Anti-normalisation: unhelpful to Palestinians

The policy of anti-normalisation amounts to pretending that Israel does not exist while Palestinians suffer daily from its discriminatory policies and wars. It does absolutely nothing to help the Palestinian struggle for liberation. It should be challenged head-on

By Moustafa Youssef

On 17 August, in response to a comment by +972 contributing editor Joseph Dana, I tweeted that an Egyptian revolutionary committee should address the J14 protesters. The Israeli protesters were obviously influenced by the Egyptian intifada – as were many people in the Arab world and indeed the entire world; so I thought it would be a good idea to address the J14 protesters about Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians. But my proposal was impossible to put into practice given the adamant position the Arab world has against normalisation with Israel  – as expressed in the following statement by the Egyptian Independent Union Federation:

5. The independent unions completely reject any form of normal relations with the Zionist enemy, as they reject all forms of co-operation with any person or organisation who is involved in normalisation or is calling for normalisation. …

Outreach to Israeli Palestinians and Palestinians living in the West Bank, or to any Israeli institution or individual that might be amongst those that are actively challenging Israel’s racist policies, is rejected. As stated further in article 5, the main reason the union opposed the government-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was dissolved after the fall of Mubarak’s government,  was due to “its participation in a visit to occupied Jerusalem.” In other words, solidarity with Palestinians means keeping them in a state of total isolation from their Arab brothers and sisters.

This championing of irrational parochialism, this pretending that Israel does not exist while Palestinians suffer daily from its discriminatory policies and wars, does absolutely nothing to help their struggle for liberation. It should be challenged head-on.

Anti-normalisation is in effect a policy of irresponsibility regarding the harsh reality imposed on the Palestinians by Israel’s military occupation. It is a means of avoiding Israeli society completely, as well as the Palestinians under Israel’s control. Instead, Arabs offer the Palestinians charity and rhetorical support for their resistance, while at home we treat the Palestinians with the same inverted logic applied by Israel: we refuse to normalise them. Many Palestinians in Arab states have for decades been living in refugee camps, just like the Palestinian refugees who live in UNRWA camps in Gaza and the West Bank.

If only Arabs could swallow their pride for a minute and think about the positive impression they could create by visiting Palestine. Artists, writers and musicians could boost morale and culture; professionals could help build institutions; professors could lecture at universities; ordinary people could experience what it means to be Palestinian by passing through checkpoints, watching houses demolished, land stolen and trees uprooted, and joining the weekly protests held in places like Bilin. Are international solidarity activists normalising with Israel when they demonstrate in Bil’in anymore than Arabs would if they attended? Is there any act of solidarity more important than being physically present? A typical response from an Arab whose country has signed a peace treaty with Israel, and who therefore can visit the occupied territories but refuses is, “I’ll visit it once it is liberated.” It seems like a defiant response, but in fact it absolves one of having to physically and spiritually help the Palestinians in their struggle.

Anti-normalisation is just rhetoric. And it is unprincipled. When a Gaza football (soccer) tournament  brought Egyptian, Tunisian, Jordanian and Palestinian kids together to help in “breaking the siege on Gaza,” the Egyptian Minister of Youth praised “the responsive attitude of the officials in Egypt and their keenness to support the young Palestinian people and to open up areas of cooperation and communication.” But when Egypt’s Olympic football team was invited by the Palestinian Football Federation to play in East Jerusalem there was a storm of protest: The visiting Egyptians would have to pass through Israeli border control and have Israeli visas stamped in their passports. For the protesters, the stamp signified a defeat: They saw it as recognition of Israel and acceptance of the occupation. But why is visiting the besieged Gaza Strip acceptable? Because you can ignore the reality of the Israeli occupation when there are no Jews around. Are the Palestinians in the West Bank not worthy of our cooperation and communication? Does the nature of Israel’s occupation dictate how we will treat one Palestinian locale over another?

Anti-normalisation is also a strategy of ignorance. Take the refusal of Alaa AlAswany, the prominent Egyptian novelist, who sued an Israeli publishing company for translating into Hebrew his international best selling novel, The Yacoubian Building, without his permission. Although he accused the company of plagiarism, he says his “position regarding normalization with Israel has not changed. I reject it completely.” Edward Said countered this position eloquently,

“Take the recent campaign against the translation of Arabic books into Hebrew. One would have thought that the more Arabic literature is available in Israel, the better able Israelis are to understand us as a people, and to stop treating us as animals or less-than-human. Instead we have the sorry spectacle of serious Arab writers actually denouncing their colleagues for “allowing” themselves to “normalise” with Israel, which is the idiotic phrase used as an accusation for collaborating with the enemy. Isn’t it the case, as Julien Benda was the first to say, that intellectuals are supposed to go against collective passions instead of trading in them demagogically? How on earth is a Hebrew translation an act of collaboration? Getting into a foreign language is always a victory for the writer. Always and in each case. Isn’t it a far more intelligent and useful thing than the craven “normalisation” of the various countries that have trade and diplomatic relationships with the enemy even as Palestinians are being killed like so many flies by the Israeli army and air force? Aren’t Hebrew translations of Arabic literature a way of entering Israeli life culturally, making a positive effect in it, changing people’s mind from bloody passion to reasonable understanding of Israel’s Arab Others, especially when it is Israeli publishers who have gone and published the translations as a sign of cultural protest against Israel’s barbarous Arab policy?”


“There is simply no rational justification from an intellectual point of view of having a policy of ignorance, or using ignorance as a weapon in a struggle. Ignorance is ignorance, no more and no less. Always and in every case.”

A sustainable peace will not come about militarily. Nor will it be in the form of some divine intervention. And although the onus is on Israel, not the Arabs, to do what is just, to recognize the dispossession of the Palestinians and acknowledge their equal right to the land, the Arabs can certainly play an important part in calming Israelis and alluding to the prospect of a just peace by engaging with them. Liberation based on boycott alone will not suffice. We need to reassure the Jews, just as the ANC and Nelson Mandela reassured the whites of South Africa, that the land is for both peoples to share, and the victorious will not rule over the defeated. Mutual trust must be developed; without it there will not be a sustainable peace.

Bassel, a Palestinian living in the West Bank, responded defensively to my tweet. “I think we don’t need to address nobody…we need to fight for our freedom,” he wrote.

My position was, and remains, that engaging with Israeli society, and especially with those who stand for civil and universal human rights, is necessary, regardless of how unpopular their positions may be in Israel. Bassel was pessimistic about the prospects for dialogue and real change being effected by the J14 social justice movement.

“Do you really think the Arabs should wait till the Zionists come around? Or convince them? Do you really think they don’t know? You’ve obviously never been here, if you really think they don’t know what’s going on. They know very well.”

But the Arabs have been doing nothing but wait for the Zionists to come around. Consider what could happen if a truly democratic government came to power in Egypt. We might eventually terminate our gas sales to Israel, end our siege on Gaza, continue to condemn the apartheid system and the settlements, or even end all diplomatic ties with Israel – but nothing substantial beyond that. What’s missing is an Arab initiative.

Comments on my cousin’s Facebook status gave a sample of what some Arabs believe; and they help to explain their lack of initiative. My cousin wrote that it was stupid of Gamal Abdel Nasser to have expelled the Jews from Egypt. He argues, I think correctly, that if they had not been expelled, a Jewish community in Egypt would today be a direct contradiction to the Zionist claim that only a homeland for Jews can protect them from endemic global antisemitism. The evidence to disprove that claim would have been right next door, in Egypt, where an old, established Jewish community had for centuries coexisted peacefully with non-Jews. Several people made comments to the effect that it was good the Jews had left. Well, they left and many of them emigrated to Israel – thus contributing to the number of Jews living on stolen Palestinian land.

In Egypt there is an inability to differentiate between antisemitism, or Jew hatred, and anti-Zionism, which is a rejection of the colonial project in Palestine. We should oppose those who equate Jews with Israeli policy, just as we should oppose those who accuse anti-Zionists of being anti-Semites.

Furthermore, anti-normalisation is different from  BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions). BDS is a request made by Palestinian civil society to boycott institutions that are complicit in Israeli policy and/or profit from the occupation and the wars. Anti-normalisation is the refusal to try to win over Jewish hearts and minds. It is a rejection of the notion that the future state in historic Palestine will permit Jews and Arabs to coexist in peace.

Moustafa Youssef, 23, is an Egyptian born and raised in Kuwait. He is a chemical engineering graduate of Dalhousie University who now spends most of his time on the oil rigs of Western Canada. He blogs at Arabic for Read.

More on this topic recommended by the author:

Defiance, Dignity, and the Rule of Dogma, Edward Said

Inside the other Wilaya, Edward Said

Excerpts from Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward Said