Is there a doubt in anyone’s mind about the core belief in the social sciences that one individual, or a small group of like-minded individuals motivated by teleological forces within them, can effortlessly change history?
Ahed Tamimi, the 17-year-old Palestinian girl who had served an eight-month sentence in an Israeli jail for slapping an Israeli soldier (under occupation, Israeli soldiers slap you, you don’t slap them) was set free last week and returned to Nabi Saleh, her village in the West Bank, where she told reporters: “What I did was natural, even if the price [I had to pay] was imprisonment, since one who believes in the idea of liberation must not fear repression by the occupation”. That was not, come to think of it, an altogether haughty stance, given the fact that doing prison time is now a rite of passage for Palestinian activists, including under-age activists like Ahed. After eating a cone of pistachio ice-cream, which the teen said she had “craved” while incarcerated, she vowed to a crowd of supporters: “The resistance will continue until the end of the occupation”.
Set aside here the fact that Ahed has become an international icon of that resistance, with many comparing her to Joan of Arc; that her face has appeared on billboards in cities around the world; or for that matter that Nelson Mandela’s grandson has invited her to South Africa to receive an award for bravery. What matters, above all, is that what Ahed stands for is responsive to the sensibility of a whole generation of Palestinian youth.
Israel knows all this. And that is why its government officials, without intended resort to hyperbole, called Ahed “dangerous”. That is why two Italian artists, who recently had painted a large mural of her face on the separation-apartheid wall in the West Bank, were arrested by Israeli authorities and given three days to fly back to their homeland. And that is why a well-known fascist Israeli journalist, one Ben Caspit, wrote this about the fate he wished to befall the young Palestinian militant: “We should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras”. That’s a fellow with a sadistic bent of mind, wouldn’t you say?
Ahed is on the scene — galvanising Palestinians at a time when the traditional leadership is out to lunch — because very simply the historical conditions in Palestine call for it. Indeed, had there been no Ahed Tamimi around, another figure would’ve emerged to play her role. Though at some point her name will recede from memory, buried in time and rendered beyond recall, she will have set the stage for her generation, who will soon come of age and confront Israel with their palpable presence.
Look at it this way. Were one to invoke for us the names, say, of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, we would immediately recognise them as household names in the modern history of the African-American struggle for civil rights. But, in the context of that history, would the names David Richmond, Franklin MacCain, Ezell Blair and Joseph McNeil ring a bell with any of us? Hardly.
But these folks made history, transformed America and changed the world.
The Greensborough Four, as they came to be known, were three teenagers and one 20-year-old, students at a nearby college, who took it upon themselves in February 1960 to walk into a Woolworth’s department store in Greensborough, North Carolina, and provocatively sit at a whites-only lunch counter — and, well, order coffee. They were, of course, refused service, but they stayed there until the store closed. The next day more students showed up and, again, were not served. By the fourth day, some 300 students crowded the store. Then protests spread throughout the South and by the end of March more protests had been staged in 53 cities in 13 states.
Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, celebrated today as political or cultural leaders, may have come before, during or after the Greensborough Four, but it was the latter who cemented the ethos of the sit-in and the ideals of the civil rights movement.
Talk of the teleological spirit of history with which some individuals become imbued! This spirit is something that emanates from a deep truth within us and that empowers us to act — and whether by acting we slap an occupation soldier across the earhole in Nabi Saleh, Palestine, or we defy racial segregation at its fountainhead in Greensborough, North Carolina.
The future of Palestine is in the hands of Ahed’s generation, and that future — trust me on this one — is assured. It is Israel’s that is not. Israel’s future is no more assured than was the future of segregation in America — a social paradigm that the late George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, described in his 1963 racially smug address thus: “In the name of the greatest people that ever trod the earth ... segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Sure, sure, George.
What kind of future do you envision for an entity like Israel, imbued as it is with an abundance of ethnocentric hubris and a ritualised obsession with brutality, vindictiveness and hatred of the ‘other’. Somewhere along the line, something will give, a puncture will appear in the dialectic, and the emperor’s new clothes will be exposed.
Yes, I’m in total agreement with Israel’s hardliners — Ahed Tamimi, along with tens of thousands of other Ahed Tamimis waiting around for the accounts to be balanced between them and Zionism, is very dangerous indeed.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.