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Steven Salaita

A moral case against normalisation with Israel

'The lesson from my father was unambiguous: Never cross a picket line' writes Salaita [AFP]

Date of publication: 31 August, 2017

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Comment: Normalising relations with Israel amounts to crossing the picket line, and betrays not only compatriots, but everybody oppressed by sites of authority, writes Steven Salaita.
When my father was an undergraduate in the early 1960s, he worked in a Proctor & Gamble warehouse, a Teamsters shop. He had travelled to Texas from rural Jordan, and in the warehouse he found a singular location for the racial, economic, and ideological dramas of his new home. 

With a bit of whiskey and an audience of one or two children, he could be persuaded to reminisce about his days as one of Hoffa's men. 

He liked to tell stories during the summer before my first year of grad school. I had landed a temp job in the warehouse of a small factory that fabricated and distributed binders and folders and other ephemera for the educational marketplace.

Demand was high in the summer, on the cusp of back-to-school season, so the workforce nearly doubled in June.  Regular employees weren't unionised. Every Friday afternoon, a woman showed up and passed out paychecks to the summer help.

My father thought I was getting a raw deal. Why, just a generation earlier, he marvelled, a foreign college student could land a union job without some middleman skimming off the top. You should get a union, he often urged, but I was pretty sure the temp agency frowned upon that kind of activity. 

At the time, I was less concerned with revolution than with earning enough to keep living on my own. I suppose my own child won't be able to rent a place on a temp salary no matter how lax his standards, so one day I'll trouble him with stories about how I once lived alone on minimum wage. It took two generations for my immigrant family to screw up the most cherished tenets of the American dream.

Scabbing weakens the position of striking workers and enables management to increase its leverage

Mortified by the dullness of my workplace, dad tried to cheer me with memories of exciting times in Texas. Strikes made for the best stories: They provoked direct confrontation between workers and management while unleashing tactical bickering and racial tension.

Still, everybody could be unified by their hatred of scabs. "Oh man, they took a hell of a beating" was dad's standard denouement whenever recalling the unfortunate replacement workers shipped in by management. "I still remember their faces. Covered in blood."

I never asked dad if he agreed with the treatment of the scabs. It's the kind of belief one can discern in the telling of the story, and the sort of thing men like my father don't like to admit, if only from a tender sense of propriety. In any case, the lesson was unambiguous: Never cross a picket line.

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This injunction, easily the world's most recognisable political rule, contains multiple levels of meaning. It is first and foremost a strategy: Scabbing weakens the position of striking workers and enables management to increase its leverage. We shouldn't forget its moral importance, though. 

When comrades sacrifice and suffer, magnifying their difficulties to your own benefit is an awful thing to do.

This moral proposition applies to all areas of struggle, so it's useful to periodically invoke the ethos of the strike in relation to activist sensibilities.

That ethos is especially potent vis-à-vis Palestine solidarity. 

Conflating a diffuse national movement with a centralised workplace action would be farfetched, but there is space for productive comparison. The exercise pivots around a simple question: What obligations do we have to comrades? The answers are close to identical.

The struggle for Palestine's liberation can be dangerous, even far from the deprivations of Israeli soldiers and settlers. Those in Palestine and some nearby environs face abhorrent conditions, forever navigating the threat of injury, arrest, or murder.

The occupation is ubiquitous. Children regularly suffer Israel's aggression. They are Palestine's lifeblood, relentless and vulnerable, beloved for their precocious courage but frequent casualties of Israel's cold-blooded demographic calculations. 

The violence in Palestine bleeds into faraway places, from Australia to Canada, where solidarity activists have long been shamed, abused, fired, arrested, and deported

The violence in Palestine bleeds into faraway places, from Australia to Canada, where solidarity activists have long been shamed, abused, fired, arrested, and deported, their travel limited, their livelihoods threatened, their reputations wrecked.

Palestine doesn't automatically spell trouble, though. The activists who face punishment in North America refuse to minimise Palestine's national movement in order to become more legible to western audiences. They work in the spirit of the revolutionary and the refugee, not in the anodyne tradition of the corporate media wonk.

They are, in short, uninterested in placating liberal Zionist anxieties (for example, by rejecting the right of return, ridiculing and misconstruing BDS, or prioritising Jewish American public opinion as the limit of possibility).

These matters come to a head vis-à-vis normalisation with Israel, an old issue that grows more important as sectors of the Arab elite openly collaborate with the erstwhile Zionist enemy.

Normalisation refers to diplomatic, cultural, and economic relationships with Israel

Normalisation refers to diplomatic, cultural, and economic relationships with Israel. Palestine solidarity activists oppose it for both political and philosophical reasons. Renouncing Israel is our only real power in relation to Zionism.  Forfeiting that power satisfies Israel's desire; exercising it reinvigorates the idea of Palestine.

While the behaviour of potentates and dictators is out of our hands, nobody is obliged to accept the conveniences of the ruling class or to entertain civic and religious outfits that engage in normalisation (the Muslim Leadership Initiative being the most notorious offender). 

Efforts at normalisation, especially those undertaken by Arabs and Muslims, generate debate, sometimes acrimonious, from which a narrative consistently emerges that Palestinian recalcitrance is the enemy of progress and the greatest barrier to a peaceful resolution.

In a sense, this accusation is true. Insofar as "progress" is loaded with settler colonial connotations and "peaceful resolution" is a euphemism for continued Israeli plunder, neither outcome is desirable to any person serious about Palestinian liberation.

Terminological subterfuge notwithstanding, we should consider why rhetorical custom always has Palestinians justifying their desire for freedom or answering to charges of incivility. Normalisation isn't merely a political surrender; it also validates Zionism's rational self-image, ensuring that Palestinian nationalism will be marked as belligerent or nonsensical in public debate.

Choices are mediated by whatever notion of common sense informs the context, but it's better to consider how disparities of power influence our deliberations. This approach has been honed into a truism on the picket line: Always stand with your fellow worker - choosing management is worthy of disdain. Mere political consciousness doesn't suffice; camaraderie must be an impulse, as well.

Mere political consciousness doesn't suffice; camaraderie must be an impulse, as well

Even so, management never has trouble finding collaborators. They can sink a strike, but they can't impede the endurance of the principle.

The same principle is paramount to Palestine solidarity.  BDS has erected a picket line, one based on decades of popular sentiment throughout the Arab World. Those who maintain it rely on a vision of collective action through individual choice. The picket line cannot work without forbearance. Crossing it betrays not only compatriots, but everybody oppressed by sites of authority. 

We could go on for days about the foolishness of normalisation, but in the end a simple calculation prevails: Those who profess to support the liberation of Palestine confer to themselves an obligation to champion the human beings who suffer Israel's violence, fully understanding that doing so will repulse the professionals who regulate access to mainstream rewards. 

Aspiring pundits and whitewashed intellectuals, always cognizant of whose interests they actually represent, like to dismiss this ethic as too strident or unrealistic, characterising any criticism of big-name proponents of Palestinian surrender as an attack or a kind of irrational stridency, which evokes Orientalist narratives about the Arab's constitutional inability to adopt the norms of modernity. 

Such words, adeptly vocalising the self-regard of those who imagine having achieved political maturity, are meant to discredit a sensibility without the inconvenience of honesty or analysis.

But there's a better way to describe the unwillingness to diminish Palestinians in order to secure the approval of their oppressors: Principled anti-Zionism. It can be practiced only on the right side of the picket line. 

Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.  Follow him on Twitter: @stevesalaita 


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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