A brief mention of “denormalization” in a recent piece got me thinking about the whole notion of “normalcy” in more detail.
For those unaware of what “denormalization” is all about, this is the name for that element of the anti-Israel propaganda toolkit designed to make everything about being an Israeli (or an Israeli supporter) seem strange, even risky.
At its grossest, denormalization involves jumping up and shouting during orchestra concerts or blowing air-horns during ballet performances where Israeli performers are on the stage. The idea here, I suppose, is to inform those performers, the audience and the world at large that while any other nationals can entertain the public uninterrupted, Israelis engaging in such “normal” activities will never know what awaits them.
While we’ve seen increasing use of disruptive tactics at colleges and universities (primarily targeting political vs. artistic events), for the most part campus “denormalization” consists of a refusal by anti-Israel activists to do anything with Jewish or Israel-related counterparts (including engaging in dialog with them) lest such interaction create the appearance that the Arab-Israeli conflict is just another issue to be discussed and solved normally.
I’ve talked before about how those embracing this tactic have only succeeded in denormalizing themselves. But a better word for this phenomenon might be “ab-normalizing” (as in abnormal psychology). For what else are we to make of individuals who have decided to shut their eyes and ears to evidence that contradicts their beliefs (and shut their mind to critical thought) joining together with the like-minded to prevent anyone else from seeing, hearing or thinking in ways different than the boycotters?
But given that you can read about the sociopathologic nature of the BDS “movement” in previous diagnosis, today I’d like to focus on a different but related question, namely: might denormalization campaigns conducted by the abnormal be doomed by the fact that Israel remains today the only normal country left on earth?
Perhaps some explanation is in order.
A few years ago, I was on a panel at my temple presenting with fellow parents on how to talk to your kids about Israel. And during that talk, a fellow panelist who had recently visited Israel with her family described how unusual it seemed to be in a country where armed soldiers (not to mention armed civilians) were so omnipresent.
Some further reflection on how strange it felt to visit a nation where everyone seemed to be not just a soldier but a veteran of combat got us thinking about how the difference between Israeli society and our own might reflect our unusualness, rather than theirs.
After all, mine was the first generation of Americans that took it for granted that our civic duty did not require a stint in the military. And my parents are just old enough to remember a time when those slightly older than they (who had fought in World War II) were universally familiar with making sacrifices for victory, up to and including seeing friends die or killing others in combat.
Now presuming there was nothing unique about the gene pool when this Greatest Generation was born, it was historical circumstance that forged them into a force that would save the world and then rebuild it before passing onto their children a peace they hoped would ensure that such a level of sacrifice need never be required again.
But, again echoing my favorite political thinker, it is a very small step from being relieved of the burden to defend yourself to taking as a given that the law of the jungle can be kept at bay by people (i.e., a professional soldiery) that you rarely, if ever, need to interact with. And, given one more generation, it becomes easy to forget that the law of the jungle ever existed.
It’s a cliché to say that Europe chose to spend its resources on a cradle-to-grave welfare state while the US covered the costs of defending the continent. Like most great simplifications, this one is far from fair or accurate. But I think it is fair to say that a continent devastated by two world wars (and in the cross-hairs of nuclear annihilation for 50 years after that) would welcome the chance to believe that mankind was evolving beyond the need to fight for survival (a fight that would necessitate both dying and killing).
Yet even as we retreat ever further into our comforts and security, one nation continues to live as if history had not reached its end. To be a citizen of Israel means fighting and sacrificing for that privilege, and raising children to understand that they too need to do more than be born in order to ensure the survival of their nation. It means living with the understanding that everything you have (including the lives of you and your family) can be taken away in an instant by ruthless men who also understand that the law of the jungle has not been chucked into history’s dust bin. In short, it means living in a way that was considered “normal” throughout most of human history. And, far from generating pessimism, living in the real world seems to have made Israelis some of the happiest, most successful people on earth.
Perhaps an unconscious understanding that only Israelis manifest the strength and civic values that once formed and sustained other nations fuels resentment of the Jewish state (alongside more traditional reasons to resent its inhabitants). Or perhaps societies where one segment of the population outsources its defense to another no longer understands that an Israeli citizen under arms is neither frightening nor heroic but normal, reflecting a now-forgotten way of life that was once taken for granted.
Which means that “denormalization” can only highlight the abnormal nature of the denormalizers and the un-normal situation of those they are trying to turn against normal Israelis. Got that?
I suppose such a tactic might work, at least with those most stubborn in their determination to forget what the world is really like. But on a less-meta level, I’m not sure a nation where every citizen understands what is required for survival, where even violinists and ballet dancers have heard the sound of artillery, is going to be cowed because some BDShole blows an airhorn at a concert or one group of 18-year-olds on a college campus refuses to talk to anyone who has their number.