Why are Israelis and others debating Ahed Tamimi’s “blond hair.”
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On December 31 Israeli newspaper Haaretz sub-headed an oped, “How is it that Israelis are totally indifferent to the plight of the blond girl behind bars who could easily be their child?”
The “blond girl” is Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen from Nabi Saleh who was arrested by Israeli police on December 19 after a viral video in which she was seen kicking and slapping at Israeli soldiers. She has now been charged for her actions.
The debate in Israel has often centered on her appearance. It has taken on sexist and racial overtones. The Haaretz piece notes “we see the Botticelli figure in the brown Shin Bet security service uniform and the handcuffs, looking more like a girl from Ramat Hasharon than a girl from Nabi Saleh.” The writer notes “Yet even Ahed Tamimi’s ‘non-Arab’ appearance hasn’t managed to touch any hearts here.” The writer, who is male, calls Tamimi “the blonde from Nabi Saleh.” At the end of the piece he concludes “Israelis are no longer capable of identifying with a brave girl, even when she looks like their daughters, just because she’s Palestinian.”
Another article notes: “Blond, that’s how the Israelis remember the children from Nabi Saleh, who don’t greet the armed soldiers invading their homes.” Another: “She’s strawberry blond, like most of the girls in her village, blue-eyed and brave.” The reference to her hair color ends up in other forums as well, including a Reuters piece and one by Philip Weiss. The Washington Post also calls her “seeming provocation by Ahed Tamimi, a blonde firebrand” and Algemeiner also references her hair color as does The Jewish Press. So does The Star, “Tamimi, her wild blond curls swept up in a hair band.”
On social media pro and anti-Israel voices have also focused on how she looks. One person tweets: “The whole story in one picture: Israeli black policewoman holding the white Palestinian criminal.” Another man notes “Anti-Israel activists like to describe Israel as a “White, European colonialist entity” and are now using this Palestinian girl (Ahed Tamimi) as a symbol.” A woman tweets the opposite, “Don’t co-opt Ahed Tamimi & the Palestinian cause in the name of white supremacy. She sure as hell would not refer to herself as ‘white’. She’s an indigenous Palestinian & an Arab. We don’t need or want Nazi support. What is the point of these posts?”
Hanging over this debate are certain conceptions about “white” and “non-white” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This is a multi-layered discussion that includes numerous voices. On one end it consists of pro-Palestinian voices who see Israel as a “white supremacist” or “settler colonialist” state of “apartheid.” Then there is a pro-Israel counter-narrative that asserts that Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel. There are also voices that debate whether “Jews are white” or have “white privilege.”
Then there are debates about what Israelis “look like.” It tends to be in the eye of the beholder. So the Israeli author above who claimed that Tamimi looks “more like a girl from Ramat Hasharon than a girl from Nabi Saleh,” predicates this view on his own view of what Israelis look like. The photos of Tamimi with Israeli police clearly show that there is no one Israeli “color.” Tamimi doesn’t look “like” the Israeli police.
Israelis don’t have one “look” because the country is heterogenous. Even in the 1960s Hannah Arendt wrote of Israel: “Everything is organized by the Israeli police force which gives me the creeps. It speaks only Hebrew and looks Arabic. Some downright brutes among them. They obey any order. Outside the courthouse doors the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.” For her, a European, Israel looked “Arab.”
What’s interesting in Israel is that the same newspaper that published the article claiming that Tamimi is blond and “looks like their daughters,” referring to Israel, is the same one with a headline noting “why are Israel’s top models blond and European looking?” That article notes: “A quick glance at billboards reveals that the dominant look here reflects the European and American ideals of beauty — slim women with light-colored skin, hair and eyes. Some industry experts say this will never change.” The article mentions Ethiopian Israeli models Only the “diverse and mixed Israeli character” of the country.
This debate about race and color in Israel is vibrant. Shlomi Hatuka is quoted in the piece on models: “There is a complete correlation between Mizrahi representation in advertising and in the centers of power,” he says. He says that this creates a “myth of a white woman is constructed — an Ashkenazi one, in Israel’s case — and this creates a gap between the concept of the ideal beauty and Mizrahi beauty.”
So the debate about Tamimi and how she looks goes to the center of this. Does she look like an “Israeli” or a “Palestinian” and who is “indigenous” and how important are looks and color to that “indigenous” claim? There is a cleavage in Israel between those who imagine Israel to be more European than it is and see the natural Israeli as “European looking.” Those same voices describe Arabs as looking “different.” For instance when Haaretz discussed Lucy Aharish, an Arab journalist, a male author noted that Aharish “does not look Arab, sound Arab or dress like an Arab.” When another Israeli author encountered a darker skinned Jewish Israeli security guard he wrote “Ophir was a young, darkish security man, perhaps a descendant of converts from the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps from the Atlas Mountains. But one thing was clear, his black color looked very shabby, tattered and stained with evil.”
For Israeli writers and readers of some media then there is an Arab “look” and a look that they consider to be “us” and “them.”
What many of those debating this don’t want to admit is that Palestinian and Israeli society are both diverse. They are so diverse that they are often not distinguishable. Yet both societies have used identity politics to assert concepts of indigeneity based on appearance. Israel should stop this toxic racially charged debate. Being blond doesn’t make one look more Israeli. It doesn’t make someone more or less indigenous. There is an obsession with looks, particularly when it comes to women. Tamimi has become a symbol of that toxic debate.