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.

Toward a Jewish Antiracism

What limits Jewish antiracist work and solidarity in Aotearoa New Zealand?

We are witnessing a racist recruitment field day, in the guise of COVID public health protest. Alternative Jewish Voices joins in the disgust.  But what to do?  The public displays of racism (including antisemitism) also highlight the unhappy relationship between our Jewish institutions and the antiracist community around us.

Racism is an Othering, essentialising hatred. Recognising Jews as targets of this individual racism, the Jewish institutional community condemns it and identifies with other likely victims. Every such interfaith partnership is positive, but this is only part of the work.

Racism is also a system of racialised advantage, created to sustain a hierarchy of racial benefit.

Our institutions recognise Jewish victimhood. That’s true but insufficient because they fail to acknowledge that we are also beneficiaries of systemic racism and injustice. Their stance places the Jewish community at odds with the social justice activists who work to dismantle racialised – racist – systems.

As a prooftext, on February 22, the NZ Jewish Council circulated ‘key messages’ to guide Jewish comments on the Wellington protest. They advise Jews to use ‘the term “racism” instead of Antisemitism. This is because many New Zealanders don’t know what Antisemitism [is]. Using the term “racism” strikes an emotional chord with a wider section of the New Zealand public.’

The Jewish Council’s cynicism is wholly inadequate while extremism is trying to worm its way into our national political discourse. Racism is not just a word we can parrot, and we are not excused from understanding that.

A meaningful Jewish antiracism requires us to challenge the fragile worldview that sees Jewish victimhood but not our racial advantage in Aotearoa and not – elephant-in-the-room trigger warning!! – the impact of our very own ‘regime of Jewish supremacy,’ Zionism.

The fragile worldview justifies calling anti-Zionism racist in two ways, one near and one far. We’ve all heard the remote justifications for Israel’s ethnic regime.  The near argument is the one that prevents us from knowing who our antiracist friends are.

The near argument says that advocacy for Palestinians’ full individual and collective rights is the first step toward overt, actionable hatred of Aotearoa’s own Jewish community. Today a person criticises the occupation of Palestine, tomorrow they essentialise and hate Jewishness, and the next day they act on their racism. By that rationale, anyone – including the world’s major human rights organisations – who cites evidence of the racist reality of apartheid Israel will be dismissed as a liar, a hater of Jews. They will be treated as a local security threat.

It is that argument which treats social justice as antisemitic, and treats social justice activists with enmity. That argument is also deeply disempowering of Jews. The Jewish community is reduced to protesting its victimhood, ideologically unable to join in the proactive, wider work of solutions. That argument sidelines us in a fearful corner. 

The slippery-slope argument-to-threat reasoning is only applied unilaterally. It suggests that reasoned, vehement assertions of Palestinian equality and indigeneity can be dismissed as racism – because at some future point, an individual might descend into essentialising racism, or violence.

We agree that an individual might do that. The Zionist slope is every bit as slippery. Some Jewish ultra-nationalists have become illegal settlers who beat and brutalise Palestinians. Some Zionist Cabinet ministers have called Palestinians ‘little snakes’ and urged soldiers to kill Palestinian mothers lest they give birth to more children.  Some New Zealand Jewish office-holders are frequent purveyors of the Nazi insults that their own institutions decry.

Most New Zealand Jews would indignantly object that it is antisemitic to blame all Jews for the extremists among us. We agree. It is equally wrong to condemn every advocate for Palestinian’s human equality as a dangerous antisemite (and doing so tends to lose sight of the real, individual racist threats).

And it is just as wrong for us to describe ourselves only as victims. We are agents in this world. We are not excused from the individual work of understanding our lives and our responsibilities within the systems of racism.

There are many paths to understanding onesself within systems of racism and privilege. One person might recognise the advantage they gained though intergenerational home ownership, another might notice their longer life expectancy as tau iwi. Seeing onesself as a beneficiary of colonisation at home, the settler colonial project in Palestine becomes more difficult to rationalise. Before long, one notices that people who are sensitive to systemic racism will pursue it near and far. A person who is moved to act against racism here, is likely to recognise and act against racism elsewhere – including, prominently, Palestine. Antiracism is an expansive, solidarist virtue.

To work beside our antiracist friends in Aotearoa now, we in the Jewish community need to dismiss the shallow advice of the Jewish Council, and get on with the work of situating ourselves more honestly.

At this moment, we are appalled by the rise of racism in our cities, we are (to varying degrees) beneficiaries of Aotearoa’s own systemic racism, and some of us are protecting the system of Jewish supremacy which is perpetuated in our names in Israel / Palestine. To join in the work here, we need to forego our exceptionalism there.

And that would be to everyone’s benefit because there is no exceptional solution to the world we inhabit. Justice and liberation will be mutual, or they will not be. Here and there, we will only be free when we are all free.

A Jewish antiracism envisions a fearless Jewish life, fully at home in the community of Aotearoa.  

Alternative Jewish Voices

Isolate The Hate

Ugly messages are spreading, capitalising on the protest on the grounds of Parliament. Public health protest has become entangled with death threats and unvarnished racist hate. Expressions of menace and violence are circulating through social and conventional media, expressions that no one would have tolerated a fortnight ago. Now children are hearing and seeing this under the auspices of political protest.

We as individual New Zealanders may debate the best tactics to resolve the protest and return the streets around Parliament to public use.

We as a community have an immediate, shared responsibility to isolate the hate. Do not let it sneak into political discourse. Death threats are not one more opinion. Racism is not just another tactic. It’s poison. We urge everyone to isolate the hate, and to flatly reject it.

To the protesters who are not represented by violence or racism – we urge you to remove it, to loudly disavow hateful speech. Hate benefits no cause. Hatred will taint any undertaking to which it is attached. Hate must not emerge from this protest as a normalised form of political speech. We cannot let that be an outcome.

Some of the hate on display is the hatred of Jews, but antisemitism is not a separate problem and there is no separate solution to it. We call on our Jewish institutions to actively integrate our community with the wider antiracist work that is being done in Aotearoa. Hatred must be confronted and rebuffed by a broad, loving, uncompromising embrace of justice, tolerance and mutual protection.  

17/02/2022

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa – New Zealand is a non-Zionist Jewish collective.

Jews from across the globe welcome Amnesty report on Israeli apartheid

Jews from Across the Globe Welcome Amnesty Report on Israeli Apartheid

The International Jewish Collective for Justice in Palestine, which represents Jewish organizations in thirteen countries including Aotearoa-New Zealand, views the recent report by Amnesty International on Israel’s system of apartheid as a a serious wake-up call to the world.  The full text of the IJCJP statement appears below.

After four years of investigation, Amnesty International has joined Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and others in concluding that Israel operates a “system which amounts to apartheid under international law.” Full text of the report is here, with a short video tutorial here.

Why is this report different? Amnesty is the world’s largest human rights organisation. When Amnesty International calls on nations to respond to apartheid with the force of law and diplomacy, it speaks with unrivaled moral authority. Amnesty has called for UN Security Council sanctions against Israeli officials, investigations by the International Criminal Court and an arms embargo of Israel.

Amnesty International is also a membership organisation. This landmark report will mobilise many Amnesty members and followers to actively support Palestinians’ full individual and collective rights.

The Amnesty International report thus brings the apartheid discourse firmly into the mainstream and the highest diplomatic circles.

And what is not different? The NZ Jewish Council issued a statement calling Amnesty International antisemitic. The statement failed entirely to engage with Amnesty’s findings, and instead tried to change the subject. Nothing new there.

Alternative Jewish Voices has this week written about the intersection of Aotearoa’s Jewish and Evangelical Zionism and conservative secular politics. Overlapping directorships bring views to the Jewish Council that are far from the mainstream.  We have documented some of the implications, seeking more transparency among the voices which might be assumed to represent the entire Jewish community.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Global Jews Welcome Amnesty Report on Israeli Apartheid

The International Jewish Collective for Justice in Palestine, which represents Jewish organizations from fifteen countries around the globe, views the recent report by Amnesty International on Israel’s system of apartheid as a a serious wake-up call to the world. 

The Amnesty report is the result of years of painstaking investigation showing decisively that the Israeli government has privileged Jewish Israelis in every sphere of life over Palestinian citizens and residents in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Joining other human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem, the report echoes what Palestinians have been saying for decades in every forum they can find: that the outrageous violations of the human rights of Palestinians must stop.

The Amnesty report, as well as other critical reports on Israel’s apartheid system, can best be understood within a context of the broader Palestinian-led movement for justice against settler colonialism that began before and during Israel’s creation in 1948. At that time, the Zionist movement and then Israel expelled over 750,000 Palestinians from their land and homes. This is known as the Nakba, the catastrophe. The process of ethnic cleansing continues to this very day.

Yet again, attacks by the Israeli government and some Jewish organizations are calling the report “antisemitic,” but these critics should be pressed to provide evidence supporting their claims. This will not be possible, since the report reflects the truth. Palestinians have lived under Israel’s apartheid system for decades. As Jews, we have seen these Israeli policies in action with our own eyes and know they are in complete defiance of the long-standing Jewish tradition of social justice.

We will continue to stand firm with the Palestinian movement for freedom, justice, equality, and dignity.

The International Jewish Collective for Justice in Palestine

a coalition of organizations from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, UK, US

Hello? Who is speaking for us??

This is about transparency and representation, so we begin with disclosure.

We record on our homepage that Alternative Jewish Voices is a collective, not a membership organisation. We do not seek donations and we represent only ourselves. Occasionally we ask some friends if they would like to co-sign a post. We are not a rival institution to the entities discussed here. We want to broaden the public dialogue and strengthen the representative nature of existing Jewish institutions. Here, we want to clarify the interests of several groups which might be presumed to speak for our Jewish community.

To put that more bluntly, when members of the media and the public read statements, they should understand who is speaking. If the media wish to present the views of the Jewish community, they need to look more broadly.

In a small community, a few people are always over-represented in organisations. In Aotearoa’s Jewish community, overlapping organisations amplify a few voices whose politics are out of step with the mainstream. There is nothing illegal about that, but we will suggest that it has been harmful.

The Israel Institute is a company, registered in 2019. Together, its three directors (only one of whom is Jewish) embody the meeting of New Zealand’s Jewish and Evangelical Zionism and conservative secular politics. Director Perry Trotter’s bio from his presentation of a 2012 paper to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization describes his complilation of “resources for those seeking to share Messiah with the Jewish people.” That intersection became prominent when Jewish and Christian or Evangelical Zionists demonstrated together in support of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza during May 2021.

Palestine is habitually cast as a matter between Jews and Palestinians. The role and influence of Christian or Evangelical Zionists is discussed much less frequently. We should update our assumptions and our political analysis.

The blowtorch Zionism of David Cumin’s Israel Institute blog is far from the mainstream. Any critic of Israel will be blasted as an antisemitic lover of terror. On one page he ‘exposes’ more academics (not his first time) as extremists and Jew-haters “calling for the destruction of Israel.” He describes NZ universities as bastions of support for terrorists. Their crime, of course, is to protest or permit the study of Israel’s occupation regime.

(Amnesty International has just joined Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and others categorising Israel as an apartheid regime, a crime against humanity. The NZ Jewish Council has of course called Amnesty by all the usual names.)

The Israel Institute’s scorched earth politics are not the central issue here. David Cumin, director of the Israel Institute, is also a member of the NZ Jewish Council and the Community Security Group. Intolerance must not come to characterise institutions that claim to act or speak for the Jewish community.

The Jewish Council decries the use of Nazi memes in protest, while the Israel Institute website accuses NZ union members of seeking genocide. The page leads with a graphic of war protestors morphing into uniformed Nazis. The Jewish Council has not, to our knowledge, commented on its member’s use of Nazi imagery. Surely this is a hypocritical selectivity. Nazi references are every bit as distasteful and dishonest when they are written by Jews.

The NZ Jewish Council’s constitution claims that it is “the representative organisation of New Zealand Jewry.” We have challenged this claim in the past. The NZ Jewish Council is not elected. They are appointed indirectly by a limited number of Jewish organisations. Although some Alternative Jewish Voices members have belonged to synagogues for decades, none of us has ever participated in a Jewish Council selection process. Jews unaffiliated with a synagogue are entirely unrepresented.

The Jewish Council’s composition is not representative. Are they inclusive, if not representative?

Shortly after her comments at the Christchurch anti-terror hui provoked a walkout by participants, Jewish Council Spokesperson Juliet Moses appeared on David Cumin’s podcast (Both Ms Moses and Mr Cumin are members of the Jewish Council but we are not aware if Ms Moses remains the spokesperson). Ms Moses used the podcast to warn (around minute 45), “One of the things we need to be wary of and conscious of is the rising fringe group in the Jewish community who have decided to raise their voice… I’m speaking here about the group that’s called Alternative Jewish Voices [and others]. I think we need to be very conscious of that group and think about how to disempower them as much as possible.” 

When the Jewish Council’s unelected members publicly seek to suppress speech, disempower Jewish voices, disseminate Nazi imagery and wild accusations against academia and labour activists (both professions of historic Jewish solidarity), well, the council needs to resolve its internal contradictions before it can aspire to represent the community.

By choosing to speak overwhelmingly about Zionism and antisemitism, the Jewish Council does a further disservice to the fullness of our Aotearoa Jewish community and our interests. What a sadly limited impression of Jewishness they give to our neighbours.

Those public politics do not draw from, and do not represent, the whole of our community. Those things took place the light of day. The following matter does not, and its implications extend beyond the Jewish community.

The Community Security Group (CSG) exists “to support the protection of Jewish lives and the Jewish way of life” in New Zealand.  Some of its activities certainly do aim to do that. We wish to distinguish clearly between the genuine efforts of its volunteers, and one pernicious matter here.

A year ago, Fred Albert and Marilyn Garson contacted the CSG directly in writing, to express their concerns regarding CSG monthly reports which purport to document antisemitism and assess the level of threat to the local Jewish community. The reports were circulated through community newsletters and email groups, and Fred and Marilyn were told that some content was shared with security agencies.

Some of us have been involved in risk and threat assessments elsewhere.  The CSG’s reporting did not follow responsible procedures.

In 2021 the reports were not shared with the community. That was a positive step given the method being used. However, it removed the reporting process entirely from scrutiny. Fred and Marilyn wrote to the CSG again in 2022, and notified them of their intention to state their concerns publicly.

The 2020 reports copied from an Israeli website some international incidents which “conform to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.” That expansive definition renders criticism of Israel as Jew-hatred. The IHRA definition has no official standing anywhere in Aotearoa, yet it was the basis of the CSG reports.

The IHRA ideology of the report is crucial, because it led the report writer to toss valid, non-violent political protest into the bucket of racism. Objections to Israel’s armed actions on the other side of the world, with no reference to Jews or the Jewish community of Aotearoa, were treated as racist threat.

The CSG reporting exercise is a fine example of the danger of the IHRA definition.  Real racism is lost when the parameters are stretched beyond meaning.

The reports cited some disturbing, ugly antisemitic hate (not always from within New Zealand). Unfortunately those genuine statements of hate were diluted by being thrown together with statements of protest – and even with articles that documented the danger of using the IHRA definition! Disagreement was not distinguished from threat. Valid protest was rendered antisemitic by association.

Fred and Marilyn combed through six months of reports, and submitted a four-page letter of objections in January 2021. We extract from their letter:

“How does this help in ensuring the safety of the community? … Disagreement with your view is not a risk as such, and probably not a threat…. Our view is that readers are being shown a highly politicised perspective in the guise of important security situational awareness and we are given the impression that our community is being protected when in fact this is an exercise in politics rather than security…. This misdirects the community’s concern by suggesting that our insecurity is best identified by seeking out those who disagree with your views of Israel, and protest its occupation of Palestinian land.  History does not support that assumption.”

The letter documented specific instances of misleading reporting, and examples of social media expressions of protest which contained no element of antisemitic or other threat. If you have ever participated in such legal expressions of protest, this should give you pause.

The letter concluded that none of those instances “in any way implies hatred of Jews or Jewishness, supports violence or can be characterised as antisemitic…. Examples like these suggest that you are writing a report about disagreement with Israel, rather than a report about threats posed to the New Zealand Jewish community.  It is, of course, your right to disseminate your views but it is disingenuous to do so in the guise of security.  We are concerned for the reputations that will be damaged, and for the false sense that we, as a community, are endangered by disagreement rather than by the genuine pathology of antisemitism.”

Fred Albert and Marilyn Garson have again written, calling for a different process. Because this practice affects people within and beyond our community, we, Alternative Jewish Voices list our objections here.

  • Neither we nor those who are harmed by false labels have any way to know whether the CSG continues to share misleading information with security agencies. Given the statements of the IINZ and NZ Jewish Council, protest in New Zealand already takes place in the shadow of such behaviour. We call for transparency.
  • We fear that the punishment of solidarity with Palestinian rights continues to masquerade as threat assessment, doing a disservice both to political debate and to genuine threat awareness. It is legal to protest in Aotearoa. Every faith community should be safe. Those two values must – and can – be more wisely secured.
  • The pernicious IHRA definition is not Aotearoa’s definition of racism. By choosing an ideological tool, the reports failed in their stated goal of threat assessment. People can criticise Israel without antisemitism, and without posing a threat to the Jewish community. The CSG’s standard and their mindset need to change.
  • We do not know if the CSG shares information with any entity outside of New Zealand, an act that would be treated differently by legislation including our Privacy Act. If political information is being shared with Israel, it could impact Palestinians’ ability to travel to their own land.
  • Genuine risk / threat assessment leads to action. Threat can feel paralysing without context and response. A security report should be contextualised with reference to organisations that monitor Aotearoa’s subcultures of hate, not Israel’s IHRA websites. A security group should empower its community with an integrated response within Aotearoa’s wider antiracism activity. Our CSG is ideologically unable to take those steps.

We emphatically protest the CSG’s political actions in the guise of community safety. We call for a review of the CGS’s compilation and sharing of information. People who have been falsely labelled a threat for their valid political speech should be informed so that they can respond. The CSG should apologise and correct its mischaracterisations.

Hear this: it is legal in Aotearoa to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. The full individual and collective rights of Palestinians do not threaten the Jewish community. It does not endanger us when Palestinians tell us their experience, their identity and their aspirations.

In conclusion, there is less substance than meets the eye in the institutions which might be presumed to represent the Jewish community. They are unable to situate us well within the community around us, parts of which they are busy alienating. This is to everyone’s detriment.

We call on the institutions which claim to represent us, to do just that.

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa-New Zealand

We were wrong, and we take it back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Watch summarises,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Garson

Fred Albert

Leigh Friday

David Weinstein

First antisemitism, now the Holocaust

While we are looking the wrong way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa – New Zealand

Blame Palestine. And the Greens.

Stuff OpEd, December 28, 2021

Dear Stuff Editors,

We share Ben Kepes’ emphasis on clear language, and so we object to his unclear inferences in today’s Stuff OpEd.

Ben Kepes doesn’t mention which of MP Golriz Ghahraman’s protests offended him.  We can only reply on the basis of our own experience.  We are aware of two protest actions to which he might refer. Perhaps they were typical. 12 Green MPs stood on the steps of Parliament in May, to protest Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and request Parliament’s recognition of the State of Palestine. MP Ghahraman hosted an evening at Parliament to highlight Israel’s illegal detention of Palestinian children in its military jails.

We spoke at both of those events. Neither the Holocaust nor antisemitism were themes. Thus far, Kepes rather than Ghahraman is linking the Holocaust with Palestine. Please cite specifics or leave Ghahraman out of your argument.

Do loudly decry the use of Holocaust or Nazi references to protest COVID public health measures. We agree that those references are wildly inappropriate, designed to shock and sadly to normalise extremism. COVID disinformation took root and was cultivated offshore, long before it was grafted onto our issues. It is absurd to link or source this to the Green Party of Aotearoa.

To protest that offensive language, you need the addresses of Donald Trump, Q-Anon and co.  We’re with you in that protest when it is properly directed.

We also share your objection to a language of false equivalence on the matter of Palestine. We have written in search of a language that neither hates nor falsely equates.

Finally, in the interests of precision please correct your language.  Gazan Palestinians are not being “treated… poorly” or “subjugated.”  Their land is occupied, and two million human beings live behind a blockade instituted by one of the most powerful armies on the planet. They live deprived of their most basic human rights. Read a current, comprehensive summary by the UN Special Rapporteur A/76/433.

As profoundly as you feel protective of the truth of your family’s experience in the Holocaust, you must not do a disservice to Palestinians’ equal human rights: the right to life and medical treatment, freedom to move, collective self-determination.  Please make your point without discrediting the protest of others.  Your memory and their daily reality are not in competition.

Marilyn Garson and Fred Albert

Co-Founders, Alternative Jewish Voices

Two occupations: foreign policy on the wrong side of history

Phnom Penh 1987, estimated population 700,000 (Marilyn Garson)
Phnom Penh today, population 2,078,000 (Image: Eleven Myannmar)

When we speak about foreign policy, we like to say that Aotearoa punches above its weight. Our independent foreign policy is a national mantra. We have indeed taken progressive positions on some big issues. However, in between our proud moments, we have also been complicit in some of our allies’ least principled actions. I saw the cost while travelling and working under two occupations – first in Cambodia and last in Gaza, Palestine. At those two extremes of violence and deprivation, Aotearoa timidly followed our allies’ agendas.

We will need to reckon with this part of our legacy as we determine our policy on challenges like climate change.

Cambodia, 1979 – 1990

Cambodia sits between the regional powers of Vietnam and Thailand. The US regarded Cambodia as an adjunct to their war in Vietnam. From the late 1960s, President Richard Nixon authorised a secret, escalating bombardment of neutral Cambodia.

I was a child then, but I knew there was something I needed to learn in Cambodia. I studied, from the mid-1980s I travelled and then I worked in Cambodia to understand what had happened. Every Cambodian I knew who joined the Khmer Rouge, explained that they had been radicalised by the bombing. That unreachable rain of violence was intolerable.

Embittered and extremist, the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. They sealed off Cambodia, emptied the cities and reduced their country to a forced-labour camp. The world did nothing for four years, while the Khmer Rouge committed unfathomable crimes. They killed, starved or worked to death up to 2,000,000 people, a fifth of the population.

In late 1978, ostensibly responding to Khmer Rouge cross-border raids, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam installed a compliant Cambodian government led by Heng Samrin. Stories tumbled forth of the most profound suffering and trauma. A loyal remnant of the Khmer Rouge retreated into camps along the Thai border. Many others took off their uniforms and disappeared into the crowds of Cambodians who were searching for relatives, walking toward their abandoned cities or villages, walking – and not planting.

The Khmer Rouge had dragged Cambodia back to a pre-industrial state. It was the poorest place on earth, its people hungry and grieving in darkness, its infrastructure shattered. There were no reserves of food. Famine quickly set in.

The Tonle Sap inland lake was, and remains, a primary source of protein (Marilyn Garson)

The regional ASEAN group of states and the US led the response to Cambodia’s occupation and famine. Thailand wanted a buffer between itself and Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge camps offered that buffer. The US wanted to punish Vietnam for humiliating America at war four years earlier.  They aimed to ‘bleed Vietnam dry’ with the burden of feeding millions of starving Cambodian survivors in addition to its own population. Genocide? According to diplomatic cables and notes cited here, former Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila explained during a visit to New Zealand in February 1981 that genocide was “for the people of Cambodia to deal with, not Thailand and not Vietnam.” By extension, genocide was not our concern either.

We, Aotearoa, loyally adopted ASEAN’s agenda. For twelve years, we recognised the Khmer Rouge genocidaires as the rightful representatives of Cambodia. A succession of coalitions and acronyms failed to convince anyone (except our diplomats) that the Khmer Rouge had been rehabilitated or shared power in their border camps. We provided infrequent, small amounts of humanitarian aid to those Khmer Rouge-controlled “bamboo ghettoes.”  We withheld recognition from the Heng Samrin government, and we did nothing to meet the most basic rights of Cambodians to food, justice, self-determination, and safety.  

We could have chosen principle over loyalty, as some others did. Australia and the UK swiftly de-recognised the Khmer Rouge, and a few countries did aid Cambodia.

In just the first year of ASEAN’s stability regime, Counting Civilian Casualties estimates that 300,000 Cambodians died from famine. Through the 1980s, one in five Cambodian children died in their first five years. I visited and wrote about the people whose suffering did not break the surface of the world’s concern.

In the countryside, a few NGOs struggled to feed the Cambodians who languished in inland camps between two armies.  Ben Pringg camp, between Battambang and Pailin, was within artillery range of the Khmer Rouge. A woman there explained to me that they had eaten their rice seed and were again hungry. They knew that they were consuming the year’s potential crop – but with nothing else to eat, they would all have starved before the rice grew.  The Khmer Rouge shelled the NGO trucks that tried to deliver food. 

Ben Pringg camp residents (Marilyn Garson)

As a donor state, we must have understood that our aid choice contributed to massive, avoidable human suffering. Sending aid into an environment of scarcity alters its balance of power. In famine, food is a magnet. I recall any number of Cambodians who told of their losses and then mused about conditions at the border, weighing the availability of food and the possibility of flight against the certainty of encountering the Khmer Rouge.[1] 

Denied aid and trade in the name of politics, Cambodia remained the poorest place on earth a full decade after the Khmer Rouge fell, with an annual per capita GDP of $40 US.  It was also becoming the most heavily mined.

In histories like The Devil You Know: New Zealand’s Recognition Policy Towards Cambodia From 1978 – 1990, successive NZ Foreign Affairs Ministers’ reiterate that our Cambodia policy demonstrated our reliability as an ASEAN ally. Our loyalty led us into absurdity as we pursued a policy whose logical outcome – the return of the Khmer Rouge to power – we did not want.  We adhered to the ASEAN line until 19 July, 1990. By then the Vietnamese had departed. The US had withdrawn its recognition from the Khmer Rouge-led coalition. Further from the headlines, Cambodia’s civil war sputtered on for another decade.

Leading an NGO staffed by Cambodians with disabilities, I heard Cambodia’s story narrated primarily by people who survived the genocide as children. The men had been child soldiers in all of the armies, and most of my colleagues had lost limbs to landmines. They explained the meaninglessness, the fatuousness of war. They felt fated; fighting was just something they were told to do. They recalled that, when units of opposing armies stumbled upon each other in the jungle, they would first try to back away, hoping to avoid conflict by mutual, unspoken agreement.

While I worked on my Khmer literacy, I often read the local papers with colleagues who were also struggling to master Cambodia’s esoteric alphabet.  Once we read a story about an aspiring criminal who gave his followers a gun and $20. I turned to the man sitting next to me and asked him if he would join. He shrugged, “If someone gives me a gun and pays me then I have to fight.”

Rehab Craft Cambodia farewells its founder, the late Colin McLennan (Marilyn Garson)

My colleagues had been exposed to the most heartless power. Policies like ours, disinterested in justice, helped to convince them that they would always remain unprotected.

Our choices in Cambodia highlight part of New Zealand’s foreign policy legacy. Our history as a follower has done great damage. If we were ever going to act on principle, we should have done it when we faced the stark choice to align with the genocidaires or their survivors. We prioritised the interests of states whose stability was built on the suffering of a powerless nation. That sort of stability is anathema to justice or to any durable peace.

I went on to work five years in Afghanistan and I cannot help but hear the echoes.  Today, some of the same allies prioritise the isolation of the Taliban, at the direct expense of 23 million Afghans who face starvation this Northern winter. States call it a diplomatic dilemma. The World Food Programme calls Afghans’ plight “hell on earth.” 

Gaza, Palestine

A quarter-century later, I lived in the Gaza Strip from 2011 through 2015. I worked with family businesses, job-seekers and (unexpectedly) as a member of the United Nations emergency team that sheltered one-sixth of Gaza’s population through the bombardment of 2014. In Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Aotearoa again serves regional, powerful state interests, and overlooks the suffering and rights of an occupied nation.

To be clear, I am not comparing the Khmer Rouge genocide with Palestinians’ decades under settler colonial occupation. Nor is this about Vietnam or Israel per se. I am writing about New Zealand’s willingness to be led into absurdity, and our ongoing use of aid to buttress bad policy.

The UN Security Council and General Assembly, international courts, the Red Cross, legal and human rights NGOs – the overwhelming preponderance of international institutions – agree that the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights are Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). International Humanitarian Law and the laws of occupation apply in full. This includes Gaza. The standard for occupation is “effective control.” Israel’s military, economic, social and technological blockade effectively controls the Gaza Strip and the two million people who live behind blockade walls.  Israel disagrees.

Israel’s annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are illegal because it is illegal to annex occupied territory. UN Resolution 478 declares the annexation of East Jerusalem illegal while UN Resolution 497 covers the Golan Heights.  Donald Trump disagreed and recognised Israel’s actions. Repeated UN Resolutions and successive New Zealand governments have reiterated that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are also illegal.

Israel consistently ranks among the most militarised nations on earth. Decades of American military aid “unmatched by any other bilateral relationship in the world,” have made Israel a leading military and cybersecurity power, and weapons exporter.  Between 9 January, 2009 and 31 October, 2021, 3624 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, while 196 Israelis were killed by Palestinians: the casualties of the occupation are overwhelmingly Palestinian.

The UN Special Rapporteur summarised in October, “Israel is in long-standing breach of … foundational [legal] principles, with its occupation having crossed a bright red line into illegality under international law…. Israel is a bad-faith occupier.”

Categorising bomb fragments removed from a Beit Hanoun school, bombed in July 2014 while it was in use as a shelter for displaced Gazans. Investigation attributed the bombing to the IDF. This is among the acts that the International Criminal Court will investigate as prima facie war crimes. (Marilyn Garson)

Although we tolerated the Khmer Rouge rather than the occupation of Cambodia, in Israel-Palestine we recognise only the occupier, Israel. 138 United Nations member states also recognise the State of Palestine.[2] We do not recognise the occupied State of Palestine because, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta writes, “it lacks sufficient control of its territory to constitute a state.” (Correspondence in response to a joint briefing by Justice for Palestine and Alternative Jewish Voices, Dec 14, 2020)

Well, yes, occupation is the violent denial of territorial sovereignty. New Zealand did, however, recognise the odious Khmer Rouge, which controlled neither significant territory nor the best interests of their nation.

As a state, Israel presents its case to our government within normal diplomatic relations. Palestinians lack the representation or the access to speak.[3] Imagine how differently we might respond, if we understood that occupation is, first, the lived story of the occupied people.

We tolerate an occupation that is increasingly called apartheid.  We acknowledge the illegality of Israel’s settlements, but we do not penalise breaches of law, treaties, or conventions.[4] We have not acted on Israel’s military incarceration system with its 95% conviction rate, nor do we penalise Israel for routinely imprisoning children in military facilities – the only state to do so, in breach of the Geneva Convention. We have not condemned Israel’s recent (unsubstantiated) decision  to regard six leading Palestinian legal and human rights NGOs as “terrorist,” effectively criminalising Palestinains’ resort to law.

To paraphrase the Thai Foreign Minister’s 1981 comment, we act as if these crimes need not be our concern. Our stance is legally as well as morally wrong: occupied people are a protected category of people.  If New Zealand is committed to international law, then this is our responsibility.  Yet, when Israel deploys its overwhelming power to punish Palestinian protest, we ask everyone to stand down as if their roles were equal, and wait for two states to sprout like magic beans.

One bomb, one greenhouse, 3000 citrus trees, ten family livelihoods.  Nov 2012 (Marilyn Garson)

The long duration of this occupation is significant, not only because occupation is required to be temporary but also because this occupation is hardening. Our policy – already tilted – should be changing in response.  In October the UN Special Rapporteur assessed the “deepening occupation”:

The now 54-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestine – always repressive, always acquisitive – has been metastasizing into something much harsher and more entrenched: the permanent alien rule of one people over another, encased in a two-tiered system of unequal laws and political rights.

Even the staid former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon  is calling for 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… 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.

Then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, speaking to UNRWA staff in Gaza City during the 2014 bombardment.  (Marilyn Garson)

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has made it clear that our policy is fixed, illegalities notwithstanding.

Successive New Zealand Governments have been clear that Israeli settlements are a violation of international law…  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… The two-state solution has been the accepted basis for resolving the Palestinian question for many decades now. (direct correspondence, Dec 14, 2020)

Again in Palestine, we use aid to buttress the status quo. We defray Israel’s costs, and co-manage the humanitarian catastrophe of occupation by sending the most passive forms of aid. We send relief food rather than the means of food production or food sovereignty.

Strangled by the blockade, Gaza has one of the world’s highest rates of literacy and youth unemployment. Technology is the object of many hopes. In 2015, my team was trying to raise start-up funds for our GGateway social enterprise.  Donor delegations were frequent after the devastating 2014 war, but they all said the same thing: great idea, anywhere else. Their government would not send development assistance to Gaza.  Gazans are meant to sit in limbo.  At last, the South Korean government invested – their first start-up in the Gaza Strip.

The hardest job in the world, we used to say, is to look for a job in Gaza.

Surely Aotearoa did not set out to normalise or legitimise the structural oppression of a nation. Yet here we are again, loyally enabling and siding with actions whose logical outcome we do not seek. Palestine, like Cambodia, underscores the deadly consequences of our acquiescence.

New Zealand World War I graves, Deir al Balah War Cemetery, Remembrance Day 2014 (Marilyn Garson)

Some people scoff at the very idea of values-led policy. They call it naive. I ask whether our policies in Cambodia or Palestine, unanchored by values, look sophisticated. Or independent.

The colonial face of our foreign policy presumes that the story of our world is only the story of powerful states. At our worst, we have been so eager to sit next to them, we have followed them onto the wrong side of history.

On issues of global justice, we must situate our policy with those who share both our interests and our values – the two are not in competition.

The wealthy states bring a computational theory to transformational issues. They calculate how little of their lifestyle they must give up in order to stabilise the rest. They send doses of COVID-19 vaccine to African nations while preserving the patents. They manage the disruptions of climate as one-off events, even as the waters lap onto the Pacific island shores around us. Their rearguard action builds walls to hold back the migrants without acknowledging that extractive capitalism and US-led militarism helped to necessitate the migrants’ flight.

We face issues which will not be resolved at the margins. 2022 should be a year of radical foreign policy ambitions, around which to galvanise new networks of shared purpose. It is not enough for our policymakers to trot along behind the states that brought us to the cliff’s edge. We need to see the earth and the human beings who share it, in the context of a future we will experience together. We need to ask what we owe and how much we can add.

Future-facing values are all around us. They are the values of tangata whenua and indigeneity, of young people who will live with the consequences, of the lessons we are learning in our uneven decolonisation. We are beginning to re-learn history and philosophy. Now we need to project our local lessons outward, to shape a more principled foreign policy.

Marilyn Garson


[1] On the limbo of war economy, see the work of Mark Duffield. On humanitarian donorship practice, see initiatives like the Overseas Development Institute’s Good Humanitarian Donorship. On the specifics of the Cambodian aid embargo, see for example Punishing the Poor, which Oxfam has made freely available here.

[2] Find here an assistant law professor’s extended discussion on the nature of recognition, including the question ‘How much recognition is needed?’

[3] Nadia abu Shanab elaborates on this lack of access around minute 32 of this Te Kuaka podcast by NZ Alternative.

[4] The UN Special Rapporteur has outlined the roles and responsibilities of states in his 2019 report   A/74/507, the Security Council’s failure to impose the costs obliged by its own resolutions and international law in his 2020 report A/75/532, and the roles played by key multilateral groups in his 2021 report A/76/433.

Under pressure

Most communities fragment under pressure, as we are abruptly finding in Aotearoa.  Gazans are constantly awareness that they are powerless before an overwhelming, uncaring threat – yet somehow, in extremis Gaza coheres like contact cement.

November 14, 2012 was the first night of an eight-day bombardment and I was alone in my apartment on the 14th floor. With each explosion nearby, my building and my stomach lurched further than I would have expected.

Worst was the helplessness. Gaza has no defensive weapons, so Israeli planes circled and bombed at will. I sat and waited – BOOM, lurch, correct – sat and waited. I tracked each plane across my ceiling and thought, this is what the fish sees in its barrel.

My Palestinian team members called with practical advice.  Did I know to leave the windows slightly open to diminish the chance that they would blow inward?  Had I plugged in every device to charge while there was electricity? In two of their households, parents were distracting their small children by teaching them to dance to the peculiar backbeat of the naval shelling that was pouring into Beach Camp, an undefended refugee camp just north of me.

Two of my male colleagues called me. They each lived nearby. Each man offered to leave his family, collect me, and bring me home to live with his family through the war. One of those men had enduring professional differences with me, yet he pressed me especially to take shelter with him.  No one, he insisted, should be alone beneath the bombs.

I’ve thought of him often through Covid. Imagine calling up the people you dislike, and pleading with them to lock down with your family through the worst, open-ended stress.  Imagine checking in with your nemesis daily because you are sharing an experience more profound than your dislike. Rather than turning on each other, rather than assuming that personal responsibility is sufficient in a collective crisis, Palestinians knew, ‘I will be well while I am caring for you, too.’

In 2013, I was appointed to a task force.  Israel’s blockade of Gaza produces deep poverty, and 800,000 Gazans were then in need of relief food (today, more than 1,000,000 Gazans need relief food).  Budgets were not keeping pace with need.  Our task force had to devise policy and operating systems to prioritise the food entitlements of 800,000 human beings behind a wall. Disrupted by the war of 2014, it took the task force 16 months to devise, implement, code, train and roll out a new system.  When Covid struck, the system enabled food distribution, rather than collection.

Our thorniest ethical question was this: what happens when a parent secures their family’s entitlement by giving false information?  In a situation of scarcity and malnutrition, what policy response is fair?

Fair to whom, we wondered.  Fair to a fiercely protective parent? Fair to the neighbour who did not lie? How could civic order be maintained, if not by punishing dishonesty?  How else should the system preserve its integrity? What was the point of having policy if entitlement could be forged? What would happen to neighbours if trust broke down? Round and round we went, trying to devise fairness behind an indefensible wall.

The man who broke through our stuckness was a self-described trouble-maker with lifelong radical credentials. “Wait,” he pleaded, “stop.  Who is this policy for?  Who are we responsible to?  Food policy is a policy for children’s nutrition, so why are we arguing about adults?  What is fair for the children?”

We devised our solution from caring rather than punishment, aiming to harness shared values. Our system was despised and mistrusted, as would be any mechanism to cope with insufficient resources. However, it nourished children first  and we could devise no more decent response to Israel’s indecent deprivation of Gazans.

Surviving in a situation willfully designed to harm them, Gazans made goodness their intentional, hourly work. In so doing, they refused to be defined by the violence of others and got on with the business of making the better world they had in mind.  They chose to act as if they had already won.

Their choices choices feel relevant now, as the language of outrage seeps into our social fractures.  People I care about are being drawn onto uncharacteristically angry and absolute ground.  This is going to call for every bit of transcendence we have. 

Marilyn Garson