At 16, Israel promised me freedom. Why does it deny it to Ahed Tamimi?

Looking at the images of Ahed in court, I know we can never truly be free as long as we deny another people their freedom. And I wonder what freedom actually means if it takes locking up people like Ahed to secure it.

By Simone Zimmerman

Ahed Tamimi in the Ofer prison military court. December 20, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Ahed Tamimi in the Ofer prison military court. December 20, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

When I was 16, I joined Facebook. I spent a lot of time taking cute photos with my friends, and learned how to do neat things with my digital camera. I got in quite a good bit of trouble for making out with cute boys at my Jewish youth group and summer camp. One of the worst things that happened was that the process of getting my drivers permit was delayed for a year.

But the best thing that happened that year was spending almost five months in Israel, first on a high school exchange program in Tel Aviv, and then on a six-week teen trip with Camp Ramah across the country after a week of visiting Holocaust sites in Poland.

My semester in Israel was the most free I had ever felt in my young life. I rode buses, took taxis, walked — things I never did growing up in Los Angeles. I went to the beach and the mall, ate lots of delicious food, visited tourist sites, and got drunk for my first time on one shot of cheap vodka. I had been learning about this place my entire life — I had come before on two short family visits, but this was my first time feeling  this place was a part of me, and something I was a part of.

I returned to Israel after a visit to Poland, and my visceral connection, love, familiarity, and commitment, was joined by a fierce sense of tribal pride and obligation. Standing in the barracks and on the train tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, walking through the graveyard of Treblinka, staring at the mountains of human ashes and rooms full of shoes in Majdanik, I felt so full of horror and grief at the calamity that had befallen my people, and so clear about my commitment to Jewish liberation and Jewish resilience.

The author at 16. ‘That summer I sang and prayed and played on mountaintops, valleys, springs, and beaches across the country.’
The author at 16. ‘That summer I sang and prayed and played on mountaintops, valleys, springs, and beaches across the country.’

At every site we visited, we said the Mourner’s Kaddish before singing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva. It was clear where the next stop of this journey had to be: “Never again” meant we would be strong and free in Israel. That summer I sang and prayed and played on mountaintops, valleys, springs, and beaches across the country.

My feelings are a bit more complex these days. That narrative of Jewish liberation in Israel was and is being challenged for me each day, especially living here again. But the thing that breaks my heart most about this place is that I do still believe in Jewish liberation and resilience.

And yet I see the abuse and dehumanization of Palestinians by the State of Israel. I see the full-on assault on democratic principles. I see the constriction of the minds and hearts of so much of the Jewish public — in Israel and the Diaspora — that reduces all Palestinians to terrorists who deserve to be occupied, jailed, and executed, and reduces those of us who defend them to traitors. It feels like an affront to my history, our history, that I hold so dear. It feels like betrayal.

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This week, in the middle of the night, Israeli soldiers burst into Tamimi family home in the West Bank village of Nabi Salah, and arrested 16-year-old Ahed. When her mom went to check on her at an Israeli police station, she too was arrested. Ahed is currently facing at least five more days of detention. Her 21-year-old cousin was also arrested, and her father is being investigated. All because she confronted Israeli soldiers outside her house.

Ahed has lived her entire life under occupation. Her entire life she has watched Jewish settlements expand around her village, encroaching on her community’s land. She has watched soldiers raid her home and harass her family, she has seen members of her village shot, including Mustafa, who was killed after being shot in the face with a tear gas canister, and Mohammed, who this week was shot in the face with a rubber bullet and was in a coma for several days. He is younger than Ahed.

Ahed has been resisting her entire life, fighting for her family and her home against a state and an army that want to crush their will and their power. I am sure much of her daily life also includes the simple joys and trivialities that I enjoyed when I was 16. I do not want to reduce her to a one-dimensional victim of her conditions, or a one-dimensional hero. But she also is both of those things. She is certainly a hero.

Ahed Tamimi seen in a protest in Nabi Saleh. (Haim Schwarczenberg)
Ahed Tamimi seen in a protest in Nabi Saleh. (Haim Schwarczenberg)

If I had a foreign occupier standing on my doorstep, I too would want to push them off. Had my friends and family been hurt by soldiers, they would see no compassion from me. If resisting a foreign military was my regular Friday activity at 16, getting some badass warrior princess action photos in the process would be essential. I also wanted to look hot and badass in my photos when I was 16. And I got to take those photos sitting on my driveway with no soldiers around to bother me.

I think back to my life when I was 16, and the power and freedom I felt from this place. Then I look at Ahed, the freedom and power this place wants to destroy, and I want to weep.

Looking at the images of Ahed in Ofer Military Court, I know we can never truly be free as long as we deny another people their freedom. I wonder what freedom actually means if it takes locking up people like Ahed to secure it.

Simone Zimmerman is an organizer and activist from Los Angeles and a founding leader of IfNotNow, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation. Twitter: @simonerzim