For 18 years, the Sulha Peace Project has brought together Palestinians from across the territories with Israelis from around the country, in order to hold people-to-people dialogue and solidarity-building. Of late, many of our Palestinian activists have endured harsh anti-normalization criticism from their friends and relatives, and some have been dragged into long, humiliating interrogations at the hands of Palestinian security. The director of a site where we held a recent gathering was harassed by the Palestinian Authority for renting us space.
As we rumble into the 52nd year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it may be useful to revisit the contention, strident in various sectors of the Palestinian public, that cooperation with Israelis represents “normalization” (tatbiyah) and is thus forbidden. How is normalization defined? Huda Abuarquob and Joel Braunold, two leaders of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, explain that “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.” Expressions of the anti-normalization efforts include threats, security-force interrogations, bitter criticism from friends and family, and even physical disruption of people-to-people gatherings. Joining with Combatants for Peace in a joint Israeli-Palestinian march in the West Bank protesting the occupation, I was hit by some of the eggs a group of anti-normalizers hurled at us from the side of the road, and some confrontations have even led to beatings. While the initiative comes from the Palestinian side, anti-normalization efforts also enjoy support from some hard-line Israeli activists.
Abuarquob and Braunold continue: “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.”
Progress toward what, you may ask? Does it really matter that participants in Sulha’s people-to-people activities return home with hope in their hearts, after encountering people from the other side in deep dialogue listening circles, along with singing in Hebrew and Arabic, drumming, dance, prayer and a common meal? We know that it does matter, that together we are laying the human foundation for whatever future agreement will be reached. Any of the peace plans on the table will require Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, around security, commerce, water, waste. Cooperation will not work if there is not a critical mass of people who have built the trust that flows from experiencing mutuality and our common humanity.
At the same time, we activists must remain aware of the contradictions we embrace. While we engender a sense of solidarity among program participants, we must not ignore the gross imbalance in the life-situations of people from the two sides. While I complain about the stinging jellyfish that visit Israel’s shores during the first half of the summer, I do not forget that most Palestinians would be happy to brave the jellyfish if the army allowed them to leave the territories and get to the sea at all. The wellbeing I am privileged to enjoy is unknown to people who are awakened in the night while heavily-armed soldiers arrest their twelve year old sons.
It is gratifying, at our gatherings, to witness not only Israelis acknowledging the pain of Palestinians but also to see Palestinians listening to the concerns and anxiety of Israelis who live with fear of rock-throwers, knife-wielders, bombers and fire-starters. At the same time, equalizing our very different kinds of oppression is not the direction we must take. While we reject the anti-normalizers’ blanket condemnation of dialogue, there must be recognition, in any of our people-to-people contacts, of the disaster (“nakba”) of Israel’s creation, from the Palestinian perspective. Israel’s success rests on the conquest of Palestine. 750,000 Palestinians fled during the War of Independence, and the argument about the Arab nations’ choice not to recognize the ’47 U.N. partition has nothing to do with the experience of conquest the Palestinians have endured to this day.
It is not comfortable for us to acknowledge the vast gap between the Palestinians’ suffering and our own. But acknowledge we must, if we are to move forward. Joseph Montville, of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, writes: “The psychology of victimhood is an automatic product of aggression and resultant traumatic loss in individuals and peoples. The refusal of aggressors to acknowledge the pain of the hurts inflicted on victims, and therefore the absence of remorse by the aggressors, creates an overwhelming sense of injustice in the victims.” Can we afford to belittle the collective victimization of the Palestinians? We do so at the cost of unending strife, violence, attack and counter-attack.
Montville continues: “A society, a leadership, a world, and, indeed, a universe the victims had heretofore assumed would shield them from harm have all let them down…. The victims’ collective sense of security in their identity, their self-concept, their basic dignity, and a future for their children has been dealt a devastating blow.”
We Israelis are challenged to embrace a terrible contradiction: On the one hand, after 2,000 years of collective homelessness, Israelis now lay claim to this land. On the other, our victory is the source of unfathomable suffering. When we ignore suffering, we become aggressive, righteous, callous. Yet, there is an alternative….. We can confront our shame, our regret, and ultimately we can express our empathy for those who have paid the price of our success. It is only here, in a blessed and courageous act of reaching-out, that the paving stones on the road to healing can be lain. Before negotiation can be conducted or written agreements and maps disputed, we must express our sorrow for the Palestinians’ plight, and assume active responsibility for our part in righting the wrong. This will require a bigness of heart that is lacking in our present leadership. That does not make it less of an imperative.
I can already hear the protests, the talk-backs: What about their aggression, and what about the Jews expelled from the Arab countries? What about our suffering? Friends, it is time to give up this tit-for-tat thinking. Can we not allow our nation’s strength to enable the opening of our hearts? Is this not the time for coming forth and reaching out? We Israelis have the upper hand, and this is the time for generosity of spirit.