Opposition to “normalization” of relationships with Israeli Jews is a central credo of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement.
Within that movement, the influential Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has defined acceptable and unacceptable Arab-Jewish initiatives in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere. PACBI calls for boycotting projects “designed to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israeli Jews so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation, ‘overcoming barriers,’ etc., without addressing the root causes of injustice and the requirements of justice.”1
To avoid PACBI’s blacklist, joint projects must be about “co-resistance” rather than “co-existence.” Participants must also endorse, in advance, the struggle for the “rights” endorsed by the BDS movement, including an unconditional Palestinian “right of return.”
In other words, Jews and Arabs need to accept and support every PACBI position before they can start talking to each other and working together. This approach is very counterproductive, because it discourages support from Diaspora and Israeli Jews sympathetic to Palestinian rights. Consequently, it diminishes, rather than increases, the likelihood of ending Israel’s occupation and creating a Palestinian state.
Normalization has long been a sensitive matter for many Palestinians under occupation, and for other Palestinians and their supporters. Critiques from Jews and others must be offered with an understanding that Israel’s policies and actions have created deep-seated resentment and anger that engendered support for the anti-normalization movement.
That said, progressive activists in the West who desire to help both Palestinians and Israelis should listen to the call from other Arabs in Israel and Palestine, as well as their Jewish partners, who strongly object to anti-normalization and need our help as they work together for a better future for both peoples.
DISTORTING THE NATURE OF PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE ACTIVITIES
Anti-normalization activists object to a broad range of “people-to-people” initiatives in Israel and Palestine, dismissing them as feel-good programs that have no political impact and sustain the status quo. The Alliance for Middle East Peace — an umbrella group of civil society activists in Israel and Palestine — rejects this view. Its former director, Joel Braunold, and its current regional director, Huda Abuarquob, issued this statement about anti-normalization:
In their effort to delegitimize coexistence programming, anti-normalization activists lampoon people-to-people activities as Israelis and Palestinians coming together to eat hummus then go home. This is an utterly false representation of the people-to-people movement today. Look at the thousands engaged by Parents Circle or Combatants for Peace, the farmers whose crops have not wasted thanks to Olive Oil Without Borders or the communities receiving fresh water owing to the work of EcoPeace. These are just a sample of thousands of people whose lives have been changed through joint programs.
Change is painfully slow and real progress does not come fast enough for those who suffer the brunt of the occupation, but these joint programs are the best hope of fundamentally changing the worldviews of those who have been fighting for generations.2
Indeed, PACBI’s narrow definition of palatable Israeli-Palestinian interaction hampers very positive political work in Israel and the occupied territories. One of its targets, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), is an anti-settlement and anti-occupation think tank run by Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews.3
Only a tiny number of Israeli Jews could pass PACBI’s rigid ideological litmus test. Excluding the rest from joint activities with Arabs hinders those who are to trying build a large scale, non-violent opposition movement, one that demands an end to the occupation, an end to violence by both sides and a viable Palestinian state.
ANTI-NORMALIZATION ON CAMPUS
BDS activists outside of Israel and Palestine have also adapted “anti-normalization.” On North American campuses, some BDS groups have shunned dialogue with pro-Israel groups.4 Efforts by pro-Israel organizations to censor pro-BDS professors are the flip side of the same coin.5 These practices, along with the rancor that often characterizes public discussions of the conflict, inhibit the free exchange of ideas and have adverse political consequences, as described by Ken Stern and Cary Nelson in “War on Campus:”
We sympathize with the students who say they are being forced to “choose sides,” when they insist they want to be both pro-Israel AND pro-Palestinian, but there is little space for them on campus. These students have a capacity for empathy…. They see the humanity and suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike. They reject the hatred that defines each people as mere roadblocks to the other’s aspirations…And they think backward from the goal (peace and national self-expression for both peoples in their own lands), and focus on how to get there, rather than on how to be extreme advocates for one side or the other.6
Carving out a space for such students—as well as faculty and others in the academic community—is important for those who want to build on-campus coalitions for peace, justice and human rights in Israel and Palestine.
OBJECTIONS TO LISTENING TO “THE OTHER“
On May 28, 2015, Jews and Arabs gathered for the annual “Jerusalem Hug” event. They wanted to walk hand in hand around the Old City to promote peace in Jerusalem. They believed in talking to one another, interacting and building trust. Their event was disrupted by Palestinian activists who said they felt compelled to “discipline the normalizers.”7 In response, Ghaith al-Omari, a former peace negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, wrote that this disruption:
demonstrates the dangers of…one-dimensional assumptions among Palestinians and Israelis, many of whom have chosen to isolate themselves in hopes of living in a simpler, more comfortable, yet fictitious world. In this alternate reality, the views of the other have no validity, their respective narratives exist unchallenged, and any discussion on Palestinian-Israeli issues quickly devolves into a futile competition of narratives and arguments. These kinds of zero-sum conversations only perpetuate the conflict and weaken the chance for a solution.8
Another example is a high-profile event organized by the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) that was disrupted by anti-normalization activists in September 2018. The PIJ is a longstanding joint effort of Palestinian and Israeli scholars, journalists, and political activists. Meticulously balanced between Palestinian and Israeli staff, it promotes peaceful coexistence and opposition to the occupation with articles and studies published in a print journal, on a website and in public conferences. As described by Hillel Schenker, the Israeli co-editor:
On September 12th, 2018, the Palestine-Israel Journal held a public event in East Jerusalem to launch an issue devoted to “Oslo 25 Years After: Realities, Challenges and Future Prospects.” A large audience of over 100 people, including the Ambassadors of Norway and Sweden, representatives from the American Embassy and Jerusalem Consulate along with internationals, Israelis and Palestinians, came to attend the event convened one day before the 25th anniversary of the actual signing which took place on the White House lawn on September 13th, 1993.
Unfortunately, after the opening remarks and the presentation by Gilead Sher [chief of staff for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, 1999-2000] in the midst of the presentation by Ziad AbuZayyad [Palestinian co-editor of the PIJ], a group of about 15-20 young primarily male Palestinians entered the room and began shouting slogans in Arabic against Palestinian-Israeli cooperation at the event, claiming to the Palestinian panelists that it was a form of “normalization” with the occupation. They continued shouting slogans while approaching the panel and smashing water glasses, and the microphones, despite the fact that the PIJ focuses its issues and activities on opposing the occupation and defending the quest for a two-state solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Given the circumstances, the organizers felt that there was no alternative but to end the conference.9
To some advocates of anti-normalization, even listening to what they call “the Zionist narrative” should be forbidden. Samah Sabawi calls Arab-Jewish dialogue “colonization of the mind” and asserts:
They try hard to convince you that both people just have two different narratives, reducing the facts to fiction and the reality to storytelling, insisting that if we hear both narratives then we’ll come to agree that the truth lies somewhere out there, in an abstract world, perhaps in a third version that is yet to be told.10
COMBINING TWO STRATEGIES
In fact, there is a “third version,” and it can be found in the essays and debates of The Third Narrative initiative. We believe the truth about this conflict lies in a grey area to which supporters of both sides rarely venture. Getting to that grey area and accepting that decent people on both sides have widely different versions of “the facts” is not only a valuable activity for those outside of Israel and Palestine; it is an essential process for Jews and Arabs in the region who must find a way to share the same narrow piece of land.
Cutting off conversation also cuts off an opportunity to persuade the Israeli people about the merits of the Palestinian cause. The late Edward Said, whom no one could accuse of trying to “normalize” the occupation, once wrote:
“Complete anti-normalization is not an effective weapon for the powerless: its symbolic value is low, and its actual effect is passive and negative…I believe we must try to penetrate the Israeli consciousness with everything at our disposal. Speaking or writing to Israeli audiences breaks their taboo against us.”11
Those who oppose normalization seem to believe there is a contradiction between supporting activities that are meant to build co-existence and strenuously opposing Israeli policies. We couldn’t disagree more strongly, and we think that both strategies should be pursued simultaneously. Civil Society organizations that foster cooperation in Israel/Palestine deserve help with a host of different projects, not vilification.
It’s vitally important to strengthen joint Arab-Jewish groups that are:
- Working together to stop Israeli settlement expansion, protesting against the occupation and trying to prevent violence. Examples include Combatants for Peace, Parents Circle-Families Forum, and Women Wage Peace, among others.
- Other groups are working to protect and save Palestinian communities endangered by the Israeli government. These organizations include Ir Amim, which focuses on East Jerusalem and the South Hebron Hills Watch, which is helping Palestinian villages that are threatened with expulsion by Israel.
- Fighting together for the civil and human rights of Israeli Arabs, such as Standing Together, the Abraham Initiatives and Sikkuy.
- Solving shared problems and creating the infrastructure of the future Palestinian state. Examples include environmental organizations helping Palestinians in the occupied territories and addressing climate change in the region, like COMET-ME and EcoPeace. Another noteworthy group is Project Rozana, which helps Palestinian doctors and nurses get specialized training in Israel and transports patients from the occupied territories who need clinical care in Israeli hospitals.
- Engaging in honest dialogue and building the trust necessary for peaceful coexistence, such as Hand in Hand and Talk Matters.
As Braunold and Abuarquob put it:
[I]f we are to see any progress in the areas of peace, coexistence, security, freedom, justice and rights, it will be on a basis that Palestinians and Israelis have a shared future. We need space to run programs that bring Israelis and Palestinians together to explore these values as one, without fear or intimidation. Jews and Arabs are either destined or doomed to share the land together. Let us work for the former to avoid the latter.12
1 Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott Of Israel, “PACBI Guidelines for the International Cultural Boycott of Israel (Revised July 2014), (http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1047).
2 Joel Braunold and Huda Abuarquob, “A Bigger Threat Than BDS: Anti-normalization,” Haaretz, July 2, 2015 (http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.664018).
3 Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott Of Israel, “Israel’s Exceptionalism: Normalizing the Abnormal” (http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1749).
4 See, for example, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, ‘Wellesley Fires Hillel Leaders Even as Anti-Israel Activism Rises,” Forward, November 21, 2014 (http://forward.com/news/israel/209671/wellesley-fires-hillel-leaders-even-as-anti israel/).
5 See, for example, Paul Berger, “Jewish Professors Hit Back Against Pro-Israel Campus Blacklist,” Forward, October 1, 2014 (http://forward.com/news/israel/206628/jewish-professors-hit-back-against-pro-israel-camp /).
6 Ken Stern and Cary Nelson, “War on Campus,” Jewish Journal, January 23, 2015 (http://forward.com/news/israel/206628/jewish-professors-hit-back-against-pro-israel-camp/).
7 Ghaith al-Omari, “Ills of Anti-normalization,” June 19, 2015, Fikra Forum.
8 Ibid, al-Omari.
9 These headlines link to articles that appeared in Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post respectively, about the incident: “Young Palestinians crash Israeli-Palestinian event marking 25 years to Oslo Accords ,“ and “Palestinian youths disrupt joint Palestine-Israel Conference.”
10 Samah Sabawi, “Colonization of the Mind: Normalize This!” Excerpts from a speech at Sydney University during Apartheid Week, 2012, Palestine Chronicle.
11 Edward Said, “Music At the Limits: Three Decades of Essays and Articles on Music,” (Bloomsbury, 2000) p. 298.
12 Braunold and Abuarquob, op.cit.