On Normalization and the Joint Memorial Ceremony in Palestine, Israel

Combatants for Peace annual Memorial Day event, in 2013. (Photo: via CFP Website)

By Benay Blend

“To be liberated,” writes Rima Najjar, “Palestine must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to Israel, but in the context of her own capacity and her personality.”

In a January 2012 statement by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), members defined “normalization” as an English translation of the Arabic word tatbi’, describing something abnormal as normal. Samah Sabawi quotes the PACBI website to affirm that in reality normalization amounts to a “colonization of the mind,” whereby the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is “normal,” an approach antithetical to Najjar’s statement.

It follows that “those who engage in normalization either ignore this oppression, or accept it as the status quo that can be lived with.” In an attempt to whitewash its violations of international law and human rights, Israel attempts to re-brand itself, or present itself as normal — even “enlightened” — through an intricate array of relations and activities encompassing hi-tech, cultural, legal, LGBT and other realms.

An upcoming normalization project that brings Palestinians and Israelis together in dialogue is the annual Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony, this year on April 13, 2021. Billed as “the largest Israeli-Palestinian Peace Event in History,” it declares that “War and occupation are Not Acts of Fate – but a Human Choice!” There is no mention of who is the occupier and, correspondingly, who is the occupied.

“A typical normalization project brings Palestinians and Israelis together,” contends Sabawi, to talk about the “hate” that “drives the conflict” in an effort to bring about some mutual accord. Indeed, the Joint Memorial Day Ceremony, co-hosted by Combatants for Peace (CFP) and Parents Circle—Families Forum, describes its mission as “challeng[ing] the traditional narrative of victimhood and separation.” By ignoring the ongoing Nakba as well as the apartheid wall, which separates Palestinians not only from Israelis but also from their land, there will be no change from the current situation.

It is as if, Sabawi notes, “Palestinian resistance is driven by emotions of hate not acts of oppression, by irrational anger and not dispossession, by senseless loathing and not acts of ethnic cleansing!”

In an article in The Nation, Avigal Corry and Sulaiman Khatib, an Israeli woman who served in the Israeli army and a Palestinian man who served 10 years in an Israeli prison, respectively, discuss why they came to support a binational day of mourning composed of families from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, all united in their effort to recognize losses on both sides. For her part, Corry explains that she was seeking a mourning ritual that moves beyond the notion of “divide and conquer” in order to build instead a joint practice for remembering the dead. Khatib responds that he wanted to find a space where he could “see that [he was] being heard.”

While Corry acknowledges “asymmetry and power gaps” between Palestinians and Israelis, and Khatib denies that he wants to “eras[e] the differences between occupier and occupied,” that is in many ways exactly what they are doing. By including herself in those she believes that the government seeks to divide and conquer, Corry glosses over the fact that it is in fact Palestinians who are the conquered people, and it was by her own country of which she is a part.

It is telling that both are members of CFP, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who seek to demonstrate by their actions that there is a Third Way to end the alleged “cycle of violence” that plagues both people. In turn, they support a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, two communities that will somehow grow out of CFP principles of cooperation and coexistence.

In these opening words CFP belies problems inherent in its position, and thus intrinsic, too, in the notion of an alternative binational day of mourning. In his analysis of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (2018), Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice discusses the aftermath of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report regarding survivors of residential boarding schools.

Here Justice might just as well be referring to groups like CFP when he claims that “reconciliation” has become all that what is left of the commission’s findings. Significantly, true to what he calls his country’s commitment to “historical amnesia,” truth has “largely dropped from the discussion” (p.158). Canada’s less than stellar treatment of its Indigenous population, then, rarely finds its way into conversations with settlers who have increasingly made the term “reconciliation” devoid of any serious consideration.

“We need to return truth to these discussions,” writes Justice. He continues that relationships must be more than “one-time-only” (p. 159) resolutions that benefit one side only of the relationship. In the case of Israel, it is the settler society’s quest to re-brand itself as normal that not only erases injustices and exclusions of the past, but replicates those acts as well.

Alternative Memorial Day 2018, for example, was entitled Remembering Our Future Together, yet the definitive historical moment for Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba, was most likely absent from the ceremony. There was instead a focus on “both sides,” as in both sides mourning their dead together, which implies in turn that each side bears equal responsibility for the “conflict.”

In a 2014 article by Lilach Ben David, translated from the Hebrew by Ofer Neiman, Ben David takes on the annual ceremony which had just taken place that year. “As long as there is an occupation, equality is impossible,” writes Ben David. The alternative memorial allows the Israeli public to forget about the occupation, she continues, by implying that “the murderer and the murdered” are equal.

“Normalization through memory,” Ben David terms the ceremony, a ritual which reduces Israel’s multi-tiered system of oppression — occupation, colonization and apartheid — to a “conflict” in which both sides share equal blame. Moreover, when the words Occupation and Justice are left out of the messaging, she charges, they are not just “straying from the truth.” Instead, the Occupier is renouncing responsibility for wrong doing, “concealing its shame” under the rubric of “equality and joint responsibility” for injustice.

Joint memorial ceremonies have a precedent. In South Africa, Ben David notes, Truth and Reconciliation committees took place after the end of apartheid. In Canada, the same: the first joint commissions appeared many years after the end of the board school era. According to Ben David,

The attempt to hold a joint memorial ceremony, not only as occupation and injustice are taking place, but also while deliberately attempting to blur out any reminder of these, can only culminate in the formation of an immoral and mendacious equality between the oppressor and the oppressed, normalization.

As a leading Palestinian youth activist put it: “the only normal relationship between those from the oppressor community and those from the oppressed community is co-resistance, not co-existence. Co-existence can only happen (ethically speaking) after the end of oppression, when both sides can enjoy equal rights.”

No justice, no peace. No truth, no reconciliation. In accordance with PACBI’s statement on normalization, projects like the Alternative Memorial Day that do not focus on ways in which to end the Occupation end up deceiving participants into believing that coexistence, not “co-resistance,” in and of itself can end oppression.

In this way, Palestinians, regardless of their good intentions, are served up as “fig-leaves” for Israelis who go back to their comfortable lives, believing perhaps that they have done a good deed by momentarily engaging Palestinians rather than oppressing them. In the end, nothing changes for the good.

– 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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