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Old blue eyes and new blue eyes

Ahed Tamimi: Image: Haim Schwarczenberg/Wikimedia Commons

Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960) is a despicable film, crude propaganda for the Israelis and wicked slander of the Palestinians. But its power over generations of North Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, is incalculable. Ask anyone over a certain age how they envision (or would like to envision) Israel and Israelis and they will cite Exodus--the movie and/or the Leon Uris novel from which it sprang.

There is one scene in particular that merits mention almost sixty years later.

Paul Newman, a Jewish-American actor and then Hollywood heartthrob, with dusty brown hair and famous blue eyes, plays the hero Ari Ben-Canaan, a Jewish intelligence operative of the Mossad LeAliyah Bet. He is working clandestinely within the ranks of the British army in Palestine in the late 1940s to bring as many Holocaust survivors there as possible even as the British try to send them back to DP camps. Ben-Canaan masquerades as a British officer, Rowan.

Here is the dialogue between Newman and actor Peter Lawford, playing the anti-Semitic British Major Caldwell. Caldwell (Lawford) has just signed an order sending truckloads of Jews back to Hamburg, Germany and he starts to rant against the Jews. Rowan (Newman) pretends to commiserate with him.

Lawford: But they are troublemakers.

Newman: No question about it.

Lawford: And half of them are communists anyway.

Newman: Yes, and the other half are pawnbrokers.

Lawford: They look funny, too. I can spot one a mile away.

Newman: Would you mind looking into my, eye sir? It feels like a cinder.

Lawford: Mmm, certainly. (Up close, he looks directly into Newman's blue eyes.) You know, a lot of them try to hide under Gentile names. But one look at that face, you just know.

Newman: With a little experience, you can even smell them out.

Lawford: I'm sorry, Rowan, I can't see a thing.

Newman: It must be my imagination. Thanks.

In his bigoted blindness, the Lawford character cannot imagine that a Jew could look like Paul Newman. And the Newman character mocks him mercilessly to the audience.

I remember watching the scene as an adolescent and laughing with great satisfaction with the audience at the stupidity of the British and the anti-Semites.

That scene came back to me full-force recently. In effect, we have come full circle.

Blond-haired, blue-eyed Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi was arrested after slapping an Israeli soldier. The soldier and his colleagues had just raided her village Nabi Saleh and her home in the middle of the night (as they do frequently.) An hour before the slap, Ahed's cousin Mohammed, 15, had been shot in the head at short range with a rubber-coated bullet by the Israeli military. (He barely survived, after six hours of surgery, with his head now grossly misshapen.)

Her uncle Rushdi had been killed in a volley of 80 bullets during a protest in 2013. Hundreds of others have been injured and almost 200 detained or imprisoned (including her parents many times) for protesting the seizure of their lands and a fresh water spring by a Jewish settlement, Halamish. Her immediate family and she herself have been intrepid campaigners against the Israeli occupation and have been on the Israeli radar for some time.

That the iconic and photogenic Ahed has blue eyes and a full mane of curly blond hair (like the white "girl next door") apparently drives Israelis crazy.

Israel's Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for Ahed to "spend the rest of her days in prison." Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev called the girl's slap "damaging to the honour of the military and the state of Israel." Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said "whoever goes wild during the day, will be arrested at night." An Israeli journalist wrote "in the case of the girls, we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras." That sounds alarmingly like a form of violation.

But what takes the cake for Israeli paranoia and stupidity (or perhaps merely black ops) is the report In Ha'aretz that two years ago the Tamimi family was subject to a secret investigation. It was carried out by a "classified subcommittee" of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and included ascertaining whether they were "a real family" or "not genuine, and was specially put together for propaganda" purposes. The committee wanted to know whether "members of the family were chosen for their appearance--blond, blue-eyed and light-skinned…" The committee also questioned the way the people in Nabi Saleh dress, with logo-ed T-shirts and baseball caps on backward. "It was all prepared," it suggested. "It's what's known as Pallywood." (Pallywood is the scornful Israeli assessment of American news outlets' interest in Palestinian suffering.) The secret committee was dubious about the fact that many people in Nabi Saleh joined the Tamimis in their resistance to occupation.

Behind this "investigation" is Michael Oren, now deputy minister responsible for diplomacy in Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's office. Oren was formerly Israeli ambassador to the U.S., who famously told American audiences that Christian Palestinians were emigrating due to harassment by their Muslim compatriots. (Christians quickly refuted this, insisting that harassment by the Israeli occupiers was responsible.)

What was the conclusion of the investigation into the authenticity of the Tamimi family? Oren reported that it "didn't reach unequivocal conclusions." Parsing these weasel words, the Tamimi family could just be actors hired to play a role, or they could be authentic. Who knows? If the purpose was not to come to any definitive conclusions, but to sow doubt about the most prominent recent incident of the Palestinian resistance, well then, mission accomplished.

I suspect that the article in Ha'aretz was not so much investigative reporting as a carefully placed piece of deliberate Israeli deception. I have heard of some Israeli supporters insisting that Tamimi's dark-skinned, hijab-wearing mother, Nariman, is really Swedish. None are so blind as those who wish to be deceived. (Even if Nariman were Swedish, would that alter the reality of the Palestinian predicament one iota?)

In fact, anyone with an ounce of knowledge about the Palestinians (and that includes Israeli diplomats and intelligence officers) knows that the Palestinian population comes in a wide range of colours and appearances. Some of them even look like Paul Newman. Just like some Jews.

Ben Ehrenreich, an American journalist who studied Nabi Saleh and the Tamimi family closely in his book The Way to the Spring (Penguin, 2016) has this to say:

"Unavoidably, she is blonde and light-skinned and light-eyed ... A great deal of work goes into 'othering' Palestinians, to casting them as some really recognizable other… but when suddenly the kid doesn't fit into those stereotypes -- when she actually looks like a European kid or an American kid -- then suddenly all that work of dehumanization can't function, and she can't be 'othered' in the same way. And then people freak out."

One thing the Tamimi incident shows is how racist Israeli society (and, by implication, much of the pro-Israeli contingent outside Israel) has become. Coming at a time when Israel is frantically seeking to deport African non-Jewish migrants while turning a blind eye to white non-Jewish migrants, and when nearly half of Jewish Israelis say they believe in the forced transfer of their Arab fellow-citizens, the discourse about Tamimi is particularly frightening.

Perhaps, instead of slapping the soldier, Ahed Tamimi should have asked him to look at a cinder in her eye.

Larry Haiven is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

Image: Haim Schwarczenberg/Wikimedia Commons

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