This summer, rather than an Israeli Defense Forces soldier arresting a Palestinian kid or a militant Jewish settler trashing a West Bank olive grove, the word “Israeli” is likely to conjure images of Gal Gadot, who plays the swashbuckling female superhero in the blockbuster film Wonder Woman.
The beautiful Israeli actress is God’s gift to her country’s campaign of “normalization”—the political term for image control or hasbara (public relations)—which aims to spotlight Israel’s talents and treasures and keep its “Palestinian problem” in the shadows. You might even say the campaign has been waiting for Gadot.
Although Israel has lots to crow about—revolutionary technical, scientific, agricultural and medical innovations, international humanitarian and rescue operations, unparalleled historic sites and cultural ferment—its normalization tactics strike me as disingenuous, even dishonest. Not because they exaggerate Israelis’ achievements, which are real and worthy of pride, but because a revolutionary cancer cure can’t be twisted into a fig leaf.
Moreover, it will take more than Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets to defend against the growing cadre of “anti-normalization” activists—Palestinians and others—who are using an equally misguided tactic to sabotage Israel’s whitewash of the status quo in the West Bank.
These activists do not join coexistence initiatives like “Two States, One Homeland,” nor do they support human rights groups such as B’Tselem or send their kids to summer camps that bring together Jewish and Arab youths.
Proponents of anti-normalization disdain such people-to-people efforts, no matter how well-meaning. To them, all contacts between Israelis and Palestinians, or Muslims and Jews, are not just meaningless but tantamount to collaboration, unless every participant explicitly commits to promoting three goals: ending the occupation, ensuring equal rights for both peoples and granting Palestinian refugees the right of return (to any part of Israel as well as to a future Palestinian state).
According to groups such as the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) National Committee, if you’re not fighting the occupation their way, you’re normalizing it, and if you don’t endorse all three tenets, you’re useless to the cause. They disagree with people (like me) who support the first two goals but favor a more nuanced, less disruptive Palestinian right of return. They refuse to debate, claiming talk is fruitless. They shout down pro-Israel “normalizers” or anti-BDS speakers on college campuses, silencing rather than engaging dissonant voices.
Unless all three tenets are center stage, they’re not interested in intergroup amity, dialogue, coalition-building or joint actions (for instance, the ceremony on Israel’s Memorial Day in April that was sponsored by Combatants for Peace, a movement of Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters now devoted to reconciliation).
Anti-normalization activists are in your face. They accuse liberal Zionism of hypocrisy, shame progressives as sellouts and protest “pinkwashing”—that is, praising Tel Aviv’s gay rights parade, or Israel’s relative tolerance of homosexual lifestyles and feminist organizations—as if the slightest acknowledgment of such Israeli social advances might neutralize their message or contradict their claims.
Jewish film festivals get boycotted because they’re organized by Jews and shown in Jewish venues and therefore might misrepresent Israel’s behavior. This tactic can be counterproductive: In 2015, producers of the Palestinian film Degrade, about the diversity of Arab life in Gaza, withdrew it from the Manhattan JCC’s The Other Israel Film Festival, an event known for showcasing films about Israel’s minority populations.
No mass movement can succeed by defining people out of its ranks. Yet anti-normalization’s rigidly doctrinaire criteria and aggressive, albeit nonviolent, tactics have been painfully divisive. Rather than unite opponents of the occupation, they create stumbling blocks to solidarity and sideline veteran peace and human rights activists who espouse more traditional means of resistance.
Or, as Gershon Baskin, founder and co-chair of Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives, has written, “I have no idea how the ‘anti-normalizers’ intend to advance their goal by not talking to me.”
Exclusion is a blunt instrument that needlessly alienates potential allies and presumptively dismisses their contributions. On the other hand, in the absence of a third intifada (God forbid), the sociopolitical threat of anti-normalization, added to the economic threat of BDS, could be the Palestinians’ last best hope to make a dent in the public conscience.
Currently, the “peace process” is at a standstill. The Israeli government shuts down public debate, demonizes human rights NGOs as “foreign agents” and bans settlement opponents from entering the state. Hard-core “pro-Israel” apologists dominate the discourse. Well-funded Jewish and evangelical Christian groups trumpet their sanitized versions of reality, while Jewish settlers gobble up more Palestinian land.
The Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border (i.e. the 1949 armistice line) has been virtually eliminated. It has not appeared on Israeli weather charts or textbook maps for years, and most people have no idea what or where it is. In a recent study, fewer than a third of Israeli college students were able to draw it on a map. A large majority of Israelis believe three of the West Bank’s largest Jewish settlements—Kiryat Arba, Ariel and Maaleh Adumim—are located inside Israel.
Founding father David Ben-Gurion famously envisioned Israel as a “normal country.” But it can never be normalized as long as it occupies and subjugates another people. As the song says, “You got to accentuate the positive, and e-liminate the negative.” So far, Israel has gotten only the first part right. And neither whitewashers nor demonizers can help it to achieve the second.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is working on her 12th book, tentatively entitled Shonda.