This is about transparency and representation, so we begin with disclosure.
We record on our homepage that Alternative Jewish Voices is a collective, not a membership organisation. We do not seek donations and we represent only ourselves. Occasionally we ask some friends if they would like to co-sign a post. We are not a rival institution to the entities discussed here. We want to broaden the public dialogue and strengthen the representative nature of existing Jewish institutions. Here, we want to clarify the interests of several groups which might be presumed to speak for our Jewish community.
To put that more bluntly, when members of the media and the public read statements, they should understand who is speaking. If the media wish to present the views of the Jewish community, they need to look more broadly.
In a small community, a few people are always over-represented in organisations. In Aotearoa’s Jewish community, overlapping organisations amplify a few voices whose politics are out of step with the mainstream. There is nothing illegal about that, but we will suggest that it has been harmful.
The Israel Institute is a company, registered in 2019. Together, its three directors (only one of whom is Jewish) embody the meeting of New Zealand’s Jewish and Evangelical Zionism and conservative secular politics. Director Perry Trotter’s bio from his presentation of a 2012 paper to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization describes his complilation of “resources for those seeking to share Messiah with the Jewish people.” That intersection became prominent when Jewish and Christian or Evangelical Zionists demonstrated together in support of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza during May 2021.
Palestine is habitually cast as a matter between Jews and Palestinians. The role and influence of Christian or Evangelical Zionists is discussed much less frequently. We should update our assumptions and our political analysis.
The blowtorch Zionism of David Cumin’s Israel Institute blog is far from the mainstream. Any critic of Israel will be blasted as an antisemitic lover of terror. On one page he ‘exposes’ more academics (not his first time) as extremists and Jew-haters “calling for the destruction of Israel.” He describes NZ universities as bastions of support for terrorists. Their crime, of course, is to protest or permit the study of Israel’s occupation regime.
(Amnesty International has just joined Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and others categorising Israel as an apartheid regime, a crime against humanity. The NZ Jewish Council has of course called Amnesty by all the usual names.)
The Israel Institute’s scorched earth politics are not the central issue here. David Cumin, director of the Israel Institute, is also a member of the NZ Jewish Council and the Community Security Group. Intolerance must not come to characterise institutions that claim to act or speak for the Jewish community.
The Jewish Council decries the use of Nazi memes in protest, while the Israel Institute website accuses NZ union members of seeking genocide. The page leads with a graphic of war protestors morphing into uniformed Nazis. The Jewish Council has not, to our knowledge, commented on its member’s use of Nazi imagery. Surely this is a hypocritical selectivity. Nazi references are every bit as distasteful and dishonest when they are written by Jews.
The NZ Jewish Council’s constitution claims that it is “the representative organisation of New Zealand Jewry.” We have challenged this claim in the past. The NZ Jewish Council is not elected. They are appointed indirectly by a limited number of Jewish organisations. Although some Alternative Jewish Voices members have belonged to synagogues for decades, none of us has ever participated in a Jewish Council selection process. Jews unaffiliated with a synagogue are entirely unrepresented.
The Jewish Council’s composition is not representative. Are they inclusive, if not representative?
Shortly after her comments at the Christchurch anti-terror hui provoked a walkout by participants, Jewish Council Spokesperson Juliet Moses appeared on David Cumin’s podcast (Both Ms Moses and Mr Cumin are members of the Jewish Council but we are not aware if Ms Moses remains the spokesperson). Ms Moses used the podcast to warn (around minute 45), “One of the things we need to be wary of and conscious of is the rising fringe group in the Jewish community who have decided to raise their voice… I’m speaking here about the group that’s called Alternative Jewish Voices [and others]. I think we need to be very conscious of that group and think about how to disempower them as much as possible.”
When the Jewish Council’s unelected members publicly seek to suppress speech, disempower Jewish voices, disseminate Nazi imagery and wild accusations against academia and labour activists (both professions of historic Jewish solidarity), well, the council needs to resolve its internal contradictions before it can aspire to represent the community.
By choosing to speak overwhelmingly about Zionism and antisemitism, the Jewish Council does a further disservice to the fullness of our Aotearoa Jewish community and our interests. What a sadly limited impression of Jewishness they give to our neighbours.
Those public politics do not draw from, and do not represent, the whole of our community. Those things took place the light of day. The following matter does not, and its implications extend beyond the Jewish community.
The Community Security Group (CSG) exists “to support the protection of Jewish lives and the Jewish way of life” in New Zealand. Some of its activities certainly do aim to do that. We wish to distinguish clearly between the genuine efforts of its volunteers, and one pernicious matter here.
A year ago, Fred Albert and Marilyn Garson contacted the CSG directly in writing, to express their concerns regarding CSG monthly reports which purport to document antisemitism and assess the level of threat to the local Jewish community. The reports were circulated through community newsletters and email groups, and Fred and Marilyn were told that some content was shared with security agencies.
Some of us have been involved in risk and threat assessments elsewhere. The CSG’s reporting did not follow responsible procedures.
In 2021 the reports were not shared with the community. That was a positive step given the method being used. However, it removed the reporting process entirely from scrutiny. Fred and Marilyn wrote to the CSG again in 2022, and notified them of their intention to state their concerns publicly.
The 2020 reports copied from an Israeli website some international incidents which “conform to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.” That expansive definition renders criticism of Israel as Jew-hatred. The IHRA definition has no official standing anywhere in Aotearoa, yet it was the basis of the CSG reports.
The IHRA ideology of the report is crucial, because it led the report writer to toss valid, non-violent political protest into the bucket of racism. Objections to Israel’s armed actions on the other side of the world, with no reference to Jews or the Jewish community of Aotearoa, were treated as racist threat.
The CSG reporting exercise is a fine example of the danger of the IHRA definition. Real racism is lost when the parameters are stretched beyond meaning.
The reports cited some disturbing, ugly antisemitic hate (not always from within New Zealand). Unfortunately those genuine statements of hate were diluted by being thrown together with statements of protest – and even with articles that documented the danger of using the IHRA definition! Disagreement was not distinguished from threat. Valid protest was rendered antisemitic by association.
Fred and Marilyn combed through six months of reports, and submitted a four-page letter of objections in January 2021. We extract from their letter:
“How does this help in ensuring the safety of the community? … Disagreement with your view is not a risk as such, and probably not a threat…. Our view is that readers are being shown a highly politicised perspective in the guise of important security situational awareness and we are given the impression that our community is being protected when in fact this is an exercise in politics rather than security…. This misdirects the community’s concern by suggesting that our insecurity is best identified by seeking out those who disagree with your views of Israel, and protest its occupation of Palestinian land. History does not support that assumption.”
The letter documented specific instances of misleading reporting, and examples of social media expressions of protest which contained no element of antisemitic or other threat. If you have ever participated in such legal expressions of protest, this should give you pause.
The letter concluded that none of those instances “in any way implies hatred of Jews or Jewishness, supports violence or can be characterised as antisemitic…. Examples like these suggest that you are writing a report about disagreement with Israel, rather than a report about threats posed to the New Zealand Jewish community. It is, of course, your right to disseminate your views but it is disingenuous to do so in the guise of security. We are concerned for the reputations that will be damaged, and for the false sense that we, as a community, are endangered by disagreement rather than by the genuine pathology of antisemitism.”
Fred Albert and Marilyn Garson have again written, calling for a different process. Because this practice affects people within and beyond our community, we, Alternative Jewish Voices list our objections here.
- Neither we nor those who are harmed by false labels have any way to know whether the CSG continues to share misleading information with security agencies. Given the statements of the IINZ and NZ Jewish Council, protest in New Zealand already takes place in the shadow of such behaviour. We call for transparency.
- We fear that the punishment of solidarity with Palestinian rights continues to masquerade as threat assessment, doing a disservice both to political debate and to genuine threat awareness. It is legal to protest in Aotearoa. Every faith community should be safe. Those two values must – and can – be more wisely secured.
- The pernicious IHRA definition is not Aotearoa’s definition of racism. By choosing an ideological tool, the reports failed in their stated goal of threat assessment. People can criticise Israel without antisemitism, and without posing a threat to the Jewish community. The CSG’s standard and their mindset need to change.
- We do not know if the CSG shares information with any entity outside of New Zealand, an act that would be treated differently by legislation including our Privacy Act. If political information is being shared with Israel, it could impact Palestinians’ ability to travel to their own land.
- Genuine antiracism is a shared task, and that shared work is made much more difficult when intolerant voices speak in the name of our community.
- Genuine risk / threat assessment leads to action. Threat can feel paralysing without context and response. A security report should be contextualised with reference to organisations that monitor Aotearoa’s subcultures of hate, not Israel’s IHRA websites. A security group should empower its community with an integrated response within Aotearoa’s wider antiracism activity. Our CSG is ideologically unable to take those steps.
We emphatically protest the CSG’s political actions in the guise of community safety. We call for a review of the CGS’s compilation and sharing of information. People who have been falsely labelled a threat for their valid political speech should be informed so that they can respond. The CSG should apologise and correct its mischaracterisations.
Hear this: it is legal in Aotearoa to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. The full individual and collective rights of Palestinians do not threaten the Jewish community. It does not endanger us when Palestinians tell us their experience, their identity and their aspirations.
In conclusion, there is less substance than meets the eye in the institutions which might be presumed to represent the Jewish community. They are unable to situate us well within the community around us, parts of which they are busy alienating. This is to everyone’s detriment.
We call on the institutions which claim to represent us, to do just that.
Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa-New Zealand