Galilee Diary: Normalization
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will… be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture...
– Israel Declaration of Independence
Recently the American rabbinical students spending their first year at our Jerusalem campus came to the Galilee on a two-day educational excursion, for a series of encounters on the topic of “a Jewish, democratic state.” I facilitated part of the trip, a visit to the village of Dir El Assad. The plan was for them to meet with an English teacher (from a different village nearby), who articulates an anti-Zionist position, and then to meet with an 18-year old from the community who is doing National Service (the alternative to military service). However, while we were arranging the chairs and dividing the group, the teacher got into a conversation with the National Service volunteer that so upset the young woman that she left the community center and refused to participate. We were left to round up a few high school students who were on the premises, to meet with the group in place of the volunteer.
This debate has been going on for years in the Arab community, with a strident Arab establishment position against National Service – in the face of increasing numbers of kids signing up every year, to work in hospitals and community centers, serving their community and the larger society, gaining career skills, expanding their horizons and their social circles, and obtaining economic benefits. The opposition argues that National Service is a part of the defense establishment and therefore inappropriate for Arab kids; and/or that volunteers fill positions that would otherwise provide jobs in the community. Neither seems very convincing; it seems to me that the underlying objection is a rejection of normalization/integration. Actually, it took the Jewish establishment years to come to the realization that encouraging (and funding) National Service for Arab kids was a worthwhile investment in the future – and the commitment is still rather lukewarm.
Once a third party suggested to a youth circus in the West Bank that they participate in a joint program that included our Israeli Jewish-Arab circus; the response was a resounding No. There is a very strong voice in Palestine that rejects such attempts at normalization as a betrayal of the Palestinian national interest: if we all do circus tricks together and eat hummus together, the world will think that we accept the status quo of the occupation... While I’m not sure I agree with the strategy, it does have a powerful logic.
But here in the Galilee, where we are all citizens of Israel, and are supposed to be equal citizens, it seems to me that normalization and integration are in everyone’s interest, and represent the path to political influence and educational and economic advancement for the Arabs, as well as the path to peace and justice for everyone. I imagine that the opposition has several roots:
- Anti-zionism – rejection of the concept of a Jewish state, and insistence on a neutral, non-sectarian state like the US.
- Acceptance of the state as it is, but use of the anti-normalization lever to push the state to honor its commitments to equality of rights and opportunities.
- Concern that integration will lead to a weakening of ethnic and religious identity.
- Identification with the struggle for statehood by Palestinians outside the border of Israel.
Each of these concerns is understandable. And we certainly cannot tell the Arabs how to feel or what to think. It seems to me that our challenge is to prove to them by our deeds that normalization and integration will yield a better life and a stronger society for all of us.