Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thoughts on the Olive Tree Initiative Trip and Normalization

Author's Note: The first three paragraphs of this piece portray a dialogue and between a myself and a metaphorical Everyman of a certain political perspective. Readers of this blog need not worry that I am singling them (or any other person) out.

I have been quite sluggish for the past month, taking frequent naps and heading to bed before midnight. This, along with the rigors of my new job, are what have prevented me from making the much-awaited first post of the New Year.

Now why am I so tired, you ask, when you meet me in the coffee house.

The answer is largely jet-lag: I returned on January 11th from a ten-day Conflict Education trip to Israel-Palestine with the Olive Tree Initiative.

Why would you go on that trip, some may say?

This "why" is not the "why" asked by family members worried about my safety, nor the "why" posed by friends curious about my interest in the conflict. Rather, this why asks "how can you go on a trip that normalizes the Occupation and/.or Apartheid in Palestine.

Maybe, you think that the adoption of a terminology of a two-sided "conflict" obscures the oppressive nature of the West Bank Occupation regime.

 Maybe, instead, you fear that the program's careful balancing of Zionist Israeli and Palestinian speakers (and narratives) too strikingly resembles the sort of "dialogue groups" that characterized the failure of the Oslo era.  

Before I voice another subconscious opinion of yours, I must rebuke by pointing out that the Olive Tree Initiative (unlike some other trips of greater noteriety) bears no insitutional affiliation with the Israeli government or Zionist organizations (even if pro-Zionist groups and individuals may donate money from time to time). Indeed, the group's sole stated mission is to provide "rigorous academic preperation" and "experential education" (hence the travel to conflict zones) necessary to "better understand, negotiate and resolve conflicts." Note how the word "understand,"in particular, denotes the detachment from any particular narrative. As such, any of the frames that you fear the group mirrors are not the intent of the trip leaders/organizers.

What supposedly holds true in theory is supported by my empirical observation.

During the course of the trip, the group met and conversed with figures as politically diverse as Palestinian academic Mazin Qomsiyeh and Hebron settler leader David Wilder. While providing each speaker's background and political orientation, the group leader, Daniel Wehrenfennig, never made value judgements about a speaker when addressing the group. Nor did he seek to guide or frame the innumerable conversations participants had (following each session) about speakers or the trip as a whole. The official group reflection sessions, held every evening, were hands-off, allowing for the free flow of thoughts and opinions.

Indeed, at no time during the trip did we ever feel stifled in our conversation. I could make a comment in the daily reflection session on how I was led to a believe (through my day's experiences) in a one state solution as an ideal resolution to the conflict only to have a companion retort that the "two-state solution remains the only realistic outcome."

One night, when the group split up to attend dinner gatherings at the homes of locals, I found myself engaged in a three-way conversation/debate on the discriminatory nature of Zionism involving myself, a student prominent in Zionist activism at UCLA (I won't give out any names)  and our house, whose house had beeen damaged during the 2001 siege  in the Church of the Nativity. Our host and I actually dominated with our arguments pointing out Zionism's ethnic colonial and the third participant remained largely silent.

This brings me to my second objection to criticism of OTI from Palestine Solidarity activists about the trip: the humanizing effect that it has on Zionist students.

No student, no matter how they were raised, can go through the intensive, racially-charged "security screenings" at Israel's airports, embassy and military checkpoints without recognizing the practice of bare-boned racism.

No trip participant can travel from the bourgeois suburbs of Haifa to the dilapitated refugee camps at Deheisheh and Jenin and witness the snaking walls and pots on the rooftops for collecting rainwater (so scarce is the amount of water the authorities allocate) without acknowledging the fundamental power disparity between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

If the trip had an overtly activist or anti-occupation agenda, Zionist students would probably shun the trip, as would many non-Zionist students (like myself) who rely on ionist-minded relatives for funding. By presenting a sheath of detached "neutrality" the Olive Tree Initiative manages to attract pro-Israel students to a trip that lures in them into the underbelly of the Occupation.

True, the trip exposes students to as many the voices from Israeli society as it does to those in Palestinian society. Many of the Israelis we met with on the trip spoke of their own fears of Palestinians and need for security. What one took from the Israeli narrative was left up to the individual.

For me at least, the surrounding contexts of occupation and military rule, together with the humanity I found in the Palestinians I met made it clear that the fearful Israeli perspective, though an attitude to be dealt with, proved misplace and unfounded.

Other students, who may have been rooted more firmly in Zionist background, likely reached different conclusions. On a hopeful note, however, I recall an one student with revisionist Zionist express concerns with Israel's airport interrogation methods after hearing one of the Muslim students recount his experience

The best way for participants (especially Zionist students) to absorb the reality of Occupation and oppression would be for a stronger activist presence on the trip. By conveying an added layer of context at each step of the journey, Palestinian activist students would provide a valuable educational resource.

All of this leads to a larger point that I have about "normalization" (and why I am opposed to many applications of the term by anti-normalization activists).

Yes, I do believe that certain "dialogue" efforts which are initiated by right-wing Zionist institutions and actors supporting the Occupation (e.g. a "peace conference" held in a settlement) are too patronizing and cooptive to expect Palestinian participation.

And yet, in many cases, I believe that education forums, like the Olive Tree Initiative, and even infamous "dialogue groups" can help empower Palestinian participants, if the latter use their presence wisely.

Even where dialogue takes an implicitly "balanced" stance, that fails to recognizes the gaping power differentials, Palestinian participants can (and should) utilize their presence to subvert the frame of discussion by laying bare cogent and forceful facts that argue for justice.

But why should Palestinians participate in dialogue groups that fail to recognize the fundamental injustice perpetrated by one side?

A telling answer lies in the fact that (as I've mentioned before) Ultra-zionism is largely born in ignorance. American Jews spend their lives cooped up in an ideological "cocoon", in which they are raised to believe Palestinians as reincarnations of the racist and menacing anti-semites of yore. This leads them to unwittingly support (with "reluctance") repressive political actions by Israel that often conflict with the liberal attitudes that they hold on most other issues.

An added rationale for Palestinians and their sympathizers to participate in shared forums with Zionist Israelis-even those that appear condescending-is an age-old piece of strategic wisdom: you can't win a fight unless you"know"your enemy, by understanding (though not necessarily acknowledging) his mindset and worldview.

Bringing justice to as messy of a trauma as that tormenting Palestine will require as much discipline as passion and as much nuance as dogma. Especially given the amount of fear and vitriol that drives oppression in this region, it is more advisable that Palestinians counter through open mouths than closed arms. Indeed, as Martin Luther King affirmed, justice is fundamentally intertwined with peace and understanding.

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