The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has dominated headlines of late, with anti-BDS legislation being passed in Congress and in the Knesset; pro-Palestinian students in America being “exposed;” an Israeli government minister being appointed especially to combat this threat; Britain’s national student union joining the BDS movement; the list goes on. Perhaps the BDS movement’s greatest achievement is the seriousness with which it is taken.
Yet, for those who are interested in advancing the cause of peace by building the necessary trust between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, the BDS movement is not the greatest threat; the anti-normalization movement is.
The anti-normalization movement has called for an end to all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians that do not subscribe to three key tenets: ending the occupation; equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians; and a full right of return for Palestinian refugees. These three tenets are shared with the BDS movement, and, as such, the two movements are joined at the hip. Yet the effects on the ground of the anti-normalization movement are far more serious.
It seeks to police all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, and, as such, disrupts programs that it perceives as being unaligned with its agenda. This makes life particularly hard for those of us in the “people-to-people” community – who bring Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians together in school, agricultural, high-tech and advocacy programs or camps.
The movement does this because it believes that normalized relations between Palestinians and Israelis draws a false equivalence between the parties, and does nothing to address the power imbalance created by the occupation. Normalization, it contends, would remove the urgency for ending the occupation and granting Palestinians independence and sovereignty.
The only joint programs anti-normalization advocates condone are those that support resistance or protest. All others, they believe, undercut the Palestinian national struggle.
While the argument for anti-normalization is intellectually coherent, it is ultimately self-defeating. How, for example, will those who seek a full right of return for Palestinian refugees but refuse to allow them to engage with Jewish Israelis who reject the idea, succeed in convincing the Israelis that it is a viable option? How do they expect two conflicting parties to empathize with one another’s narratives when neither side has the opportunity to learn of the other’s struggle on a personal level? And how can they break the victim-perpetuator cycle if they do not seek an end to the victim-perpetrator identities? Preventing the conflicting sides from interacting enables anti-normalization activists to define the “other” in their own terms.
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. People-to-People work today has evolved to be less about dialogue and far more about building trust. This is painfully slow and offers only incremental progress, yet given how each population fears the other, offers a real option for progress.
While the anti-normalization movement’s intimidation tactics and efforts to shut down dissent make up the Arab part of the challenge facing groups that operate in the people-to-people community, from the Israeli, Jewish side, the key challenge lies within the coalition.
We fear that legislation in the Israeli government could shut down discourse on a people-to-people level by weakening NGOs. The government has already introduced bills to tax donations by foreign government to such organizations, and brand NGOs or individuals who receive funding from foreign governments as “foreign agents.” Another bill would limit the degree to which the Israeli government and army cooperates with groups who receive financial support from foreign governments. This has the potential to prevent these NGOs’ programs from ever being integrated into Israel’s public sector.
By starving their funds, limiting their access to the government, and preventing them from communicating to the public at large, Israel portrays these groups as foreign interlopers, branding them, at best, as naïve, or, at worst, as the enemy within; dangerous agitators who draw false equivalences between Israel and her enemies.
Israel’s efforts to limit discourse mirror the anti-normalization movement’s efforts to curb dialogue – only the former does so via legislation, while the latter uses threats and intimidation. Together, these efforts become an anti-democratic front against coexistence groups working to create a shared society. Both sides hope to prevent having the voices heard of those who seek a different path to that of the majority. Both sides fear that unchecked discourse will undermine the majority’s political posturing and goals. Both sides seek to control the debate by preventing it from happening.
Yet, if 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.