by Tareq Radi
In the face of growing international solidarity with the BDS call, normalization projects are on the move. Recently, a project titled Slim Peace has made its way from Israel into the United States. Slim Peace has started initiatives in Portland, Reno, DC, New York, and Boston. Within the United States, Slim Peace claims it merely wants to facilitate “nutritionally-based dialogues” between Muslim and Jewish women. While this may appear an innocent attempt to promote interfaith dialogue and nurture better eating habits, it is in reality a normalizing project that exploits the dieting insecurities of women. Don’t let Slim Peace’s name deceive you, the project is equally as aggressive as its counterparts, going to the lengths of sending a representative to promote at the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation’s conference this past September. Although, normalizing projects are amorphous, they most commonly take shape on university campuses. It came as no surprise that Slim Peace’s DC representative targeted Muslim Student Associations (MSA) and Arab Student Associations (ASA) in the Washington metropolitan area, promoting the project as a simple nutritional dialogue between women of different faiths.
Slim Peace’s showcasing of their project exposes that its true purpose is to create a false parity between the colonizers and colonized. Their appearance on the Today show and featured article in the New York Times did not attempt to hide the goals of the project, as did the DC recruiter. A quote from the organization’s founder, Yael Luttwak, caught my eye in particular as she, “…wondered if the leaders at the time, Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, and Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, might be more likely to talk peace if they tried to lose weight together.” Luttwak’s comment trivializes the occupation of Palestine, casting it instead as a “disagreement” between parties who must learn to see eye to eye, shedding their differences as well as pounds. Adding insult to injury, Slim Peace’s diet plan acts as a distraction to Israel’s imposition of food scarcity in Gaza. I highly doubt the diet Bethany Saab, Slim Peace’s DC representative, refers to in her article I’m in: A Palestinian Diet for Peace is anything like the diet Dov Wiesglass, former aide to Ariel Sharon, joked about amongst Israeli officials. “It’s like meeting with a dietitian. We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death”. Slim Peace’s concern for dieting appears to have no intention to address the rising trend of chronic malnutrition facing Gazans today. Slim Peace’s preying on young women’s insecurities concerning body image is no more than an attempt to create space for Zionist alumni to persist in their efforts to normalize apartheid outside of the campus environment.
The Adverse Effects of Normalizing
In recent years, efforts to expose Israel for its human rights violations and isolate the pariah state from the international community have gained tremendous headway. While Zionists find it increasingly difficult to dispute the call for equality in an undivided, secular state, they attempt to undermine the BDS movement through normalization projects. These projects create a façade of equality to obscure disparities between Palestinians and Israelis. Zionist normalization not only perpetuates the notion that Palestinians and Israelis are equals with petty differences over land and religion, but it is additionally harmful to the psychology of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Normalization lessens the disparity of the relationship in the mind of the colonizer and colonized, which in reality increases the power imbalance between the two. A negative correlation is formed as increases in perceived equality of the colonized decreases the magnitude of their demands.
Normalization projects serve as publicity stunts where the overt content is agreeable to everyone. As in Slim Peace’s case, the dialogues are not concealed behind closed doors, but rather showcased for the world to applaud. We must ask ourselves, “What is the true goal behind these events that are paraded in the name of peace?” Images of Palestinians and Israelis laughing together, arm in arm, whitewash the reality of the ongoing occupation, colonization, and apartheid against the Palestinian people. They do not acknowledge the military incarceration and violence directed at Palestinian youth. They fail to recognize violence brought on by settlers and the appropriation of not only land, but culture.
Dialogues, cultural education, and events focused on reconciliation are not the issue; in fact these methods will be imperative to the development of a one state solution. The problem lies when these events precede reparations of Israel’s violations, and the disestablishment of the oppression and racism facing Palestinians today. The notion that Palestinians and Israelis can co-exist or pave a way to peace through such actions only benefits Israel as it further legitimizes the illegal state and nurtures complacency towards the occupation amongst segments of the Palestinian community. Despite our intentions, when we participate in normalizing activities without keeping in mind their political implications, we undermine efforts challenging the oppressive and discriminatory policies of the colonial state. Additionally, these initiatives, directly or indirectly, wrongfully alleviate the conscience of Israelis while forcing Palestinians into accepting their fate as a colonized people.
Critics often claim that anti-normalization discriminates against individuals, whereas in actuality the strategy targets the institutions that attempt to normalize the occupation. Anti-normalization does not protect individuals from being sanctioned when they are complacent or complicit with organizations and institutions that strive to undermine the self-determination of Palestinians. Prior to forming coalitions or joint events, Palestinian solidarity organizations must ask themselves if they are in compliance with PACBI’s framework. More simply put, organizations must analyze whether they are co-resisting or co-existing with the oppressive Israeli state apparatus.
In the case of George Mason University, Slim Peace failed in its efforts to recruit the Arab and Muslim community through the MSA and ASA as a result of Students Against Israeli Apartheid’s (SAIA) resistance to normalizing campaigns.
While SAIA members were able to persuade the ASA and the MSA to refuse the invitation to endorse Slim Peace on our campus, our campus Student Government’s official endorsement granted legitimacy to the project. Like other universities, George Mason’s Student Senate has direct ties to the Israel Student Association. Shortly after his election, active ISA member and Student Government Senator, Aaron Yohai established his goals on his official “Senator Aaron Yohai” fan page.
“There are a couple of important things that I would like to accomplish before my current term in the senate ends and the next one begins: (1) The GenEd “Global Understanding” requirement must be reexamined and possibly rewritten, and (2) allegations by some students that Sabra Hummus is responsible for human rights violations overseas must be addressed and debunked, so that Mason Dining does not feel compelled to have Sabra removed from the shelves. I’m looking forward to the last few weeks of my first term! Please do not hesitate to send a message to this page if you have concerns over either of these topics.” (April 7, 2013)
Recognizing the threat that the BDS movement poses to the non-democratic, Jewish supremacist state, Zionists strive to hold seats in Student Government as they do in the US government. Through utilizing the Student Government, Zionist organizations attempt to undermine the efforts of groups that exercise anti-normalization. By comparing groups, such as SAIA, to their sellout counter parts, who support a two-state solution and enjoy participating in normalizing dialogues, Zionists audaciously label the anti-normalizers, supporters of egalitarianism and secularism, as “radicals”.
Zionist organizations on campuses strategically try to co-opt events with organizations such as the ASA and MSA as a means to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the student body. Despite these concerted and well-funded efforts, Palestinian justice organizations, particularly student organizations, are actively resisting normalization. One of the simplest methods of determining if an event, action, or initiative is a normalizing event is observing its language. Obviously, these actions will never refer to any land as a colonized or occupied territory, but at best as “disputed land.” Typical themes to take note of are: 1) attempts to find commonalities between Arabs and Jews, which may occur while eating hummus or smoking hookah’ 2) slogans bearing a desire to end the “conflict” or desiring to achieve long-lasting peace with no mention of justice’ 3) referring to the colonization and occupation as a “conflict,” “situation,” or “problem” that both sides are responsible for. Slim Peace’s advertisement for the campaign is an archetype of normalization. Reducing occupation, ongoing settler-colonialism, and apartheid to a “situation” or “conflict” obscures the reality of what is actually happening further perpetuating the pretense that Palestinians and Israelis are on an equal footing.
While these events claim to be “apolitical” and for “shared causes,” any event with a Zionist organization is political regardless of its claims or purported causes. Organizations such as the Israel Student Association and Hillel are Israeli state apparatuses operating under clear guiding principles that make them directly complicit with the ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestine. Hillel and Israel both promulgate Jewish identity as a means to obscure the Zionist projects they both propagate. For those who refuse to believe Hillel is a political institution, the organization provides plenty of evidence regarding their opposition to BDS and their alliance with Stand with Us. Additionally, the implementation of the Birthright Israel campaign indoctrinates Jewish youth into accepting their superiority to the indigenous population. This reality makes it impossible to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians while simultaneously co-organizing events with groups that support such political perspectives. More detrimental to the movement than any Zionist presence on campus are Middle Eastern associated groups who legitimize Israel through normalizing events. While the MSA, SJP, and ASA are very different from each other, the unfortunate truth is that we live in a society where Orientalism is rampant, and making all groups monolithic in the eyes of the general public. Therefore, the actions of one group affect all others.
The psychological threat and magnitude of existing trends to normalize are exemplified by an unfortunate experience I recently had with a fellow Palestinian from a nearby SJP. The SJP had an exemplary group of non-Arab solidarity activists who were vehemently against normalizing projects, but unfortunately, the club was hindered with a Palestinian on the executive board who believed that the best strategy to increase membership was participating in normalizing projects in order to attract Jewish members to the club. It was not until he attempted to justify his pursuit of such a ludicrous strategy that I understood the miscue of his psychology. In one sentence he delineated the logic behind his “brilliant” strategy, “One of them is worth fifteen of us.” His consciousness had been infiltrated by the pervading Zionist myth. He had begun to believe that he, and other Palestinians, were worth less than Jewish people. The Palestinian narrative in the Diaspora has been deeply affected by the Zionist master narrative in America, and many Palestinians have lost sight of their own power to affect change. Normalizing projects not only affect the overall discursive battle within society over the Israel/Palestine conflict, but also reinforce negative self- perceptions of moral incompetence or responsibility for the current disaster within the population of the oppressed.
Of course we are all subject to effects of normalization and should not be in despair if we have inadvertently supported normalization projects in the past. Especially, within the last 20 years the only “acceptable” method or invitation we’ve received to the conversation of our plight has been limited to the boundaries and language set by our oppressor. Anti-normalization not only serves as a tool to deconstruct and delegitimize the apartheid and colonial policies of Israel, but also opens the door for us to break free from the confines of “negotiation” we’ve been subjugated to in the post-Oslo era.