On anti-normalization: Joint Israeli-Palestinian activism must continue

Despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian organization he co-heads is considered a “normalizer,” the writer says he understands where anti-normalizers are coming from, but nonetheless argues that curtailing joint activism will only cause harm to the shared caused of ending occupation.
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By Dan Goldenblatt

Less than three months in office as the new co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), one of the oldest Israeli-Palestinian peace NGOs, I am increasingly running up against the anti-normalization movement. I sympathize with the ultimate goals of this movement, although that might seem contradictory to an outsider, since its representatives, particularly the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, have designated IPCRI among the “normalizers”. I will even submit that this campaign is one that, sadly, Israelis have done well to earn. I can fully identify with the frustration that Palestinians feel after twenty years of peace talks with very little, if any, real progress to show (regression, on the other hand, is widespread).

I am receptive to the reservations of the anti-normalization and BDS movements concerning projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together to promote co-existence. Israelis and Palestinians in the current status quo are not equal, and projects that promote cooperation for the sake of cooperation, on the basis of equality, while ignoring the very different positions of the occupier/oppressor and the occupied/oppressed do not truly promote change, and therefore are very problematic. Such projects constitute a form of “whitewashing” of the occupation and serve as feel-good projects for all those involved. In actuality, they legitimatize the occupation or totally ignore it, along with the unequal status of the Palestinian nation vis-à-vis the Israelis.

IPCRI has been dedicated to peace from its outset. It has, perhaps more than any other organization of its size brought together many thousands of Israelis and Palestinians to meet, discuss, argue, build, take apart, share and cooperate. IPCRI strongly and publicly opposes the occupation. IPCRI is an egalitarian organization in its DNA, and as such we object to the systematic and establishment-based discrimination and repression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within Israel.

Israeli society does not feel the price it is, paying for the occupation, and is, therefore, prepared to maintain the status quo. But there is no doubt that a price is being paid ; social disintegration, and a more violent, corrupt and unjust society – but those changes are gradual and conveniently ignored. A price for Israel for the unjust and daily repression of Palestinians can and should come from the outside, through sanctions and pressure on Israel.

That being said, closing the door on contact between Palestinians and Israelis assisting in the construction of another, invisible, wall by Palestinians against Israeli civil society organizations like IPCRI who oppose the occupation is a tragedy. Chasing Palestinians who chose to speak to Israelis notwithstanding all the long and justified frustration and disappointment is also, I submit, undemocratic by those movements and worrying.

Shutting the door on those individuals and organizations plays into the hands of those who want to maintain the status quo and continue living in a relatively safe “bubble” – like the Israeli government itself. Such a boycott will not, I argue, promote Palestinian achievement of political rights, freedom of movement, independence and self-determination.

I can only speak for IPCRI, and only from the perspective of a very new co-CEO. It would be a difficult sell for the anti-normalization movement to convince me that a project such as IPCRI’s Women Empowered for Peace project has harmed the Palestinian cause and that it should cease. This project gives participating women on both sides the opportunity to see and acknowledge the hardships that the occupation causes, and the reality in which they live but generally fail to acknowledge. To get to know each other personally and connect, woman to woman, human to human, does not entrench the occupation. Even if only a portion of the participants goes home feeling that the situation must change, this changes the status quo.  Bringing people together is not something that maintains business as usual of the Israeli occupation.

Such activities change in individual perception. Women and men, previously indifferent and uninvolved, become involved, join civil society, maintain cross-border relations, initiate joint activism, protest, show solidarity and fight for ending the occupation and for change.

This project is merely one example of IPCRI’s activities. What we do may not answer the full ten commandments of the BDS or anti-normalization movement, but is the Palestinian cause, which I support, worse off because of such a project? Has the Palestinian cause not benefited from the fact that some 50 Israeli women have now become aware of the day-to-day hardships their new friends and partners, and their children and families go through? Would closed doors have been more effective than open?

Criticism of the “Peace Industry” – a derisive term for those whose entire livelihood is based on peace activities that accomplish little – is valid. The Israeli “Peace Industry” must indeed look inside itself, transform, evolve, re-calibrate and even repent. We have been too comfortable in our positions. We have been perhaps too lazy and complacent. We have our “co-existence” friends and perhaps some of us lost sight of the fact that change on the ground has not been achieved. We are living rather comfortably, while Palestinians continue living under the occupation, while racist policies are maintained and even strengthened within Israel. There is a fair and long overdue demand for reform. And IPCRI intends to lead by example. However, we, Palestinian and Israeli activists, should be allowed to disagree and voice our disagreements, or try to influence policies and activities we think are counter-productive.  That being said, closing the door is not reform; it is cutting one another off. No one who wants to see a just and honorable resolution of the conflict should agree to that.

I encourage continuing joint activism against the Israeli occupation. I want to invite anyone who has criticism of how we at IPCRI try to advance this goal to tell us so, engage and challenge us, and help us and others improve. Our goal is the same. No one possesses all the truth and wisdom, and this is a struggle no one can undertake alone. We must join our forces, because only together we are strong. We have long been scattered, and I believe that turning our backs on each other will only strengthen the status quo. Giving up is not an option. Giving up on each other is too terrible a reality to contemplate.

Dan Goldenblatt, LLB, MBA, is the Israeli co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information as of December 2011. He served as a staff attorney at the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Zurich, Switzerland.

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