Coexistence, normalisation and the struggle for Justice in Palestine and Israel

By Yael Winikoff.
Journalist Omar H. Rahman has said “the topic (of normalisation) is reaching a fever pitch within Palestinian society.”1 The issue is most certainly pertinent in Palestinian discourse, at times very divisive, and clearly an issue relevant to AJDS’s stance on Israel/Palestine. Further to arguments and counterarguments around the normalisation debate, how can we implement some of these lessons into the work that we do?
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has defined normalization specifically in a Palestinian and Arab context “as the participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.” This definition is also endorsed by the BDS National Committee (BNC).  PACBI’s website further states: “Normalization is the colonization of the mind, whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only “normal” reality that must be subscribed to, and the oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with.”
The anti-normalization movement is in close quarters with the BDS movement in that it has called for an end to all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians that do not subscribe to the same three key tenets: ending the occupation; equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians; and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.  The movement has much traction in Palestinian communities, with virtually the entire political spectrum of Palestinian youth, student organizations and unions in the occupied Palestinian territory supporting anti-normalisation.2 The radical arm of the Palestinian anti-normalisation movement occasionally rejects any interaction with Israel and Israelis, and is also the subject of robust debate.3
The discourse of coexistence echoes the same tensions implicit in normalisation. Coexistence projects and initiatives tend not to highlight the power imbalances present between Israelis and Palestinians and as such seek to foster a seed of hope for both peoples living together side by side in a peace that does not recognise the core demands of Palestinian civil society.
Palestinians and Jews holding hands around Jerusalem, or attending hug rallies, may make us feel optimistic and guilt free inside, but does little to challenge the very real conditions of occupation and oppression that is daily lived by Palestinians.  It does little to illustrate the differing lives lived by participants, by oppressor and oppressed, when they go back to their homes and privileges after a well photographed snapshot of coexistence. What it says, is both parties can rise above the social stigmas and national narratives that give fuel to the intractability of the conflict, without ever actually addressing the conflict itself.  It occurs within a vacuum, whereby celebrations of the act of a Palestinian holding hands with a Jew is excised from the very real subject of power that exists in that space. While a Jewish Israeli has more rights and privileges, including freedom of movement, safety from the violence of the occupation, access to State delivered services derived from contested land and water resources, etc., a Jew and Palestinian holding hands in Jerusalem are existent in very differing spaces.

The original photo was taken by American photographer Ricki Rosen for a cover story about the Oslo peace accords for a Canadian news magazine.
The original photo was taken by American photographer Ricki Rosen for a cover story about the Oslo peace accords for a Canadian news magazine.

The arguments against coexistence seek to posit a framework where these injustices and power imbalances are addressed rather than normalised and obfuscated. Coexisting means life as usual, no matter how unjust it is. It is easy for an Israeli who participates in normalisation projects to feel that they are not part of the problem.  That because they have Palestinian friends of colleagues they have surpassed the oppressions designated within society, even if they are doing nothing to address the injustices that are being committed by their society.
This is exemplified by the fact that almost all coexistence groups in Israel are run by Jews, with funding coming often from Jewish donors abroad or locally.  These groups have also received criticism for engaging a “token Arab as co-director.” The post-Oslo period saw an explosion in normalisation programs, which gained credibility and funding when words such as “joint” or “coexistence” were used.  The Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information estimates that between September 1993 until September 2000 US$20-$25 million was allocated for funding people-to-people projects.4 Coexistence programs became lucrative while the issue of the deteriorating conditions for Palestinians under occupation remained undealt with, leading to a growing anti-normalisation movement.5
The peace movement has long been dragged along a never ending process of dialogue which has led Palestinians further away from goals of self-determination and achieving statehood.  It has done this with the help of projects, rhetoric and images that have fuelled the propaganda required to render the process of negotiations detrimental, such as the staged and now iconic image of coexistence.
In Australia, while some Jews may feel no connections to Israel, we still possess more rights via the Law of return than Palestinians.  According to this law we can enter and live in Israel and automatically be assigned the same set of privileges enjoyed by Israeli Jews.  So too, coexistence and normalisation projects in Australia serve the same asymmetrical power imbalances existing in Israel.
While anti-normalisation discourse has gained much traction, there is also rigorous critique of its ideologies and methods.  Some argue that shutting off to individuals and organisations plays into the hands of the status quo, and is not an effective means of achieving Palestinian rights and self-determination.6 Joel Braunold and Huda Abuarquob, two leaders of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella group of civil society activists in Israel and Palestine assert:
“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.”
Interviews and discussions with dissenting Israelis and Jews has found that many individuals who in time challenge the occupation rather than following the status quo began questioning their position after interpersonal interactions with Palestinians. This must in part be credited to the work of person to person coexistence projects.  Anti-normalisation beckons the question where is the room for debate, for discussion, for convincing someone who doesn’t subscribe to your own view?7
However, these counterarguments articulating the gains of coexistence and normalisation projects are increasingly being met with dialogue which addresses the complexities of the issue and attempts to etch out ways of working that subvert normalisation.  For example, there are a number of organisations that have undergone self-reflection and restructured their organisation and programs to deliver more shared decision making structures and moderation, and altered their discourse on dialogue and co-participation.  The principles espoused in the anti-normalisation camp does not posit a complete disengagement of Israelis and Palestinians, but rather a reflection on the work and outcomes that are achieved by such relationships, with a focus on ending the occupation, solidarity and “coresistance.”
Whilst various bodies have provided parameters of ant-normalisation, likening it to BDS demands, the critique of normalisation stands on its own merit as a valid deconstruction of the impact of normalisation projects.  In campaigning for justice for Palestinians, we can unpack the work that we do and ask ourselves whether we are fostering a “life as normal” paradigm implicated in coexistence projects, and whether we are explicitly or implicitly endorsing the status quo.  We can actively seek to become aware of the privileges that we have as Jews or Israelis.
And in addressing the question of where the room for debate and discussion is within the disengagement of anti-normalisation, in the Australian context there is plenty of room for establishing these spaces for discussion within our own Jewish communities. Whilst Palestinian stories, narratives and lived experience is central to the occupation, the occupation itself, as a policy of the Israeli State is something that can, and should be discussed within Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli spaces.