Editor’s note: This article is part of Mada Masr Arabic’s series on BDS, encouraging Arab writers to express their views on the boycott of, and normalization with, Israel. It has been translated and edited from the original Arabic piece here.
It is common for me to hear friends in Lebanon exchanging their experiences of meeting an Israeli for the first time. Many stories include feelings of shock, horror, anger and disgust.
My first experience with an Israeli was during my teenage years in the 1990s. I was at Cairo International Airport, waiting for my flight back to Beirut, when two slightly older young men sat next to me on high bar stools for coffee. They spoke to me in English and I chatted with them. When one of them told me, “You’re beautiful, you look Israeli,” I realized they were Israelis. I shuddered, my mind froze, I felt a lump in my throat and, in that moment, I despised my vulnerability almost as much as I despise Israel.
I yelled at them nonsensically. They told me that they had packed their belongings and left Palestine — their place of birth — because they reject the settler occupation upon which Israel is founded and have no desire to serve in its military forces. But I couldn’t keep listening to them; this very act of communication seeming akin to acceptance, defeat. A crime. My entire existence at this moment felt like a crime. For many years to come, I was ashamed of this treachery because they had sat next to me at that airport coffee bar, and I was only 15 years old.
This is neither a healthy space for expressing hostility toward Israel, nor a healthy mode of being.
I began thinking about writing this article at the end of 2017, as the Lebanese boycott movement accused Lebanese film director Ziad Doueiri of normalization with Israel, and started writing it this March as Lebanese playwright Ziad Itany was declared innocent of treason and it became evident that a security agency had framed him.
In Doueiri’s case, the boycott movement in Lebanon demanded that he be brought to justice because one of his films, The Attack (2012), was shot in occupied Palestinian territories (he used his US passport to gain entry), and because of his stances in favor of the enemy state and against the boycott campaigns. The boycott movement also campaigned for his subsequent film, The Insult (2017) — on Lebanese-Palestinian history in Lebanon — to be banned, but Lebanese authorities authorized the film. This time, the debate was confined to who has the right to initiate discussion, and The Insult was officially nominated to represent Lebanon at the Oscars.
Itany, meanwhile, was charged with treason. He was accused of “promoting normalization among Lebanese intellectuals” at the behest of Israel’s Mossad, based on fabricated allegations released by a Lebanese security agency throughout his four-month imprisonment between November and March. Once news of his “treason” spread, many from the boycott movement demanded that any acts suspected of cultural normalization be deemed illegal, and that anyone expressing a desire to debate the topic of normalization be labeled a traitor.
Treason, normalization and everything in between were thus lumped together, and when Itany was declared innocent it undermined the credibility of anti-normalization discourse. The slogan “treachery isn’t a perspective” overshadowed any nuanced discussion on normalization. Moreover, it has become clear in recent years that various distinct, often hysterical reactions to normalization are present in the Lebanese public sphere, negating any discussion about its basis and equating such discussions with compromise in favor of Israel. Such views have their roots within government authorities and political alliances.
There are two common approaches to normalization in Lebanon: one sees any discussion as tantamount to compromise in favor of Israel, and the other is less organized and more prone to irritation and anger. These approaches feed off of their antagonism towards one another, rendering any space for conversation dangerous, except for extremists from both sides.
To debate normalization requires an element of security, particularly where cultural matters are concerned, as many of these confrontations occur over intellectual and cultural normalization, as economic normalization is criminalized by the Lebanese state.
Other recent examples are worth mentioning at this point, as they highlight the need for a debate on normalization: A campaign was successful in banning the screening of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) in Lebanon, because the main star, Gal Gadot, had served in the Israeli army. The Lebanese boycott movement and the secretary general of Hezbollah spoke about banning The Post (2017), due to director Steven Spielberg’s support of Israel, though this was not entirely successful and the film was eventually screened. A visit to Lebanon by Palestinian filmmaker and actor Mohammad Bakry, who also holds Israeli papers, split the ordinarily undivided boycott movement in terms of opinion. Those who welcomed his visit confronted those who searched for positions he has held that could be labelled normalization, to justify kicking him out of Lebanon.
The space to discuss any new case or experience in Lebanon is limited by the idea that “treachery isn’t a perspective” and by competing claims over who has the right to have such conversations in the first place. There is a need, however, to address these critical and controversial issues through discussion, as a means of defending boycott discourses against those who are pro-normalization. Indeed, the need for an open discussion on drafting the principles of the boycott campaign and definitions of normalization in the region has existed since the 1950s — a need addressed by critical figures like Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury.
Times are changing, as are people and regimes. The ways in which we define justice mandate that we keep up and don’t retreat behind platitudes.
There is intense anxiety concerning Israel in Lebanon. But there is a deeper anxiety concerning ourselves and our stance on Israel, almost as if we are vulnerable and weak in maintaining a position of anti-normalization, and that if we give even an inch, we will be immediately engulfed by sweeping normalization that disorients and outsmarts us.
Such anxiety in the region is not new, and it has manifested in support for dictators through tropes of “just guardians and heroes” for decades. But it is an unproductive position for a campaign that seeks to mobilize people. It makes the boycott movement authoritarian, controlling and punitive.
I’m not saying that Lebanese people do not have the right to be anxious about Israel lurking at our borders and waging war against us. But the “no voice shall drown out the battle” approach to discussions on normalization and boycott does not address the anxiety or benefit the battle. The fight is long-standing and continuous, but the anxiety manifests in our lives as though we are living in a constant state of emergency and standing at a fateful crossroads.
In Beirut, there are currently no calls to repeal boycott legislation, and no prevalent public opinion in favor of normalization in the media, state or civil society.
Situations change, however, necessitating a continuous need to converse.
In the 1970s, Israel was perceived in Lebanon as a violent, fiery enemy that fell from the sky, an alien in the region that must somehow be removed. Today, we are witnessing the destruction of several Arab nations — Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — through oppression and war. We are also witnessing the rise of organizations like the Islamic State, the dissolution of some armies and the formation of others, organizations turning into states and states run by organizations. In this context, the exceptionalism of Israel’s criminality has withered. It is common to hear statements like “Israel isn’t worse than other Arab regimes” or “At least Israeli prisons are hygienic.”
Additionally, many Arab governments are moving closer to Israel. We are well aware of this, and yet we point fingers at those who watch films we consider as normalizing with Israel and call them traitors.
We must discuss the Israel of today, not that of 1948 or 1967, without shying away from a shocking opinion or stuttering at a sensitive question.
When I was studying at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies a couple of years ago, I fought, as part of my student union, for an academic boycott of Israel — the last stand in a protracted battle over many years. I witnessed young people from the Palestinian diaspora, from our region, from East and West, from all over the world, engaging in relatively free discussion, with none of their arguments rejected as taboo. On the other side, there were arguments from Israelis in the student body, which in comparison appeared weak and tired, predicated as they were on references to the Holocaust, Arab-Palestinian attitudes toward Israel and a hostile view of Islam. The limitations of their discourse reminded me of pro-boycott arguments in our region, where we speak about the “enemies of our faith” and declare Israel a “cancer” or “virus.”
Although the anti-boycott campaign drew its strength primarily from the argument that the university is a space for knowledge production and therefore should not attempt to control or limit knowledge, others responded that the boycott is not about targeting individual academics and their work, but is directed at Israeli academic institutions. This was reinforced by the testimonies of two professors — one Israeli and one Palestinian — who explained that the military is deeply embedded in Israel’s education system and therefore the university plays a role in consolidating the occupation.
To enrich the discussion, the boycott campaign screened Izkor: Slaves of Memory (1991), a documentary by Israeli researcher and director Eyal Sivan. The film deconstructs Israel through an examination of education and it reminded me of a French-American-Israeli film I saw in Paris 10 years ago, The Band’s Visit (2007), which explores the identities of Arab Jews in Israel and the positions of Jews in Arab countries.
That year, I also read texts by a Jewish Israeli academic of Iraqi origins, Ella Shohat, who argues that Zionism — a product of the white European colonial legacy — forced a “new Jewish persona” on Jews of all ethnicities.
By the end of the campaign, SOAS became the first British student union to adopt BDS principles.
We are not in Britain, however, and the discussion we are in dire need of must take place within frameworks that make sense to us, without dismissing everything that is controversial.
My work from 2014 to 2016 on a special monthly issue on Palestine by As-Safir newspaper enabled me to observe daily life in Palestine given Israel’s reality, while shielding me from accusations of treason. I explored unusual destinations with friends and colleagues in the 1948 territories and had several conversations over Whatsapp and Skype that deepened my insights. I’ve traveled through Akko and Haifa virtually, I’ve seen the bars and restaurants, the old markets, the gates to the city and the sea. I’ve seen its Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants. And I discovered that the more I observe and engage in conversations, the more acquainted I am with Palestine, and the less afraid I am of Israel.
By the time As-Safir was shut down in December 2016, I had acquired confidence in my ability to debate with anyone, including those of pan-Arab and Zionist persuasions, without the hesitation or anxiety that this prospect used to bring. Knowledge strengthens. Learning about 1948 Palestine was what helped me overcome the frailty I felt during the Cairo airport experience.
We must strive to understand those who survived 1948 against all odds, and to understand the intricacies of life under occupation without the shallow and insensitive assumption that “Palestinians are the same wherever they are.”
Then comes the most difficult part in the Lebanese context: dealing with 70 years of the state of Israel’s existence and proliferation among us. We are used to attempting to understand it through its relationship to us, or while searching for other reasons to hate it — of which there are many. But how can it exist among us if we haven’t deconstructed its manifestations, or delved into its social fabric and listened closely to its discussions?
The issue is not about feeding a burning desire to communicate with the enemy, exposing a hidden malice, comparing Arab dictatorships to settler occupation, or assimilating with or trying to be the West. The quest is for justice. And, while the road to achieving this may pass through phases of panic, anxiety, oppression and intimidation, we cannot dwell on any of these things if we are seeking justice. It is a quest worthy of the self, worthy of Palestine.