Triggered by houndstooth: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on keffiyehs and the reactions they inspire

I have read (and doubtless written) a lot of nonsense in my day, but nothing has ever quite reached the level of Dave Zirin’s hot take at The Nation about singer Kiana Ledé’s keffiyeh-style garment.

Ledé performed the U.S. national anthem at the 2024 National Hockey League All-Star Game in Toronto in the garment, and as Josh Lieblein has already established, some conservatives and pro-Israel sorts were vocally displeased with the sartorial choice and the politics it pointed to.

Why am I mind-blown from the silliness? Per Zirin, who has ostensibly seen the garment, “the sweater’s symbolism is unconfirmed.” Is it, though? Look at it! Or consider that Ledé is not simply pro-Palestinian. Zirin quotes a post of hers with the line, “I ask that if you own a keffiyeh, please wear it.” There is no ambiguity here about (a) where Ledé’s politics lie or (b) whether this was just a random houndstooth print.

Zirin somehow manages to combine, in the very same article, an argument that you’re a paranoid Uncle Leo who sees antisemitism everywhere if you think some nice lady’s “black-and-white sweater” is a political statement of any kind, and an argument that keffiyeh-wearing is important and noble and good and should not be conflated with antisemitism. We are to scoff at the idea that an American singer wearing a cardigan is something you could ever read anything into, but also praise Ledé for her courageous stance wearing… a keffiyeh sweater, that is also not a keffiyeh sweater.

I read this and all I could think was, these are two separate issues. By all means let’s discuss whether a keffiyeh is always a political statement, and if so, what that statement consists of.

Is the keffiyeh an antisemitic symbol? As with so much of the post-Oct. 7 landscape, my own answer would depend on when you’d asked. When I saw passersby sporting these in my Toronto neighbourhood on Oct. 8 or thereabouts, I’d have said that yes, this was a message of solidarity with the group in conflict with the one that was just viciously attacked.

There’s a lot you can’t know about people you see on the street—are they Palestinian themselves? is this just their scarf and was what they wore on Oct. 6 as well?—but I can say, with confidence, that I suddenly saw a bunch more keffiyehs, and on people who are yeah probably not Palestinian. (The social-justice crowd’s objections to cultural appropriations were paused, for a cause.) And this of-the-moment accessory felt of a piece with the parachute flyers papering the neighbourhood at the time—glorifying the Hamas attacks themselves, not calling for a ceasefire (which would have meant what, exactly, at that point?), nor vaguely urging that Palestine be free.

Today, in February, with the death tolls from the war soars, and the mainstream news coverage stays ubiquitous, it becomes more difficult to ask why a random Westerner picked the Palestinian plight, of all the plights, to deem scarf-worthy. If nothing else, it’s harder to see a keffiyeh as a callous response to Oct. 7 itself, given that there are other things a person might be reacting to, namely the war.

The question I’ve been trying to figure out is whether a keffiyeh is, at this point in time, in North America, closer to wearing a star of David necklace or an IDF t-shirt. I genuinely don’t know. Nor is it possible to know, without actually speaking to the person, whether someone’s keffiyeh is, say, a ceasefire now sort of keffiyeh or more of an Oct. 7 was just the beginning kind of keffiyeh, or a cultural-pride keffiyeh, or whether you’re dealing with someone who wants to look cool and wouldn’t be able to place Gaza on a map.

I mention coolness because I think some of why some Jews (this Jew) have keffiyeh-related feelings isn’t so much a fear of the individuals in the keffiyehs, but about what it means when one side of a complex conflict has a covetable look—a brand—and the other, not so much if not for lack of trying among those trying to adapt the sudra headdress sported by Jews long ago.

There is a kernel of truth to Zirin’s more general point about the haziness surrounding keffiyehs, even if, re: this particular sweater, it could not have been further from the mark. Keffiyeh-spotting can become a strange sort of paranoid activity. It’s winter in Canada and people are wearing scarves. But is it that scarf or just a scarf?

I—Toronto’s very own Uncle Leo, evidently—find myself wondering about scarves I see, trying to clock which is which, without even entirely knowing why. I do this even though I usually roll my eyes when I see people claiming to see antisemitic imagery where there isn’t any, like there will be some shirt with a sheriff’s badge sold at a mall store and all the predictable online forums erupt with panic that a store is selling yellow star shirts to children. I guess because some things are more far-fetched than others.

I don’t think a keffiyeh announces that its wearer wants Jews dead. At least the rational part of my brain doesn’t think this. That said, am I about to make social plans with someone who isn’t even Palestinian, whose reaction to this war is to buy a scarf in support of their preferred team? I think we all know the answer.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.