greater part, is sticking a thumb into the eye of the State of Israel, the Zionist enterprise, and every Jewish Israeli man, woman and child they pass on the street. It’s a cheap way of screaming, “Look at me, you Zionist apartheid pigs!” while they take advantage of the many amenities those selfsame Zionist apartheid pigs brought to the region.
Let’s paint a portrait of the typical Palestinian solidarity activist: they are American or Canadian. They are white. They are rarely either Jewish or Arab. They are upper-middle-class to upper class. They are in their 20s. They are well-educated, although their knowledge of the history of Jews, Zionism, Palestinians and Arabs are often sorely lacking or at least filtered through the bottleneck of standard far left-wing intellectual ideology. Their Western social mores, their use of alcohol and sometimes drugs, their uncovered hair and their foreign ideologies often clash very sharply with the conservative, traditional and highly religious Islamic areas in which they find themselves (which confuses them, because after all, they think they’re helping). They can be found kicking back in downtown Tel Aviv or Jerusalem after a long day at a Hevron checkpoint or a Rafah refugee camp, knocking back bottles of Taybeh, the Palestinian beer, because a shot of whiskey or a Goldstar would represent an inexcusable betrayal of the Cause and an inappropriate monetary endorsement of Zio-nazism. They don’t know any Israelis, except the pet Israelis their particular solidarity movement of choice keeps around to deflect any charges of anti-Israelism or anti-Semitism, who are about as representative of general Israeli society as a cold bottle of Taybeh is of general Palestinian society. They swap stories about protesting house demolitions, and sharing moments with their newfound Palestinian charges.
By day, they like to get into the action, the heavy stuff – the checkpoint monitoring, the picture-taking, the meetings with Palestinian activists, standing in front of bulldozers, throwing rocks at riot police at that day’s camera-ready anti-security barrier demonstration. Somehow they’ve gotten it into their heads, counter to all logic, that an effective way to help the Palestinians is to persistently scream at, physically harrass and in general hamper the efforts of a few 19-year-old kids in uniform who can’t legally do anything to stop them, 19-year-old kids already unduly stressed by the long hours and high risks of checkpoint duty, who just want to be at home with their family and friends and their bed and their mom’s cooking. Children of privilege, they are irrationally convinced that their Americanness and their whiteness ensures that nothing worse than being dragged away from a riot zone will ever happen to them, that they are somehow immune to the vagaries of the very real war in which they’ve embroiled themselves – and as such, react with utter shock and rage after the extremely rare occurences wherein one of their number stands in front of a moving bulldozer and gets run over, or walks into a live fire zone and gets shot.
So why do they come? Certainly they have a passion for justice, sometimes universal justice, sometimes only justice insofar as it extends to their favorite revolutionary group. But why do they come to Israel specifically, whose conflict with the Palestinians, when looked at objectively and in light of all current world conflict, is pretty low on the worldwide scale of violence, brutality and injustice (which is not to say that those things don’t exist here). Why do we see so many people willing to go to the Palestinian Territories and next to none willing to go to Tibet or Darfur, both current instances of real live genocide and ethnic cleansing? Why do they not march on Beijing? Why do they not rally at the DMZ in Korea? Why do they not distribute food and medicine and education to malnourished AIDS-infected children in sub-Saharan Africa?
Simple: those places are highly dangerous, often take a much dimmer view towards foreign interlopers than the Israeli government and army, don’t get hyperactive media attention and in general aren’t developed Western nations with clubs and comprehensive bus service and youth hostels and plentiful bars. Where else but Israel can you feel like a hero fighting against an army who will go out of its way to make sure you come to no serious harm? Where else can you go from fighting the Man in a refugee camp to a hamburger and a beer in a nice restaurant in a clean and modern city where everyone speaks English, all in the space of a couple hours at most? Where else can you mug for the international news cameras at an anti-security barrier protest in Bethlehem and send all your friends back home, who think you’re so brave, the link to the CNN Video that has you throwing a rock at a cop, or the Indymedia article about your fearless exploits? You think you can do that in Zimbabwe? Why would you risk a long stay in a cell in a Chinese jail if you can get easy glory, relative safety and cheap hashish all in one place?
Look, I know a lot of these guys and girls are perfectly nice, well-meaning people who just haven’t been exposed to, or have purposely avoided, any sort of nuance. And I know some of them are doing genuinely good work. I’m not a right-wing zealot. I support the creation of a Palestinian state. I want the Palestinian people to succeed economically and culturally, as long as the Jews can have a safe and secure state beside them. But I’m honestly really sick of seeing the Palestinian people’s self-proclaimed advocates walking around in those damn scarves ignorant of what they might mean to anybody here, interested only in making a callow “statement,” wearing their uber-chic radicalism around their neck in the Holy City.
Take your kaffiyehs and go home.