(January 25) – The four members of Ahed Tamimi’s family who are not in detention were amused to hear that the Knesset had conducted an investigation into whether the Tamimis are a real family.
“No one ever asked us if we were a real family,” said Bassem Tamimi, the father of Ahed, who was arrested last month with her mother and cousin and charged with assaulting soldiers for slapping them on the grounds of their home while her mother filmed the scene. When he read that a secret Knesset subcommittee had looked into and discussed the issue, he burst out laughing. “I thought – how can this be?” he said. “Is this the level the occupation has reached? The proof of our existence here can be found way, way, way before the State of Israel.”
The Tamimis say they’ve lived in Nabi Saleh for hundreds of years, and had lived in the Hebron area for hundreds of years before that. “During the 1960s a reporter asked my uncle how long we are here. My uncle replied, ‘My family sat under that mulberry tree when Adam came to Eve and saw her eating from the Tree of Knowledge.’ My family is of Christian origin. We came here before Islam,” said Bassem. His ancestors settled in Hebron and became Muslims there, “and came to Nabi Saleh 300 to 400 years ago.”
Mahmoud, one of Ahed’s younger brothers, raised Deputy Minister Michael Oren’s suspicions over his identity because he appeared at some protests with a cast on his right hand, at others with a cast on his left hand. Mahmoud told Haaretz that he had broken both hands at different times, and seemed somewhat insulted by Oren’s suspicions.
But to the Tamimi family, the real insult was the questioning of the family’s history. Every family member asked about the possibility that they weren’t a “real family” launched into a lecture about the family history, which they say goes back 1,500 years all over the country, of which the last few hundred were in Nabi Saleh. According to Bassem, all the residents of Nabi Saleh are part of the Tamimi family. His wife, a native of Saudi Arabia, is also descended from the family, he says. Several family members, including Bassem, Faraj, Bassem’s second cousin, and Mahmoud, the son of Bassem’s sister who was killed, all say the family was originally Christian but became Muslim some 1,500 years ago.
For an eloquent photo essay on Ahed, see Sighting: A Lioness of Palestine, December 29, 2013 on this website
Naji Tamimi is Bassem’s cousin and the father of Nur Tamimi, who was arrested together with Ahed but has since been released, although she has been charged with being involved in slapping of the soldiers. He is an expert in the family’s history. “Our ancestors were here 1,400-1,500 years ago in Hebron. In Hebron the Tamimis were a big family. It then left Hebron to go northward, and around 300 to 350 years ago it was in the Ramallah area.
“In Nabi Saleh there are 550-600 [people whose family name is Tamimi] and in Ramallah another hundred or so,” Naji said. “Since during the Second Intifada it was hard to go back and forth every day – it would take more than two hours to get to Ramallah – but they have homes here [in Nabi Saleh]. For the weekends, something like that. Outside Palestine there are almost 500 in Jordan and the United States.”
Ask Naji Tamimi about his family’s history in the village and he begins a detailed lecture about all the battles and protests in the region that family members were part of. He said relatives fought against the emerging State of Israel during the War of Independence and were wounded in the Jerusalem-area battles with the forces of Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini. He said that during the 1970s there were also protests in the area of the village, and that the current “wave of protests” in the region began in 2009.
Many Tamimis indeed have fair skin and hair, but certainly not all of them. Mahmoud, Bassem’s nephew, laughed and said he didn’t want to be photographed because “I’m not blond.” When he finally agreed to identify himself as a Tamimi before the cameras he said, “Maybe I should buy blue contact lenses first.”
He, like the others, thought the idea that the family members are actors was hilarious. When he called other family members to come and be photographed, he said they might have to wait a bit “because we have to get in touch with our agent first.”
Morad, another relative, suggested that Michael Oren might have run into family members in New York. “Maybe he bought a melon from them; ask if he met any blond fruit-sellers,” he said.
Attorney Gaby Lasky is representing Ahed, her mother, Nuriman, and Nur in the current legal proceedings and knows the family for many years. “I started working with them years ago. I once represented the father and the mother.”
She said the report on the Knesset probe made her feel “shame and worry. Worry, because the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is an important Knesset committee, which is supposed to ensure the security of the state and not deal with outlandish conspiracy theories. And shame that an MK, today a deputy minister who is responsible for diplomacy, is revealed to be a kind of racist who can’t accept that a Palestinian who doesn’t wear a galabiya can be real.
If Oren thinks that she [Ahed] isn’t a real person, then maybe we should summon him to court to give testimony. How can you prosecute people who aren’t real? It’s weird.”
All the members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who responded to Haaretz’s inquiry about the discussion of the Tamimi family said they couldn’t recall such a discussion, except for one who said he remembered such a debate “vaguely” and doesn’t recall the security forces confirming a suspicion that the Tamimis weren’t a real family. The security agencies would not comment officially on the issue, with two security sources saying they were not familiar with any such investigation into the Tamimis’ authenticity. One said the idea sounded ridiculous.
That Oren nonetheless raised such suspicions made Bassem Tamimi laugh. “How did such a fool get to be your ambassador to the United States?” he asked. “How does the State of Israel allow such a thing? If that’s your elite, I’m not sure how you manage to beat us. If we were Christians we would say it’s one of the signs that the Armageddon is coming. The fourth strongest army in the world is afraid of a family and a girl. That’s not serious. When your enemy is angry and nervous, it means you’re on the right track.”
The undiplomatic ex-diplomat: What in the world has happened to Michael Oren?
The Israeli deputy minister who now entertains conspiracy theories about Ahed Tamimi’s family not being “real” was once allegedly a respected Zionist historian and artful diplomat. Something went horribly wrong, although Allison Kaplan Sommer in Haaretz portrays him as a rogue element rather than a common everyday thug.
(January 25) – Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a highly respected Israeli ambassador to the United States named Michael Oren. A talented and articulate former historian, he was a popular figure in DC circles for the length of his stint from 2009-2013, a frequent face on network television, invited to all the right dinner parties.
A flattering 2012 profile in the New York Times portrayed him skillfully “working rooms all over town” as he navigated the stormy seas of the US-Israel relationship, making the New Jersey native the highest-profile Israeli with an American accent since Golda Meir.
Today’s Michael Oren, now a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and head of public diplomacy, is an utterly different, and often unrecognizable person altogether. In recent months, he has advocated changing Israel Defense Forces directives so that soldiers be “ordered to shoot to kill, not neutralize” terrorists and called for “evicting” the United Nations from its Jerusalem headquarters.
But the real shocker came with the Alex Jones-level race-based conspiracy theorizing that appeared in his interview to Haaretz this week. In his comments, which Oren has previously posted about on Twitter and Facebook, he entertains the conspiracy theory that the Tamimi family, the Nabi Saleh activist clan whose children regularly join in highly publicized protests of the Israeli occupation, incorporates “Pallywood” blond actors who are only pretending to be a family of committed Palestinian activists, deliberately costumed in clothing that Americans could relate to like backwards baseball caps.
Some trace the recent Oren weirdness to autumn 2016, when the combination of Oren landing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in a cabinet reshuffle and Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House inspired him to drink the hard-line Kool-aid.
Something obviously shifted then. Shortly after he began his new job, Oren released a bizarre video New Year’s message called “Israel – The Antidote for Neo-Paganism,” in which he confessed that as a “weird kid” he had “conversations with God.” He then launched into what appeared to be a bid to appeal to the Christian evangelical audience, bemoaning the fact that the “universal morality of the Old Testament” was being threatened by “neo-paganism.” The televangelist style video was ridiculed as embarrassing and surreal on social media.
At that point, Oren had already burned bridges in the run-up publicity for his memoir “Ally” in 2015. Comments about Barack Obama he penned in Foreign Policy Magazine speculating the president sought approval from Muslims after being “abandoned” by two Muslim fathers were slammed by then Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman, as “veer(ing) into the realm of conspiracy theories,” while Vox called them “soft birtherism.”
The negative portrayal of the Obama administration’s Israel policy in his memoir severed Oren’s friendship with then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro. Shapiro was furious at what he saw as a personal betrayal by Oren, so much so that the head of Oren’s party apologized to Shapiro. Oren was unapologetic.
Oren’s allies are quick to defend him. “There’s a clear difference between being an ambassador and being a politician,” his chief of staff, Hila Netaneli, told me. “When you’re a diplomat, your job is to build bridges and look for points of agreement and compromise. As a politician, you have to take a stand.”
Author Yossi Klein HaLevi, a fellow at the Hartman Institute and Oren’s close friend, acknowledged that his friend was “not predictable” and that his style has evolved over the years, attributing his recent outbursts to scars still carried from his Washington days.
His justification? “Eight years of Obama was devastating to Michael. When he was there, he experienced relentless attempts to undermine the US-Israel relationship from the highest levels,” says HaLevi. The Iran nuclear deal “was a watershed for him. He believes our greatest ally has placed us in the most precarious position we have been in since 1973,” when Israel was caught by surprise by the Arab attacks that launched the Yom Kippur war.
Fair enough, but it doesn’t explain the spiky undiplomatic tone of what is emanating from Oren’s social media accounts and in the Haaretz interview, where he joked that his Knesset office had nicknamed the Tamimis “the Brady Bunch” when they were investigating their genetic authenticity.
So what is the matter with Michael Oren? Those who know him say the proper diagnosis is the standard political cocktail of ambition, narcissism and need for approval – in his case, the approval of Netanyahu, Trump, and the right-wing religious Christian evangelical community. He may have decided that fire-breathing tweets and disturbing racial innuendo that earn him scorn from the media and the left are the path to success. At least, they keep him in the headlines and distract the public from the fact that his legislative accomplishments are few and far between and he has yet to show a taste or talent for grassroots political activity.
In one of the more satiric reactions to his questioning of the Tamimi family’s authenticity the left-wing website +972’s editor-in-chief Michael Omer-Man launched a farcical investigation culminating in an article titled: “Is Michael Oren a ‘real’ person?”
His investigator, he wrote, looked into the question of whether, like the Tamimis, Oren was artificially concocted: chosen for his appearance – grey-haired, blue-eyed and light-skinned. “Also clothing. A real costume. Israeli dress in every respect, not American, with an unbuttoned shirt. Even Floridians don’t wear their collars like that,” Omer-Man’s investigator presumably told him. “It was all contrived. It’s what’s known as Hasbarollywood.” (Presumably the pro-Israel propagandist’s answer to “Pallywood”)
The website article’s fake conclusion – that Oren is actually a real person, but one onto whom “bits of crazy” were artificially “annexed” over the past year or so – actually feels surprisingly close to the real-life reactions of many people who knew, or thought they knew, the former ambassador.