The word ‘normalization’ had been floating around the hallways of King’s Academy in the days leading up to and following a visit from Seeds of Peace representatives. Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together teenager from areas of conflict—notably Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Israelis—has stirred up a lot of controversy, as many believe that going to such programs normalizes the Israeli occupation. For a word that has caused so much controversy, normalization is surprisingly difficult to define.
As someone who has been to programs similar to Seeds of Peace, I have been accused of normalization multiple times. My first response to these accusations is to ask the person how they define normalization. It usually takes a second, but after they have thought about it the answer is very similar: normalization is the interactions with Israelis as if the Israeli occupation is normal or accepted. According to this definition, it is easy to see why so many are opposed to normalization. This type of normalization is dangerous because it allows Israelis to assume that Palestinians are content with the situation, and that the Israeli government’s actions are acceptable. While the results of this type of normalization rarely reach this extent, meeting with Palestinians without acknowledging the conflict makes it easy for Israelis to ignore the situation and the people suffering from the occupation.
While there are programs that promote this type of normalization, Seeds of Peace is not one of them. The key point in this definition of normalization is not just that Israelis and Palestinians are interacting, but rather that they are interacting as if the situation is normal. If anything, Seeds of Peace does the opposite, including sessions where campers engage in discussion about the conflict. In these sessions, participants consciously work toward understanding the other side and finding solutions to the situation. How can you ignore the problems of a conflict when you are constantly discussing it with the people that are most affected?
The problem is that many people define normalization differently. They assume that any and all interactions with Israelis contributes to normalization. This definition of normalization, however, is so broad that it prevents people from participating in programs that are actually beneficial in the fear that it is normalization. Interactions with Israelis aren’t essentially bad; in fact, they are necessary. To ensure that Palestinians are treated fairly in any implemented solution, there must be support from the Israeli population. And the only way to make a change in the Israeli population is to educate the next generation and expose them to the other side of the conflict. The only way to ensure peace is to encourage understanding from both sides, and to abolish the stereotypes and generalizations that each of us has of the other. A leader at a similar program once said to me, “it’s very hard to scream ‘kill the Arabs’ or ‘kill the Jews’ when the other day you were sharing a hairbrush with one of them, or hearing their stories of hardship. We may not change their minds, but the least we can do is make them think twice.” Seeds of Peace will probably not solve the conflict, but there is little hope for compromise and understanding if such programs do not exist. If Seeds of Peace, discussion, and understanding are considered normalization, then so be it. I would then only argue that ‘normalization’ isn’t so bad.