Normalizing the Israeli Occupation of Palestine at Syracuse University

From the September 2015 PNL #845

Palestine Solidarity Collective

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) guidelines put forth by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) call on people around the world to resist “normalization projects.” These are initiatives, events, or activities that present a false sense of equality between the oppressors/colonizers and the oppressed/colonized. As the call explains, normalization projects emphasize “coexistence” rather than “co-resistance” and falsely suggest that Israelis and Palestinians are equally responsible for “the conflict.” Campuses are a major site of normalization projects, and Syracuse University is no exception. Like many universities1 across the US, SU actively promotes initiatives and research activities that seek to both normalize and legitimize the state of Israel and its settler colonial occupation of Palestine. 

Despite far-reaching budget cuts,2 SU seems to have no shortage of resources when it comes to normalizing Israeli apartheid. For example, SU offers four study abroad programs to Israel in partnership with four different Israeli universities.The description of Israel on the study abroad program website fails to acknowledge the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people upon which the state is built and the fact that Palestinians, who already inhabited the land which was being settled, were violently and forcibly removed. Instead, they offer the following:

Graphic: Ethan Heitner

the State of Israel was established in 1948 and has a rich web of history and culture. Its population includes different peoples . . . religious and secular. [...]. The people are settled all over the country in the Negev, Arava, Galilee and coastal plain, in moshavim, kibbutzim, vivacious cities and quiet villages busily engaged in industry and commerce, farming and scientific research.


Additionally the website refers to the colonization of Palestinian people and their land as merely “a strained relationship” that has “left the area in a volatile situation for many years. Peace agreements have been attempted in the past [...]”. The description of “peace agreements” suggests that negotiations occur on an equal playing field and neglect to mention that Israel is backed by the US to the tune of $10 million in military aid each day.3

SU’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) stands as another example of campus normalization for Israeli occupation. In addition to sponsoring a three week counter-terrorism course each summer in Herzliya (Israel), INSCT has featured numerous pro-Israel speakers as part of its Becker Speaker Series. According to the website, a speaker from 2015 “discussed how the recent Israel-Hamas/Gaza conflict illustrates several challenges for the application and evolution of the Laws of War” [emphasis added]. This narrative portrays the occupation of Palestine as a dispute between two conflicting groups while erasing the actual relations of power. INSCT has consistently presented this false premise. The opening speaker for the 2012 series argued that there is fundamentally a “psychological barrier to peace.” Recounting Israel’s narrative of itself, he implies that Israel is surrounded by “Muslim nations that are either hostile or potentially hostile” and suggests that the state is  “compressed within a world region that is vast and hostile,” a “small dot in an Arab world.” He argues that Palestinians need to be made aware of Israelis’ sense of their own vulnerability and marginalization, advocating a “mutual curriculum of cognitive empathy.” These narratives perpetuate a false sense of Israel as a threatened beacon of democracy and freedom, rather than a powerful and brutal settler colonial state. Nor is Israel described as a nuclear state with the largest defense budget in the region, backed unconditionally by the most powerful military in history.

Across the US, student groups also function to promote US-Israel relations. According to the Facebook page for SU’s Hillel (a national organization that functions as the largest recruiter of Jewish students for “Birthright” trips to Israel), the Student Association funded Hillel students to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) policy conference in 2014. AIPAC is a lobbying group advocating pro-Israel policies in Washington.As reported on the AIPAC  website, the conference is “the largest gathering of America’s pro-Israel community,” with more than 2,300 students from 490 campuses in attendance, and working to “shape US policy and strengthen the US-Israel relationship.” 

Less apparent, but no less complicit, are “dialogue groups.” One such group is SU’s LIME, a self-described Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue Group that aims “to facilitate educational, political and interfaith social programming, and to allow students to learn about Israelis, Palestinians and the greater Middle East region.” While at first glance this may seem a worthwhile aim, such efforts have a long history of obscuring the political realities of the occupation. As articulated by guidelines4 for the International Academic Boycott of Israel, the “false premise of symmetry” in these dialogues are intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization that ought to be boycotted.” 

SU’s vision statement describes that the University “aspires to be a pre-eminent and inclusive student-focused research university, preparing engaged citizens, scholars, and leaders for participation in a changing global society.” To participate in a changing global society, however, we need a critical understanding of the forces of power engendering such change. The normalization projects noted above are barriers to understanding the systemic racism and colonialism that define the Israeli state both historically and contemporarily. 

The BDS movement offers an alternative to such normalization projects, calling instead for a global response akin to the boycott of apartheid South Africa. The movement, begun in 2005, is gaining traction on campuses across the US, thanks in large part to the numerous chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as courageous faculty who support the academic boycott. Recently, UAW local 2865, the union that represents graduate student workers at University of California, voted to support BDS. Professional organizations including the American Studies Association, National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies Association, African Literature Association have also adopted resolutions supporting BDS.  

Not surprisingly, there have also been attempts to repress BDS activism. The so-called Canary Mission5 is creating a “blacklist” of BDS activists for potential employers, while recent anti-BDS state legislation has made headway in South Carolina, Illinois, and New York. The NY bill, if passed, would create a list of BDS supporters and prevent them from receiving state contracts.6 Such attacks on BDS further expose the myth of a “conflict among equals”—people and organizations that “stand with Israel” do not risk ending up on McCarthy-esque blacklists. But while this is certainly troubling, it is also evidence of the strength of a growing movement for justice in Palestine.


What Can You Do?

Support the BDS movement and student chapters of SJP 

Stop endorsing, explicitly or implicitly, activities that 

normalize Israeli occupation and settler colonialism

Support campus activists fighting against militarism and normalization projects


1-6Visit for source links.

Palestine Solidarity CollectivePalestine Solidarity Collective