‘Colonization of the Mind’: Joint Nakba Commemorations and Normalization

Palestinians protest against Jewish settlers who took over their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. (Photo: via ActiveStills.org)

By Benay Blend

“If 15/20 years ago we had listened to ‘serious moderate’ voices telling us to support ‘two-state solution,’ not call out Israeli apartheid and not push BDS,” tweeted journalist Ali Abunimah, “where would the famous ‘conversation’ be now? If you only say what’s already comfortable and accepted,” he concluded, “nothing changes.”

Abunimah’s words are an appropriate introduction to a conversation around how to commemorate Nakba Day, an event fast approaching on May 15th. On that date, Commanders for Peace (CFP) is planning a Joint Nakba Day ceremony, based on the idea that “reconciliation, freedom, and respect for both sides involves a sincere reckoning with history.”

Its sponsors include a wide array of organizations, including liberal Zionist groups as well as Veterans for Peace. Indeed, our local Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice had an ad for the event, sponsored by two local activists, in its newsletter.

In November 2007, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) issued a statement from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) which attempts to qualify the BDS movement’s stance on the “normalization” of Israel put forth by various groups of people. This statement, PACBI contends, has generated a lot of confusion, despite the “near consensus among Palestinians and people in the Arab region” that Israel is not a “normal” state with which “business as usual can be conducted.”

On the surface, though, the joint commemoration appears to be a worthy event. By calling attention to “the horrors and pain of the year 1948,” the joint ceremony does not appear to be avoiding mention of the Nakba. Nevertheless, on closer look, there are several keywords that imply otherwise; rather than a sincere effort to recognize the pain that Israel has wrought on Palestinians for decades, it reduces the “catastrophe” to one year, 1948, and then goes on to bring up all of the liberal Zionist notions that have obscured reality for years.

Of course, the year 1948 is a significant “milestone,” as the organizers term it, in the “history of Palestinian people.” But by “commemorate[ing] this memory,” by signifying it as memory only, they obscure the fact that the Nakba has been ongoing without stop since ’48.

The more than 700,000 Palestinians who CFP mentions have not been given the right of return. Moreover, since 1948, significantly more Palestinians have been exiled from their homes, not only in the 1967 war but also as Israel continues its daily project of ethnic cleansing.

Its good that CFP will “amplify the storied history of the Palestinian experience, a history,” they admit, “which is so frequently prevented from being shared.” Nevertheless, they go on to qualify that “personal testimonies from everyday people will replace political statements, providing an in-depth and emotional account of historical events.”

How do people who have watched their homes being demolished by the Occupying forces leave out the political circumstances of their pain? For example, Atta Jaber has been fighting to keep his home intact since 1993. As he recently attested:

“I have been attacked by the occupation and its settlers where 2 houses were demolished, 2 were imprisoned, 2 were demolished, the water well and the land washed twice, the last of which is 2018, and I’m still fighting a night from the settler attack and another trying to burn down my house.”

His story has been taken up by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which corroborates that for 30 years, Atta and his wife Rudina have been targeted by the occupation in many ways, including “settler harassment” by “physical attacks and verbal abuse.” More extreme, perhaps,

“The family was thrown out of their home, settlers lived in it for a few days, and it has been set on fire.  Numerous times their crops have been poisoned and their water irrigation pipes cut. Israel designated Atta’s land as state land despite his ancestors registering the land during the Ottoman period and to this day Atta holds the official documents to prove Jaber family ownership. However, year by year, more sections of the Jaber family land have been confiscated. In February 2018, Israeli authorities sent in bulldozers to destroy his crops and uproot his fruit and olive trees. Now less than 1% of the original farmland remains.”

Multiply his story by many more so that what results is systemic racism and oppression that cannot feasibly be called anything but “political” without losing all-important meaning. Moreover, how can “respect for both sides,” as the Joint Commemoration reads, imply anything but that the Occupied holds the same moral weight as the Occupier. Each side in this equation is responsible for the Occupation.

Indeed, such false symmetry falls into what the BDS statement refers to as “colonization of the mind,” a situation in which “the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality that must be subscribed to, and that the oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with.”

In an effort to “whitewash its violations of international law and human rights” continues the BDS statement—in this case leaving out any “political” context altogether—Israel attempts to “re-brand itself, or present itself as normal—even ‘enlightened’—through an intricate array of relations and activities,” in this instance, again, through acknowledging the Nakba, albeit as an event only in the past.

Without context attendees at the CFP event might leave feeling good, secure in the misinformation that while there might have been extremist attacks like this one against Jaber, it’s all in the past. Nothing like this is going on today, and if it is, it’s not political but rather random violence, “lone wolfs” not connected to the state.

“The Ceremony will navigate across the past, present, and future,” the announcement ends. “The past cannot be undone. But our acknowledgment and understanding of it in the present can be a source of healing – and can lay the groundwork for creating a different future, free of occupation, war, violence and suffering.”

Yet there is no blueprint given here for the future. Given that this event entails two groups of people with unequal reserves of power—an Occupied and the Occupier—it makes sense that the side with more power will dictate the structure of the endgame, perhaps the now-defunct two-state solution in which Israel still holds all the power.

As the BDS statement notes, dialogue, if it is presented outside of a resistance framework, becomes “dialogue for the sake of dialogue, which is a form of normalization that hinders the struggle to end injustice.” In this case, the event organizers mention “healing” and “reconciliation,” two processes that do not seek to end the Occupation, but rather “serve to privilege oppressive co-existence at the cost of co-resistance,” for the organizers pursue coexistence before there is any “realization of justice.”

It stands to reason, then, that activists cannot support normalization as well as BDS, for the two are clearly in opposition. “The normalization of Israel,” concludes the PACBI statement, in other words, “normalizing the abnormal,” is defined as “a malicious and subversive process that works to cover up injustice and colonize the most intimate parts of the oppressed: their mind.” It is for this reason that the BDS committee asks its followers to boycott this type of event, “an act that BDS supporters must confront together.”

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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