The Ahed Tamimi affair exposes the failure of western feminism to oppose Zionism and imperialism, writes Tony Greenstein
Over the past month a 16-year-old girl, Ahed Tamimi, has become a Palestinian heroine compared to Joan of Arc. Israeli Zionists - both ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ - were in uproar when on December 15 Ahed was filmed slapping an Israeli soldier. He had invaded the grounds of Ahed’s house in the village of Nabi Saleh, a militant village of around 600 people, about 12 miles from Ramallah. It is a village that has seen its lands and even its sole freshwater spring confiscated by the nearby settlement of Halamish.
Violence against Palestinians is taken for granted. But the slapping of an Israeli soldier? This was a shock to the Israeli psyche - a national humiliation and completely unacceptable. A teenage girl challenging a heavily armed soldier and forcing him out of the grounds of her house caused national apoplexy.
The fact that Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin Mohammed had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet half an hour before and had to be put in an induced coma in order to survive was not, of course, made much of in Israel. Such things happen. Death or serious injury of Palestinian children is not a matter of any great interest. But slapping a soldier? This is completely unacceptable to the Herrenvolk.
The reaction of leading Israeli politicians was as if a stake had been driven through the heart of Zionism. ‘Culture’ minister Miri Regev - a virulent racist who has compared Israel’s African refugees to ‘cancer’ and who subsequently apologised to cancer victims1 - was livid. “When I watched that, I felt humiliated, I felt crushed,” she said. The incident was “damaging to the honour of the military and the state of Israel”.2
Naftali Bennett, the far-right racist who masquerades as education minister, was full of righteous anger. Ahed and her fellows should “finish their lives in prison” he said.3 A life sentence for a slap! Of course, no Israeli Jewish child should suffer such a penalty: it is the Untermenschen who must be taught to respect their masters.
Michael Oren MK, the former ambassador to the United Nations, had a different take on the matter. The problem was that Ahed Tamimi not only wears western clothes, as opposed to traditional Arab dress, but she is white with blonde hair. This poses a problem. She might be mistaken for a Nordic Aryan. Even worse, people in the west might identify with her. Oren claimed that Ahed had been dressed by her family in western clothes. The Tamimi family were suspected, with their “blond hair, freckles and western clothes”, of not being ‘real’ Palestinians.
Bassem Tamimi, Ahed’s father, who has been arrested many times and even tortured, asked:
How did such a fool get to be your ambassador to the United States? How does the state of Israel allow such a thing? If that’s your elite, I’m not sure how you manage to beat us … The fourth strongest army in the world is afraid of a family and a girl ... When your enemy is angry and nervous, it means you’re on the right track.4
The Zionist reaction is, of course, understandable because Palestinians are sub-human in Israeli eyes and as such do not have western-style families or the kind of emotional attachment we are used to. According to deputy defence minister Eli Dahan, they are “animals”.5
‘Liberal’ journalist Ben Caspit had a slightly more sophisticated approach. He wrote in Maariv: “In the case of the girls, we should exact a price at some other opportunity - in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.”6 This has been widely interpreted as a call to sexually abuse Ahed - and we know that she has been verbally and physically abused by women prisoners in her many shuttles between different Israeli prisons.
One of the charges being presented at my hearing against expulsion from the Labour Party is calling MP Louise Ellman a supporter of Israeli child abuse. This execrable woman, vice-chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, defended Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children in a debate in the House of Commons in January 2016.7 The treatment of Ahed and other Palestinian children has not even been mentioned by those intrepid fighters against ‘anti-Semitism’, the JLM. Always eager to conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, the British wing of the Israeli Labor Party has gone silent over the treatment of Palestinian children - including, of course, the proposed expulsion of African refugees from Israel.
Shortly after the slapping incident Ahed was arrested. Heavily armed soldiers arrived in the early hours of the morning at her house, dragged her out of bed, handcuffed and blindfolded her and took her to a military detention centre. There was a determination by the military and political echelons that this slight 16-year-old would be made to pay for having humiliated the Zionist military machine.
By all accounts her treatment in custody has been harsh. She has been kept in cold cells, without access to her parents (her mother too was arrested when trying to visit her) or a lawyer, deprived of sleep and sanitary products. To understand the racism involved, compare this to an Israeli Jewish child living in a settlement on the West Bank, who would have immediate access to a lawyer, their parents and social workers. There would be no question of being shackled. And slapping a policeman or soldier? This would not even be considered a crime. But then Ahed’s real crime is being a Palestinian and resisting the occupation.
On the evening of December 28, family members and friends of Ahed gathered in the courtroom at Ofer military camp. Gaby Lasky, the Tamimis’ lawyer, reminded the court of “the right to resist the invasion of one’s home” and “right to object to occupation.” While those like the Tamimis are being prosecuted for assault, incitement and violence, there was no mention of the soldiers’ violence during the trial, nor the fact that they were on land that is deemed to be occupied in international law. This is a military court where there is a conviction rate of 99.74%. In the West Bank there are two legal systems and two different court systems.
But, despite her ordeal, Ahed has not lost her sense of humour. At one remand hearing the judge asked her how she hit the soldier, to which she replied that if they took her handcuffs off she would be happy to demonstrate!
Ahed is one of over 300 Palestinian children who are currently detained by Israel. The images of Ahed’s “calm, precocious face, framed by the obdurate shoulders of uniformed guards, go round the world, radiating strength and resistance”.8
Ben Ehrenreich wrote in The Nation that the slapping has revealed Israel to the world as a bully and exposed “a hideous nerve” in Israeli society. Israelis are in “sheer denial”that their country has any responsibility for the “humiliation, violence, and terror of the occupation”.9
The Tamimi case has also exposed the utter paralysis of liberal Zionists, their inability to face what Israel has become.10 Phillip Weiss has noted that “the main response of liberal Zionists has been silence”. The three leading liberal Zionist organisations - Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and J Street - have had almost nothing to say about the case.
But, when they do have something to say about it, they praise the Israeli soldiers for not responding violently to Ahed Tamimi. Peace Now called the soldiers “heroes”. The reason for this closing of ranks by liberal Zionists is because they too are signed up to a Jewish state. They too accept the logic that such a state implies.
J Street is the leading liberal Zionist group. When it finally got around to mentioning the case, its leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, wrote an anguished piece saying that the case exposes the “tragedy” of the conflict.11 As Weiss notes, 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 did not mention the shooting of Tamimi’s cousin, nor the calls for violence against Tamimi. He did not demand that Israel should free Ahed Tamimi.
Contrast this with Gideon Levy’s fiercely argued support for Ahed in Ha’aretz. He asked “How is it that Israelis are totally indifferent to the plight of the blonde girl behind bars who could easily be their child?” As Levy notes,
Yet even Ahed Tamimi’s non-Arab appearance hasn’t managed to touch any hearts here. The wall of dehumanisation and demonisation that has been built through vile campaigns of incitement, propaganda and brain-washing against the Palestinians has trumped even the blonde from Nabi Saleh.
She could be your daughter, or your neighbour’s daughter, yet the abuse she suffers rouses no feelings of solidarity, compassion or basic humanity. After the outburst of anger over what she dared to do came the imperviousness. She’s a terrorist. She couldn’t have been our daughter; she’s a Palestinian.12
A few weeks ago I wrote an article entitled ‘Feminist silence over Ahed Tamimi exposes the racist consensus at the heart of western feminism’.13 In over a decade of blogging it has been my most popular article, attracting some 105,000 hits. Why? Possibly the guilty conscience of western feminists, who are all too aware of their own oppression as women, but fail to see the interconnections with the oppression of other women for whom their gender is not the totality of what it means to be oppressed.
Western feminism operates on the basis that there is a system called patriarchy, an all-encompassing oppression of women by men, whilst failing to account for the fact that women are divided by class, race, ethnicity and colour. Women living under the heel of imperialism or colonialism are thus not only oppressed as women, but as colonised people.
For women such as Ahed Tamimi or her mother, Nariman, the primary oppression they experience is not at the hands of the males in their family, but from Israeli soldiers, regardless of sex. Who, for example, could doubt that for a Rohinga woman the experience of being driven out of Burma (often with the help of Israeli arms) is more immediate and dangerous than the oppression they experience in their relationship with men? Or that the primary experience of Jewish women in the camps of Nazi Germany was not that of Jewish men, but the Nazi state? There is no evidence I have seen that Nazi guards who were female shared any sisterhood with Jewish women.
The relationship between feminism, racism and imperialism has been a vexed one for over 30 years. When the issue of Zionism first manifested itself in the pages of Spare Rib, the magazine of women’s liberation, in 1982, at the time of the invasion of Lebanon, it split the editorial collective in two. An article, ‘Women speak out against Zionism’, caused an explosion of fury amongst Zionist feminists, who asserted that support for the Palestinians and Lebanese was a form of anti-Semitism (shades of the Labour Party today!).
The debate has not gone away for the simple reason that, not only do different women experience different forms of oppression, but women can themselves be both the oppressors of other women and oppressed themselves by virtue of their gender. Although gender oppression will be felt most acutely by women who are least oppressed by virtue of class or race, it is of lesser importance to women for whom their status as an ethnic or racial minority is primary.
Can anyone doubt that in Israel Jewish women - like white women in apartheid South Africa before it - identify first and foremost with the system of racial supremacy they were born into? Racial oppression cuts across gender and thus we see, for example, in the United States that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump despite his overt misogyny. They identified with his attacks on Mexicans and Latinos, amongst others.
In response to my own article, many women have argued that anti-colonial resistance had nothing to do with feminism.