Normalcy and Violence: The Yearning for the Ordinary in Discourse of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

This essay explores the evolving usage and meanings of normalcy (the routinization of daily life)—as opposed to normalization— during various phases of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with par­ticular emphasis on the post-1967 period. It does so by highlighting how Palestinians and Israelis have understood and continue to perceive normalization both at the high politics level, as well as in their daily lives. In particular, it focuses on how conditions of perceived normalcy for Israelis have created conditions of insta­bility for Palestinians.

THE QUEST FOR NORMALCY —asnegationofviolenceandyearningfororder in daily life—has become a defining theme in the politics of the quotidian in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This quest is not a longing for peace, but sim­ply a desire for solace in the midst of a prolonged conflict. In Israel, this quest takes the form of a craving for an absent condition (‘‘to live as Europeans do’’). Among Palestinians, it takes the form of a search for the ‘‘natural life’’ (hayat tabi‘iyyah) not punctured by violence and disruption. Paradoxically, the term has also acquired a negative connotation among Palestinians, as it has been associated since the mid-1990s with moves to create conditions of coexistence with, and accommodation to, Israeli colonial rule.

The use of the term ‘‘normalcy’’ that I am proposing, although quite prev­alent in journalistic and common discourse, is not the one that has prevailed in the social sciences. There, it refers to a ‘‘normative’’ condition as origi­nally used by classical sociology theorists such as Tonnies, to denote the ‘‘normal type,’’ or Durkheim, with his notion of the ‘‘normal’’ as significant non-deviation from the average. Neither is the common usage related to Foucauldian terminology, where ‘‘normalcy’’ and the process of ‘‘normaliza­tion’’ involve the establishment of patterned processes aimed at exacting disciplinary power in modern institutions. In formal political analysis, it is often a neglected theme, seen as circumventing and perhaps depreciating issues presumed to be of greater political primacy, such as territorial conflict and colonial control.

Thus, normalcy in this debate does not entail a return to a condition that preceded the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since the social formations in question—Israel as a Hebrew entity and Palestine as a post-Ottoman society split off from Syria—did not exist before that conflict. Even so, the yearning for normalcy expresses itself in terms suggesting the recapture of a past or a ‘‘return’’ to a desired form that is invented and imagined, and always projected to a future condition.

My purpose here is to examine the manner in which the concept of normalcy or normality (I use the terms interchangeably),1 has been used in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both to consolidate and create new col­lective identities, and to reinforce conditions of erasure and exclusion of the other. I would argue that among the most defining features of the discourse on normality in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the manner in which the normality sought for the emergent Israeli society created the conditions for the destabilization of Palestinian society.


Barely three months after the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Simon published a prophetic prognosis of the dilemmas of the Jewish state, in which he identified the search for ‘‘normalcy’’ as a central dilemma for Jewish youth.2 His essay specified several challenges to creating the condition of normalcy in the kind of state he envisioned Israel to be—that is, a blending of religious tradition with modernity and possessing a desirable (i.e., Western or Euro­pean) orientation. His position, which recognized the potential contradic­tions likely to be embedded within the new Israeli nationalism, anticipated the later tendency to equate Israeli ‘‘normalcy’’ with a struggle against the state’s ‘‘Levantization.’’ This process, which involves taking on the attri­butes of the surrounding environment (in sharp contradiction to the West­ern attributes envisioned for the new state), was intensified by the early immigration of North African and Iraqi Jews, and the creation of what became known as an Israeli Mizrahi subculture. In a striking paragraph— note that this was written in 1949—Simon observed:

This ideological normalization, be it said in passing, preoc­cupied both Herzl, father of the new Jewish state, who left the choice of territory open, and Eliezer ben Yehuda, her­ald of modern, secularized Hebrew, who[,] though living in Jerusalem, favored Uganda as the national homeland. Other leaders, who started out as territorialists but later became Zionists in the stricter sense, were similarly much concerned with ‘‘normalization.’’ However, the Zionist movement did not remain territorialist but became Palesti­nian. It ‘‘burdened’’ itself with Arab relations and with the immense weight of the historic Jewish landscape and tradi­tion, epitomized in the name of ‘‘Jerusalem.’’ A chemically pure normalization became impossible: the specifically Jewish problems of our nationalism emerged anew.3

The obsessive search for a condition of normalcy within Jewish society, Simon concluded, would inevitably give rise to considerable individual and collective neuroses. Speaking of the late British Mandate period in Pales­tine, Simon asserted that Jewish terrorism was one of these ‘‘collective neuroses’’ and ‘‘quite understandable in a people that has lost more than one-third of its numbers; yet it should never have been treated homeo­pathically by some leaders—who ought to be physicians of their people.’’4

The search for ‘‘Jewish normalcy’’ went through several major transfor­mations in Israeli debates, which can be schematized here. During the pre-state period, ‘‘normalcy’’ in the Labor Zionist discourse, as elucidated by Baruch Kimmerling and Yehouda Shenhav, was a catchphrase for the crea­tion of a Jewish society that negated exile.5 In other words, the territorial­ization of the Jewish Yishuv was the process whereby Jews became ‘‘normal,’’ similar to that of other (European) societies, and where a class society replaced and ended the conditions of marginalization (in the shtetl) and exile (in Europe). The instrument of this normalization was ‘‘Hebrew labor,’’ a practice promoted by Labor Zionism as of the late Otto­man period and which consisted of excluding Arab labor—in a process of displacement rather than colonization—with the aim of recreating Jewish settler society as an egalitarian social formation.6

In the early state period, ‘‘normalcy’’ was redefined to mean the creation of a modern Jewish state from disparate components: hegemonic East European elements and plebeian Mizrahi (Arab) Jews, mostly from North Africa and Iraq.7 The incomplete transfer of the Arab population in the 1948 war was a complicating factor, since it created a state with a residual native population that could not be absorbed. The necessary condition for the normalcy of the Jewish state was seen as putting an end to the cultural Levantization underway, thus laying the ground for the creation of a Euro­pean social democratic state from ethnically disparate components. This de-Levantization was to be achieved by the integrative role of the Hebrew language and the socializing role of the Israeli army. The ultimate objective was to eliminate the exceptionalism of the Jewish state as a settler-colonial society by using the mythology and ideology of return of the Jews to their biblical homeland.