Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The picture accompanying the Times of Israel article showed three young Jewish men in religious garb dancing at a Palestinian wedding in a small West Bank town. At least one was perched on the shoulders of a fellow Palestinian reveler. The video that made the rounds on Palestinian social media let all the viewers hear the music and feel the excitement.
That video went viral big time. A day after I read the article, every single Palestinian I asked about it had already seen the video and knew the story. But the story was not the guests at the celebration. The story was the reaction of the Palestinian authority and of Palestinian society. The father of the groom, who happened to be the mayor of his town, was being fired by the Palestinian Authority for daring to invite Israeli Jews to his son’s wedding. He was tarred and feathered on Palestinian social media for the sin of social interaction with Israelis. Threats were made against him. The man was forced to apologize, claiming that the Israelis were unwanted guests who crashed the party.
The day after all of this broke was the first meeting of the Roots/Shorashim/Judur joint Palestinian-Israeli women’s photography workshop. That morning I was informed that some of the Palestinian women who had signed up were pulling out. They were afraid that were they to participate in an activity with Israelis, they also might be targeted on social media.
That evening we had a meeting of the Roots/Shorashim/Judur Pathways Towards Reconciliation workshop. We discussed going on an outing together. One of the Palestinian participants brought up the video:
“The atmosphere in the Palestinian street here in the West Bank is too hot, he said. We can’t go on a trip together; I am afraid of what they might do to me were anyone to catch sight of us in public.”
This is not new but it seems to be getting worse and worse. It is called the anti-normalization movement, which is certainly not to be identified with BDS – the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement – but is one of its close cousins here in Israel Palestine.
Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military occupation. The occupation is unjust and often cruel. The Palestinian people are marginalized and have few options of resistance available to them. Some believe in armed struggle. For many who are searching for a non-violent option, the anti-normalization movement seems to fit the bill. It says: Don’t grant legitimacy to and don’t whitewash the oppression of the occupation; don’t accept the status quo; refuse to let anyone get used to it; don’t let the power imbalance appear to you or to them as normal.
In theory, it makes perfect sense and even seems to hold the moral high ground. But in practice, it has bled into the demonization of meaningful human contact.
Over one hundred thousand Palestinians work in Israel for Israeli companies and contractors. This is tacitly accepted because there are few other ways to make a good living. Palestinians daily buy Israeli products. This is accepted because there are few Palestinian alternatives available. The Palestinian Authority maintains ongoing daily security cooperation with the Israeli Defense Forces. This is justified out of necessity. So all that is left of anti-normalization is the prohibition against normal human interaction.
I believe that this is unconscionable. In their efforts to free their bodies and their minds from the Israeli occupation, Palestinians are imposing upon themselves their own occupation. They are sinking deeper and deeper into a state of national self-repression. I have met many Palestinians who are certain that anti-normalization has gone way too far, but their lives are controlled by it. They cannot escape its tentacles. Freedom of thought, and of action, is giving way to socially enforced conformism with the lowest common denominator in their own society. They are beginning to live in a state of fear and intimidation from their own people, and they loathe it.
Secondly, anti-normalization – despite the insistence that it is directed against Israelis and not against Jews – is leading Palestinian society towards dangerous depths of bigotry and hatred. When there is little contact with the “other,” and when such contact is limited and justified only out of necessity, and at the same time demonized and excoriated, then fear and suspicion of the other are legitimized and amplified. Racism grows like cancer and it corrodes the soul and the society.
Thirdly and finally, normal human interaction, if strategized properly, could be the Palestinian “Secret Weapon.” I know this from personal experience. The Palestinians who let me into their lives beginning five and a half years ago have helped to transform me into an advocate for Palestinian human and political rights. I began to see how I had been ensconced in the hard shell of my exclusivist identity that left no room for their legitimacy and freedom. I began to develop understanding and empathy. Trust and hope for reconciliation grew. And I have seen such human transformations hundreds of times since we created Roots/Shorashim/Judur back then. A massive campaign of Palestinians reaching out to Israelis to meet them and talk to them – if properly orchestrated and directed – could be a game changer. It could be the non-violent tactic that paves the way not merely for the end of the occupation, but for real equality, justice, freedom, peace, and security.
I say to all Palestinians: We are not going to crash your party, but if you invite us we will come. Find the courage! Of course, it will not be easy. Non-violent resistance to injustice never is. You will be going up against the taboos of your society as well as suffocating Israeli restrictions that sometimes make interactions between the two sides extremely difficult. Initiate massive social interaction between Palestinians and Israelis and frame these meetings as a form of non-violent resistance to the status quo, present them and conduct them as acts of social and political subversion. The Palestinians and Israelis of Roots/Shorashim/Judur will support you all the way and the power of numbers will mitigate the repercussions. The opposition may even fold like a house of cards.
Three – or more – young Israeli men in Jewish religious garb at every Palestinian wedding in the West Bank, followed by deep discussion laying bare the human suffering and injustices of the occupation, could make all the difference in the world.