Rasmea Odeh was one month old when her family fled from their home in Lifta, a village outside Jerusalem. By February 1948, the Zionist army had destroyed Lifta and expelled its residents as part of its strategy to take control of Jerusalem. Odeh grew up as a refugee in Ramallah in the West Bank, which she saw come under occupation by the Israeli army in 1967.
When she was 21, in 1969, Odeh was arrested in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers at her home, and for twenty-five days her interrogators tortured her. She was beaten from head to toe with sticks and metal bars; her body, including genitalia and breasts, was subjected to electric shocks after she was forced to watch a male prisoner tortured to death in this very way. All the while, she was told she would die if she did not confess. But it was not until they brought in her father, threatening to force him to rape her, that she agreed to sign a confession stating that she had helped orchestrate two explosions in West Jerusalem that killed two civilians. Even then, her torturers raped her with a thick wooden stick.
Standing before a military court less than one month later, Odeh renounced the confession. But the panel of judges ignored that, and Odeh was sentenced to ten years plus life in prison. Ten years later, she was released in a prisoner exchange, along with seventy-five other Palestinians. That same year, in 1979, Odeh traveled to Geneva, where she described to the United Nations precisely how she came to be convicted of terrorism by Israel. In the years following, Odeh lived in Lebanon and Jordan, where she obtained a law degree. In 1995 she immigrated to the United States, joining her brother and father, both US citizens, and the large Arab-American communities in Detroit and, later, Chicago.
Here Rasmea Odeh would continue the work she began as a young woman: working with other Arab women to organize around principles of social and economic justice. She became the associate director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in 2007, having established in the previous year the Arab Women’s Committee, through which she helped Arabic-speaking immigrants learn English and acclimate to their lives in the American Midwest. In May 2013, at age 66, Odeh was given the Mosaic Award for Outstanding Community Leadership from the Chicago Cultural Alliance, an association of cultural centers and ethnic museums in the Chicago area.
From time to time after coming to the United States, Odeh would speak publicly about her treatment in Israeli custody before and after her conviction. But when she filled out her N-400 Application for Naturalization in 2004—after living and working for a decade in the United States—she did not divulge these things in her answers to the four questions that probe applicants’ past brushes with the “law.” Nor, as US prosecutors now allege, did she correct the oversight when she conducted her final interview with immigration officials before they granted her US citizenship later that year.