What would change, if we recognised the State of Palestine?

What would change, if we recognised the State of Palestine?

138 of the UN’s 193 member states recognise the State of Palestine, consisting of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.  Whatever diplomatic outcome they envision, 138 states believe that a solution starts by recognising the parties involved.  Recognition implies that, like powerful and powerless parties to a lawsuit, Israel and Palestine approach the court with equal rights.

Aotearoa-NZ is in the minority.  We do not recognise Palestine. We let the power disparities stand.  We do nothing to acknowledge Palestinians’ national voice, as if that mythical court case should somehow decide about them, without them.

Recognition of Palestine would re-frame the issue.

As an occupied people subsisting under a violent military regime, Palestinians have a right to our legal protection.  As the State of Palestine, they have a land and they own its natural resources. Recognition unifies the State of Palestine, which the occupation seeks to divide by policy and force.   The unified State of Palestine lives under a single occupation, although it is differently enacted within Israel, in the areas where Israel is the occupying power, and with respect to refugees elsewhere. 

As citizens of a state in a world where states remain the defining political actors, Palestinians would have access to the institutions, agreements, interactions, enforcement and responsibilities that we all take for granted. They would have access to the websites that we use, to the banking transactions and passports and mail and myriad other systems that are enabled by state agreements.  They would map their own geographies, rather than being administered by military documents that aim to chart the loss of their land and their autonomy.  When settlers occupy, or when Israel openly vows to take, additional land from the State of Palestine; the illegality of those acts would be clear – none of this ‘annexation’ obfuscation. 

These benefits are so normal that we really must re-phrase our question:  why has Aotearoa-NZ withheld all this from Palestinians for so long?  Why should a child be denied all that normalcy, by virtue of being born Palestinian?

Rights and law and diplomatic acts like recognition will not end the occupation. Rather, they describe the internationally agreed minimum standards by which we all live.  When they are upheld, they restore Palestinian lives to those minimum standards.  That sets the stage for two national groups to negotiate in a forum of international law.  We will not be the negotiators, but it is our responsibility to establish fair conditions for that political project.  We uphold the laws.  We drag this occupation into a forum of law for a resolution based on justice, not brute power.

Why do Palestinians live so far beneath those minimum standards now?  The law of occupation, the Geneva Conventions, all those UN resolutions – where are they?  It’s mystifying, we agree.  The tools are all waiting for us to pick them up and use them.  We call on our Prime Minister to uphold the laws and conventions that NZ governments have signed in all of our names – and to bring the State of Palestine fully into the same systems by means of recognition.

We are impatient, because the passage of time is not neutral.  It never was, and Covid has doubled the urgency.  Palestinian living standards, their environment and life prospects are deteriorating sharply: doing nothing is not a cost-free alternative.    

We call on our government to recognise Palestine now.

Withholding recognition is a willful refusal to see a nation of five million people, to insist on their equality and inclusion.  The occupation is exclusive, denying Palestinianhood, downgrading and ultimately erasing it.  Recognising Palestine is an inclusive act.  Recognition affirms Palestinians’ full right to exist in a space that will need to be shared.  We in NZ know that states may colonise blindly, but they must learn to see and listen and speak new languages.  Recognition sees the indigenous people of Palestine. That is the right side of history for NZ to take.

Recognition will also help to correct a conversation that has become toxic.

Too often, protest is merely anti-occupation or merely anti-Zionist; a protest against Israel’s failure to observe law and uphold Palestinians’ rights.  Recognition reframes the issue by centering Palestinians, and normalising their full, equal human and political rights. With that established as our baseline, we can protest the deficit, the rights withheld.  Recognition will strengthen Palestinians’ platform to speak and act on their own aspirations.

Too often, this occupation has been about exceptionalism (Israeli and Trumpian).  We spend too much time on the justifications of the powerful.  Recognition rejects all that.  It brings the occupation back into unexceptional focus: one state occupies the land of another.  Occupation is a military act, governed and limited by law. 

We should be working to invoke that law. As a first step, let us join the majority, the 138 members of the UN who recognise the State of Palestine.

Signed by these Alternative Jewish Voices and Friends,

Marilyn Garson                          Sarah Cole

Fred Albert                                  Prue Hyman

Jeremy Rose                               Sue Berman

Denzelle Marcovicci                Justine Sachs

David Weinstein

Voices of Positive Peace

Change is made by those who show up. The advance work of change is to tell the story, to reach for those who haven’t yet realized that the blockade of Gaza is their issue, too.

I’m grateful to the University of Otago’s National Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, for giving me a platform to speak as part of their forthcoming series, Voices of Positive Peace. I look forward to a live event later this year!

The people of Gaza are not beyond our reach. They are our responsibility.

Why is Annexation Still Happening?

While others think it’s time to challenge their founding structures of ethnic and racial power, Israel is proceeding with plans to annex great swathes of Palestinian land in the West Bank.  In addition to the United Nations, the European Union, Jordan, the Arab League, Canada, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, subject-matter experts object to annexation in the strongest terms.

Why is Netanyahu so confident that he can annex anyway?  His confidence is written into the agreement that established Israel’s present coalition government.  As a memo from the US / Middle East Project explains, the agreement outlines coalition operations,

“with one crucial exemption – that the extension of Israeli sovereignty or annexation can be advanced by Netanyahu …  without the agreement of Gantz … To be clear, this is the only area of policy regarding which such a veto override clause exists … [A]ccording to the text, there is only one condition that needs to be satisfied in order for Netanyahu to move forward with annexation… That condition is … that such legislation will be in agreement with the U.S.” 

In other words, Trump is the senior partner in Israel’s coalition government. 

It is insufficient to ask Netanyahu to kindly not break these additional laws.  Palestinian land does not belong to Trump and Netanyahu.  The West Bank is not their vanity project.  Palestine and Palestinian rights have been excluded from determining the future of their land.  We need to hear from the people who are hidden by the occupation’s structures of ethnic power.

Therefore, oppose annexation and assert the equal rights of Palestinians to freedom, agency and justice. 

Marilyn Garson

June 13, 2020

Boycott or Not?

By Marilyn Garson and Fred Albert

Occupation is a legally defined and legally limited status.  However, S Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur and legal academic, finds that that occupation of Palestins  “has become illegal, given its flagrant violations of the foundational principles of the modern laws of occupation.”  In the US, A recent in-depth article in the Harvard Law Review, February 2020, Wielding anti-discrimination law to supress the movement for Palestinian human rights, concludes that, in the US context, BDS is not discriminatory and notes:

The weakness of the discrimination claim is constitutionally significant for anti-BDS litigation. It reveals that, despite states’ assertions to the contrary, the government does not have a compelling antidiscrimination interest that could trump countervailing First Amendment interests. Moreover, the weakness of the discrimination claim matters beyond anti-BDS laws. The past decade has seen antidiscrimination law weaponized to undercut a human rights movement that has opponents at the highest levels of the U.S. government — a trend that threatens other controversial political movements that the government may seek to undermine. Chilling disfavored political movements is precisely what the First Amendment is meant to protect against. While First Amendment protections can and should bow to strong antidiscrimination interests, governments must not adopt baseless discrimination claims in an attempt to override First Amendment protections.

Some members of Alternative Jewish Voices protest the occupation through BDS and some do not.  With this post, we open a conversation about our choice.  We begin as the UK Supreme Court upholds the right of pension funds to protest by divesting from companies which profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

You annex?  I boycott.  I (Marilyn Garson) did not join the boycott until 2020.  Although I considered BDS to be a valid and important Palestinian-led movement, I had several reservations.  I wanted to distinguish between Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, to protest in a way that embodied the two peoples.  BDS is such a broad umbrella, I didn’t agree with every BDS initiative.  I still hoped to enlist more of the Jewish community in conversation about change.  

      Netanyahu and Trump tossed out each of my objections.  Trump’s ‘plan’ for a greater Israel hands to Israel the Palestinian lands that Israel has settled in the West Bank, Jordan Valley and all of Jerusalem.  The Palestinians had no input into Trump’s plan and of course, they do not agree to hand over their land – their land, which is not Trump’s land to give.

The plan overthrows the very foundation of the law:  it is illegal for a state to acquire territory or take foreign civilian property by military force.  The UN has resolved 8 times that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are illegal. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and his main political opponent-cum-coalition partner, Benny Gantz have both consistently promised to annex.  On February 11, the Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyanu saying that Trump supports Israel’s annexation of “all of” the settlements, “all of them without any exception… without Palestinian consent.”  On February 18, Netanyahu added, “Whether they accept it or not, it’s going to happen.”

I take Israel’s leaders at their word.  Wrapped in Trump’s fickle embrace, they will draw Israel’s borders in flagrant disregard for international law.  They will erase any distinction between Israel’s illegal settlements and Israel itself.  Standing next to Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu called the very fact of occupied Jerusalem “a big lie.”

So much for my wish to distinguish between Israel and its occupation.  Israel’s leaders have obliterated the distinction and altered my protest. Annexation would have a “cascade of bad human rights consequences” and it must not happen.  Only sustained international pressure will curb Israel’s expansionist, ethnic nationalism.

As for the risk of finding fellow-travellers beneath the broad umbrella of BDS, Zionism’s fellow-travellers are equally troubling.  They begin with Donald Trump and they include self-named White Zionists, the white supremacists who endorse Israel as their model of white ethnic power.  When I get hatemail from white supremacists, it blends Islamophobia with Zionism. 

The law of occupation is not in doubt, but states have failed to enforce the law of this occupation.  I want to live in a world of laws.  I will not let go of the law, so annexation also changes my personal protest.  Only numbers, only sustained external pressure will drag Israel back into the moral and legal world that the rest of us have agreed to inhabit.  In particular, only external pressure will protect the rights of the most vulnerable, blockaded people of Gaza. 

I never thought I would say it, but in February 2020, I did.  Israel, you annex? I boycott.

Fred’s Background: In my case I was introduced first-hand to the power of boycotts in my teen years in California via the 5-year long fight by the National Farm Workers Association to get better conditions for grape pickers in California.  A boycott of “table grapes” was declared and I can remember not purchasing grapes for years as the dispute dragged on and I can also remember our rabbi strongly supporting the farm workers during this period and often referring to them in his drashot over that time.  So, for me, a boycott is a good way to demonstrate solidarity and to let there be some sort of financial cost for choices made by those in power.

Similarly, I avoided buying goods from South Africa during the apartheid era.  It did seem using economically based tactics did cause the South African government concern in a way that demonstrations and other measures did not.

So, BDS seems a useful tool to protest against the Occupation in Palestine and the blockade of Gaza.  It seems clear that the Israeli government fears BDS more than any number of demonstrations or UN resolutions.  There seems to be a lot of misplaced anger against BDS by Jewish groups who don’t seem to understand that the boycott against Israel is tied to the Occupation and not tied to Jews as such.  I fully support BDS.

Having chosen to protest through BDS, we agree that:

  1. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a rapidly-growing, Palestinian led movement to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and its denial of Palestinian rights.  Its website asks us to use our collective power “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”

 A co-founder of BDS calls it:

an inclusive, nonviolent, non-sectarian movement that rejects all forms of racism… It calls for equal rights for all humans, irrespective of identity. It targets Israel and entities that are complicit in its regime of oppression, not on the basis of any real or claimed identity… but on the basis that this regime of oppression denies Palestinians our UN-stipulated rights under international law.[1]

BDS is grounded in international law.  It also inherits a history of effective non-violent resistance. Mahatma Gandhi used boycotts to advance human rights in the 1930s, as did Martin Luther King in the 1950s, and Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. Sustained economic pressure helps to achieve change.  In this occupation, economic boycott makes sense because, as Human Rights Watch Germany wrote in 2019,

years of our research has shown that it is not possible to do business in the settlements without contributing to or benefitting from human rights abuse and violations of international humanitarian law. The only way companies can meet their obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is to stop operating in settlements.

BDS targets Israel because Israel is responsible for its occupation, as South Africa was responsible for apartheid. When apartheid ended, so did the boycott. In response to those who claim that the end of the occupation is really a code for ending Israel, we note that neither South Africa nor New Zealand’s own decolonizing steps have made anyone disappear. States do not end when they institute more equitable power relations; they are enhanced. BDS is grounded in the international frameworks that will protect the rights of Israelis and Palestinians in any solution.

BDS, like any political expression, can be used by racists.  However, boycotts are not by definition racist. It is abhorrent to label anyone anti-Semitic for choosing not to conduct business with the occupation of Palestine. 

Racism essentializes and demeans a group of people. BDS explicitly does not target Jews, the Jewish identity or Jewish businesses. If it did, we would be in the front row of those who oppose it. BDS invites Jewish and Israeli participation, and hundreds of thousands of Jews support BDS through membership organizations and campaigns.  

BDS targets complicity with, and the profits derived from, Israel’s occupation. Israel is not the Jewish people, and the occupation is not a religious act. It is a project of military force and political power. It is not anti-Jewish to stand up for the equal rights of all human beings.

Some people charge that BDS denies the Jewish right to self-determination. Political rights, including the right to self-determination, are not Jewish rights in particular. No ethnic group has an exclusive claim to political rights or to power. Palestinians have an equal right to self-determination. Here again, it’s important that BDS in grounded in the legal frameworks that resolve conflict and uphold the rights of all people.

So then, why do folks target the individuals who choose not to trade or invest in the occupation? That’s easy: people attack the protestor in order to deflect attention from the object of the protest. As long as we’re calling each other names, we’re not talking about the occupation of Palestinian land and the devaluing of Palestinian lives. We’re not asking what justice might look like, and we’re nowhere near talking about the regional vulnerability to climate change.

In that spirit, here’s our challenge to readers. We ask that you please address the issue, which is the occupation of Palestine. There’s been enough name calling, and it’s time to have the real conversation. If you support the occupation of Palestine, please say so as clearly as we have said that we oppose it. Defend it, and Netanyahu who has been elected five times to implement it, and Donald Trump who gleefully advances it.

We invite you to debate the real questions.


[1] Omar Barghouti, Two degrees of separation: Israel, its Palestinian victims, and the fraudulent use of antisemitism, in On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).

anti-racism, not the IHRA

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

Mayor Foster, don’t do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Garson and Fred Albert