About two weeks ago, Israelis came home to a frightening sight. At first glance, everything seemed fine, but a closer look revealed something odd. It was as if a stranger had come to their homes and dared sit in their favorite chairs. A little indentation and a few blond hairs left no room for doubt. “Somebody’s been sitting in our chair!” they mumbled to themselves.
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Rushing to the kitchen, they also discovered that someone who had never been invited in had been eating some of the porridge that had been made earlier. “Someone’s also been eating our porridge!” they said to one another in disbelief. But things culminated in the bedroom, where, among the pillows and on the sheets that had been changed just that morning lay a girl with golden locks. “Excuse me?” the Israelis said in unison, “there’s a girl, a stranger, in our bed!”
Who was this girl? A Joan of Arc of the Palestinian people, an Arab version of Hannah Szenes, a Middle Eastern Anne Frank, a Botticelli-like figure in an Israeli prison uniform — these were just some of the ways she was characterized. In recent weeks, the left wing in Israel has not been able to stop its obsessive name-dropping in describing the appearance of West Bank Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, who was arrested after a video surfaced showing her slapping an Israeli soldier.
Like the latest Google Arts & Culture app feature, which matches famous Western art paintings to random selfies, Tamimi’s local fan club has been offering countless alternate white and Western images for her, reflecting mainly the confusion in which it finds itself.
The Tamimi phenomenon is above all based on the Israeli gaze: her biggest accomplishment hasn't been an act of resistance of one kind or another. After all, she did nothing that a number of other Palestinian women hadn’t done before her.
Rather, her biggest accomplishment was her emergence.
In a reality in which appearances are more powerful than any act, and in which women are still judged for the most part by their looks and not their deeds, Tamimi’s attractive, freckled look – perfect for an album cover, protest T-shirt design or two-tone poster – provided the foundation for her idealization on the part of the left and deep hatred on the part of the right wing in Israel.
It also placed us in an embarrassing predicament. On the one hand, Tamimi’s blond hair forced us to see her as a real human being, and not just another dark, invisible or demonic Palestinian whose abuse and cruel treatment would be taken for granted. It forced us to confront our worst, deepest perceptions about our own identity as Jewish Israelis and that of “the other.” On the other hand, it exposed anew the way in which we view women in general, that requires they be seen as erotic or holy figures, but never as real people that have their own voices.
But above all, the repeated attempt to glorify Tamimi through comparisons with other, white, women exposed the Israeli left's desire to take control of that gaze that she triggers in us. Rather than allowing the Palestinians to define their own heroes, the left insists on creating its own narrative surrounding Tamimi, shaping her story through simultaneous translation into Western imagery.
The reason for that may be that Tamimi is in fact a lot less heroic than we would like to believe. You wish to find someone who really reflects who she is? Forget about Holocaust heroine Hannah Szenes or Anne Frank. Tamimi is the Palestinian version of Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli. Like Refaeli, who paradoxically symbolizes the ultimate Israeli because she allows Israelis to maintain the lie that they so much love regarding their ethnic and cultural identity, Tamimi also frees the Palestinians from their actual reality, taking them in the Israeli eyes into the realms of imagination and fantasy. The result is either adoration or loathing, depending on the observer’s point of view.
It’s hard not to ponder Tamimi’s fate and her almost privileged capacity to be seen as white compared with the fate of tens of thousands of African asylum seekers who are currently due to be cruelly deported by the Israeli government. As long as no golden-haired female asylum seeker surfaceshere, it’s hard to believe that we will be able to conjure up a black Anne Frank or an Eritrean Joan of Arc who can humanize the tragedy that we are causing and be seen as a hero. Not even if she slaps a thousand soldiers.