“Normalization” is a much-misunderstood word. Essentially, normalization refers to activities that make relationships (e.g., cultural, business, academic, etc.) between Palestinians and Israelis “normal” and not defined by conflict.
Normalization sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Palestinians and Israelis studying together, dancing together, playing sports together, engaging in joint business ventures — aren’t these good? If Israeli and Palestinian relationships become “normal,” won’t the Palestinian-Israeli conflict end and won’t peace reign in the Middle East?
But most of the Palestinians I know are adamantly against normalization, and while many internationals think it’s because Palestinians don’t like Israelis as people, that’s not the reason. The reason why Palestinians (and me) are against normalization is because it’s pursued as a substitute for a political settlement. Moreover, many of these efforts are shockingly naive. I’ve spoken to people who want to do joint Israeli-Palestinian acupuncture, Israeli-Palestinian meditation, and other activities that sound harmless, but scratch a bit and you’ll often find a colonial attitude underneath: “I will bring Palestinians and Israelis together and they will realize that we’re all human beings and the conflict will be ended through my intervention!”
This week, I had occasion to attempt to influence an internationally-known cultural figure who wants to initiate joint Israeli-Palestinian cultural activities. This is what I shared in my note to her:
There are essentially three related reasons not to bring Palestinians and Israelis together for cultural activities:
1-There is no “cultural” problem between Israelis and Palestinians. There is only a political problem.
Joint cultural activities distract from conflict resolution rather than contribute to it. They come from an erroneous analysis that we need to advance personal relationships between people BEFORE we resolve conflict when, in fact, we cannot advance personal relationships between people UNTIL we resolve the conflict. This is because the problem is not one of misunderstanding, but rather, structural inequality. Can you imagine bringing slave owners and slaves together to dance? No. You would have to end the structural inequality first and then folks could dance together. Now, Palestinians are not slaves, but there are currently 2.5 million Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank, another 1.5 million under occupation and blockade in Gaza, and another 1.5 million who are colonized as second class citizens inside Israel. The rest of the 11 million Palestinians worldwide are refugees, dispossessed of their internationally enshrined rights by Israel’s unwillingness to abide by UN resolutions. This is structural inequality. I hope there will be a time when we can all dance together, but now is not that time.
2-Joint activities are over-funded and have lost credibility.
Unfortunately, there are many, many people who hold the fantasy of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together and then magically, one or the other group will say, “I’m sorry” and the conflict will be over. That’s one reason why there is so much funding for joint activities, like summer camps, theater projects, etc. Another reason is that some governments (the US included) invest in joint cultural activities precisely because they are irrelevant to conflict resolution. They don’t want all-out war, but they profit greatly from the lack of peace. The Israelis, who cannot get international development aid since they aren’t a “developing country”, run around looking for Palestinians to sign on as “partners” (usually on paper only) in order to access the funds that are set aside for joint “peacebuilding.” It’s an industry, a scam. For this reason, most of these activities have been discredited, and that makes even the genuine ones suspect.
3-There is a cultural boycott against Israel.
One of the most important Palestinian, nonviolent civil resistance activities ever is the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). It is patterned after the international boycott against apartheid in South Africa, which, along with the local grassroots movement, played a major role in isolating South Africa to the point where Apartheid was too costly and power-sharing became a viable alternative. The PACBI website now features Alice Walker’s refusal to re-publish Color Purple in Israel until the occupation is over. There is also a campaign against Circe du Soleil because they are performing in Tel Aviv in violation of the cultural boycott. Many big stars are boycotting, and many others who have performed in Israel despite the boycott have been subject to international media campaigns.
What do you think? Should internationals support the Palestinian call for an end to normalization ? Or is normalization the path to peace? Should internationals support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions? Or does the BDS movement exacerbate the conflict?