Activists in New Zealand are celebrating victory after they blocked an effort to censor speech supportive of Palestinian rights.
The city council in the capital Wellington was due this week to consider adopting the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance’s misleading definition of anti-Semitism.
But the motion was withdrawn after a campaign by supporters of Palestinian rights.
But the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa, a national coalition, urged the mayor and city council to abandon the measure.
“It would be far better for Wellington City to pass a comprehensive anti-racism resolution rather than have a divided vote on the proposed ‘anti-semitism’ resolution,” the group stated.
Progressive Jewish voices
Jewish activists also spoke out against the resolution.
Marilyn Garson and Fred Albert, members of a progressive synagogue, wrote an op-ed noting that the IHRA definition incorporates a set of supposed examples of anti-Semitism “which have been used to conflate criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews.”
“Given this document’s global trail of controversy, we were stunned to see a motion on Wellington City Council’s agenda for Wednesday, 26 February, to adopt the IHRA document for our city,” they added.
The activists also noted that Kenneth Stern, the main author of the IHRA definition and a former executive of a major US Israel lobby group, has condemned efforts to legislate the definition and use it to police speech supportive of Palestinian rights.
City councilor Iona Pannett told media she supported the decision to remove the item from the agenda. She acknowledged she had heard from members of the Jewish community who did not agree with its wording.
“We want a peaceful and safe way of discussing it, away from the public glare,” Pannett said.
Garson and Albert are members of Alternative Jewish Voices, a new group which says it aims to “to provide alternatives to the current narrow range of voices that speak publicly in the name of the Jewish community.”
“Racism is not just a Jewish issue, and there will be no separate Jewish resolution,” Alternative Jewish Voices said.
“Muslims and other marginalized groups face racism and bigotry. The community must support a strategy to address racism against all groups.”
Concern about racism in New Zealand – a settler-colonial state established on Maori land – has been especially urgent since a white supremacist gunman murdered 51 people at two mosques in the city of Christchurch in March 2019.
BDS is not anti-Semitic
Duncan Webb, a member of parliament for Christchurch, also wrote to Wellington city councilors warning that adopting the IHRA definition would harm free speech.
He urged a broader resolution against bigotry that would “extend to all religions including Islamophobia.”
Webb noted that many activists advocate BDS – boycotts, divestment and sanctions – in response to Israel’s illegal colonization of Palestinian land and other breaches of international law.
However, Webb said, advocates of the IHRA definition “assert that this position is anti-Semitic.”
“I strongly disagree with the assertion that BDS is anti-Semitic,” Webb, a member of the ruling Labour Party, added.
He noted that the UN recently issued “a list of businesses that are supporting the illegal West Bank settlements, and that the International Criminal Court has recently launched an inquiry into possible war crimes by Israel in Palestine.”
Silencing New Zealanders
Israel has previously tried to censor New Zealanders from afar.
In 2018, a group linked to Israel’s spying and assassination agency Mossad brought a lawsuit against two New Zealand activists to punish them for advocating a boycott of Israel.
The activists had written an open letter that helped persuade the pop singer Lorde to cancel a concert in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli court ordered the activists to pay more than $12,000 in damages – a judgment that is unenforceable in New Zealand.
The now withdrawn Wellington council measure was however the first time any local government body in New Zealand was asked to pass such a resolution – a sign that Israel and its lobby intend to tamp down criticism wherever they can.
Supporters of the resolution may have hoped that it would pass unnoticed and set a precedent that could then be quickly replicated in cities across New Zealand.
However the quick mobilization by activists to educate officials about the problems and controversies surrounding the flawed IHRA definition stymied any such plans.
New Zealanders have shown once again that although their country has a small population, its solidarity with Palestinians has an outsize impact.