What defines normalization with Zionist groups and individuals? Debates and misunderstandings abound about the subject and what Palestinians demand.
Now, I don’t speak for all Palestinians, of course. Nevertheless, I’ll try to break it down as best as I understand it.
But let me start by recounting the story of a famous Supreme Court episode. In 1964, the Court was confronted with the question of whether a Ohio theatre owner had violated an obscenity statue by showcasing a “pornographic” film. The theatre owner was declaring that his right to display these materials was protected under the free speech provision of the First Amendment. In order to assess this argument, the justices were faced with attempting to precisely define what “pornography” is. If you are considering the constitutionality of a form of expression, you have to at least define what that expression is, right?
We are talking about a Supreme Court populated by nine middle-aged and old white guys. In 1964. In a famous concurring opinion, Justice Potter Stewart, in attempting to define the parameters of “hard-core pornography,” wrote the following:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.
Now, back to the question of normalization as it relates to Palestine.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, on the BDS website, defines normalization as “relationships that convey a misleading or deceptive image of normalcy, of symmetry, of parity, for a patently abnormal and asymmetric relationship of colonial oppression and apartheid.”
At the very least, in an American context, two specific types of activities are understood to reach the level of harmful normalization with Zionism. The first is bilateral relationships with Zionist, anti-Palestinian organizations, or with the Israeli state itself. The second is engagement in Muslim-Jewish “interfaith” activities with Zionist, anti-Palestinian groups.
Such interactions are exponentially more damaging when Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim American individuals or organizations are the partners of such Zionist entities.
Here’s some examples of the bilateral relationships. When the governments, not the people, of the UAE, Bahrain, and other nations sign normalizations agreements with Israel. When Wael Alzayat, the CEO of Emgage, a Muslim American civic engagement organization, proudly partners with the Anti-Defamation League in a signed letter to the State Department. When the national co-chair of Emgage, AJ Durrani, proudly accepts an ADL award. Imagine a Black civil rights group joyfully dancing with the authors of Jim Crow. It’s that.
And here’s some examples of the “faithwashing” stuff. When the governments, not the people, UAE, Bahrain, and other nations sign normalizations agreements with Israel, under the religious moniker of the “Abraham Accords.” When prominent Muslim Americans, like the aforementioned Emgage CEO, as well as well-known comedian and media personality Dean Obeidallah, sit on the national council of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. MJAC’s founders are the AJC and the Islamic Society of North America. Imagine a Jewish advocacy group shaking hands with the Charlottesville marchers. It’s that.
The damage these types of relationships afflict upon the Palestinian cause is not hypothetical. After the August 2020 announcement that the UAE and Israel were normalizing relations, Israel immediately commenced a 10-day-long bombing campaign of Gaza. And no one talked about it.
Quickly, why are the ADL and AJC so toxic?
The ADL boasts that it “has always been a strong voice for Israel,” denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic and justifying Israeli crimes against Palestinians. Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL CEO, gushed about attending Trump’s opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem in 2018. “Today is a day of celebration. The opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem is a historic milestone 2000 years in the making,” he announced. Israel massacred over 60 Palestinians on that “day of celebration.” Dozens of progressive groups, representing Palestinians, Jews, and African Americans, have urged all peoples to sever ties with the ADL.
The AJC brags that it “advocates for Israel at the highest levels.” It also denounces the BDS movement, dedicating an entire section of its website to these efforts. AJC labels BDS as “sinister” and extremist,” gloating how the organization has been the driving force behind unconstitutional anti-BDS laws in a number of states.
Now, what sort of endeavors are not manifestly normalization? Simple discourse with Zionists need not qualify, though some Palestinian activists disagree with this assertion. In my view, discourse with Zionist organizations or individuals that is precisely centered on condemning Israel’s racist nature is not normalization. The great Edward Said routinely debated, and destroyed Zionists, quite publicly. Some believe that no conversation with Zionists serves any useful purpose. I don’t hold that view, though I understand and respect it fully.
In any case, the harmful bilateral and interfaith activities I have specifically outlined above do not mention Palestine, let alone do they center on it.
Also, why is this interfaith stuff so bad? Well, why are Muslim-Jewish interfaith initiatives even interesting to begin with? They wouldn’t be sexy unless there’s some underlying reason why Muslims and Jews wouldn’t get along, right? Well, quite obviously, that reason is the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” (It’s not a conflict, it’s an occupation and apartheid, but that’s another discussion.)
This false framing is dangerous. First, it portrays the question of Palestine as a religious issue, which it quite clearly is not. They kicked us out, they stole our land, and they don’t let us come back. Whether the people that did that to us were Jews, Muslims, Christians, or Buddhists wouldn’t matter much to us Palestinians at all. Although, Buddhists wouldn’t do it right? Second, after representing Palestine as a religious issue, Israel and Zionism are rehabilitated by reaching out and hugging Muslims. “See, we don’t hate Muslims… it’s just those pesky, terroristic Palestinians that keep killing us.” Needless to say, this religious rendering also deletes Palestinian Christians, who are as much victims of Israeli policies as anyone else.
Ultimately, Muslim-Jewish interfaith programs, precisely when they are sponsored by pro-Israel organizations, “faithwash” Zionism, all while ignoring and devaluing the just struggle of Palestinians to topple an apartheid and racist system.
This rehabilitation of Israel and Zionism is at the core of why normalization is so destructive, and so broadly denounced by Palestinians. And the danger is exponentially multiplied when the partners in these activities are Muslim or Arab, as it much more directly and quickly serves the goal of Zionism to repair its image. Consequently, and most importantly, it works diametrically against Palestinians who are justly fighting, ever day, to highlight Israel’s racist crimes.
Now, back to that Supreme Court case in Ohio I related in the beginning. I’ve tried to set forth some guidelines, but sometimes normalization is just intuitive. We just know it when we see it.
Finally, am I somehow comparing Zionism to pornography? Of course not. Porn is much more decent.