Alternative Jewish Voices oppose Wellington City Council’s non-notified consideration of controversial definition of anti-Semitism – Media release 24/2/20

MEDIA RELEASE 

A group of Wellington Jews (named below) are in the process of forming a collective to provide alternatives to the current narrow range of voices that speak publicly in the name of the Jewish community.  We believe it is important for us to speak out publicly to better represent the diversity of views on Jewish issues, especially on matters of Zionism, the occupation of Palestine, and anti-Semitism.

We have been prompted to speak out now, having learned of the Wellington City Council’s Agenda item this week to consider adopting a controversial definition of anti-Semitism.

We do not support WCC’s consideration of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism for reasons of process and of substance:

1.      The Council is proceeding to consider a definition of anti-Semitism without consultation with the public or Jews in the region. The document under consideration is hugely controversial and has been the subject of furious debate, global petitions and activism across Europe, Canada and the USA. A key concern is the risk that anyone who airs legitimate criticism of Israeli Government Policy may be labelled as anti-Semitic. Jewish leaders and Talmudic scholars feature on both sides of this debate.

2.      In substance, this document is simply a wrong response to racism.  It is wrong to imagine that any definition can protect anyone.  We believe that the response to racism must be a common, steadfast, loving embrace of justice and diversity.  Racism is not just a Jewish issue, and there will be no separate Jewish resolution. Muslims and other marginalised groups face racism and bigotry. The community must support a strategy to address racism against all groups.

Therefore, we urge WCC Councillors to reject the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, explain what it hopes to achieve in combatting racism, and put the issue out for public and community consultation.

Supported by

David Weinstein

Fred Albert

Marilyn Garson

Jeremy Rose

Contact for further comment – email: Shma.Koleinu.nz@gmail.com

Letter to the Prime Minister concerning Covid 19 in Gaza

Palestine Solidarity – combined organisations’ letter to the Prime Minister

20 March 2020

Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister

Parliament Buildings

Wellington

Kia ora Ms Ardern,

Covid 19 and Gaza

The more than two million people living in the blockaded Gaza strip in Palestine are being left to face the Coronavirus with hopelessly inadequate medical facilities and extreme overcrowding – conditions in which the virus will spread rapidly and devastatingly unless action is taken now.

The usual medical and public policy advice to Palestinians cannot hope to deal with this terrifying scenario. Health officials warn that if the virus enters Gaza, containment and treatment under the Israeli blockade will be nearly impossible.

Gaza’s hospitals are already unable to cope with “normal” medical situations. In March last year the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Mr. Jamie McGoldrick, reported on Gaza’s “chronic power outages, gaps in critical services, including mental health and psychosocial support, and shortages of essential medicines and supplies.”

In similar vein the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has reported that, even before coronavirus, Gaza’s barely functioning hospitals are dealing with the fallout from thousands of injuries which have resulted from murderous Israeli sniper fire on demonstrators in the ”Great March of Return” protests on the Gaza side of the security fence.

97% of all Gaza’s water is not fit to drink and Gazan hospitals don’t have enough clean water even for medical staff to wash safely. Simply calling on people to wash their hands regularly and keep social distances is a recipe for an unmitigated human catastrophe.

The situation is little better in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank where, as a result of Israeli’s brutal military occupation, medical facilities are also inadequate with serious shortages of basic medical equipment, trained personnel and essential medical supplies.

The looming human catastrophe is clear. When medically well supplied countries like Italy and South Korea have struggled to contain the virus there is no way the hospitals in Gaza or the occupied Palestinian territories will be able to cope.

Each year New Zealand votes at the United Nations for the end of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.

It’s now critical for the government to back up those votes with effective political action. We urge you to put the welfare of Palestinians alongside concern for New Zealanders and speak out calling for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and military occupation of the Palestinian territories and allow Palestinians to access the medical supplies and equipment they need to deal with this crisis.

Na,

John Minto

National Chair

Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa

Jeremy Rose, Marilyn Garson, David Weinstein and Fred Albert

Members of Sh’ma Koleinu – Alternative Jewish Voices

(Marilyn worked in Gaza 2011 to 2015)

Julie Webb-Pullman

(Julie has lived and worked in Gaza since 2008 – currently visiting New Zealand)

Catholic Cardinal John Dew

Roger Fowler

Kia ora Gaza

Mike Treen

National Director

Unite Union

Janfrie Wakim

Spokesperson

Palestine Human Rights Campaign

Leslie and Martin Bravery

Authors of “In Occupied Palestine”

anti-racism, not the IHRA

published with Fred Albert, Dominion Post 25/2/20

Mayor Foster, don’t do this.

If you follow the issue of racism or the protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, you will know the International Holocaust Memorial Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.  It has lit fires of protest across Europe, Canada and the USA.  The problem lies not in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism but in a set of examples which have been used to conflate criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews.  Anti-Zionism has been called anti-Semitism.

Given this document’s global trail of controversy, we were stunned to see a motion on the Wellington City Council’s agenda for Wednesday, February 26 – this week ­– to adopt the IHRA document for our city. The meeting papers cite a request made by the Wellington Regional Jewish Council.  We are not aware of any opportunity for public input in the lead-up to this item 2.1 of General Business. 

Not in our names, thank you.  We urge our council not to take this misguided step, and certainly not without hearing from constituents. How could the WCC opt to bypass the public, when this document is the object of fury elsewhere?

We would like to compile some of the scholarly and popular petitions, count the hundreds of thousands of members of organizations that protest any legislative use of this document.  We would like to cite the document’s own author, Kenneth Stern on the document’s political effect.  He cautioned the US Congress that “giving the [IHRA] definition legal status would be ‘unconstitutional and unwise.’”  He writes that the document’s use in law can demonize valid political speech, by rendering criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine anti-Semitic. 

The IHRA definition does nothing new to combat racism.  Its new effect is to regulate the speech of people like ourselves: law-abiding non-Zionists who call for the unexceptional application of law and human rights in Israel / Palestine; Jews and non-Jews alike.

The IHRA document is a political instrument.  It also fails as an anti-racism instrument.

We write as two members of the Wellington synagogue that was recently defaced by Nazi symbols.  We care deeply about responding to racism, but we and all New Zealanders are already covered by the 1993 Human Rights Act.  New papers are not what we need.  Neither the vandal in Wellington nor the shooter in Christchurch care about new definitions on paper.

We need a different, lived response to support our existing human rights legislation. We need to discuss and respond to three magnitudes of hate:  the intimidation of ugly graffiti on a place of worship, the hate-driven murders of 51 Muslims in their mosque, and the rise of racism in institutions and states in our time.

Hatreds and resentful identity politics have their own histories, but now they have joined forces under the toxic rubric of white supremacy. We need to respond to that together. If the Wellington City Council intended to reassure Jews by adopting a new definition of anti-Semitism, they were offering a misguided comfort.  We cannot hive off one hate and legislate it away, seeking an ethnic safety behind my synagogue gate or your mosque doorway.  No gates for us, please. There is no separate safety.

A real response must be a joined-up, anti-racist Never Again that makes us responsible to and for each other.  Hatred and violence must be confronted and turned away by a broad, loving, uncompromising embrace of justice and mutual protection.  We are each other’s best hope.

Let that be our agenda item.  Put the politics of the IHRA away.

Marilyn Garson and Fred Albert

Moses The Negotiator

In Exodus, Moses kept asking the Pharaoh for more. It’s a good thing he did.

This short piece was originally written as a drash for the week of Parashah Bo.

This week’s Torah portion is the tail end of the long list of plagues brought down on Egypt – or mitzrayim, our personal “narrow place” – as the Israelites, led by Moses, continuously ask for their freedom.

Though Pharaoh is famous for saying “no” each time, it’s not completely true. Even as far back as the frogs, the second plague, he begins to offer small concessions. When Pharaoh asks for the frogs to be removed, he says: do this, and the Israelites can make a sacrifice to their God, even if they aren’t allowed to live free lives.

He expands on this offer when Egypt is attacked by vermin: you can even leave Egypt for a short time to make a sacrifice in the desert, but you cannot be free.

In this week’s portion, we begin to see the plagues having a real effect. By the time darkness has covered Egypt, the Pharaoh is actually ready to let the Israelites and their children go! However, he refuses to allow them to take their livestock and thus, their livelihood, and Moses, knowing that certain death would await them in the desert without their cattle, tries again for a better deal.

So when Pharaoh says: you and your children may go, but the cattle will stay, Moses responds: not only will the livestock come with us, but YOU will give us something extra to sacrifice to God. At this point he’s not just asking for the mercy of freedom from slavery, but for the justice of reparations. And although it takes the worst plague of all to finally convince the Pharaoh, the deaths of all the first-born Egyptians, in the end the Israelites are given what they asked for.

I think there’s something in that. As Jews, we sometimes feel as if we are living at the outskirts of society. We have all been exposed to some form of antisemitism in our lives, big or small. Often, we are treated as if we are strangers in our own countries; like our secret loyalty to each other trumps everything else. But we are fighters, lovers of justice, staunch organizers, and, like Moses, excellent negotiators. We no longer fight only for the freedom of our people, but for the freedom of all humankind. It is the ultimate mitzvah.

For me, the lesson of this portion is that we must fight for continual, incremental changes. If Moses had only asked once for his people to be free, they would never have been freed. If he had given up and accepted the first few offers, they would never have been freed. Even if he had accepted the merciful offer to release the Israelites but without giving them any way to sustain themselves, they likely would have died in the desert. When we push for change, we are sometimes given half a victory, or a quarter-victory. We must never settle for less to avoid making waves, or become complacent just because things could be worse. We need justice, not just mercy. This is a powerful message from Moses, in a world where many of us ask for only the bare minimum; where we are afraid of inconveniencing others by being ourselves.

It’s also a funny contradiction from the same people who will, in just a few short weeks, be singing DAYENU, our affirmation that any small victory would have been enough. But why not? We are full of contradictions. We are grateful, but we need more. If we are wise enough, we will ask for what we need. And if we are strong enough, we will keep asking.

Can Aliens Be Jewish?

Are aliens made in the likeness of God? Could they convert?

This short piece was originally written to inspire a discussion at Shavuot.

When the aliens first arrived, there was total chaos. We’d all woken up that morning, secure that we were the only sentient species in the galaxy, and by noon there was a ship the size of Texas hovering over the southern hemisphere. By dinner time, they had sent a message to every radio station, in a dozen different languages. They were refugees, their star was long-gone, and they needed a home. They breathed oxygen, you see, and it was in short supply on every planet but ours. We argued endlessly over what to call them, and there were plenty of good suggestions, but the only thing that ever stuck was “alien,” so that’s what I’m going to call them here. 

Human beings are excellent at coping, so over the next five years, we coped. The aliens moved in, but mostly in the very big cities. Life carried on, especially in little communities like this. We have our own ways of doing things, and not even visitors from space are going to change that.

So there I was, five years after aliens had landed, the office admin for a normal Temple just like this one. I was emailing back-and-forth with a potential convert, trying to organize a time to meet up and discuss what was calling her to Judaism. We’d just arranged the where and when, and her last email ended with – like it was nothing – “By the way, I’m an Alien.” 

The Alien arrived right on time, and I let her into the office to sit with me. She was eight feet tall. She had four arms. Her body was like white roots twisted together. Her head was a ball of burning blue plasma, with one great big eye visible in the center. Her name was Ufa-fsh-kiki, reminiscent of flashes of fire and puffs of smoke, but she charitably told me that I could call her Ufa. 

“Ufa, can you tell me why you’re here?”

Ufa said, “I want to be Jewish. Some days I feel like I am already Jewish, but that it isn’t fully realized.” When she talked, the fire engulfing her face moved back and forth. “I went to another synagogue six months ago, but they wouldn’t teach me.”

“They didn’t do conversions?” I asked.

“They said that I was not made in the likeness of God!”

I was a little afraid that her licking flames might reach out and start devouring the books on the shelf behind her. “We’ll teach you, but some people will still think that. What are you going to say to them?” 

“I will say, has God not appeared as a burning bush?” She drew herself up proudly. 

I liked Ufa already, from our emails, but I knew that if she was going to make it as the only Alien at our Temple she was going to have to argue her case. “Well, Genesis said that humankind was made from earth, and that God breathed life into it. Were you made from the same stuff?”

“Yes, precisely. Dirt is full of nitrogen, and what is breath, if it isn’t oxygen and carbon dioxide? So what is fire, if it isn’t dirt with life breathed into it? Weren’t the elements present at the revelation on Mt. Sinai?”

“I suppose they must have been,” I said, amused.

Ufa continued. “I am just a stranger in your land. I am coming to you to join your people, exactly as the other Aliens have joined the human people… what I need from you is not logical, but conversion rarely is. Maybe it is the way of intelligent life to make choices that are illogical but good.” 

I had to admit that Ufa had made her case well. She struck me as someone who was definitely making her own choices, even if I couldn’t entirely understand. “OK,” I said, getting to my feet. “Let’s sign you up for some classes. The Rabbi is going to like this.” 

“One last thing,” the alien objected. I looked at her, afraid that whatever she had to ask was very serious. 

“Does it still break Shabbat if I can’t help kindling a flame?” She gestured to her own head with two of her four arms.

“Well, Ufa, you’ll have to talk it over, but I bet God will understand.” 

Fred Albert – Blog

Are We The New Anti-Semites? Opinion piece published in the New Zealand Herald 13 February 2019 . Authored by Marilyn and Fred

            Defence Minister Ron Mark met Israel’s Prime Minister last week.  Netanyahu is quoted as asking New Zealand to change its definition of anti-Semitism, so that it includes political opposition to Zionism:

“[T]he new form of antisemitism is anti-Zionism, and we ask not only all our friends, but all decent countries everywhere to include [in] the definition of antisemitism, anti-Zionism as well. And so I’ve just made that request from you as well.”  http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/MediaCenter/Events/Pages/event_new270119.aspx

We write as two committed Jews, members of a synagogue, engaging in regular prayer and daily study.  We believe in the enduring, prophetic school of Jewish thought.  As per our understanding of our religion, law and justice, we are not Zionists. 

For that, Netanyahu would like you to call us anti-Semites – pathological Jew-haters.  He would deny us to the right to challenge Israel’s actions, as we challenge the actions of any state (including our own). 

If New Zealand forecloses on political debate in this way, it will forfeit its potential role in seeking justice for Israel-Palestine.

            We are not unusual in our beliefs.  Zionism has always been disputed by Jews on a range of religious grounds.  Some of our greatest modern thinkers objected to the methods and choices of Jewish nationalism, including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber.  They urged different arrangements of space and power. 

Debate is especially strident within the Jewish community now, as growing numbers of humanist, mostly-young Jews stand up to protest Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.  The Quaker community also protests, and so its development agency has been banned from Israel.  Netanyahu is asking you to believe that, because they are not Zionists, all of these people must be motivated by a sinister loathing of Jewishness itself.

            What do they oppose?  What is the Zionism that Netanyahu is asking New Zealand to protect?

Netanyahu’s settler-colonial Zionism refuses to share place or power.  It has dispossessed Palestinians.  It downgrades the rights of non-Jewish citizens, legislating that “[t]he right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Although 20% of Israelis are Arab / Palestinian, Netanyahu has stripped Arabic of its official status as a national language.

            What has this got to do with New Zealand?  Heaps – with New Zealand in particular. 

            Netanyahu’s Zionism should resonate here.  New Zealand has acknowledged its own colonial project, and recognized that the ravages of colonialism persist.  We know that mechanisms – beginning with the Treaty – are (only) the foundations of our long, imperfect, national work-in-progress of partnership.  That experience gives us a national voice, a particular harmony to offer to Israel – Palestine.

            New Zealanders will not make the peace in Israel – Palestine from this distance, but we must demand that a dignified peace be made.  Until it is, we must actively support the institutions that protect endangered lives and uphold human rights.  Our collective protest helps to raise the cost of perpetuating injustice, and reward constructive steps forward. 

Individuals act from moral obligation.  Governments have formal obligations to uphold the agreements they sign on behalf of their citizens.   In an advisory opinion that referred to Palestinians’ right to national self-determination, the International Court of Justice reminded state signatories to the Geneva Conventions that they “are under an obligation, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law…”

            Now, today, our government must roundly reject Netanyahu’s intentional confusion of political challenge with anti-Semitism.  When Zionism is blurred into Judaism, a political project is elevated to the status of a protected religious belief.  A policy is shielded from political or legal scrutiny.  We strenuously object to that, because Zionism is not the religion that we want our neighbours to respect, learn about, and protect alongside their own faiths.

            Progress toward human equality depends upon fearless activism.  Power holders have always tried to chill protest and postpone their loss of privilege.  We urge our neighbours and our government not to be deterred by Netanyahu’s name-calling.

            We think he has it backward:  justice is pro-Semitic.

Fred Albert writes from Wellington, and Marilyn Garson writes from Hokianga.  You can follow her on Twitter @skinonbothsides