White Man’s Burden: Because Normalization is Hard to Do

On +972 magazine, IPCRI’s Dan Goldenblatt has invited “anyone who has criticism of how we at IPCRI try to advance this goal to tell us so, engage and challenge us, and help us and others improve.” As a long-time critic of the “liberal left” “peace industry” (I thank Goldenblatt himself for the latter term), I’m taking him up on his invitation, picking up from where PACBI left off. To start off, I’ll wonder whether IPCRI “brought [themselves] together” with PACBI to “meet, discuss, argue, build, take apart, share and cooperate”? Or did Goldenblatt just write up his public response to PACBI’s engaging and challenging critique of the organization?

IPCRI and the Feel-Good NGO

PACBI said it best, as they analyzed how IPCRI is de facto assisting in the keeping of the status quo of Israeli state control over the Palestinian people (i.e. normalization), so I won’t repeat their analysis. I want to address the additional issues that Dan Goldenblatt’s piece raises.

Goldenblatt opens by drawing a line in the sand: There are “outsiders”, who may not understand, and it is for their benefit that this article, by an “insider”, has been penned. Of course there’s another “us” and “them”: Little ole’ “peace NGOs” and the big, scary “anti-normalization movement” (I thank Goldenblatt again for that term, it seems another victory of BDS is determining the language used around Palestinian liberation). This line of IPCRI’s victimhood in the face of Palestinian civil society is ironically tickling at best. It consistently runs through the piece, and I’ll be pointing it out as we go along, as it exemplifies the colonial othering mindset so typical of both Israelis in particular, and of NGOs in general.

But don’t get Goldenblatt wrong, because he spends a whole article arguing he’s a true democrat, and I completely agree: He supports “anti-normalization”ists right to voice their opinions and act on these opinions. Very gracious of him, seeing as these opinions have been delegalized by the democracy he so enshrines. To his credit, he even concedes that there is no balance between Israelis and Palestinians:

Israelis and Palestinians in the current status quo are not equal, and projects that promote cooperation for the sake of cooperation, on the basis of equality, while ignoring the very different positions of the occupier/oppressor and the occupied/oppressed do not truly promote change, and therefore are very problematic. Such projects constitute a form of “whitewashing” of the occupation and serve as feel-good projects for all those involved. In actuality, they legitimatize the occupation or totally ignore it, along with the unequal status of the Palestinian nation vis-à-vis the Israelis.

Such astute analysis, so what went wrong in the conclusion department? Well, it seems that the beliefs of the author are not representative of the institution. Either that, or a clear cut case of exceptionalism. The above paragraph is followed by by-definition normalization. IPCRI “brings together” Israelis and Palestinians (necessarily in that order) to “meet, discuss, argue, build, take apart, share and cooperate.” Goldenblatt doesn’t elaborate on what’s being argued, built, taken apart, shared, or cooperated on, but under their list of environmental projects, you’ll find the example of the “Wastewater Treatment for Rural Communities”:

The IPCRI Center for the Environment is spearheading the implementation of an ecologically beneficial, low-cost, low-maintenance alternative to the inadequate conventional sewage system. This new system conveys wastewater to an underground septic tank, pipes the water to a shared wetland for additional treatment, and finally recycles it as irrigation water for selected crops.

Fantastic isn’t it? Now all IPCRI has to do is get the state of Israel to actually funnel some of that gray gold to the remaining indigenous Jordan Valley residents, who can actually reach their crops. If IPCRI fails to do so, the only people to actually benefit from this “combat” will be colonial settlers, and we wouldn’t want to seem like “a form of “whitewashing” of the occupation and serve as feel-good projects for all those involved.”

I Resist, Therefore I Am

At this point in the article comes another astute observation that “Israeli society does not feel the price it is, paying for the occupation, and is, therefore, prepared to maintain the status quo.” Indeed this observation makes me happy that Dan Goldenblatt has been “increasingly running up against the anti-normalization movement”. It could be just about time that NGOs (not just the ones “dedicated to peace“, and especially the bigger ones, with more mainstream prominence) start feeling the price for their part in keeping the status quo- in the least- by running up against anti-normalization movements. But when I say this, I only prove Goldenblatt’s thesis that

closing the door on contact between Palestinians and Israelis assisting in the construction of another, invisible, wall by Palestinians against Israeli civil society organizations like IPCRI who oppose the occupation is a tragedy.

Do you hear it? It’s the smallest violin in the world playing for the white man’s burden… woops, here I prove it again… But seriously, is it a tragedy that victims wish to close the door on enablers of their abuse? And can you honestly claim that the door of communication is closed, when there are groups of citizens of Israel that joined the call for BDS, also in regards to Israeli NGOs? Does my own sheer existence not disprove the theory? But why bother the Israeli “liberal left” peace industry with nuance? Nuance is like identity politics- it’s divisive. Just like the “anti-normalization movement”:

Chasing Palestinians who chose to speak to Israelis notwithstanding all the long and justified frustration and disappointment is also, I submit, undemocratic by those movements and worrying.

A true democrat indeed.

The Solution to Normalization: Normalize Dissent

When cornered, the liberal man can always pull out the “but I support women’s lib” card. And so our cornered friend Goldenblatt, reaches far and wide and comes up with IPCRI’s Women Empowered for Peace project:

This project gives participating women on both sides the opportunity to see and acknowledge the hardships that the occupation causes, and the reality in which they live but generally fail to acknowledge. To get to know each other personally and connect, woman to woman, human to human, does not entrench the occupation. Even if only a portion of the participants goes home feeling that the situation must change, this changes the status quo.  Bringing people together is not something that maintains business as usual of the Israeli occupation.

Would this be a “difficult sell for the anti-normalization movement to convince [Goldenblatt] that a project such as IPCRI’s Women Empowered for Peace project has harmed the Palestinian cause and that it should cease”? I speak only for myself, but allow me to try:

  1. Balance between the burden of occupier and occupied is a major no-no. It does nothing for the liberation of the oppressed, since they don’t have the privilege to “fail to acknowledge” the barrel of the gun in their face. It will, however, make the participating oppressors feel real swell about their open-mindedness, and that fuzzy feeling of “security” that some of them backwards people are “good Arabs”. (woops.. did I slip out of the vague intellectualizing realm?)
  2. I’d wager that these kinds of projects are exactly what maintains the status quo, but I don’t want to “close doors”, so I’m willing to engage in democratic norms: I ask IPCRI to try and follow up on their participants’ activities and provide some statistics: How many of the privileged participants, “Women [50?] and men, previously indifferent and uninvolved, [actually] become involved, join civil society, maintain cross-border relations, initiate joint activism, protest, show solidarity and fight for ending the occupation and for change”?

How’s my sales pitch? Not convinced? Still thinking about how tragic it would be to cease this humanitarian intervention of great social and political import? Allow me another crack at it:

3. As far as BDS goes, you don’t have to cease anything, just adjust in a way that doesn’t promote normalization. In other words: Normalize dissent. For example, while liberating women, please do not put me back in the kitchen. But if you’ve already cocked up, try addressing cultural theft, by not avoiding the subject of stolen culture (yes, we’re talking Hummus).

OK, my tone may have been a bit snide here, but in fact, it’s no different than Goldenblatt’s own words:

The Israeli “Peace Industry” must indeed look inside itself, transform, evolve, re-calibrate and even repent. We have been too comfortable in our positions. We have been perhaps too lazy and complacent. We have our “co-existence” friends and perhaps some of us lost sight of the fact that change on the ground has not been achieved. We are living rather comfortably, while Palestinians continue living under the occupation, while racist policies are maintained and even strengthened within Israel. There is a fair and long overdue demand for reform.

“The Ten Commandments of BDS”

Gotta love the Jewish-centered humor in a piece about building bridges between the colonial population, deriving its privilege from it’s religion, and the indigenous population who are not part of the religion. But I digress, because Goldenblatt’s statement about the “ten commandments of BDS” wasn’t about Jews, it was about the “cultish” and “anti-democratic” nature of the “anti-normalization movement”. You see, mid the-above-paragraph, after declaring that “IPCRI intends to lead by example”, Goldenblatt goes back to bashing the divisive, non-democratic “anti-normalization movement” (straw man emboldened by me):

However, we, Palestinian and Israeli activists, should be allowed to disagree and voice our disagreements, or try to influence policies and activities we think are counter-productive.  That being said, closing the door is not reform; it is cutting one another off. No one who wants to see a just and honorable resolution of the conflict should agree to that.

What’s wonderful is that we can both voice our disagreements as to what “just and honorable” means. Oh no, wait! I can’t! It’s illegal for me to voice “criticism of how we at IPCRI try to advance this goal”. I guess the (three… just three) commandments of BDS aren’t that commanding. In fact, one might say that they’re at a slight disadvantage against a whole web of state-regulated and state-funded counter-operations.

So while “Giving up on each other” is in fact “too terrible a reality to contemplate”, Palestinians don’t have the privilege of not contemplating it. And though I’m guilty of speculating as much as the next Ashkenazi woman on the privileged side of the apartheid, I doubt Palestinians imagine that IPCRI’s joint cooking expeditions will liberate them, or even merely stop the state of Israel from claiming Hummus as its national cuisine. Indeed “no one possesses all the truth and wisdom”, but the oppressor can always act as if he does, and he can always fake good intention and humility while he does it.

1 thought on “White Man’s Burden: Because Normalization is Hard to Do”

  1. Thanks to Tali Shapiro for this razor sharp.
    So true:
    “Balance between the burden of occupier and occupied is a major no-no. It does nothing for the liberation of the oppressed, since they don’t have the privilege to “fail to acknowledge” the barrel of the gun in their face. It will, however, make the participating oppressors feel real swell about their open-mindedness…”

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