In the past three weeks, following the famous slapping of an Israeli soldier by Ahed Tamimi of Nabi Saleh, the remarks about Ahed’s looks have gained extra momentum.
These remarks have often been disparaging ones. They are generally meant to suggest that there is really no content to the ‘hype’ around Ahed – that her appeal and impact are only really about how she looks, not what she is. Such notions basically render the whole context of Ahed’s situation, the situation of Nabi Saleh, the occupation and the oppression, to be a mere ‘photo-op’ which serves the ‘Palestinian narrative’.
Whilst less disparaging and more nuanced remarks about Ahed’s look have been made, we must realise the danger of such focus upon external appearance. It risks diverting our attention from the very serious issues at hand.
One may be reminded of how, during Israel’s summer 2014 Gaza onslaught, Prime Minister Netanyahu accused Hamas of using “telegenically dead” to further “their cause” – as if the hundreds and thousands of dead as a result of seasonal Israeli massacres of the Gaza concentration camp do not, in themselves, provide ample opportunities for such scenes.
Israeli centrist lawmaker and former Ambassador to the US Michael Oren has fostered such notions concerning Ahed Tamimi and her family. Following Ahed’s arrest, Oren suggested that the Tamimi family may “not be a real family”, that the kids (are they even Tamimis??) were simply dressed up in “American clothes” and “paid to provoke IDF troops on camera”.
Oren went with certainty now that “this cynical and cruel use of children constitutes abuse.” And that therefore “human rights organizations must investigate!”
So in Oren’s universe, it is impossible that Palestinian kids would dress in “American clothes” on their own. Of course, otherwise they would be wearing traditional Arab garments, right?
For Oren, it is also impossible that a child like Ahed may be outraged at the soldiers who had moments earlier shot her cousin Mohammed in the face (a harrowing story which Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy has recently covered). No, for Oren, this is all about looks.
Washington Post reporter Ruth Eglash then extrapolated on Oren’s remarks, by reducing Ahed Tamimi’s protests of occupation to what she was wearing:
In 2015, wearing a bright pink Tweetie Pie T-shirt…
She was also the focus of media attention in 2012, when, wearing red pants…
Many remarks have been made about Ahed’s hair, and its unusual blonde color. Haaretz journalist Amira Hass has used this notion in irony for the title of her serious opinion piece in the matter: “In Nabi Saleh, the Palestinians Aren’t Legally Blonde”.
Author and journalist Ben Ehrenreich, who had profiled the Tamimi family in 2012 for New York Times Magazine, had mentioned in passing:
“Unavoidably, she is blonde and light-skinned and light-eyed,” Ehrenreich wrote. “A great deal of work goes into ‘othering’ Palestinians, to casting them as some really recognizable other… but when suddenly the kid doesn’t fit into those stereotypes—when she actually looks like a European kid or an American kid—then suddenly all that work of dehumanization can’t function, and she can’t be ‘othered’ in the same way. And then people freak out.”
Now THAT is some serious reflection, but it doesn’t take up the whole focus. Ben Ehrenreich is capable of such wider focus– that the bigger picture, is genocide. “[T]he attempts to erase a people, to just erase them, to erase their history, I think follow a logic that can only be called genocidal”, Ehrenreich noted in an appearance for his book.
But many of the writers who ‘freak out’ at the sight of Ahed Tamimi are not capable of such nuanced reflection. Here in Denmark, journalist and Debate Editor of Weekendavisen, Søren K. Willemoes, wrote a Facebook post with disparaging sexual remarks about Ahed. He called her “Lolita on the barricades”, and even noted that he has “seen several photos of her wearing a tight t-shirt, so one can just notice her nipples”.
Whilst many people are looking at Ahed and seeing a determined, resolute and courageous girl, Willemoes is seeing nipples. My sharing of Willemoes’ post immediately drew enraged remarks against him, and he came on the thread many times trying to defend his reputation and ‘clarify’ his meaning. He seemed to disappear completely when I challenged him to live debate on TV or radio.
Willemoes says he “doesn’t like” what he calls “soft-pornographic sexual undertones” in Ahed’s image. But he is a generator of these, and worse. He uses these demeaning observations in order to deride the whole “Palestinian case”, which he opines has “died out long ago”. There’s nothing there really – no issue, just looks. Willemoes inserts a final PS to make himself look liberal again: “May I add, that I definitely do not condone or defend Israel’s actions in the West Bank, which I find worthy of deep critique. It’s just that propaganda-esthetic, which I am repulsed by. On the face of it, Israel’s treatment of her seems unjust”, he writes.
Undoubtedly, Ahed is challenging several issues, taboos and mythologies at once. Gil Gertel wrote in her piece in +972 Magazine titled “Ahed Tamimi flips Zionist mythology on its head”:
“What, for Israelis, was most embarrassing about the pictures of Ahed Tamimi slapping an Israeli soldier? A woman hitting a man? A Muslim hitting a Jew? A civilian hitting a representative of law and order? A student hitting a trained fighter? That with her bare hands she hit someone fully armed and armored? That she hit the force that denies her rights? From the responses on social media, it seems all of the above. Ahed Tamimi flipped the traditional roles in the myth of David and Goliath, which was and remains a foundational myth of Zionist education”.
So people from various oppressive fronts are being provoked, and it’s bringing the creeps out of the woodwork – sometimes on multiple counts, as one may see in the cases of Willemoes and Israeli journalist Ben Caspit, who wrote that, “In the case of the girls [of Nabi Saleh], we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and camera” — a plain suggestion of sexual violence.
Yes, Ahed serves a powerful feminist message. Yesterday, Israeli professor and author Nurit Peled Elhanan posted on her Facebook wall, about how Ahed was actually the liberated one, whilst her jailers are confined (Hebrew, my translation):
“The slap that will not be forgiven and will not be forgotten
Even after Ahed Tamimi is released from the prison into which she was thrown by the bureaucrats of the foreign oppressor, Israel will never get over the slap which the Palestinian Jean D’Arc served the terror regime. The grotesque face of the robotic army, busy for over half a century with persecution after kids with slings and killing of girls of gentle appearance, will not manage to wipe her fingerprints.
The female soldiers and policewomen who guarded or accompanied or pushed Ahed with a beastly and obnoxious countenance, mummified in the uniforms of brutality, with their ridiculous helmets, armed from head to toe, or wearing makeup as if they were dolls for sale, look as if they are in a constant state of confined bewilderment regarding the state in which they are trapped. They, their educators, their parents, and mostly their rulers, will not be able to forget the girl of their own age, who stood in a T-shirt and jeans, her hair blowing in the wind, her eyes clearly exposed, who taught them what it means to be a young liberated woman. A young liberated woman does not mean to dress up as a thug and behave as the Golem of Prague [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem ]. A young liberated woman fights for her freedom with bare hands.
[Ahed] will never be forgiven or forgotten this insult.”
Others have also written about Ahed’s “girl-power”. Shenila Khoja-Moolji wondered, in her excellent article in Al-Jazeera, why Ahed is not getting the same status as for example Malala Yossafzai. Khoja-Moolji lists various possible reasons, including that “Ahed’s suffering also exposes the West’s selective humanitarianism, whereby only particular bodies and causes are deemed worthy of intervention”.
The comparison between Ahed and Malala is fair and interesting, but ultimately brings us back to the ‘looks’ issue. Indeed, the comparison makes it clear that appearances are not the issue. Malala has become a famous case not because of how she looks. Her looks and dress are unexceptionally traditional. Ahed dresses and looks differently.
And that is not the essence of these two young women’s struggle and cause. The ‘Jean D’Arc’ notion about Ahed is not, and should not be, about her looking ‘European’. It’s because of the similarity of the situations. As Uri Avnery wrote in Haaretz:
“She’s 16, from a family of peasants in an isolated village. The foreign occupation outraged her, and she set out to fight it. Her actions excited her oppressed people, whose spirits rose from the depths of despair to renewed hope. She was captured by her occupiers, who imprisoned and prosecuted her. You’re probably thinking I mean 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi, who slapped the face of an Israel Defense Forces officer. But actually, I’m referring to Joan of Arc, known as “the maid of Orléans”, Avnery writes.
Ahed is what she is because of her behavior, because of her acts, because of her courage. Those who seek to dismiss or destroy her cause may focus obsessively on her looks. But they are missing the point completely. And that’s pretty much a universal principle.