Jonathan Greenblatt’s racist keffiyeh smear is another chapter in the ADL’s war on Palestinians

On March 29 I watched with horror as Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) compared the Palestinian keffiyeh to the Nazi swastika on MSNBC’s show Morning Joe. The hosts did not challenge Greenblatt’s accusations and allowed him to demonize the Palestinian people. He intentionally wanted to spread fear and misinformation to the public. On that morning, he was successful.  

I found these unchallenged comments repugnant, outrageous, and dangerous. In the days following the appearance, no one in the mainstream media nor any politicians demanded an apology. Greenblatt’s racist smear and his deliberate equation of Palestinian symbols with white supremacy didn’t seem to pose any controversy even though they promote hate and could instigate violence against anyone who supports the Palestinian people. The intentional omission of Palestinian voices in the traditional media allows this kind of racism and false allegation to spread.

Rather than a symbol of hate, the Palestinian keffiyeh is a source of pride.

The keffiyeh or hatta is a traditional Palestinian headdress. It is synonymous with Palestinians and symbolizes Palestinians’ connections to fishing, olive trees, and our homeland. 

As a child, I remembered farmers wearing the keffiyeh while tending to their land. Like the women’s “thoub,” men wore their keffiyeh to protect them from the sun during the hot summer and warm them in the winter to protect them from the cold. The keffiyeh is part of our identity as people. Some trace the keffiyeh back to the 3100 BCE. A version of the keffiyeh was worn by Sumerian priests to distinguish honor. The word keffiyeh has its origins in the Kufa area in Iraq. Over the years it spread all over the Middle East with different regions wearing different colors for cultural and practical reasons. The black and white keffiyeh is known as the Palestinian Keffiyeh. Prior to 1936, the keffiyeh was worn by traveling Bedouins and farmers. 

The keffiyeh first became a symbol of resistance in 1936. Palestinians from all sectors of life began to wear the keffiyeh to cover their faces and head to protect the Palestinian rebels from the British occupation. Since then, Palestinians have used the keffiyeh as a symbol of resistance to oppression. It has become part of our daily life and identity, and thus, Israel and its defenders have sought to erase it.

Mr. Greenblatt’s comments would have been less perilous if it hadn’t been for the fact that the ADL is identified as a premier civil rights agency. His equating Palestinian symbols with those of hate groups could have a profound effect as many in local, state, and federal government use ADL data to enact laws and enforce policies. Further, our law enforcement agencies, at all levels, use training conducted by the ADL.  

But like Israel, the ADL is dehumanizing and criminalizing symbols of the Palestinian people in an effort to silence us and erase us. Israel has outlawed the Palestinian flag and is trying to abolish the keffiyeh. The ADL is walking in lockstep with them. For an agency that claims to fight for civil rights, they have a long history of targeting Palestinian advocacy. The campaign against the keffiyeh follows a long list of attempts to undermine Palestinian nonviolent civil rights activism promoting and advocating for the rights and freedom of the Palestinian people. The ADL demonizes the BDS movement and has gone after human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for pointing out the obvious about the apartheid systems imposed by Israel on the Palestinian people. The ADL wants to silence anyone who opposes Israel’s human rights violations. 

This ADL attack also comes at a time when Palestinian Americans already feel under attack as their government continues to send bombs to Israel to slaughter civilians in Gaza. It comes at a time when Congress, following the ADL’s guidance, is enacting laws that stifle the rights of Palestinian Americans and their supporters. Mr. Greenblatt’s comments also came as a sitting Congress member from Michigan advocated for dropping a nuclear weapon on Gaza reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unchallenged comments and data used by the ADL emerge at a time when Palestinian Americans and their supporters are targeted and attacked for wearing the keffiyeh.

In recent months, and throughout my life, I have been part of the demonstrations for Palestinian rights with thousands of people, including many young Jewish people, who wear the keffiyeh. Although, Greenblatt and the ADL claim to fight hate toward the Jewish people, they go after any Jew who does not support Israel, specifically young progressive Jews. For an agency that claims to fight all aspects of hate, they legitimize hate of the Palestinian people by denying their ethnic identity. They negate the rights of the Palestinian people to live freely in their native homeland. Instead of fighting legitimate acts of hate against the Jewish people, Greenblatt has decided to wage war on pro-Palestinian activists and is campaigning to stop all their efforts with every tool possible.

The Palestinian people and their supporters are not spouting hate, despite the hate they encounter daily. They are fighting for their freedom like all other human beings.

Mr. Greenblatt has every right to side with the Israeli government but has no right to silence me or manipulate my culture to suit his purpose.


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