March 11, 2015

Rasmea Odeh should be honored, not imprisoned

by Ramah Kudaimi

I remember distinctly the experience that pushed me to decide I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place. In 2009, I spent the year working at the Arab American Action Network in Chicago and had the opportunity to interact with so many amazing individuals who were committed to working for positive social change. 

One of these people was Rasmea Odeh, a 67-year-old Palestinian American activist and torture survivor who is currently facing prison time after being found guilty of “unlawful procurement of citizenship” for not indicating on her naturalization application that she had been unjustly imprisoned by the state of Israel back in 1969. 

It was an honor to work with Rasmea every day. She commanded respect from everyone. When I would go to Arab Women’s Committee (AWC) events, a project that Rasmea established, it was always moving to hear immigrant and refugee women talk about how Rasmea’s leadership created a context where they could find a sense of community connecting and adjusting to life in the United States. 

Rasmea supported these women by organizing activities ranging from English classes, to discussions on how to deal with anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to writing workshops to help them cope with the traumas of war, displacement and re-settlement. 

“Rasmea is a valuable and lovely icon for us and for the entire community,” Maysoon Gharbieh, a member of the 600-strong AWC, recently said. “She works without reward or personal profit. All she cares about is supporting and protecting us and our families. Her ultimate goal is to help develop families that are educated, active and effective in contributing to keeping the community and the country safe for all who live here.”

When I moved to Washington, D.C., I took many lessons I learned from Rasmea with me, especially the importance of strengthening one’s local community and giving them the tools to transform their lives. This impact she has on anyone she meets is a major reason why, when she was unfairly convicted in November 2014, thousands of people across the country were both heartbroken and infuriated. 

Here is a woman who was sexually tortured by the state of Israel in 1969 for 25 days and forced to confess to planting bombs that killed two people, a confession she later withdrew, but due to the unfairness and bias of the Israeli military justice system, she spent 10 years in prison. 

Here is a woman who rebuilt her life in the United States despite the horrific experiences of her earlier years. She has been recognized by everybody who encountered her for her commitment to women’s rights. She is a woman who should be honored as an example of human resilience and the power of personal perseverance. 

Instead, the U.S. government brought these trumped up charges against her nearly 10 years after she had become a citizen. The trial judge refused to allow her to testify about her torture despite it being important to contextualize her “conviction” by Israel, and she is being made into the latest example of U.S. repression against Palestinian activists dedicated to the struggle for freedom and equality.

Is it not bad enough that the U.S. government funds Israel’s 47-year-long brutal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem with $3 billion a year in military aid, that it supports the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel as second-class citizens, and that it backs Israel’s continued denial of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homeland? Must it also criminalize Palestinians in the United States who are active in seeking justice, whether it is for their communities here or abroad? 

It has been inspirational to witness how Rasmea has dealt with everything that has happened to her. After her conviction, she told her supporters who had traveled from all over the country to be with her during her trial in Detroit: “There is justice in this world. We will find it.” 

Judge Gershwin Drain can help Rasmea start finding some justice by keeping her out of prison and allowing her to continue what she has done for so long: empowering her community.  


Ramah Kudaimi works for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and is a board member of the Washington Peace Center.