How Hebrew teaches us something about ourselves, Part 2

 Am I normalizing with Israel?

“I can understand that you haven’t blown up the hall in order not to kill the little children. I know you were against the capture of Israeli athletes in Munich, the hijacking of planes, and the killing of civilians. You were even against the Lebanese [civil] war. You used to say that this is not how wars should be waged, because those who do not respect the life of others do not deserve to defend theirs.”

– From the movie Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun), directed by Yousri Nasrallah and based on a novel by Elias Khoury.

The two words that pop into the listener’s mind upon mention that I translate from Hebrew, especially among our close circles, are “normalization” and “boycott.” Those two words are so central to political literature in Egypt; they constitute the access ticket to addressing Israel. This is not the case in a place like Lebanon, for example, where there is a discourse on resistance, in addition to boycott and normalization. Since there is no such resistance in Egypt, the parameters of our relationship to Israel, or specifically that of the intelligentsia, is channeled through those two set phrases. There is no room for seriously addressing the conflict, or Zionism; no place for challenging anything, you are either a “boycotter” or a “normalizer.”

Due to the looseness of a term like “normalization,” and the fact that it does not have a single definition, it was easily abused to scare and stigmatize. The spin-off was that normalization has itself become the object of mockery and ridicule by many in the Arab world. This is why I attempt to give my two cents on the subject: What is considered normalization and what is not? The delineation between normalization and boycott is not as clear as it seems.

Upon graduating university, I paid a visit to the Israeli Academic Center in Giza — an incident that continues to make me slightly uneasy. I went there to borrow a book, which I photocopied and returned, then never went back. I also connected with Israeli friends on the Internet and met some in person whenever they were in Cairo. I was excited about studying Hebrew and would venture into the virtual world’s chat forums and debate Israelis on issues like the occupation, Zionism, the Holocaust and suicide bombings. That hard-hitting encounter proved to be a bitter experience, I must say, simply because it introduced me to the hyper nationalist, dogmatic and moronic side of Israelis. I remember how I used to carefully craft my responses in well-articulated Hebrew—which came out funny regardless—only to be bombarded by dogmatic and infuriating comments that mocked my “lethal and suicide-driven Arab intentions.” I quickly gave up on those forums and never went back. The experience was particularly upsetting, however, because it was my first and only encounter with average Israelis who refuse to hear anything but the Zionist narrative. My work as a translator, interested in cultural issues, had only directly exposed me to the Israeli intelligentsia, poets, artists and leftists.

If this sole encounter on chat forums over 10 years ago left me with such lingering bitterness, how about Palestinians? How is it for those who were expelled from their land and are now denied their right to the homes of their ancestors who were living there, not 2,000 years ago, but 50?

I have been published only a few times in Israeli periodicals. I remember one time when the Israeli poet Yitzahak Laor (my first ever Israeli friend) asked me to write something for Mitaam, a radical left magazine. They were working on an issue that focused on “the mother.” I wrote an article that linked motherhood to the land, and went on to talk about Zionism and its relationship to our “motherland.” In spite of the staunch anti-Zionist position of the magazine, I was still uncomfortable writing about general issues for Israelis. I made it a point to tell Israelis things they didn’t want to hear about themselves, and I no longer have the same reservations today. I haven’t yet, but I don’t think I would mind writing about general issues in Israeli periodicals, only if the publications are independent from the state and identify as anti-Zionist.

Without turning this into a personal confession, I admit that I am not sure whether I am normalizing or not. All I can say is that I am against the military state of Israel from top to toe. It is a state built on depopulating Palestinian villages by military assault, expulsion, land appropriation and the displacement of families. This differs from other states that have committed such assaults as part of their history; expulsion and displacement makes up the entirety of Israel’s history, is its raison d’être. In his book, We Write You, Homeland, Yitzahak Laor tells us how David Ben-Gurion waved his hand in 1948, in response to Isaac Rabin’s question: What will we do with the people of Al-Lid and Al-Ramla? In regards to these two Palestinian villages, he waved his hand, to say, “Expel them!” This hand wave that led to the expulsion of 50,000 Palestinians was not documented, written down or told to anyone, except by Rabin to his biographer, to later be quoted by Laor. This was not the only incident of eviction at the wave of a hand in Israel’s history. The works of those known as Israel’s new historians, such as Avi Shlaim, Bennie Morris and Ilan Pappé, illustrate the massacres of Palestinians in Palestine. This is only to respond to the foolishness of the claim that Palestinians have sold their land. Yes, some might have sold their land, but the rest have witnessed their villages being burned down, their people killed and displaced.

All I know is that Israel cannot exist in its current status, for the sake of humanity, not only Arabs or Muslims. Hence, I completely understand the need to boycott and isolate Israel. In other words, the call for boycott is not a crazy idea, as some would like us to believe. After all, the apartheid regime in South Africa was boycotted and isolated until it came to an end. Even if the boycott movement won’t end Zionism, it will at least limit its popularity — only if it is a sensible boycott, that is.

The boycott movement that I believe in is one that distinguishes between individuals and state institutions. I am convinced that boycotting individuals, particularly anti-Zionists, will not solve anything. This will only turn the conflict into a racist rivalry, rather than a human struggle. This differentiation is essential and led me to oppose, quite early on, suicide attacks on Israeli cities, on moral grounds; killing an unarmed civilian is simply a crime. Nonetheless, I can still understand some of those acts. In other words, I recognize that a person who is subjected daily to such oppression does not separate between the human and the institution committing it. But I still cannot justify attacks against civilians. For me, the enduring ethical goal is to “deprive the sovereign from the means of domination,” rather than “kill the sovereign.” The means of domination here refers to the Israeli army in specific.

The historical example I have in mind is the liberation of southern Lebanon by Hezbollah. Hezbollah was my favored Arab resistance champion in 2000, but this perception has changed after the role it assumed in the 2006 war and its intervention in Syria. In 2000, Hezbollah succeeded in liberating the South, and the sight of the humiliated Israeli forces retreating from Lebanon showcased the greatest ever defeat of Israel since its inception. At that time, Hezbollah had not committed assaults against Israeli civilians, at least none on purpose, concentrating instead on military targets. It is plausible then, to be ethical and still succeed.

Finally, one could say that dealing with the Israeli state’s institutions, such as when accepting official invitations, or resorting to the Israeli embassy, could boost the Israelis’ egotism, and help them accomplish what they have set out to do. This is exactly the reason for my uneasiness for visiting the Israeli Academic Center earlier. The center is affiliated with the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities. This academy is “the State of Israel’s representative to international scientific organizations and local scientific institutions,” according to the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The center was established in the context of the Camp David Accords, through which Anwar Sadat forced Egyptians to act “normally” towards this other, without asking their opinion first. Egyptians were, after all, an insignificant party here. Peace with Israel was unnatural, an imposed “normalization” that was born dead.

It seems to me that the boycott is turned on its head here in Egypt. While politicians and businessmen are dealing normally with their Israeli counterparts, the intellectuals are boycotting. This has two consequences: it grants Israel political and economic legitimacy, and contributes simultaneously to the lack of knowledge about Israel. The economic boycott is far more important and sensible than the intellectual or cultural boycott. It is more important to pressure businessmen not to invest in Israel, rather than harass intellectuals for shaking hands with other intellectuals at international forums. But the sad reality is that the intellectuals of our country cannot raise their voices against the businessmen, or they think of the latter as godly beings beyond judgment. We, among the weak cast of intellectuals, can only judge each other; intellectuals are more capable of boycotting other intellectuals, rather than boycotting politicians or businessmen for normalizing with Israel.

That said, one could still claim that, while risking ignorance of Israeli society, the cultural boycott is not completely senseless. It is just not articulated and thought of in a clever manner. To better illustrate this point, a comparison between playwright Ali Salem’s visit to Israel versus novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s often comes to mind. Why was the former ostracized and the latter welcomed? It seems that the answer lies in their contrasting discourse on Israel. In other words, some have gone to Israel to be impressed, like Salem, while others, like Soueif, went to reveal Israel’s true face. It is true that both of them had preconceived notions, but this is telling of how the problem does not lie in whether one goes to Israel or not, but rather in one’s position on Israel. This also manifests the great difference between adopting blind rhetoric and having a bit of vision.

Another illustration of this distinction has to do with the reception of the famous Egyptian spy television series, Raafat al-Haggan, which depicted an alleged Egyptian double agent in Israel. Egyptians, including the intellectual and political elite, followed the series. No one accused the main spy character of normalizing with Israel, or its writer, Saleh Morsi, of “humanizing the enemy.” Morsi remained popular inside the Nasserist and Arab nationalist circles, and echoed their views. Why was the author’s depiction of the bad and the good in Israeli life welcomed, while he in fact did humanize the enemy and was even interviewed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz following the show? The answer has to do with a sensibility within the cultural boycott movement — often oblivious to its own existence — that distinguishes between dealing with Israel and the position on Israel. 

The boycott is not a completely crazed strategy, but it is also not a clever enough scheme. In order for the boycott to be effective, we need to filter out the ignorant, preconceived notions that are plagued by vast generalizations. Only then will it become an effective weapon, rather than one that backfires.

This is the second article in a five-part series. 

Nael El Toukhy 

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