The BDS Movement’s Anti-Normalization Guidelines Explained
Due to rising demand for a better understanding of the anti-normalization guidelines among non-Arabic speakers in recent years, we present the most important points below in English
Due to rising demand for a better understanding of the anti-normalization guidelines among non-Arabic speakers in recent years, we present the most important points below in English (and hopefully soon in other languages). When suspected cases of normalization arise, we advise international BDS partners to contact the BNC or PACBI so that we can examine these cases and offer our advice based on our BDS guidelines and expertise developed in the course of more than 15 years, and in accordance with our mandate from the entities representing the absolute majority in Palestinian society.
The Palestinian BDS National Committee’s Definition of Normalization
Normalization, tatbee’ in Arabic, means dealing with or presenting something that is inherently abnormal, such as oppression and injustice, as if it were normal. Normalization with/of Israel is, then, the idea of making occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism seem normal and establishing normal relations with the Israeli regime instead of supporting the struggle led by the Indigenous Palestinian people to end the abnormal conditions and structures of oppression. A key principle underpinning anti-normalization work is that it is a tactic entirely based on ethical and political considerations which are in perfect harmony with the BDS movement’s rejection of all forms of racism and racial discrimination. Countering normalization is a means to resist oppression, its mechanisms and structures.
What Exactly is Normalization?
In 2007, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), the broadest Palestinian coalition that leads the global BDS movement, adopted by consensus the following definition of what constitutes normalization and set guidelines for countering it:
Normalization is the participation in any project, initiative or activity, local or international, that brings together (on the same “platform”1) Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (individuals or institutions) and does not meet the following two conditions:
The Israeli side publicly recognizes the UN-affirmed inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, which are set out in the 2005 BDS Call, and
the joint activity constitutes a form of co-resistance against the Israeli regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.
In the above, “Israeli side” refers to Jewish-Israelis and Jewish-Israeli institutions (see section 4 below). Palestinian citizens of Israel are clearly not included in this term, being part of the Indigenous Palestinian people at the receiving end of this settler-colonial oppression. The consensus around this definition, which followed long discussions and debates in Palestinian society, has given it (like other aspects of BDS guidelines) its moral and political weight and authoritative legitimacy within the Palestinian, Arab3 and international contexts. Though formally adopted in 2007, the two conditions set in the definition above have been a pillar of the BDS movement’s anti-normalization work since the 2005 BDS Call was launched.
The BDS movement’s anti-normalization work is based on the following understanding:
Normalization, as a joint activity between the oppressed and the oppressor that is not based on the recognition of the rights of the oppressed and does not aim at the elimination of oppression, is an attempt by the oppressor to colonize the mind of the oppressed with the notion that oppression is a fact of life that must be coped with, not resisted.
Normalization is a weapon used by Israel’s apartheid regime to whitewash its regime of oppression and undermine international solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle using the “don’t be more Arab than the Arabs” deceptive slogan.
As in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Israeli colonial settlers who wish to join the Indigenous-led struggle to end oppression must disassociate from Israel’s regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid and shed their colonial privileges. This begins with members of the colonial community’s public endorsement of, at a minimum, the UN-stipulated rights of the colonized people, thus recognizing that the colonized are full humans who deserve their full set of human rights (including social, political and cultural rights). Only then can members of the colonial community begin to engage with Indigenous people in real co-resistance activities rather than perpetuate a normalization of colonial violence.
(3) Why are Normalization Activities Boycottable?
Normalization activities ought to be boycotted because they are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible activities that, in effect if not in intent, serve to cover up the underlying system of apartheid and settler colonialism that Israel wants the world to unsee. In the BDS movement’s International Guidelines for both the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel we spell out which normalization activities are boycottable: “activities, projects, events and products involving Palestinians and/or other Arabs on one side and Israelis on the other (whether bi- or multi- lateral) that are based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed or that assume that both colonizers and colonized are equally responsible for the ‘conflict’.”
Far from challenging the unjust status quo, such normalization contributes to its endurance. They force us to coexist “normally” and unethically with the crime against humanity of apartheid and the dehumanizing conditions of settler colonialism. Examples of normalization include events, projects, publications, films, or exhibitions that bring together on the same platform Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation, “overcoming barriers,” etc., without addressing the root causes of injustice and the requirements of justice.
Other factors that the BDS movement takes into consideration in evaluating whether such products and activities constitute normalization or not are the sources of funding, the design of the product or event, the objectives of the sponsoring organization(s), the participants, and similar relevant factors.
(4) Do Anti-Normalization Guidelines Entail a Boycott of Israeli Individuals?
The BDS movement calls for boycotts of activities, events and projects which legitimize or otherwise enable Israel’s regime of apartheid, settler colonialism and occupation. It does not call for or condone boycotts of individuals because of their Israeli or Jewish origin or identity. In other words, BDS targets complicity, not identity.
With regard to anti-normalization, our work is based on the principle that this struggle is an Arab struggle and not merely a Palestinian one. In fact, the people of Palestine have for centuries been historically, culturally, linguistically, and otherwise an integral part of the Arab world – one that Western colonialism carved up into artificial states in the 20th century. Apartheid Israel has worked hard for decades, and especially through the Oslo Accords years, to reduce this struggle into a “Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” to split Arab public opinion, to detach Palestine from its Arab context, and ultimately, to even exclude Palestinians in exile from the very definition of the Palestinian people.
However, Israel has largely failed to sever Palestine from the Arab world, as far as Arab peoples’ commitments go (Israel’s recent normalization agreements with several Arab dictatorships and authoritarian regimes notwithstanding). Egypt is the best example of this. Since the Camp David “peace” accords between the Egyptian regime and apartheid Israel was signed in 1978, the almost absolute consensus among the Egyptian people and civil society has remained supportive of Palestinian liberation and strongly opposed to normalization with Israel.
In light of the above, when an Arab individual and an Israeli individual collaborate or participate in joint events or projects, they do so as “representatives” of their states rather than as private individuals. In such instances, both the Arab and the Israeli are viewed by their compatriots as well as others globally, as representing their flags, regardless of what the individuals may think or want.
Thus, ensuring that joint projects and activities between Arabs and Israelis do not undermine the principle that the struggle for the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights is an Arab struggle is certainly not the same as a boycott of Israeli individuals because of their Israeli identity. Indeed, the BNC has never called for or condoned the latter. What anti-normalization principles reject are attempts to represent Israel alongside Arab countries as if it were a normal part of the region, not a settler-colonial and apartheid state. This stance emerges from the particular context of this struggle and the centuries-old intimate relationship between Palestinians and other Arab peoples of the region.
Countering normalization is all about providing ethical and political guidance to joint activities/projects between Arabs--including Palestinians--and Israeli individuals and groups, in order to protect our struggle. It ensures that such joint activities are not used to normalize oppression but rather contribute to the Palestinian-led struggle to end it.
(5) Are Joint Arab-Israeli Activities Boycottable?
Yes, unless the two anti-normalization conditions are met. A joint Arab-Israeli (including Palestinian-Israeli) activity or project anywhere in the world4 constitutes normalization if it brings together on the same platform Arabs on the one side and Israelis on the other without meeting the two conditions set in the definition of normalization above: public recognition of our inalienable rights and co-resistance to oppression.
Examples of normalization include the participation of Arab artists and Israeli artists in a festival that is “regional,” “Mediterranean,” “Arab,” “MENA,” etc., where their joint presence can only give a deceptive image of “coexistence” or “symmetry” despite the system of oppression. Another example are conferences organized by regional (Arab, Mediterranean, MENA) actors that include Israeli participants and do not meet the above two conditions. In these cases, the participants, regardless of intentions and personal views, are always viewed not simply as individuals, but as representing their states. Anti-normalization campaigning targets this representation and not the individuals involved per se.
On the other hand, public debates, in international venues, between Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis do not constitute boycottable normalization, if organized without any cooperation with or official representation from Israel, its lobby groups, or its complicit institutions.5
(6) Are International Forums that Include Israel Boycottable by Arabs?
It depends. The BDS movement works to pressure all international organizations (UN, FIFA, Olympics, CERN, etc.) to expel/exclude apartheid Israel, as apartheid South Africa was expelled/excluded6. Until this is achieved, however, the movement does not consider Israeli participation in forums/events organized by international organizations as a sufficient reason to call for a boycott of any of them. On the contrary, the movement encourages human rights defenders and supporters of Palestinian rights to participate in these forums to claim those spaces and pressure them from within to expel Israel.
If an international forum/event, however, is sponsored – or otherwise officially supported – by Israel, any of its complicit institutions (including universities), or its lobby groups, then it is boycottable according to the international BDS guidelines, and regardless of the criteria of normalization.
Arab, including Palestinian, participation in an international forum that currently includes Israel (but is not sponsored by Israel or its lobby/complicit institution) is, therefore, not considered a form of normalization per se. If, however, within the forum Arabs and Israelis are presented, directly or indirectly, on the same platform (common panel, festival evening, joint activity, sports match, etc.), then that would constitute normalization. The international forum would also constitute normalization if its purpose or framing is meant to create symmetry between Israelis and Arabs, including Palestinians, by bringing them together for the purpose of “dialogue” or “coexistence,” without addressing the system and root causes of colonial oppression.
(7) Why do Anti-Normalization Guidelines Apply to Arabs not Internationals?
Normalization in the BDS movement predominantly describes joint activities/projects between Arabs, including Palestinians, and Israelis that morally or politically equate the oppressor and oppressed or whitewash oppression, thus undermining our struggle for freedom, justice and equality. As such, normalization guidelines do not apply to relations or joint projects between internationals and Israeli individuals, regardless of the latter’s positions on Palestinian rights, so long as Arabs are not involved in such projects. Only the international BDS guidelines apply in those cases.
In principle, no people should normalize apartheid or settler colonialism, regardless of background or position. However, the global context is such that people of the Arab world, with their diverse national, religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and identities, whose future is more tangibly tied to the future of Palestinians than the wider international community’s is, are directly on the frontline. This is due to several factors including continued Israeli political, economic and military threats on them and their countries, the prevalent and strong kinship they have with the Palestinian people, and a long history that binds Arab people together despite colonial and neo-colonial attempts to divide them. So long as Israel’s oppression continues, any engagement with Israelis (individuals or institutions) that is not within the resistance framework outlined above, serves to project the normality of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid in the lives of people in the Arab world. It is, therefore, imperative that people in the Arab world insist that any relations with Israelis must be based on co-resistance and recognition of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people under international law, which at a minimum include the inalienable rights highlighted in the BDS Call (self-determination, freedom from occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, and the right of refugees to return).
(8) Who Sets and Interprets BDS Guidelines?
BDS guidelines are the moral and intellectual fruit of years of Palestinian community engagement, debate and dynamic analysis responding to socio-political changes on the ground. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), as the largest coalition in Palestinian society that is leading the global BDS movement, sets, updates and interprets the BDS guidelines, taking into account critical input from Palestinian society as well as from Arab and international partners.
(9) How to Deal with Gray Areas?
Some activities, events or projects involving Arabs and Israelis may fall into a gray area, where the applicability of the above definition of normalization cannot be definitively established. In such cases, the BNC calls on partners to seek its advice on how best to assess and deal with such projects based first and foremost on the logic of and ethical principles behind the BDS guidelines and then on the particular context.
For instance, an international conference whose organizing committee comprises academics from diverse nationalities (not just “Mediterranean,” “EuroMed,” or “Middle Eastern,” for instance), including an Israeli and an Arab, may not per se conflict with the BDS movement’s anti-normalization guidelines. If, however, the Arab and Israeli participants are put together on the same panel or within the same segment of that wider event, this may constitute harmful politicization and therefore normalization. Regardless, our advice to the Arab academics involved, as well as to progressives on the organizing committee, would be to call for moving either the Arab speaker or the Israeli speaker to another panel/segment. In conferences on physical sciences, say, the chances are considerably slimmer than in social sciences that the Arab and the Israeli would be placed on the same panel for unethical political objectives, rather than genuinely belonging on the same panel for having a common academic theme. If the organizing committee declines the Arab academic's request to speak on another panel, we would only then advise boycotting the panel, not the whole conference.
We call for boycotting a whole international conference only if we can find evidence of institutional complicity, such as any form of sponsorship by Israel, its lobby groups, or its complicit institutions, or if we can demonstrate deliberate normalization attempts by the conference organizing committee as a whole (such as, say, deceptive presentations of Israelis and Palestinians as if they were symmetric, etc., as stated in the guidelines).
When in doubt, it is best for international partners not to assume or, worse, appropriate the right to decide whether BDS guidelines apply. With its long expertise and, crucially, its mandate, the BNC, including PACBI, is ultimately the only entity entitled to make such definitive assessments.
1) “The same platform” includes a film, a play, a musical performance, a cultural, political, a sports match/encounter, academic or other symposium, or similar joint activities.
2) These inalienable Palestinian rights, which are stipulated in the BDS Call, are the right to self-determination as well as the following, which constitute the minimum for our Palestinian people to exercise this fundamental right:
Freedom from Israel’s occupation and colonization of all the territories occupied in 1967,
The fundamental right to full equality and non-discrimination of the Palestinians citizens of present-day Israel and ending the apartheid regime,
The rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and to restitution of their property as affirmed in UN Resolution 194 (1948).
3) Upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the BDS movement condemns all forms of racism and discrimination. Accordingly, the BNC rejects the exclusion of national/ethnic minorities in the Arab region as well as all discrimination or persecution against them. It understands Arab and “Arabism” not in its narrow ethnic or national sense, but rather in its progressive and inclusive sense of democratic citizenry that considers national/ethnic minorities as an integral part of the composition of the Arab region and its peoples.
4) Except for Palestinian citizens of Israel when they are within the 1948 territory, or present-day Israel, to whom different, context-sensitive guidelines apply.
5) If the Israeli is a head, sub-head or official spokesperson of an organ of the State of Israel, then the debate violates BDS guidelines and should be shunned. Organs of the State of Israel include government agencies (ministries, diplomatic missions, local and regional authorities), military and security establishments (army, police, intelligence), the JNF-KKl, the World Zionist Organization, among other semi-governmental organizations which play a major role in the Israeli settler-colonial and apartheid regime. They do not include ordinary members of the Knesset, civil servants in ministries and embassies, low ranking officers and ordinary soldiers/personnel of the army, police, intelligence, ordinary local council members, etc.
6) More recently, Western states have led sweeping academic, cultural, sports and other forms of boycott against Russia and Russians over the illegal invasion of Ukraine, raising long established accusations of Western colonial hypocrisy.