Speak to everyone? Not if that means normalising the occupation

Ruba speaking at the Board event (Jewish News)
Ruba speaking at the Board event (Jewish News)

Following my testimony about StandWithUs in the Jewish News, I was offered the opportunity to meet in a personal capacity with one of its staff members. I was told he works hard to bring about a positive change within the organisation, trying to make it more inclusive of different views. My first reaction was: “Sure! Why not?” After all, I have always believed in engaging with everyone, and have participated in multiple dialogue programmes including a months-long one with settlers a few years ago. But it was only after agreeing to a meeting that I saw his recent tweet, about StandWithUs’ #DialogueNotDivision campaign, a cynical attempt to promote dialogue and – in his words – “justice for BOTH people”.

This campaign sent a shiver down my spine. The ideas we Israeli and Jewish peace activists have worked so hard to promote – dialogue, empathy, recognition of the other’s narrative – are now being used by the propaganda machine of global hasbara. As StandWithUs is not able to use its support for the two-state solution as a fig leaf anymore (since my government has abandoned the path of peace) it has instead changed its strategy to depict itself, and the supposed ‘pro-Israel’ students on campuses, as pursuers of dialogue and peace. StandWithUs is a propaganda organisation which dehumanises Palestinians, defends the occupation and portrays us Israelis as the greatest victims of the past 70+ years, and yet it claims to be pursuing peace? How cynical.

These actions reinforce a zero-sum perspective of the conflict. Many Palestinians and supporters of the BDS movement view any Israeli-Palestinian collaboration which doesn’t support boycotting Israel as ‘normalisation’. They see it as a way to ‘normalise’ the very unequal situation between the two sides, which they claim does not lead to any progress in resolving the conflict. I disagree with this position. One of the main reasons I started humanising Palestinians and fighting against the occupation was because of the relationships I built through dialogue initiatives. While I understand the rationale of this position from the BDS movement, how could I and so many other anti-occupation Jews be where we are without having built relationships with Palestinians? When I see StandWithUs’ campaign, however, I understand this anti-normalisation stance better. I understand that Palestinians seeing this campaign, which uses ‘dialogue’ as a fig leaf to push a pro-occupation stance, would think twice before engaging in dialogue. StandWithUs helps the BDS movement prove its claim, and the result is that both dialogue and anti-occupation activism are undermined. No wonder activists are revolted by the term ‘middle ground’: it’s occupied by hasbara.

Had I met with the StandWithUs representative, I may have been able to change his views (after all, I started my journey in StandWithUs and I clearly changed). But I would never have been able to change his propaganda organisation, and nor would he. I am convinced my meeting with StandWithUs would have just played into their narrative of them having dialogue with everyone, even with anti-occupation activists, and would help them further their raison d’etre: normalising the occupation. So I decided to cancel our meeting, friendly as it could have been. I thought I’d rather save my energy for organisations which, I hope, are transformable. In my mind I distinguish between hasbara organisations, which are not transformable, and Jewish representative organisations, which I have seen change.

Last month I went to watch an #InvestInPeace event, organised by the Board of Deputies and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. I was curious to see how these organisations engage in dialogue, and I was pleasantly surprised. The event saw Israeli and Palestinian speakers expressing views which aren’t common for a Board event, to say the least. For example, the Israeli speaker, Michal, spoke about the fear Israelis have of global anti-Israel stances, but when it came to recognising a Palestinian state alongside Israel, she said: “If this can bring pressure on the Israeli government then that’s good. Israel should understand that’s the smart thing for her to do.”

How the email from the Board references dialogue for its event (Jewish News)

Similarly, Ruba, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, spoke openly about her identity and about her own family’s history of the Nakba. This is a big step towards mutual recognition and understanding of the other’s suffering.

StandWithUs, on the other hand, would usually give platforms to Palestinians citizens of Israel who are willing to speak about their rights inside Israel, ignoring the occupation.

However, while the views of the speakers were progressive, I realised that the Board is also engaged against them. Although it has taken some relatively progressive steps in recent years, such as criticising the Israeli government’s ‘Nation State Law’, it also urged the British government to “follow suit” on Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem and has kept silent about my government’s calls for annexation, unlike 108 British parliamentarians (including very pro-Israel ones). It has also failed time and again to condemn the occupation and the actions my government takes to entrench it. And while I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse voices the Board event showcased at this event, the summary email failed to report on the more critical positions. No wonder: the Board was actively engaged in lobbying against Parliament’s recognition of a Palestinian state, while formally supporting a two-state solution, and has never included any acknowledgement of the Nakba in its communications or educational events. It is for these reasons I believe that although the Board can transform, it has a long way to go.

So speak to everyone? It depends. If dialogue is used to pretend openness while promoting pro-occupation agendas, then no thanks. The only dialogue which can promote “justice for BOTH people”, as the StandWithUs staff member cynically tweeted, is one which acknowledges the abnormality of the occupation. Interfaith organisations who believe in genuine pro-peace dialogue must bear in mind that they don’t fall into this trap, or else they fall in line with StandWithUs’ effort to normalise the occupation. We can’t accept this. There is nothing normal, nor Jewish, about the occupation.

About the Author
Matan is an Israeli peace activist living in London, who consults for The Balfour Project and is a member of Na'amod. He writes a blog in Haaretz, facilitates workshops on issues related to transformation and change, and participates in a dialogue on antisemitism. In the past, he coordinated the global work of the SISO Diaspora-Israeli partnership for ending the occupation, and helped establish the Jewish Democratic Initiative in South Africa
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