NSL were guests at the ATFP and APN forum with the Washington Center last night and lots of good questions came up. The one that we hear a lot is about NSL and normalization…that programs like ours pretend an equality of opportunity while hiding a disparity of power.
The team and the alums answered it well, saying that they give themselves permission to participate on NSL and then decide. For them, that is not how they experienced it. They claim the right to decide for themselves, contrary to the dogmas of those who are full of shoulds and should nots. Normalization sounds to them like a parent voice telling them who they can play with. They resent being treated like children unable to make their own adult decisions.
But there is also another answer which has to do with how you see power. When you think of power as armies and economies and tanks and guns, then there is clearly no balance of power between the sides. One is the occupier and the other is the occupier. But that is a limiting view of power if you think in terms of stories, where stories reflect and create asymmetrical power relations.
Think of the David v Goliath struggles of the last century, eg Vietnam, where the USA won the war and lost the story. Think of how the USSR collapsed. they still had power but the story collapsed into incoherency. Or think of the insurgencies that erupt with no military force but a power over hearts and minds. That is real power.
The battle for peace in Israel Palestine is being raged in the hearts and minds of the world right now, independent of how many rockets get fired or how many bombs dropped. NSL says that stories reach across walls and prejudices and break down barriers, they are a call to conscience and to claim a deeper humanity. The NSL team come to share stories, and there is no equivalence of someone who lives near the beach in Tel Aviv and can travel the world at whim and someone who lives in a refugee camp and can’t go anywhere. If you want to call the act of witness, an act of resistance, then that is what it is. But there is no sense of normalization or papering over the inconvenient truths. That would kill the story.
The real growth happens once one person decides to shut up and actually listen for a change. Then you see the power equation shift dramatically. Israelis are actually hearing and being changed by what they hear their Palestinian team mates are saying. And Palestinians are hearing for the first time the human story of the people who occupy them and how imprisoned they feel in a system that indoctrinates and conscripts them before they are barely old enough to make an adult decision about anything. When 18 year olds in the USA are leaving for college and a new adventure, 18 year olds in Israel are donning a uniform and learning how to operate an M16.
Yet NSL basically agrees with what the normalization critique is saying, but disagrees that the correct conclusion is non-engagement. It draws exactly the opposite conclusion. You speak truth to power, you witness, you challenge, you confront, you resist, you work to get a hearing in the halls of power and in the corridors of your enemies. You do not use lack of physical power as the excuse to not even exercise the moral power you do have, or expect the world to rally to the celebration of your victimhood. As we always say, Rage is not a tactic. If you want to change the world, you have to change the story. And if you have a story, you have power.