We were wrong, and we take it back.

Image from B’Tselem report: Settler Violence = State Violence

Over and over we have asked ourselves and others, how do you think change will be made? We have advocated for the value of holding a door open for people who see that something is wrong in Israel / Palestine, but who do not act. They are the doubting Liberals, the disgruntled Zionists, the ineffectual diplomats, the Progressive-except. By some feat of cognitive dissonance, they are all able to live with a Palestinian exception to their values. We held out hope that information would spur people of conscience to action. After all, numbers build the political pressure for change, and these looked like proximate groups from which to add numbers.

2021, we thought, would be the year that moved people of conscience to action.

The attempted obliteration of Palestine belongs in the category of racism or inequality: structures predicated on intentional injustice. This is a category with no neutral ground. People may express no opinion, but their silence is not neutral because they have a very real, complicit effect. Theirs is the foot on the accelerator. By not (at least) pressing each government to uphold law, treaties and the protections we all owe to an occupied people; bystanders give the occupiers their impunity. Go ahead, no one will hold you accountable. We’ll look the other way.

Desmond Tutu said it simply, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

The horror of 2021 was beyond ignoring, especially the plummeting quality of life in Gaza since Israel’s bombardment. As never before, the most mainstream of media – Vanity Fair, for goodness sake, twice! – placed some graphic reality under our noses. But 2021 went by and mocked our faith in the conscience of the uninvolved.

The diplomatic bystanders admit that it is bad but they hope that it will not always be bad. They ask everyone to be nice as if everyone were equally aggressing. They speak about peace rather than the justice on which any durable peace is built. These people call for patience while the Israeli government seals the exits.

Wait nicely, the Liberal Zionists add, because the problem is Netanyahu. Until he goes, Palestinians and their allies must not resort to violence or display anger, or produce literature, art or history that refers to Palestinian national experience, identity, or existence. They must not make peaceful economic choices that limit the profitability of occupation.  No Nakba, please, we’re fragile.

Netanyahu left office in the middle of 2021, to spend more time with his busy court docket. Since then, Israel’s government has criminalised six leading Palestinian human rights and legal NGOs. It is now expelling Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, carrying out the actions which sparked Palestinian protests last May. It is withholding precisely the materials (such as water pipes) needed to repair the Gazan infrastructure that it shattered in May. Gaza’s formal unemployment has risen to 50.2% although its “actual unemployment is much higher.” Israeli soldiers openly escort West Bank settlers to assault Palestinians. Even Rabbis For Human Rights recognises these settler militias as terror groups. The government of Israel continues to ignore its health obligations as an occupier, despite the Palestinian Ministry of Health pleading for resources to respond to the Omicron outbreaks that began in December in the West Bank and Gaza.

So Netanyahu was not the problem. The problem is a lie, a lie that underpins the intentions of settler colonialism. The lie prefaces apartheid law. The lie is the foundation of the ghetto walls around the Gaza Strip. The problem is a racist belief that values and discounts human life ethnically.

B’Tselem calls this reality “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Human Rights Watch summarises,

“Across two governments, each in power for roughly half of 2021, Israeli authorities doubled down on policies to repress Palestinians and privilege Jewish Israelis. The government’s policy of maintaining the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians … amounts to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

What can be said to people who see this spreading despair yet continue to imagine that they inhabit a Department of Clean Hands – a safe, privileged place of willful irrelevance. No risk, no responsibility, and no incriminating mirrors. No Palestine please, we’ve excused ourselves.

They are not excused, because standing back is taking a side. Bystanders do not keep the peace because the momentary suppression of resistance is not peace. The complicity of the bystander keeps the tanks rolling and the olive trees burning and it keeps hundreds of children languishing in military jails.

Nelson Mandela saw in 1997 that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And look: the allies who support Palestinians’ assertion of their full individual and collective rights do so through solidarity. Whether they recognise in the occupation their own stolen land, their own attempted erasure or baked-in disadvantage, Palestine has become integral to any vision of structural change and decolonisation.

Palestinians’ allies are those who pursue justice and abhor the “new politics of exclusion” as it is being written by this occupation. And that includes the proliferating Jewish organisations who disavow occupation in our names. We believe in a Judaism beyond Zionism.

Transformational change will be made by those who turn up, and if 2021 didn’t make you turn up then nothing will.

Marilyn Garson

Fred Albert

Leigh Friday

David Weinstein

First antisemitism, now the Holocaust

While we are looking the wrong way

Assertions of Palestinians’ rights are now routinely met with a barrage of antisemitism charges. The noise doesn’t deter protest. As we write, two dozen artists have pulled out of the Sydney Festival to protest its Israeli embassy sponsorship. Still, equating protest with racism is harmful to everyone.

Having enlisted racism, the Holocaust is now being harnessed to politics.

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan this week replied to Emma Watson’s statement of solidarity with Palestinians by calling her a Jew-hater. Later this month, the New York Jewish Week reports that Ambassador Erdan “will introduce a resolution opposing Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion.” He says that he will base his resolution on the most sweeping definition of antisemitism – a definition which equates criticism of Israel with the hatred of Jews (See our resource page on this definition).

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has disqualified the Israeli government as a protector of Holocaust truth. He falsely claimed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was inspired to extermination of Europe’s Jews by Jerusalem’s then-grand mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian nationalist. His government’s willingness to manipulate the Holocaust in the interests of illiberal allies is well documented by Sylvain Cypel. One cannot abuse and protect the truth on alternate days of the week.

To call Palestinian solidarity racist is to try to discredit the speaker by associating them with racism. It’s also a distraction from the genuine mainstreaming of far Right / white supremacist ideas which include racism.

Three distinct things are happening within the language of protest.  We need to distinguish between them, so that we can pursue both justice and antiracism.

Zionism has attracted openly antisemitic fellow travellers since Richard Spencer began calling himself a ‘White Zionist’ admirer of Israel’s ethnic supremacist regime. Trump supporters openly wore Nazi symbols to storm their Capital building, hoping to prevent a democratic handover of power.

Extremist and hateful memes were bundled into protests against COVID public health measures by the American Right. That noxious bundle has now been imported to Aotearoa.

Of the COVID protest in Wellington on November 9, Nicky Hager warned, “When people I know march down the road with white supremacists, Trump supporters, fundamentalist Christians, people who are pro-guns, anti-UN, anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish, people who believe a powerful “them” want to kill millions and enslave the earth, things have got totally out of hand…. I strongly suspect the Covid resistance is being actively used by some on the right of New Zealand politics to try to destabilise Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Government.”

A separate tactic of name-calling can enlist Holocaust references to undermine valid political speech. For example –

  • In June, the Israel Institute of NZ accused union members of somehow “promoting the murder of Jews” by protesting Israel’s violence against Palestinians. The IINZ webpage features a collage in which a protester morphs into a uniformed Nazi.
  • On December 28, 2020, a Stuff OpEd vaguely wondered whether the memes could be blamed on Green MP Golriz Ghahraman. When challenged on Twitter, the writer attributed to Ghahraman a statement that Israel has committed the “grossest of war crimes, crimes against humanity and, I would say, genocide.” Ghahraman stated her opinion as a lawyer who has worked on war crimes trials. Although the remark does not refer to the Holocaust at all, this OpEd writer accuses her of ‘Holocaust revisionism.’ Stuff published his view uncritically.

There is also a third category of Holocaust reference. Genocide and apartheid may be referenced in protest to name the very worst actions. ‘Genocide’ and ‘apartheid’ are categories of crime – essential subjects which create obligations for us and our government. However, to invoke the Holocaust, rather than the crime of genocide, is misleading and distressing to many people.

We are being desensitised by evermore extreme language. Alternative Jewish Voices will not adopt it, and we will not be moved by it. Instead, we will dig our heels into ground truth.

  1.  The expansive linkage of antisemitism with support for Palestinian liberation is based on a definition which has no standing in Aotearoa. We must not let this overreach go unnoticed. Solidarity with Palestine is not per se antisemitic. The rights of Palestinians are not about Jews.
  2. We protest any denial or distortion of the Holocaust for the same reason that we protest any denial or distortion of the ongoing Nakba. These real, lived experiences belong with us, intact, to spur progress toward human equality and freedom.
  3. Genocide is a category of crime, like apartheid. The discussion of crimes against Palestinians, Uighurs, Rohingya or others is not anti-Jewish (nor is it anti-Cambodian or anti-Rwandan). On the contrary, vigilance honours history and we are all obliged to act on crimes against humanity.
  4. Notwithstanding the existence of racism anywhere in society, the systematic use of Nazi memes characterises white supremacist movements and the far Right.

This last point has been made before but it bears repeating: when anyone is racist, they are wrong. When a white supremacist is racist, they are explaining a core component of their world view. Racism, including antisemitism, fuels their resentment and justifies their violence. No racist gets a pass, but the one is wrong while the other belongs to a demonstrably, repeatedly dangerous cohort.

That is a danger from which we must not be distracted. Look Right for trouble.

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa – New Zealand