Mondoweiss

Why liberal Zionists have nothing to say about Ahed Tamimi’s slap and arrest

Ahed Tamimi slaps an Israeli soldier, occupying her family's property in Nabi Saleh, on December 15, 2017. Drawing by Katie Miranda.

The Ahed Tamimi case is one of the most important events we have covered in recent years because it exposes to the eyes of the world the difference in moral tone between the two sides of the conflict.

Consider the optics. On December 15 in the tiny occupied village of Nabi Saleh, a 16-year-old girl with long blonde hair, Ahed Tamimi, slapped a heavily-armed Israeli soldier who was occupying her back yard, not long after another Israeli soldier had shot Tamimi’s cousin in the face; and when video of the slapping came out, all of Israeli society called for the girl’s arrest, and many were enraged that the soldier was passive. The next night Ahed Tamimi was arrested in a midnight raid; and she is being held without charges, as leading Israelis urge that the key be thrown away, and worse.

Meantime, images of the imprisoned girl’s calm precocious face, framed by the obdurate shoulders of uniformed guards, go round the world, radiating strength and resistance.

Ahed Tamimi behind bars

As Ben Ehrenreich writes at the Nation, Israel’s response to the slapping exposed “a hideous nerve” in that society. Scott Roth detailed that nerve: Israelis are in “sheer denial” that their country has any responsibility for the “humiliation, violence, and terror of the occupation.”

Which brings me to liberal Zionists. I care more about them than anyone else in America because they are gatekeepers to the Democratic Party, and when the Democratic Party turns, Israel will become a partisan issue and we will win (because Chuck Schumer and Tom Perez and Haim Saban have more power over the Palestinian future than John Hagee and Sheldon Adelson).

The Tamimi case exposes the utter paralysis of liberal Zionists, their inability to face what Israel has become.

Their main response to the case has been silence. The three leading liberal Zionist orgs, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and J Street (until yesterday), see these images of brutal occupation ricocheting around the world, and have had almost nothing to say about the case.

Then when they break their silence, they praise the Israeli soldiers for not responding violently to Ahed Tamimi in the moment. Peace Now called the soldiers “heroes.” Then they shut up again.

Liberal Zionists still deeply believe in Israel; and therefore the first thing they see is the good side of Israel, the fact that a soldier doesn’t respond violently to a girl who is slapping him.

When they see the world responding with expressions of outraged compassion for the girl, the liberal Zionists would like to join in but they can’t. Because ultimately, their community is Jewish Israelis; and they know that just about all of Jewish Israel hates Ahed Tamimi, so they can’t really champion her without abandoning that community.

But as soon as you say, I care about all people equally– then you embrace Ahed Tamimi.

This can be seen in the responses to the case from two Jewish groups, IfNotNow and J Street.

IfNotNow are young non-Zionist Jews who are taking on the Jewish establishment over the occupation; and since the Tamimi case broke they have been vocally on her side. IfNotNow salutes the power of this young woman to challenge the occupation.

They regularly call for Ahed Tamimi to be freed:

The group has expressed outrage at the Israeli viciousness toward Tamimi, and over and over identified with the victim. Eve Westheimer:

When I was 16- I didn’t have to worry about the govt abducting me.

Simone Zimmerman:

“If I had a foreign occupier standing on my doorstep, I too would want to push them off. Had my friends and family been hurt by soldiers, they would see no compassion from me.” -IfNotNow leader

As for J Street, the leading liberal Zionist group finally got around to the case yesterday. After a week of international headlines, J Street couldn’t keep ignoring the story. So J Street CEO Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote an anguished piece saying that the case exposes the “tragedy” of the conflict.

The most prominent emotion in Ben-Ami’s article is “pride” in the Israeli soldier, whose “restraint prevented the situation from deteriorating further.”

Ben-Ami does not mention the shooting of Tamimi’s cousin, nor the calls for violence against Tamimi. He does not say that Israel should free Ahed Tamimi and barely touches on that “hideous nerve” in Israeli society– “some of the country’s leaders have called for lifetime imprisonment of a 16 year-old girl for simply slapping a soldier.” Really! They did– who?

Everyone talks about how awful the identity politics of the left are; but the identity politics of Zionism are worse: Zionists are simply not allowed to identify with proud Palestinians.

No, the emphasis in Ben-Ami’s piece is the hearts of liberal Zionists who “love the country.” They teem with “conflicting emotions.”

On the one hand, we truly honor and respect the individual men and women – teenagers and young adults really – who day-in and day-out serve their country dutifully in the Israel Defense Forces.

We can relate to the love and respect that every Israeli family has for their teenage children who are sent to carry out difficult and dangerous assignments put on their young shoulders by the nation’s leaders – whether they agree with them or not.

On the other, we feel compelled to criticize and fight the very policies that these brave young men and women are enforcing – often at great personal risk – every single day.

The feelings of Palestinians get second place in this article. Though Ben-Ami does honor them:

There is no compelling security or military justification for the way in which families, including the Tamimis, have been treated over the decades, and it should come as no surprise when young men and women like Ahed choose to resist.  It doesn’t take a textbook to bring about resistance in young people; it results quite naturally – without need of instruction – from the human impulse to resist injustice against one’s community and family….

We are obliged to take a long, hard look at the underlying policies that could lead a 16 year-old girl to slap fully-armed soldiers in the first place, and to risk years in jail.

It’s too bad those words couldn’t be the thrust of Ben-Ami’s article. But they can’t. Because in the identity politics of the Jewish state, Jewish souls matter most.

No wonder young Jews are saying they’ve had enough with that set of values and are seeing Ahed Tamimi for who she is, a brave leader.