They Called Me a Lioness: Critiquing ‘freedom fighter’ Tamimi - review

The book resides comfortably in what could be called the faux-naïf mode of anti-Zionist rhetoric, with its saccharine portrayal of a humble and bucolic Palestinian society.

 AHED TAMIMI enters an Israeli military courtroom at Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, in 2018.  (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
AHED TAMIMI enters an Israeli military courtroom at Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, in 2018.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Ahed Tamimi, who gained a measure of notoriety in 2017 when she was captured on video lightly pummeling two Israeli soldiers near her family’s West Bank home, has published a memoir, They Called Me a Lioness. The book resides comfortably in what could be called the faux-naïf mode of anti-Zionist rhetoric, with its saccharine portrayal of a humble and bucolic Palestinian society where the olive trees are all lush, the children all innocent, and the way of life undisturbed for centuries – until, of course, the soldiers arrive.

To be sure, Tamimi’s accounts of the harassment, invasions of privacy and violence visited upon her by Israeli soldiers in her village of Nabi Saleh are disturbing and deeply saddening – particularly when her mother, cousin and little brother are wounded in stone-throwing clashes with the soldiers, when her father is repeatedly arrested, and when a beloved uncle and another family member are killed by live rounds. Tamimi herself served eight months in jail for striking the soldiers.

But a viral video offers no context and, indeed, no meaningful content at all. It isn’t even clear, upon viewing the video, if it makes the soldiers – who make no effort to strike Tamimi back – look weak or, instead, restrained and professional. (Neither interpretation supports Tamimi’s characterization of the Israeli soldier as a heartless brute.) And the video certainly does nothing to explain how things came to this pass – why, in other words, the soldiers are in Tamimi’s village to begin with. 

Thus the need for a book to explain it all. But as an attempt to help the reader understand this complex conflict, They Called Me a Lioness fails comprehensively.

Ahed Tamimi next to a large Palestinian monument  (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)Ahed Tamimi next to a large Palestinian monument (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

A comprehensive failure in explaining the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict

THE FAILURE begins with Tamimi’s attempts to relate the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which in her telling is wholly and unreservedly the fault of the Israelis.

Like so many other tendentious accounts of the formation of Israel, Tamimi switches to the passive voice whenever she touches on a part of that history where the Arabs might look like something other than innocent victims or, at worst, little children throwing little stones. Thus, in describing the attempted war of extermination against the nascent State of Israel, Tamimi notes in passing that “violence erupted between the two groups immediately after the [partition] plan was approved.” She makes it sound no more premeditated than a natural disaster – as though it were a volcano that attacked the new nation of Israel, and not Arab militias and, later, the massed armies of eight Arab nations. 

Just a page further on, she notes that “Israel captured even more Palestinian land in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war” – the beginning and nearly the end of her discussion of that consequential conflict, leading an ill-informed reader to conclude that it occurred ex nihilo and wasn’t, in fact, another attempt to perpetrate a second Holocaust against the State of Israel.

When it comes to choice adjectives like “brutal” and “inhuman,” it is only the actions of the Israelis that are described thus; anything the Arab nations ever did is swaddled, in her telling, in fine Egyptian cotton.

Far worse, because it is actively hypocritical and not merely evasive, is her panegyric to Jerusalem and the “rich diversity found in the historic quarters inhabited by Palestinians of African, Moroccan and Armenian descent, a reminder of how many people traveled from afar to make the magnificent capital their home.” This doe-eyed passage occurs within the very same pages that excoriate Israel for doing the very same thing, welcoming immigrants from all over the world (including, it should be noted, those from the Arab nations that expelled them).

It is when Tamimi – who wants to become a leading voice on behalf of the Palestinian cause – turns from the past to the future that her insincerity and false innocence become even more grating. Her vision, she proclaims, “is for us to live in a single democratic state where everyone is equal, Muslim, Christian and Jew.” This is possible, she believes, because “historically, Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted prior to Israel’s establishment, living side by side as neighbors and friends.” Again, the soft blanket descends, obscuring the dhimmi laws; the forced conversions; the Hakim edict; and the bloody pogroms in Hebron, Safed and Tiberias that the Muslims inflicted on their Jewish “friends.”

Tamimi’s discussion of terrorism is too smugly hypocritical to bear much scrutiny. Gaza was bombed for no good reason; Acre was simply “taken” by Israel in 1948; a Palestinian terrorist killed after an actual stabbing attack was “allegedly planning” the attack; the people of her village “read Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi,” but Tamimi and her mother “paid tribute to Yasser Arafat by placing a wreath at his tombstone and silently reciting a prayer.... I felt a surge of pride and strength as I honored our fallen leader.” She makes a fleeting reference to suicide bombings, and blandly notes that “many Palestinians, including my parents, criticized this form of resistance.” Later in the book, Tamimi herself seems, albeit ambiguously, to endorse these attacks.

The word “freedom” is employed more times in this book, seemingly, than any other words besides “a” and “the.” Yet the word is always used in the context of “freedom from” Israeli occupation and hardly ever in the context of “freedom to.”

TAMIMI ISN’T much of a pundit, but when she sticks to her painful personal experiences, her memoir is affecting and heartfelt, if at times a bit self-lionizing. Tamimi is an intelligent and courageous young woman who has witnessed a great deal of suffering. It’s easy to imagine how much more effective her leadership of the Palestinian cause would be if she broadened her viewpoint to encompass an understanding of her antagonists and, as well, the fact that much of her fellow Palestinians’ suffering has been self-inflicted. 

For those who wish merely to sympathize (and sometimes that is enough), this memoir serves its purpose fairly well. But for those who hope to better understand the reason that Israelis and Palestinians glare at one another with such mutual hostility and suspicion, and why there is so much violence coming from both sides, this book will just not do.  

They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for FreedomBy Ahed Tamimi and Dena TakruriOne World, an imprint of Random House274 pages; $27.00