Te Kuaka / NZ Alternative podcast: it’s time to do Palestine policy differently

Imagine foreign policy led by our values, grounded in justice.

Imagine policy that speaks to decolonisation – here and there.

Listen to the podcast by Te Kuaka / New Zealand Alternative: From Aotearoa to Palestine, with Nadia Abu Shanab and Samira Archer of Justice For Palestine, and Marilyn Garson of Alternative Jewish Voices.

Big thanks to Phoebe and all of NZ Alternative for making a space to speak aspirationally about the world that can, and should, become our world.

It’s time we met

Don’t be a stranger

We formed Alternative Jewish Voices as a platform for the unrepresented breadth of our Aotearoa Jewish community.  Our community is wider than the membership of Jewish synagogues and organisations.

At the series of Wellington rallies in May, people repeatedly approached us after we spoke.  They introduced themselves as Jews, unaffiliated with any institution.  Some fretted that they might be considered “not Jewish enough to speak.” 

The power to define, and conversely the fear of being excluded by a definition, is hardly new.  We are not writing to examine our history of communal exclusion or alienation here.  We would like to end it.

If you have a Jewish parent or grandparent, then you are part of the community.  Join it: speak up, own and be identified with Jewish issues, explore your culture, history, religion or identity – however you may enter into it. If anyone doubts your standing to do that, please educate them nicely by explaining, “I am as Jew as you.”

In our last national census, the number of people identifying as Jews fell by 20%.  There are nearly three times as many self-identified Jedi warriors as there are Jews in Aotearoa at the moment. Notwithstanding the inherent appeal of being a Jedi warrior, it might also be that our Jewish institutions don’t feel relevant or welcoming to all of us.

This is not a political exercise.  We won’t ask about your politics and we won’t claim to be representing you.  We seek only a more inclusive sense of our own community. We should know each other.

We invite you to get in touch.  Write to the contact address at the bottom of this page.  We’ll make a mailing list, we’ll ask how you might like to be in community.  Who knows where it might lead.  We hope you will find others with curiosity like your own. New friends, a meal, an exchange of stories, a debate, a bit of exploration about this Jewishness of ours – whatever.

Please get in touch, and please share this with others who might want to join us.

Alternative Jewish Voices

When ‘bombs respond to rockets’ someone has buried the lede

“Israeli military bombs Gaza after rocket strike” – The Guardian

A security guard refuses to allow a customer to enter a supermarket.  A small group clings to the individualistic rights that the overwhelming majority have agreed to forego.  A government crashes its own economy.

Those stories only make sense if you know that a pandemic has overturned normal life.  Covid is the lede, the indispensable point which inverts the apparent rights and wrongs of these stories.  Without the lede, you would draw the wrong conclusion from each of the stories.

So it is with these recent headlines, Israel Strikes Hamas Targets After Rocket Launches or Israel hits Hamas targets in Gaza in response to rocket fire

There goes Hamas again, disturbing a quiet morning and provoking the Israeli military for no apparent reason.

Israel’s occupation and illegal blockade of Gaza is the lede, the sine qua non that makes sense of the story.  Again this morning, Gazans woke up with countless weapons of aggression pointing at them, with concrete walls and fences and drones and warships surrounding them, with technology and scarcity and deprivation combining to diminish their life chances.  They woke up trapped on a firing range.

Try writing the story that way.

“Still dispossessed, illegally blockaded and deprived of their basic human rights, Gazan Palestinians continue to resist. Fighters fired a number of rockets which landed in an Israeli field.  Israel, still flaunting international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dispatched warplanes to fire grossly larger explosive missiles into Gazan cities.  They claim to have blown up something that was in some way related to the governing authority, but they provided no evidence.”

Given all that; given an occupied people’s legal right to armed resistance (which the International Criminal Court must weigh against the illegality of firing rockets that cannot be aimed); given that the casualties and rubble of this occupation have been overwhelmingly Palestinian; and given the wildly different realities of threat arising from the exchange of fire being reported … why does the media begin with, and implicitly blame the whole mess on, a rocket? 

There would be no rocket if there were no occupation and blockade. To start the story with the rocket is to have normalised all the generations and tonnage of damage done to date. Gazan resistance is a response to Israel’s occupation.  Why not start there, by asking why Israel maintains the abysmal conditions which give rise to armed resistance?

To be clear, I regard Hamas as an unpleasant product of Israel’s occupation.  Having lived under their rule for four years, I believe that they constitute a secondary oppression for Gazans. As a peace-loving, life-loving person, I regard every exchange of fire as a failure of human reason and empathy.  However, responsibility for those failures is not equally shared.  Neither are the harms, and neither are the threats implied by these exchanges of fire. Stand next to the hole made by a rocket and the crater left by a one-ton bomb.  Neither one is nice but you would never, ever mistake one for the other.

Yet, again and again, the media treats Israel as a normal society while treating resistance as the disturbance of normalcy. Why not take law basic human equality as the norm, and challenge Israel’s deviation from that standard?  

 What’s wrong with us, that we think ‘normal’ can or should consist of Gazans accepting life prospects and living conditions that we, ourselves, would never tolerate for our children?

The current normalcy is predicated on Gazans being jolted awake by bombs and missiles landing in crowded neighbourhoods.  Have you ever heard a good-sized bomb explode near enough to make your building shudder, make the doors leap inward from their hinges and turn the windows to spiderwebs? Gazans wake up this way, times beyond counting.

In the mornings after those nights, we used to gather at the desks of colleagues who lived near the sites of missile attacks, bringing cups of strong Turkish coffee and whatever chocolate was at hand.  We would ask if they still had windows, and whether their children had gotten back to sleep.  After each shock, recovery was measured by the number of children who were willing to sleep in their beds, and the number who would only sleep beneath their beds for safety in case the planes came back.  Thunderstorms were an agony for children and their sleep-deprived parents.

The Israeli air force’s ability and willingness to fire into Gazan homes and streets keeps the violence far from Israeli children’s beds or Tel Aviv beaches, while ensuring that there is no square inch of safe civilian space in the Gaza Strip. Nowhere is not dangerous. To be in Gaza is to be hypervigilant because the car in front of you, the apartment down the hall, the road beneath your feet, or your neighbour’s son may be targeted without warning, in the next minute.  Most young Gazan adults have never been free to leave the Strip.  They have lived every minute on this firing range.

That is the lived ‘normal’ which our media declines to mention.  And it is the normalcy that proponents of Israel’s occupation are keen to elide by speaking only of Hamas rather than the whole human community of the Gaza Strip.  Gaza is not Hamas, and Hamas is not Gaza.

When the story begins with that rocket, it asks Gaza, ‘Why do you disturb the peace?’  With its lede, the story would ask why Israel perpetuates these unforgivable conditions. 

But why resist that way? Why poke the Israeli bear?  When I asked them, my Palestinian colleagues sighed that the world only notices Gazans when they fight.  As soon as there is quiet, the rest of us turn quickly away until Gazans find some way to remind us, “We’re still here.”

I wonder if they are right.  Is it our quiet morning that the rocket unsettled – is that why our media seems more ready to condemn the resistance than the injustice?

Marilyn Garson

Shana Tova – Jewish New Year hopes for Palestine, from Alternative Jewish Voices and friends.

Shana Tova – happy Jewish New Year – to Palestine, from Alternative Jewish Voices and friends.

2021 has been the most difficult year.

May the coming year be much sweeter.

May you live in dignity,

freedom and equality,

with the full measure of your rights

and the full expression of your culture.  

May your homes be safe and your journeys undisturbed. May those who have been driven out choose whether to return.

May Palestinian nationality be recognised, so that you speak as of right and manage the resources of your land wisely.

We wish your children healthy food and clean water, schoolbooks and playgrounds and art, and the knowledge that they will sleep safely in their beds at night.

We wish you health in this time of pandemic.

We wish you could just be, living your lives without violence and oppression.  We wish you normalcy – work, rest, untroubled sleep.

We wish you each a vote and a voice to determine the transformation that must occur for everyone who lives between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. May it become a shared space governed as all of its citizens see fit, unscarred by ugly walls and checkpoints.

May you enter into the conversations that will realise such change.

We wish energy and impatience to all of us around you, as we escalate the principled pressure for transformation.  For as long as it is radical to insist upon the full measure of Palestinians’ equal human rights and the unexceptional application of international law; for that long we will continue.

May all of our religions be respected, loved and protected. That, too, is our shared work.

Let 2021 have been the worst year.   

We can make the coming year much sweeter.  

Marilyn Garson    

Fred Albert

David Weinstein

Judith Reinkin

Lynn Jenner

Sue Berman

Margalit Toledano

Justine Sachs

Palestine policy in a rules-based world

Beit Lahiya, Gaza Nov 2012, Marilyn Garson

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged APEC to ensure fair access to Covid vaccines, as a step toward a ‘rules-based’ Pacific region.  As a small, remote country, Aotearoa-NZ depends heavily on those rules. We have moral, legal and self-interested reasons to act and speak for a rules-based world and when we do, our voice carries.

We should use our voice now, while we are all staring at our contradictions.  Covid shows that our health is indivisible – while the old, morally vacant politics have eroded our ability to act collectively on health, climate, inequality, violence, or the massive flows of refugees driven from their homes by from great hardship.   Self-interest lies in restoring our international institutions.  Institutions are not just buildings, they are agreed behaviours and rules.  We need to reinvigorate especially those agreements which underpin our institutions of law, equality and science. 

Why should Palestine be on our agenda?  Israel’s forever-occupation is a product of the old power politics. Our donor and policy choices make us actively complicit: we are part of the Palestine problem.  In May we all watched the intentional destruction escalate once more:  over 260 Gazan lives lost and 13 in Israel, half a billion dollars of infrastructure and housing wrecked, one-fifth of Gazans left without running water, and ongoing expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. 

On the ground things are only worse, but the excessive violence has finally broken into the mainstream media.  The New York Times, Vanity Fair and others are publishing real images of Gazans’ experience.  Even staid diplomatic voices now declare that states must change their diplomacy in order to bring solutions about. 

And where does Aotearoa stand?  Contrast these two statements.  Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon used to appeal for humanitarian aid to Gaza. Now he speaks of cause, law and responsibility.

“Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation, settling its own people on the land in violation of international law and enforcing a legal regime of institutionalised discrimination. Calls for a return to unconditional bilateral talks every time there is a fresh flare-up in fighting will only serve to perpetuate the status quo if these root causes are not addressed. What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions in this regard.”

Compare that with our Foreign Minister, Hon. Nanaia Mahuta, writing on December 14, 2020:

“Successive New Zealand Governments have been clear that Israeli settlements are a violation of international law.  On 23 June 2020, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rt Hon Winston Peters issued a statement highlighting this and warning that annexation would also breach international law and have negative implications for the peace process… New Zealand has a warm relationship with the Palestinian Authority, but our policy to date has been one of non-recognition of Palestine, on the basis that it lacks sufficient control of its territory to constitute a state…  New Zealand will continue to pursue a principled and balanced approach to the Middle East Peace Process including support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Illegality without consequence.  Blind, bystanding balance.  We can’t recognise Palestine because, well, because it’s so successfully and perennially occupied, for reasons that we warmly decline to analyse.

Is that really where our principles lead us?

Rather than waiting for justice to sprout like magic beans, we could ground our voice in the institutions of law and equality.  International law and the Geneva Conventions are institutions of principle. They oblige our constructive intervention on behalf of all people in a rules-based world.  

Law and treaty and convention are only meaningful if they are supported by action when they are breached. This report by the UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk outlines the sources of states’ legal obligations to act on the many breaches in Palestine, and it notes the characteristics of actions that have helped elsewhere.

Lynk reiterated just last week that Israel’s West Bank settlements, which have transferred 680,000 Israeli settlers onto occupied Palestinian land, should be classified as war crimes.  

“The illegality of the Israeli settlements is one of the most settled and uncontentious issues in modern international law and diplomacy. Their illegality has been confirmed by the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention and by many international and regional human rights organizations… [but] the international community has been remarkably reluctant to enforce its own laws.”

We sponsored UN Resolution 2334 in 2016 to reiterate that illegality, but we have done nothing to make our action meaningful.  We speak up for principled fair access to Covid vaccines in the Pacific, but we have not spoken to Israel’s legal (and moral) failure to provide Covid vaccines to the people of occupied Palestine.  And so on. 

The rules-based order we seek requires more than that.

Ardi Imseis is a Canadian law professor and former Senior Legal Counsel to the Chief Justice of Alberta. He has made an excellent argument to go further and recognise the State of Palestine.  He elaborates Palestine’s qualification to be recognised, and outlines the legal and institutional value of regarding both Palestine and Israel as sovereign and territorially inviolable. In a world of state-based institutions, a State of Palestine would have access to “a number of legal principles that, by definition, can only apply to states and which are therefore the bedrock of the modern international legal order.”  Recognition would also “serve as a holding operation … to halt the ongoing colonization by the occupying power” of Palestinian territory and Palestinians’ lives. 

Alternative Jewish Voices has called for us to recognise Palestinians as a people with equal standing to speak about their resources, lives and aspirations.  Recognition would help to bring about the preconditions for any number of states to be governed in the interest of all citizens.  Isn’t that what our government says that it wants?

Early in our own uneven work of decolonisation, Aotearoa-NZ would bring a grounded, hopeful voice to the project of doing Palestine policy differently.  We would add to the external pressure for constructive change.  Surely that is where our values lead us. How much impact would it make, to uphold the laws that we sign or to act in the interest of a rules-based world? Absurdly, in all the decades of this occupation, it hasn’t been tried. 

No single policy will please the Jewish community, because we are not monolithic.  A quarter of the American Jewish voters – and a third of those aged under forty years – surveyed by the Jewish Electorate Institute now call Israel an apartheid state.  Locally, we are as deeply divided.  However, we are not the object of the policy and we must not be an excuse for inaction.  Israel’s forever-occupation is not about us.  As Sara Roy writes,

“Israel’s struggle against the Palestinian people is fundamentally about their presence and their representation to the world.  It is about diminishing if not removing their certainty by depriving them of agency and capacity and condemning them for their own privation.  Palestinians have resisted.  Yet, their resistance is not enough… They must be seen as a civil society with aspirations no different from ours.  They must be seen as the solution to the problems of their region.” 

In our Jewish community, in Aotearoa and in Palestine, there can be no future based on erasing a nation.  We need to embark on the work of listening, making good the harm that has been done, imagining and constructing a future together.  There is no other way forward – and that is the vision to which our national policy should speak.

Marilyn Garson

A future-facing Palestine policy will turn from power to justice

Photo by Marilyn Garson – water behind bars in Gaza

Weeks after the bombardment of Gaza, analysts are asking how to weaken Hamas, rather than writing that one-fifth of Gazans now live without running water to wash their hands during a Covid epidemic.  Israel’s blockade is obstructing precisely the materials needed to repair the infrastructure that Israeli planes bombed in May.  

Those analysts think that the aftermath of bombardment must be the restoration of the status quo ante – a resumption of the way things were before.  As a UN member and donor state, Aotearoa-NZ acts the same way.  We have one eye on Israel’s status quo interests, and the other eye closed.  We have no policy for Palestinians except as the objects of Israel’s regime. 

Even former UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon wants such policies to change.

“Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation, settling its own people on the land in violation of international law and enforcing a legal regime of institutionalised discrimination. Calls for a return to unconditional bilateral talks every time there is a fresh flare-up in fighting will only serve to perpetuate the status quo if these root causes are not addressed. What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions in this regard.”

What if we based our policy on justice?  What might a future-facing policy be, and where can we begin? 

One eye on power: stabilising injustice

As a UN member and a small donor state, our government waits for two states to sprout from decades of systemic injustice (Alternative Jewish Voices takes no position on any number of states. That is a decision for citizens to make).  In the meantime, we relate to Israel as our equal in legitimacy and sovereignty, needing no action from us to bring any solution closer.

Far from criticising Israel’s “structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation,” as a donor we agree to defray Israel’s costs, and manage the humanitarian results.  We do this particularly in Gaza, the stubborn heart of Palestinian resistance and the target of Israel’s purest punishment.

Our interest in the status quo makes Palestinians appear as disruptors, destabilisers.  We send them the most passive forms of assistance.  Elsewhere, aid recipients are told to work for their food, while to Palestine refugee camps we send relief food. We tell educated, eager Palestinian workers to wait quietly.  We do not invest in food production or food sovereignty.

A sack of flour requires no political analysis.  Passive relief sees only impoverished people.  It  does not ask what made them poor, why Gaza has scattered economic activity rather than any coherent economy to speak of, or why Palestinians are so determined to overthrow the status quo.  A sack of flour can sustain life, but without analysis it says nothing about change.

Because we screen out the politics of cause and reduce Palestinians to a humanitarian problem, we find ourselves speaking absurdly. Palestinians must recognise the Israel which excludes them, while Israel need not recognise Palestinians’ most basic human rights.  We speak of Israel’s right to self-defense while the defense of Palestinians – who bear the overwhelming share of casualties – goes unspoken.  We speak of Israeli civilian space while we discount Gazan civilian protections. We deny Palestinian statehood because Palestinians do not fully control their territory.  Yes, exactly, and Ban Ki Moon has done a good job of explaining why that is so.

Policy grounded in law

When pressed, our leaders fall back on a learned helplessness.  They ask for the violence to stop, and they throw up their hands as if there were nothing we could do.

We greatly underestimate the role we already play.  Rewards – and peace proposals – have been cast in donor states’ neoliberal terms, asking Palestinians to forfeit their rights and their politics in exchange for investment in a normalised, occupied life.  See for example Toufic Haddad. Donors and diplomats reward the political and business elites who take up that offer. We ignore their illegitimacy and their obstruction of other leadership.

We overlook entirely the leverage we would have if we upheld the laws and conventions that we have signed.  Surely, any just policy begins by upholding the law.

UN Special Rapporteur and Associate Professor of Law Michael Lynk wrote in his October, 2019 report (A/74/507)

“No occupation in the modern world has been conducted with the international community so alert to its many grave breaches of international law, so knowledgeable about the occupier’s obvious and well-signalled intent to annex and establish permanent sovereignty, so well-informed about the scale of suffering and dispossession endured by the protected population under occupation, and yet so unwilling to act upon the overwhelming evidence before it… [T]he international community possesses a great deal of power to ensure a positive, durable and just solution to the occupation.” 

Lynk details the record of illegality, the treaties which oblige us to act today, and the characteristics of countermeasures that have worked elsewhere. The law is ours and we have neglected it.

When states are negligent in their duty, civil society leads – and civil society is not beholden to power politics.  America has no veto here.

Irish government and opposition parties recently adopted a unanimous motion condemning what they called Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.  A Sinn Fein foreign affairs spokesperson called it “a true reflection of the strength of feeling in this country at the treatment of the Palestinian people by the apartheid state of Israel.”

Civil society can lead government to the podium to speak about justice.  Let’s do that. Let’s begin with a parliamentary debate that requires our elected representatives to publically state their positions.

If we ceased bowing to power and instead upheld international law, we would merely be meeting our obligations.  As a small state heavily reliant on a rules-based order, we would also be acting in self-interest.

Laws are a start, but they are technical minimums. Justice and morality are more aspirational than that.

A future-facing policy for Palestinians, especially for Gaza

Our current policy views Palestinians through the eye of Israel’s security regime. We have adopted the view from outside the blockade wall.  That wall lumps two million Gazans into a single enemy object, to be subdued by means of violence and hunger management. 

The very nicest thing you can say about that view is that it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t even stabilise. No one is deterred, no one runs out of weapons or stops using the weapons they have.  Less politely, our policy notices only two kinds of Palestinians, the violent and the victims.  It denies that a society of recognisable, whole persons lives behind those walls. We do not ask what it means to be stateless, to never travel 50 or more kilometers, or to be born behind walls as one million Gazans have been born – condemned before birth, because they are Palestinian.

Shame on us for wearing the wall’s dehumanising blinders so meekly.

A future-facing policy must see Palestinians as whole human beings: parents, people of every gender, professionals or job-seekers or students, people who live with chronic illness or physical disability, manufacturers and artists, scientists and poets, political actors and agents of their own future, citizens as of right and integral partners to any solution.  Why have we no policy that addresses Palestinians as whole people?

When we open both eyes and identify with Palestinians, we see how differently they live.  For me Gaza’s waste is particularly bitter because, as a society, Gaza has so much of what it needs to thrive: mutual assistance, social cohesion under terrible pressure, one of the world’s highest literacy rates.  Their achievement delineates the thing that is being withheld: their right to live normally.  Justice would place this set of rights at the center of our policy. We would not stabilise Gazans’ avoidable deprivation. We would demand their decent life prospects as we demand prospects for ourselves.

Water offers our policy-makers a starting point.

We in Aotearoa-NZ argue about water as taonga and commodity, its management and beauty and quality, our access and enjoyment and consumption.  We agree that water is essential, a basic human right, necessarily shared.

The World Health Organisation says that every person needs 100 litres of water per day, for consumption and other uses.  West Bank Palestinians have access to only 90.5 litres of water each day.  650,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank receive six times more water than 2.8 million West Bank Palestinians.  

In 2018 Gazans had access to 83 litres per capita, just 80% of the water that we all need to live.  Click here and scroll down to Fact Sheet #187 (6/29/21) to read how extensively Israel’s May 2021 bombardment damaged Gaza’s water infrastructure. One in five Gazans no longer has running water at all, while each Israeli consumes 230 litres per day.  Statistics and further detail here.

There is water in the space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  The problem is that Israel has forcibly fragmented the space, giving Israelis vastly greater entitlements than Palestinians – including entitlement to the water resources on occupied Palestinian land.  The problem is not an absolute lack of water. The problem is the endless, violent denial of Palestinian rights and sovereignty.

Donors, I’m sure, are right now negotiating the entry of additional truckloads of bottled water to Gaza and paying all the requisite fees in Israeli currency. They are stabilising the regime that permitted Gazans only 80% of the water they need to live. I welcome every delivery, ever drop, because water is urgently needed to sustain life – but this is not good enough.

The withholding of the human right to water is not altered by those stabilising trucks. Each truck reinforces Israel’s structural power to deprive. The blockade will not be fixed at the margins. 

A policy of water justice would begin with Palestinians’ equal, non-negotiable right to clean water.  It would refuse to engage normally with any regime that differentiates water rights ethnically.  It would recognise the national right of Palestinians to manage the water resources on land that we and the UN recognise as Palestinian land, temporarily occupied.

Finally, alongside law and rights, a justice policy would reach for the holistic justice of belonging.

Our stabilising policies don’t promote transformational work.  We acknowledge our own colonial legacy but we do nothing to promote Palestinian (or Israeli) decolonising projects. Our policy should enable the inclusive voices that are narrating a better way forward.

Alternative Jewish Voices supports the kaupapa and the mahi of the One State Democratic Campaign as a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis about decolonising their shared future.  We read authors like Noura Erekat who writes that, unlike settler-colonising erasure, the Palestinian demand to fully belong is a broadening, inclusive vision.

We in Aotearoa-NZ are so well placed to speak from ongoing experience about this possibility, this abundance of belonging. If we articulated a Palestine policy in that voice, it would carry so much further than our aid budgets.

Marilyn Garson,

Alternative Jewish Voices

Disagreement is not racism.

Following the Jewish Council’s comments in Christchurch, I was sad to read reactions like this:  “I do take antisemitism very seriously, and the Jewish community is an important part of any discussion in preventing racism, but this just makes it so hard.”

Why is it getting harder?  7amleh, the Arab Center For The Advancement Of Social Media, recorded a 15-fold increase in racist, violent and inciting speech against Palestinians and Arabs on the internet during May.  Here in Aotearoa, we hear misleading accusations against advocates for a rights-based solution to the occupation of Palestine.  The accusations purport to describe antisemitism, but we  believe that we are witnessing a politicised deterioration in the way we portray each other. 

          For some time, accusations of antisemitism have been expanding. Sometimes they rely on a definition of antisemitism that confuses Jew-hatred with opposition to the occupation of Palestine.  Called the IHRA Working Definition, it also separates antisemitism from other forms of racism and seeks a separate response.  At the end of this post, we list links to more information about definitions. Here, we want to explore the implications of this era of accusation. To do that, it is only necessary to repeat that the expansive IHRA Working Definition has no official standing whatsoever  in Aotearoa-NZ.  Nor has its claim that non-Zionism is inherently antisemitic. That is not what antisemitism means.

These politically framed accusations hover in the air like space-junk. We want to draw attention to the harm they are causing to our relations and our ability to undertake the shared work of antiracism including the hatred of Jews and Muslims.

          To be very clear, we are not asserting that there is more, or less, actual antisemitism (Jew-hatred) around us. We are suggesting that politicised accusations misdirect our attention and undermine our response to any amount of racism.

Disagreement is not hate

To call someone a Jew-hater because they oppose Zionism and the occupation of Palestine is to confuse a political disagreement with racial hate.  The power of definition is the power to make one’s own view normal or normative, and to problematize other views.  This power escalates disagreement to an intolerance of disagreement, and of the people who disagree.  It elevates a contested idea to the absolute wrong of racism. Regardless of one’s understanding of Palestine, consider that step-change. Once a political view been labelled racist, all dissent can be discredited and the discussion is forfeit.

That step-change does grievous damage to our freedom to passionately contest politics.  It is everyone’s business to protect our right to argue politics.  Brian Klug, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford University Faculty of Philosophy, writes:

“Excessive criticism is just a fact of political life… There is no requirement in human rights ethics or law that, in order to merit protection, political speech has to be measured or reasonable or balanced.  This point is fundamental to the principle of freedom of expression…. Being contentious and being antisemitic are not at all the same.  The line between contentious and non-contentious speech is different from the line between antisemitic and non-antisemitic speech… It is vital these these two lines are clearly distinguished.”

If any advocate succeeds in protecting their view by officially defining disagreement ashateful, then more political contests will be waged in the same way.  Disagreement will become a contest for the machinery of state (See also Donald Trump’s America). 

Relational harm

To confuse disagreement with hatred is to drive a wedge into our body politic.  Suddenly, linguistically, there are those who agree and those who are racist. That deters anyone who doesn’t want to be labeled as an extremist or an enemy.  Sadly, the real racists are undeterred. They don’t give a damn about definitions and labels.

The antisemitism wedge harms our Jewish community, too. Cass Sunstein’s book, Conformity, discusses the damage that communities do when they narrow their information pool and require members to suppress dissenting views. He cites some Jewish communities to illustrate the risks of insularity. 

Imagine what it would do to any community – to your own group – to be told that people disagree with you out of hatred, that they threaten your security, or (as has been written of advocates for Palestinian’s equal human rights) that they actively wish you harm. Your group might respond by defending its views as absolutely as it defends its safety.  

By attacking dissenting speakers as racist, your group would also be absolved of any need to engage with the substance of disgreement. You might begin to regard your neighbours as dangerous, racists, with voices not worth hearing – even as you find it hard to understand why others do not share your fears.

What a harmful, isolating trajectory.

There is no separate safety

The IHRA Working Definition calls for a separate definition of anti-Jewish racism, and a separate official response. However, there is no separate safety.  It’s a myth. 

In order to believe that Jews (or any group) can separately save themselves from racism, you would have to imagine a day when Muslims or LGBTQ+ or immigrants are still objects of hatred – but not Jews.  Jews would have somehow been removed from the racist’s target list.  That’s magical thinking.  Every hatred has a distinct history, but at the moment hatreds tend to travel in a pack. To confront that white supremacist pack effectively, we need to face it down together.

Separatism erodes our ability to do that, as it denies our need to co-exist in the political space of Aotearoa-NZ. It seeks ‘my’ safety as if ‘my’ safety were the extent of my responsibility.  At its very worst, such ring-fencing becomes zero-sum when ‘my’ safety is allowed to require ‘your’ silence.  If ‘my’ story is normal, then ‘my’ allies are only those who grant me sole authorship.

All this helps to explain why it may be feeling more difficult to be a friend, an ally, or simply to be respected as a decent human being who profoundly disagrees.  Or a non-Zionist Jew. 

We will lose the language to identify and oppose racism if we misuse it to serve another agenda. A politicised definition of antisemitism has no official standing in Aotearoa-NZ, and its use undermines our collective work.  While these loose accusations fly; the real, shared, proximate threat of white supremacist hatred and violence is getting a pass.  The voices from the Christchurch hui’s second day spoke to this, if only they had been more prominent.

A little more than a year ago, a member of AJV decided to report a burst of hatemail.  She was referred to Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women’s Association, to learn from her experience.  That’s our message in miniature: we need each other.

We have definitions of racism.  What we need is action. We need to form a solid wall of tolerance for each other and intolerance for threats to any of us. 

If you would like to read more from Alternative Jewish Voices on antiracism:

See our resource page for more on the working definition, including this  from an Oxford researcher on its fundamentally misleading advocacy (or Al Jazeera’s summary of the same paper).  In March of this year, two hundred scholars produced the Jerusalem Declaration, which we suggest as a superior, interim tool for understanding antisemitism.  We have written the Jerusalem Declaration Brief and a list of Jerusalem Declaration resources to juxtapose the two definitions.

When the Wellington City Council was lobbied to accept the IHRA Working Definition, we objected for all the reasons outlined above.

We have also written about the individual harm caused to New Zealanders who have been falsely accused of antisemitism, and we have tried to show the depth of that rabbit hole

Signed by these members and friends of Alternative Jewish Voices

Marilyn Garson

Fred Albert

David Weinstein

Ilan Blumberg

Lynn Jenner

Sue Berman

Sarah Cole

Diego Lewin

Yael Shochat

Not At This Hui, And Not In Our Names

Alternative Jewish Voices responds to the statements of NZ Jewish Council spokesperson. Our release also appears on Scoop here: https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO2106/S00124/not-at-this-hui-and-not-in-our-names.htm

We, Alternative Jewish Voices, hope for a productive and unifying second day at the Christchurch anti-terrorism hui.  Security is something we build together and give each other. A threat may be singular, but our safety is collective.

We are saddened to hear that such a kaupapa has been disrespected and we are, additionally, horrified to hear Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses double down on her claim that she was expressing the sentiment of our national Jewish community.

It was wrong to coopt the hui for statements that (according to the comments of those present) securitised and essentialised the Muslim community.  We object to any statement that presumes Palestinian solidarity must imply a love of violence.  Such statements are wrong, period; and it was additionallty wrong to bring those politics into the anti-terrorism venue in particular. 

We feel for those who have been hurt, but we are heartened to hear that the hui will continue with its mission.

We have challenged the Jewish Council’s claim to represent our community.  We repeat our statement in order to challenge Ms Moses’s present claim that the Council’s politics represent the fears of all NZ Jews.

The NZ Jewish Council records its mission thus: “The Council is the representative organisation of New Zealand Jewry. Its objective is to promote the interests, welfare and wellbeing of New Zealand Jewry.” 

However, as we understand it, NZ Jewish Council members are chosen by a number of regional Jewish councils.  The NZ Jewish Council members seem to be appointed through a series of indirect institutional processes.  Members of Alternative Jewish Voices who belong to synagogues – some for many years – have never had any direct input to the composition of the NZ Jewish Council.  Jews who are not members of a synagogue don’t appear to have any voice in these processes at all.  The NZ Jewish Council does not attempt to elicit, include or represent the spectrum of views within the Jewish community.

We want our neighbours to understand that the ardent Zionist voices of the NZ Jewish Council and Israel Institute do not represent the whole community of New Zealand Jews. They emphatically do not represent us.

Alternative Jewish Voices wishes all participants in the Christchurch hui wisdom and unity.  We all need your kaupapa and we will all benefit from it.

Alternative Jewish Voices of New Zealand

Not just antisemitism: protest that neither hates nor falsely equates

Members of Alternative Jewish Voices and Justice for Palestine sat down last weekend to explore the speech of protest that neither hates nor falsely equates.  

We find that language in the discourse of human rights, because rights are either everyone’s rights, or they are nothing. We reject any language which ethnically ranks and values human beings.  Rights value us according to a single, shared human standard.  Then the law can distinguish between the different obligations of occupier and occupied, and the wildly different proportions of actual harm.

We deplore the weapons of war because we are all flesh and blood and family.  We mourn all of the deaths. We do not equate the dangers or the damages. We protest Israel’s regime, wherein the weapons are wielded so disproportionately by the powerful against the powerless.  We call for legal accountability to replace the present, violent impunity.

That is not anti-Israel.  Accountability takes the side of civilians. The armed party which does the overwhelming share of the wrongful killing and destruction, earns the overwhelming share of the law’s attention.  The community which experiences the overwhelming share of the dispossession, loss and harm deserves the greatest part of our concern, our protection.  B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, tracks the casualties of this occupation.  Through the past twenty years, the casualites have been 88% Palestinian. 

Now another 256 are dead in Gaza; 12 in Israel.  It is wrong to decry these factual proportions as anti-Israel, or to attribute antisemitic motives to speakers who are simply counting.

Early in the Great March of Return, Ha’aretz published an Op-Ed by an American rabbi, titled, If You Call the Gaza Death Toll ‘Disproportionate,’ How Many Israelis Have to Die for the Sake of Symmetry?  On May 17, 2018, I responded.

“The deaths arising from Gaza’s weeks-old protests are one-sided: the IDF has killed more than 100 Gazans. They have injured more protestors than Gaza has hospital beds. Médecins Sans Frontières has noted an alarming pattern among the gunshot wounds, indicating a particularly harmful choice of ammunition. No Israeli has been injured or killed.

“You ask whether a person who observes these facts would like to see ‘a hundred Jewish bodies strewn across the desert.’  No, I would not. I am simply observing a fact. I am not seeking more deaths; I am seeking fewer. I am calling attention to avoidable killing. If I may not note the factual distribution of death, then what am I allowed to say?”

Facts are allowed.  Essentializing, dehumanizing hate is not.  Between them lies a hotly contested political vocabulary.

This vocabulary includes objective, discomfiting words like apartheid, a crime against humanity.  Human rights lawyers have repeatedly found that Israel’s arrangements of power constitute apartheid. Their legal analyses make the term available to the rest of us.  I object when anti-Jewish motives are attributed to people for using such substantiated terminology.  It is incidental that this apartheid happens to benefit Jews.  The point is that it illegally, systemically oppresses our fellow human beings. 

If it is antisemitic for non-Jews to conflate ‘Israel,’ ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jews,’ then why do we allow Zionist spokespeople to do precisely that – to hide Israel’s military regime in the protected religious sphere of Judaism?  Are they not essentialising all Jews as nationalists and occupiers? 

When the proponents of Israel’s occupation call their critics antisemitic, they also logically encroach on the meaning of semitism.  I am a Jew, a Semite.  The category is ancient and precious to me. See what they are doing to it. If it is antisemitic to pursue others’ freedom, if human equality is antisemitic, then tell me what they have made of my semitism.

In this era of accusations, how often do we condemn the speech that hates and dehumanizes Palestinians?

We must urgently equalize the hateful, deadly disparity we apply to the dense civilian-military intermingling that prevails in both Israel and Gaza.  Israel consistently ranks among the most militarized states on earth.  Its Ministry of Defense stands in the commercial heart of Tel Aviv.  You can’t walk a block in Israeli cities without seeing weapons, some carried by men and women wearing uniforms and some not.  Gaza is also militarized, some of it visible and some concealed.  Yet we allow ourselves to be told that Israel’s army shields civilians while Gaza’s civilians are deployed to shield Hamas fighters. Which is it? This perception conditions our understanding of justifiable and wrongful killing.

Israel has wiped out generations of Palestinian families on the pretext of striking at individual members of Hamas.  It beggars belief to suggest that Israelis – or anyone else – would accept the killing en masse of generations of the families of their own soldiers, teachers, civil servants, rubbish collectors or police with the same rationale. Nor, straying geographically, would Israelis or anyone else call it justice to blow up the family homes of people suspected of crimes, as Israel does in the West Bank.

Israeli police stations are civic installations, yet the IDF blew up “dozens” of Gaza’s police stations as military targets.  In all these ways, the prevalence of arms in Israel is not seen as forfeiting civilian status. The mere, unproven association with Hamas is allowed to militarize extended families and apartment towers in the Gaza Strip. 

Which is it?  Each inversion protects Israelis and strips Palestinians of their civilian protection. 

We begin discounting Gazan life when we allow “Hamas” to stand in for the name of the place being bombed. Israel does not bomb Hamas, because Hamas is not a place. We see with our own eyes that every bomb lands on the Gaza Strip, an overwhelmingly civilian community.  To euphemise the repeated bombardment of Gazan Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’ is the ultimate denial of their humanity. That speech drips with hate and incitement.

It is imperative that we continue to protest boldly, because this did not end with the grief and the wreckage of Gaza.  Since the ceasefire, another 800 Palestinians are facing expulsion from their homes in Silwan.  Naftali Bennett may become Israel’s Prime Minister despite declaring, “I’ve already killed a lot of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.”  Ayelet Shaked may return to prominence despite reminding Israeli soldiers in 2014 to kill the Palestinian “little snakes,” to kill their mothers and to destroy their homes.

The triggers are all still cocked. 

Marilyn Garson, Alternative Jewish Voices of NZ

Ceasefire, but we cannot let this go the same way

Photo Marilyn Garson, from a reclaimed rubble sea wall, Gaza City

I lived in Gaza from 2011, through the attack of 2014, and for one year after. I am not Palestinian, but some of the things I remember will be relevant in the coming months.

The bombardment was shattering. There followed a winter of soul-destroying neglect by donor states. Tens of thousands of Gazans remained in UNRWA shelter-schools.  Many more families shivered in remnant housing, on tilting slabs of concrete, in rooms with three walls and a blanket hung in lieu of a fourth, persistently cold and wet. 

Recovery?  America sold Israel $1.9 billion in replacement arms. The World Bank assessed Israel’s bomb damage to Gaza at $4.4 billion.  Of the $5.4 billion that donors pledged to reconstruct Gaza, in that critical first year the International Crisis Group calculated that the donor states actually came up with a paltry $340 million

Aid is an insufficient place-holding response, but it is needed now.  This time, it cannot happen the same way.

In the workaday business of delivering the material needed to rebuild, the blockade allows Israel to choose the chokepoints of reconstruction.  Having bombed, Israel is allowed to carry on the assault by slow strangulation.

In 2014 they were allowed to impose a farcical compliance regime for the cement that was needed to rebuild the 18,000 homes they had damaged or destroyed.  UNRWA engineers were required to waste their days sitting next to concrete mixers.  International staff spent hours of each day driving between them to count – no shit, count – sacks of cement.  100,000 people were homeless and cement was permitted to reach them like grains of sand through an eye-dropper.  Not a single home was built through the remainder of 2014.

Perhaps this time Israel will choke off the supplies needed to re-pave the tens of thousands of square meters of road they have blown up; it will be something.  We have watched an attack on the veins and arteries of modern civilian infrastructure.  If the crossings regime is allowed to remain in place, we will be leaving the Israeli government to decide unilaterally whether Gazans will be permitted to live in the modern world. 

This time, it simply cannot go the same way. 

I was as frightened by the way the bombs changed us.  1200 hours of incessant terror and violence had re-wired our brains. The lassitude, the thousand-yard-stares, the woman from Rafah who clutched her midsection as if she could hold her twelve lost relatives in place.  I and my team of Gazan over-achievers struggled to finish any task on time.  Eight months later I found research on the anterior midcingulate cortex to help us understand how bombardment can alter the finishing brain. Every step seemed to be so steeply uphill. 

Even more un-Gazan, we often struggled alone.  The very essence of Gaza is its density.  In its urban streets you know the passersby with smalltown frequency.  Gaza coheres with the intentional social glue of resistance.  After the bombardment, people seemed to float alone with their memories. The human heart returns to the scene of unresolved trauma, and our hearts were stuck in many different rooms.

The good people who listened and cared as professionals or as neighbours, were themselves suffering.  Parents compared notes through those months: how many of their children still slept beneath their beds in case the planes came back?  Over everyone’s heads hung the knowledge that there had been no substantial agreement beyond a cessation of firing. 

I felt I was watching people reach for each other, and for meaning. Young Gazan men stood for hours, waving Palestinian flags over the rubble of Shuja’iyya while residents crawled over the rubble landscape in search of something familiar. Bright pennants sprouted across the bombed-out windows of apartments.

Not everyone found meaning. Suicide and predatory behaviour also rose. Hamas cracked down on dissent violently, while more-radical groups made inroads among young people who may have felt they had no other agency.  

The aftermath was all these things at once. When I left Gaza in late 2015, it felt poised between resuming and despairing. Since then, it has gone on for another six years.  This bombardment picked up where the last one left off: in 2014 the destruction of apartment blocks was Israel’s final act and this time, it was their opening salvo.

This time, we cannot let it go the same way.

I had to learn to harness my sadness and outrage.  If we are to make it different this time, we need to do that.

In the first weeks after the 2014 bombing, I could only rage at the blockade wall but the wall stood, undented. I didn’t know how to look further, and as a Jew I was afraid to look further. I began to read books on military accountability. Those principles helped to focus my gaze beyond the wall.

Now as then, we have witnessed a barbaric action, comprised of choices.  Individuals are accountable for each of those choices.  It is neither partisan nor, must I say it, antisemitic to call them to account ceaselessly.  Accountability takes the side of civilian protection.  If one belligerent causes the overwhelming share of the wrongful death and damage, then that party has duly earned the overwhelming share of our attention.  Call them out.

Loathe the wall but rage wisely at its structural supports: expedient politics, the arms trade that profits by field-testing its weapons on Gazan Palestinians, any denial of the simple equality of our lives, the hand-wringing or indifference of the bystander.  Those hold the wall up.

Prior to this violence, Donald Trump had been busily normalising Israel’s diplomatic relations – good-bye to all that.  Normalise BDS, not the occupation of Palestine.  Apply sustained, peaceful, external pressure as you would to any other wound.  BDS firmly rejects an apartheid arrangement of power, until all people enjoy equality and self-determination.

See and reject the single system that classifies life ethnically between the river and the sea.  When you recognise a single systemic wrong, you have recognised Palestinians as a single nation.

A statement by scholars of genocide, mass violence and human rights last week described the danger: “[T]he violence now has intensified systemic racism and exclusionary and violent nationalism in Israel—a well-known pattern in many cases of state violence—posing a serious risk for continued persecution and violence against Palestinians, exacerbated by the political instability in Israel in the last few months.”

In other words, this isn’t over and we will not let it go the same way.

The risk to Gaza now is the risk of our disengagement before we have brought down the walls.  That is the task; nothing less.  This time, Gaza must go free. 

Marilyn Garson,

Alternative Jewish Voices