Constitution, what constitution: NZ Jewish Council and the Amnesty Report

Sh’ma Koleinu/Alternative Jewish Voices have commented in the past about the New Zealand Jewish Council and its lack of accountability with the wider New Zealand Jewish community.  While the Council has done good work in pointing out antisemitism in the New Zealand context it is on shakier ground when commenting on Israel and news items about Israel, because, I believe, of the rather fixed views of its members.  Further to that, the Council is going outside of its own constitution in commenting on non-New Zealand matters.

I want to specifically talk about a recent press statement the Council made about the Amnesty International report about Israel: Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: cruel system of domination and crime against humanity.  The press statement from the Council can be viewed here.  I want to concentrate not on the content of the press statement but of the reasoning behind feeling the need to write it.

Let’s look at whether commenting on the Amnesty report is even the Council’s business.  The Amnesty report has nothing to do with New Zealand and while Amnesty International has a New Zealand branch that is irrelevant here.  And further to that, the content has nothing to do with New Zealand either.  New Zealand isn’t mentioned once in the report’s 280 pages.

Like all incorporated societies, the Council must have a Constitution (or Rules) and it must be publicly available.  The relevant sections are reproduced below:

3 Purposes of the Council

3.1 The Council is the representative organisation of New Zealand Jewry.

3.2 The objectives of the Council are purely charitable and include

3.2 (a) Ensuring New Zealand is a country which maintains the democratic and civil rights to manifest Judaism in worship, observance, practice and teaching, both individually and in community with others, and either in public or in private;

3.2 (b) Working to secure and maintain the welfare of the New Zealand Jewish community;

3.2 (c) Promoting co-ordination among, and assisting, the Regional Councils; and liaising with and supporting the Council’s affiliated organisations and the smaller communities in New Zealand.

3.3 The Council will represent the New Zealand Jewish community by:

3.3 (a) Speaking on behalf of New Zealand Jewry and its organisations: in the media; by submissions to Parliament, Government departments, and local authorities; and in contacts with other religious and ethnic organisations or NGOs;

3.3 (b) Responding to defamation, discrimination, abuse and/or assault against individual Jews or Jewish groups;

3.3 (c) Raising Jewish consciousness and identity by supporting community educational initiatives and cultural activities;

3.3 (d) Supporting community safety and security measures;

3.3 (e) Supporting and liaising with Jewish communities and individuals in New Zealand;

3.3 (f) Engaging on behalf of the community in interfaith activities;

3.3 (g) Liaising with and supporting other ethnic groups in New Zealand;

3.3 (h) Supporting at-risk Jews in other countries;

3.3 (i) Maintaining contact with overseas Jewish organisations such as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the Commonwealth Jewish Council, and the World Jewish Congress;

3.3 (j) Taking a public stance on issues of racism, persecution, prejudice and human rights affecting New Zealand residents.

A look through the Purposes of the Council show that it is concerned with issues strictly in New Zealand.  In fact, a word search through the whole Council constitution will show that Israel isn’t mentioned even once in the entire document, and words such as Zionism or Zionist are only mentioned once with a reference to the Zionist Federation of New Zealand.  Why then, is the Council making a press statement about this report, which is clearly outside its stated scope?

And here we come to the heart of the matter.  It is clear that Council members have their own agendas that are, for them, just as important as the purposes stated in the NZ Jewish Council’s constitution.  These are that Council members feel obliged to mimic the Israeli government line no matter what, and that Council members must believe that all ‘real’ Jews are Zionists.  Because their world view is so deeply ingrained, they use the NZ Jewish Council identity and structure as a vehicle for their own views without even knowing they are breaking the boundaries of what the Council is there for.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is not antisemitic

We, Alternative Jewish Voices and friends, support the call sent out by the signatories to the statement below to reaffirm and insist that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is not antisemitic.

Marilyn Garson, Fred Albert, David Weinstein, Ilan Blumberg, Tami Louisson, Sarah Cole

We want to state unequivocally that the Palestinian-led global movement for justice, which speaks in the name of international law and human rights, and the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is not antisemitic. We want to state unequivocally that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. We strongly oppose any and all efforts by the US, Israeli or any other government to conflate support for BDS or opposition to Zionism with antisemitism.

Eva Ackerman, Arielle Angel, Peter Beinart, Judith Butler, Jonathan J. Cohen, Jane Hirschmann, Adam Horowitz, Alan Levine, Richard Levy, Nina Mehta, Hannah Mermelstein, SarahAnne Minkin, PhD, Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, Sheryl Nestel,Donna Nevel, Kathleen Peratis, Rosalind Petchesky, Jacob Plitman, Rabbi Brant Rosen,Deborah Sagner, Mark Tseng-Putterman, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Rabbi Brian Walt,Lesley Williams, Dorothy M. Zellner

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


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.


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


Palestine Human Rights Campaign

Leslie and Martin Bravery

Authors of “In Occupied Palestine”

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.”

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