A Strategy of Rejection: The Anti-Normalization Campaign

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May 25, 2012

All of us who yearn for peace between Israel and the Palestinians await the resumption of peace talks. The negotiating table remains the only suitable venue for reconciliation and a lasting agreement. Such reconciliation will require extensive dialogue, difficult concessions and compromise.

If Israelis and Palestinians are expected to sit down and talk to each other in the pursuit of peace, their supporters should certainly be able to do the same. However, some pro-Palestinian groups in the United States are adopting and promoting a tactic that explicitly advises against dialogue and rejects any attempt to engage in a debate of the conflict with their pro-Israel counterparts.

Advocates of this strategy, which has been dubbed, "anti-normalization," argue that a debate between the two sides should be resisted because the very process would legitimize the pro-Israel position. They believe Israelis are the aggressors and Palestinians are the victims and that a portrait of the conflict consisting of two sides is already far too great a concession.

Some significant anti-Israel campaigns and strategies are predicated on anti-normalization, including acts of interrupting and silencing pro-Israel speakers. Such tactics have been employed against numerous Israeli diplomats during speeches at universities across the country. Anti-normalization policies are also at the root of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which are initiatives explicitly based on rejection and isolation. The message of this tactic is loud and clear - The pro-Israel position has no legitimacy and should be suppressed.

As noted, the policy of anti-normalization has played out on college campuses, which is particularly repugnant given that college campuses are supposed to be a "marketplace of ideas." In addition to the acts of disruption that have taken place during pro-Israel events, anti-normalization has officially been adopted by the Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at San Diego State University and Columbia University. An April 2010 statement issued by the Columbia group, which was adapted from a position paper by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (the leading pro-boycott organization in the Palestinian territories), included the following provision:

"Refuse to take part in whitewashing Israel's public image and therefore reject any Israeli-Palestinian meetings that do not recognize our inalienable rights, and explicitly aim to resist Israel's occupation, colonization and apartheid. Israeli-Palestinian meetings that are not committed to such principles give a false picture of equality between the two parties by ignoring and legitimizing Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people. We will not contribute to any event that undermines our rights, or portrays Israel as anything but what it really is: an apartheid state."

Even without explicit anti-normalization policies, several SJP chapters have repeatedly refused to engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups on campus. SJP at the University of California, San Diego, for example, recently issued a press release stating that it considers dialogue with J Street U, a dovish pro-Israel group, "counterproductive to the Palestinian plight for human rights." Students for Justice in Palestine at Yale University has similarly rebuffed numerous offers by the pro-Israel group on campus to work together.

Engaging in anti-normalization strategies has been recommended to students at a variety of events, including a session titled "Confronting the Normalization of Zionism on U.S. Campuses" at a major Muslim-American convention in Chicago, as well as at Israeli Apartheid Week events held annually on campuses across the country. At one event at Rutgers University, Max Blumenthal, an anti-Zionist blogger, urged students to reject "normalization" efforts and argued that because Israel is an "oppressor," the two sides should not sit down and negotiate in good faith with each other.

Anti-normalization is also being promoted to non-student audiences. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, an anti-Israel coalition based in Washington, D.C., advocated against "creeping normalcy" at one of its annual conferences. During a session titled, "The Legal & Popular Approaches to Challenge Zionist Organizations in the United States," presenters warned that interfaith dialogue with Jewish groups could lead to the "normalization" of Zionism and should be avoided.

Anti-normalization is designed to marginalize and suppress the views of the pro-Israel community. While Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters around the world have long been locked in a difficult and heart-wrenching conflict, fuel is added to the fire when one side wholly rejects the legitimacy of the other's position. If unchallenged, anti-normalization has the potential to further isolate Israel and exacerbate tensions among pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates.

If Israelis and Palestinians are expected to sit down and talk to each other in the pursuit of peace, their supporters should certainly be able to do the same.