Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Was Ben Ehrenreich Bamboozled By a Palestinian Terror Clan?

Relatives of the mastermind of a restaurant suicide bombing on August 9, 2001 become sympathetic subjects of a highly praised new book

Petra Marquardt-Bigman
August 08, 2016
Photo by PalFest Flickr
Festival participant Ben Ehrenreich reads at a public event in the Municipal Library Gardens on May 25, 2016 in Nablus, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature. Photo by PalFest Flickr
Photo by PalFest Flickr
Festival participant Ben Ehrenreich reads at a public event in the Municipal Library Gardens on May 25, 2016 in Nablus, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature. Photo by PalFest Flickr

“Fire was lit in the body / Don’t just stand by perplexed / Remember the day the restaurant burned / Remember the day the roof flew away / What prevents honor from returning? / What prevents the rebels from laughing?” These are the first lines from a rhyme by Ahlam Tamimi, the proud mastermind of a bombing targeting a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem 15 years ago, on Aug. 9, 2001. The terror attack claimed the lives of seven children and eight adults, including a pregnant woman; 130 people suffered injuries; one young mother was left in a permanent vegetative state.

When Ahlam Tamimi posted her ghastly commemorative rhyme last September on her Facebook page—which is adorned with images of the suicide bomber who carried out the attack—she didn’t just wax nostalgic about a massacre of civilians she had planned and helped to perpetrate. She went on to urge Palestinians to intensify the wave of terror attacks that was just beginning: “Try and plan / Try and carry out / Prepare the [explosive] mix / Take the axe / What’s the plan?” One of the well over 100 “likes” for her incitement came from Tamimi’s Facebook friend and relative Nariman Tamimi—a person whom readers of Ben Ehrenreich’s widely praised new book The Way to the Spring got to know as an admirable activist, a devoted mother, a loving wife, and a gracious host.

Nariman Tamimi and her husband, Bassem, are the first people Ehrenreich lists in his acknowledgements, thanking them profusely for their “abundant help, generosity, hospitality, kindness, laughter, encouragement, insights, and wise counsel.” A raft of highly positive reviews of the book attest to Ehrenreich’s ability to transmit his affection for the Tamimis: The New York Times described Ehrenreich’s book as a moving “love letter to Palestine” that is full of “heartbreaking and eye-opening” stories; similarly, The Economist praised Ehrenreich’s “elegant and moving account” and emphasized that “[it] is in the author’s descriptions of the Tamimis that the hope, and the love, are to be found.”

For the families of the victims of the Sbarro bombing, it must be bitter to know that on the 15th anniversary of this atrocity a well-regarded American writer is successfully promoting a book that paints a glowing picture of the perpetrator’s relatives, who are to this day openly supportive of terror attacks, including the murders that Ahlam and other Tamimi family members were directly involved in.

As I have shown in detailed documentation based on researching publicly available social media posts and other material where the Tamimis express their views, the clan is adept at cultivating the image of “nonviolent” activists without really trying to hide their outspoken support for terrorism. Nariman Tamimi’s Facebook “like” for Ahlam Tamimi’s rousing call for more terror attacks was by no means an isolated example. To the contrary, Nariman’s Facebook page provides a steady stream of posts and interactions with friends and family that leave little doubt about the Tamimi family’s enthusiasm for terror: Nariman has repeatedly promoted posts by Ahlam Tamimi that incite and glorify terror attacks; she has also posted graphic instructions on where to aim a knife to ensure a lethal outcome in a stabbing attack, and there are countless posts on her page celebrating news about terror attacks. One particularly shocking example includes the recent murder of a 13-year-old Jewish girl, which Nariman Tamimi marked by sharing a relative’s Facebook post that honored the teenage Palestinian terrorist and hailed the lethal stabbing of the victim sleeping in her bed at home as a heroic act that helped “to restore to the homeland its reverence.”

Nariman Tamimi/Facebook
Nariman Tamimi/Facebook

The Tamimis have never made a secret of their ambition to start a “third intifada,” and they have never concealed their conviction that all means are legitimate in the pursuit of their political aims. Just last year, Israeli media reported that Nariman Tamimi defended the Sbarro pizzeria bombing once again as “an integral part of the struggle,” declaring firmly: “Everyone fights in the manner in which he believes. There is armed uprising, and there is popular uprising. I support every form of uprising.”

It is important to understand that the Tamimis see their “struggle” not just as a fight against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state in any borders. Because one might expect that open support for terror and the ambition to physically eliminate a UN member state are the kinds of opinions that remain beyond the pale for writers who hope to receive plaudits from The New York Times and the Economist, it is fair to assume that Ehrenreich must have been bamboozled by his subjects or is unable to read basic Arabic—neither one of which reflects particularly well on the likelihood of him having achieved a more advanced form of journalistic truth.

It is obviously also possible that Ehrenreich knew about the Tamimis’ political leanings. Not unlike the Tamimis, Ehrenreich has long believed that “Zionism is the problem,” as he explained in a 2009 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. When it comes to the methods the Tamimis support in order to solve this “problem,” it is certainly disingenuous to ask—as Ehrenreich does—if there is “no form of Palestinian resistance so innocuous that it wouldn’t be condemned.” There is absolutely nothing “innocuous” about the Tamimis’ ardent support for terror and their equally ardent Jew-hatred. (Ehrenreich declined to comment for this article.)

To be sure, much of the more revolting stuff that the Tamimis put out is expressed in social media postings written in Arabic; but the output of Manal Tamimi, who also features in Ehrenreich’s book and who represents the family in broken English on Twitter under the fitting handle @screamingtamimi, provides an easily accessible glimpse of the hatred and extremism that animates the minds of Ehrenreich’s chosen protagonists. Scrolling through Manal’s tweets will reveal countless posts cheering terror attacks, interspersed with gleeful, ghoulish commentaries on scenes from Israeli funerals; there are numerous posts denouncing Israel’s army, politicians, and all “Zionists” as Nazi-like and satanic; there are repeated calls for Israel’s demise, and anti-Semitic outbursts and images about “God’s Chosen Psychopaths” and Jewish holy days like Yom Kippur, when “Vampire zionist [are] celebrating … by drinking Palestinian bloods [sic],” which is “pure & delicious but it will kill u at the end.”

Why Ehrenreich chose to transform a family of ghoulish terror fans and practitioners into exemplars of “generosity, hospitality, kindness, laughter, encouragement, insights and wise counsel” is anyone’s guess: Maybe he just liked them. But it is important to emphasize that there is nothing private or secretive about any of the Tamimi family postings, which were made on social media with the explicit purpose of being shared as widely as possible. Ehrenreich’s decision to present the Tamimis as a model of loving kindness may be a better choice than the family’s own narrative when it comes to appealing to Western readers and book reviewers, but it doesn’t speak particularly well for his integrity as a journalist.

Nor are the Tamimis exactly an unknown quantity outside Palestinian circles. When Bassem Tamimi was called out for sharing similarly disgusting material on his Facebook page last fall by Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg, he eventually decided to delete the post. Manal Tamimi seems to feel less concern about her family’s carefully cultivated image, and she reacted with defiant pride when she learned that I had documented some of her hate-filled outpourings, advising anyone who might object to her views to simply ignore them. Even when an obviously well-meaning Twitter user once protested that Tamimi had posted “a picture of Nazism [sic]” and argued that “the Palestinians are more honorable than the Nazis, they are defending their land and their freedom,” Manal Tamimi responded: “The important thing is the idea, we the Palestinians are the ones who are going to teach Israel a lesson, we are going to hurt them and we will achieve victory over them as well.” The image in question [archived here] shows a Nazi figure beating up a hideous animal-like Jew. A more recent example from Manal Tamimi shows Satan begging Netanyahu to teach him “all arts of lying, deception, cheating, and incitement,” which is apparently taken from a post titled “Devil Visits Jew.”

 Manal Tamimi/Twitter
 Manal Tamimi/Twitter

In the introduction to his book, Ehrenreich acknowledges that he was not trying to be objective—a curious claim to journalistic virtue, which passes muster only in cases when the bad guy is already agreed upon. Yet it is rather ironic that the author also decries “[the] exclusion of discomforting and inconvenient narratives.” There are certainly lots of very discomforting and inconvenient facts that he excluded in order to present the Tamimis as eminently likable people who are fighting for a just cause with admirable spirit and tenacity. And because the book has been praised as a “love letter to Palestine,” it is perhaps even more discomforting and inconvenient that the Tamimis’ enthusiastic support for terrorism and their unshakable conviction that it is legitimate to kill and maim families having lunch at a Jerusalem pizzeria is depressingly representative of the views of an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, as extensive survey data going back nearly two decades clearly show.

Romanticizing what the Palestinians like to call “resistance” adds insult to injury for the families of the victims of Palestinian terrorism—and it does nothing whatsoever to bring peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians closer. And just as Israel is the world’s only state “whose existence it is acceptable to oppose in polite company,” supporters of terrorism against Israelis are probably the only terror supporters who can be transformed by journalistic fiat into the likable protagonists of a bestselling and widely praised book.


(Translations of Arabic texts courtesy of Ibn Boutros.) Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Petra Marquardt-Bigman is a German-Israeli researcher and writer with a doctorate in contemporary history.