After numerous anti-Israel letters to the editor were published in The Press during April/May 2019, co-director of The Israel Institute of New Zealand, Dr David Cumin, wrote in to provide balance and facts on some of the issues. Mr Minto took particular issue with the statement that the Middle East situation was “complex” and challenged Dr Cumin to a public debate.
The debate took place on 03 October with the title of “Perspectives on Israel”. The Israel Institute of New Zealand has published the opening speeches of both Dr Cumin and Mr Minto.
There were five major themes of Mr Minto’s speech that require a robust rebuttal. There are also a number of outright lies and distortions in his address which we have commented on below. Click on any of the struck-through text to see why it is incorrect or misleading.
The five major themes of his speech that need to be addressed in some detail upfront are:
1. Mr Minto falsely claims Jews are colonialists of the land
This is a common trope and is false because indigenous people cannot be colonisers of their own indigenous land and Jews are indigenous to Israel. It would be more appropriate to see the return of an ancient people to their indigenous lands as the undoing of colonialism, remembering that the Jewish homeland was conquered and colonised on several occasions, by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Crusaders. The Jewish people always aspired to return and a small number never left. The building of a Jewish homeland was entirely unlike the settler colonialism of nations such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada etc; which is the parallel that Mr Minto wants to make with his emotive language.
While there were Zionists who talked of ‘colonisation schemes’, the connotation of the term in the late 19th and early 20th century was less a dictionary definition of “group of people of one nationality or race living in a foreign place” and more the idea of developing underdeveloped places – the ‘upbuilding of Palestine’ was an oft-used term. Zionism did the latter by turning desert and swamplands into productive agricultural land and a start-up nation. Because of the hard work of Jewish immigrants (the first of whom arrived before Herzl’s Zionism), more Arabs moved to the land to benefit from the higher-paying agricultural jobs that were created.
Mr Minto tries to portray Jews as European colonisers, when in fact Jews saw themselves part of the diaspora and were a distinct minority group living in European countries where they were often subject to discrimination and persecution. The antisemitism they faced in those nations served to increase their desire to return to their ancient homeland. The possibility only arose in the nineteenth century when the Ottomans, in a liberalising phase, opened the country for settlement. In this period, many European nations, driven by religious and political agenda, set up consulates and colonies in the British Mandate of Palestine.
2. Mr Minto falsely claims Israel is an apartheid state
Mr Minto references “apartheid” sixteen times in his speech. This is a false allegation. The comparison Mr Minto tries to make between Israel and Apartheid South Africa is baseless and diminishes the suffering of black South Africans. Under the Apartheid laws, South Africans of different races were compelled to live in separate places and forbidden to intermarry. Municipal grounds could be reserved for a particular race, creating, among other things, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities. Signboards such as “whites only” applied to public areas, even including park benches. In Israel, there are no such laws. Arabs are equal citizens and have been Supreme Court judges and the people’s choice of Masterchef.
Social and racial discrimination exists in Israel, just as it does in all countries – but this is in spite of Israeli laws, not because of them. Where discrimination takes place, Arabs have avenues for redress because the law is clear that the only legal distinction between Arab and Jewish citizens is not one of rights, but rather of civic duty. Since Israel’s establishment, Arab citizens have been exempted from compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as are religious Jews.
Some anti-Israel activists suggest that the term should be applied to the situation in the disputed territories (Gaza, Judea and Samaria), rather than within Israel’s borders. However, the disputed territories are governed by independent authorities and the relationship between Israel and these territories is akin to the situation between two countries. Indeed, these territories have their own seat at the United Nations and are generally acknowledged, by other nations, as sovereign entities – so Israel can’t be held responsible for the lot of those under Palestinian rule.
Sadly, there is apartheid-like discrimination against Arab Palestinians throughout the Middle East. In Lebanon and Jordan, they can’t become citizens, even if they’re born in one of those countries – and, in Lebanon, there has been a ban on Palestinians seeking professional employment since 2005 – although the Lebanese Minister of Labor does now permit Palestinians to work legally in manual and clerical jobs.
By contrast, the thousands of Palestinians who cross the border between Palestine territories and Israel, each day, to participate in jobs in Israel, receive comparable pay and benefits to their Israeli counterparts. None of this was true for South African blacks.
Arabs in Israel, just like Christians in Israel, Ba’hai in Israel, and especially Jews in Israel are freer and more successful than in any other Middle Eastern country. This is something to be celebrated, not reduced to a cheap and false insult that minimises the suffering of so many under white South African rule.
3. Mr Minto falsely claims Arab Palestinians have a “right of return” to Israel
One of the official demands of the BDS campaign is to promote the “right of return” for Arab Palestinian refugees. Activists claim all Arab Palestinians have such a “right” based on UN General Assembly resolution 194. However, even if a UN resolution were to constitute legislation, which it doesn’t, there is nothing in Resolution 194 which would grant Arab Palestinian refugees any “right to return” to Israeli territory and there is no such right in any international law.
In 1974, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Greeks were not entitled to “return” to Northern Cyprus because “Some 35 years have elapsed since the Greeks lost possession of their property… Generations have passed. The local population has not remained static.”
The Palestinians claim they have a “right of return” for not only the Arabs who fled in 1948 but all their descendents, despite the Arab-Israeli conflict lasting more than twice as long as the Turkish-Greek conflict and the local Israeli population certainly not remaining static.
As well as there being no “right” in international law to bestow on Arab Palestinian refugees, the demand is a pretense, whose practical implementation would likely be Jewish genocide or at least the end of Jewish self-determiniation. This is because the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has invented a unique definition of refugees that includes citizens of other countries and all their descendents, and insists that all these people, who now number more than five-and-a-half million, should be allowed automatic entry into Israel.
The very idea that Israel, a country with only 9m people (including 6m Jews) should be forced to accept 5.5m Arab Palestinians with a unique refugee status, especially given that most of them have been taught that Israel is illegitimate and violence is justified, is a certain way to extinguish Jewish self-determination (or half the world’s Jewish population).
Mr Minto’s call for a single, secular state “from the river to the sea” might sound appealing. However, the reality is that Jews would be a minority once again and another Arab state would emerge. There has been no Arab nation to date that provides equal rights for all citizens and has a secular constitution. Israel has all that, but will only be able to maintain it as long as there is not a majority of people who seek another Islamic state.
4. Mr Minto falsely claims Arab terror is “resistance”
While not in the prepared remarks, Mr Minto ad-libbed in his speech a comparison between Arab Palestinian terror and the resistance of French under Nazi occupation. Mr Minto has also previously made this false comparison on social media.
There have been repeated efforts to negotiate a solution to the conflict, with Israeli leaders offering proposals that have all be flat-out rejected by the Arab Palestinian leaders. No such negotiations or offers were made by the Nazis.
And despite the unwillingness of Arab Palestinian leaders to negotiate, the violence from Gaza that necessitates the blockade, and the violence from Judea and Samaria that necessitated the security fence; Israel still facilitates thousands of truckloads of goods into Gaza and still allows tens of thousands of Arab Palestinians to enter Israel for work every week.
Israel’s attempts to protect its citizens and borders and the Nazi attempt to murder every Jewish person. While Gaza has a prevalence of obesity and 1,700 new millionaires, and the population of Arab Palestinians continues to rise, millions of Jews died of hunger and disease and there was a systematic genocide of Jews.
The comparison between Israel and Nazi German is so false and egregious, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has identified it as an example of antisemitism.
If there is any comparison to be made with Nazis it might be with Hamas – a terror group with a charter that includes reference to the genocide of Jews that it enacts. But Mr Minto calls this “resistance” and so whitewashes terror while claiming to be against terror.
Furthermore, interviews with would-be suicide bombers and other research suggests their motivation is religious, born of incitement in mosques and a culture of glorifying “martyrs”. In areas ruled by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority Imams will often incite violence in their sermons. Outside of the mosques, street signs, football clubs, and even schools are named after suicide bombers or are dedicated to the memory of terrorists.
And within schools, the curriculum further normalizes and encourages terror, with stories with titles such as “I Shall Sacrifice My Blood to Saturate the Land” and religious textbooks replete with genocidal messages. State-sponsored children’s television bombard the youngest and most impressionable of minds with messages of violence against Jews. This is not “resistance”, but terror.
5. Mr Minto tells Jews to stand against Israel and “reclaim” the symbols of Judaism
Mr Minto devoted the last 350 words of his speech attempting to tell Jews that they are “bad” if they support Israel and “good” if they speak out against Israel.
The vast majority of Jews are Zionists – they believe that Jews should self-determine in at least part of their historical, indigenous land. Mr Minto, who couldn’t even pronounce the Hebrew words in his speech, would like to see Jews abandon the historic, cultural, and religious links to Israel and any ongoing self-determination in those indigenous lands. This is grossly insulting.
Imagine if Mr Minto were to tell Christians to reclaim the cross because it is on the British flag (and others) and is seen as a symbol of oppression and colonisation by some people; or that Muslims should reclaim the crescent because it is on the flag of many countries that really have barbaric policies. Those countries have far worse records on human rights (historic or current) than Israel and yet Mr Minto singles out the Jewish nation for his opprobrium.
Mr Minto also suggests that the New Zealand Jewish Council is not supportive of freedom or justice because it reflects the majority Jewish position of support for self-determination of Jews in their indigenous lands. That the majority of Kiwis also support Israel makes Mr Minto’s position even more egregious.
Finally, Mr Minto claims to be against antisemitism because he condemns Jewish grave desecrations and neo-Nazis. Unfortunately, there are many forms of antisemitism, and fighting one type while engaging in another still makes someone antisemitic.
John Minto’s Speech
The challenge I issued for this debate was in response to Dr Cumin’s assertion that the situation in Palestine is complicated. That’s a common ploy to discourage criticism of Israel – if you don’t know the details you have no right to an opinion. That’s untrue.
White South Africa used to say the same thing to stem criticism of their apartheid system. Israel is using the same tactic.The situation is Palestine is very straightforward. In a word – colonialism.
The movement of Jewish people from around the world to take over Palestine – to displace and subjugate the existing, indigenous Palestinian population.
Theodor Herzl – often referred to as the father of Zionism (the belief in the need for a separate Jewish state) – described it as a “colonial idea”. He believed Jews would be safe and secure only if they had their own homeland. He considered Uganda in Africa and South America, even Australia, but the movement eventually focused on Palestine – linking the ancient land of the Christian Bible, the Hebrew Bible and the Koran with the colonial project of Zionism.
It’s important to emphasise that Zionism arose from persistent and widespread European anti-Semitism. Jewish communities in Europe were frequently targeted over many centuries across the whole continent where 90% of Jews lived. For example, in Russia whenever the Tsar and the ruling class came under pressure they would redirect the anger and frustration of workers and peasants in pogroms against Jews – inciting mobs to burn homes and synagogues and murdering them.
In this context of discrimination and oppression it’s easy to understand Zionist ideas gaining ground in Jewish communities in Europe. However, it was initially a minority, fringe view compared to the majority of Jews who believed in socialist ideas of international solidarity of workers and which rejected anti-Semitism outright. But in the 1930s emigration to Palestine quickened though surprisingly, in response to the Holocaust, most Jews fleeing Europe went to the US, Australia, Canada and even New Zealand rather than go to or stay in Palestine. Even today there are more Jews living in the US than in Israel itself.
Zionism gained a greater following in the late 1940s for two reasons – the Holocaust (the Nazi attempt at genocide of all Jews living in Europe in which about six million Jews along with Communists, Socialists, homosexuals and Gypsies were murdered) and secondly the desire of western imperial powers, the US and UK, for a client state in the Middle East – one that could be relied on to support western imperial interests in the oil-rich area.
So, when Britain gave up control of Palestine, the United Nations agreed to a Jewish homeland being established in Palestine and a partition plan was signed in November 1947. 55% of Palestine was set aside for the Jewish homeland despite Jews making up just 30% of the population. Almost 400,000 Palestinians were to live in the area assigned for the Jewish state which would have had a small majority of Jewish citizens.
However, well before the formal declaration of the Israeli state, Israeli militia groups, including the Irgun and the Stern gang, began a programme of ethnic cleansing – driving out the Palestinian population. The Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic) had begun. Palestinians were beginning to pay a horrendous price for European anti-Semitism. The most infamous incident was a massacre of between two and three hundred Palestinian civilians, men, women and children, at the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948.
In his book “The Revolt: The Story of the Irgun,” the leader of the Irgun, and later Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote: “The massacre was not only justified, but there would not have been a state of Israel without the ‘victory’ at Deir Yassin.”
Two weeks after Deir Yassin Israeli militias hurled explosives into the crowded Arab quarter of Haifa. Barrel bombs filled with petrol and dynamite were rolled down the alleys and created a chaotic inferno while loudspeakers of the Jewish militia broadcast recordings of screaming and shrieks of terror and in Arabic cries of “Run for your lives. The Jews are using poison gas”. Less than a week later the same tactics were used to empty Jaffa.
About 250,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out at gunpoint before Israel declared independence in May 1948. After independence five neighbouring Arab countries mounted a token military operation against the newly formed Israeli state in part to try to protect the Palestinian population.
Israeli propaganda portrays this as 600,000 Jews surrounded by 70 million hostile Arabs but the reality was quite different. A mere 15,000 Arab soldiers with 22 light tanks and ten spitfire aircraft faced 30,000 highly trained Israeli soldiers, another 32,000 second line troops plus 50,000 police and “home guard” personnel. The leadership of Arab countries was as corrupt and useless then as it is today across most of the Arab world. In Palestine it was a one-sided conflict and by the time international pressure was brought to bear Israel had taken over 80% of Palestine including most of the productive land.
Israeli propaganda tries to argue that the reason Palestinians left their land and homes was because neighbouring Arab countries told them to leave in preparation for an Arab invasion of Palestine. This is untrue and was debunked by Israeli historian Benny Morris in the 1980s. Palestinians were driven out by Israeli terrorism in what leading Zionist Chaim Weizmann described as “a miraculous simplification of our tasks”.
In all between 750,000 and one million Palestinians fled or were driven out of Palestine at gunpoint. Every day since 1948 Palestinians have had more land stolen, more houses bulldozed, more civilians harassed, attacked and killed, and more Palestinian children murdered with absolute impunity when Palestinians have resisted. For 70 years Palestinians have experienced unbridled brutality. And every day since 1948 Israel has refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their land and homes in Palestine.
So while Israel was set up under the United Nations Charter, every day since then it has been in violation of the United Nations Charter, in violation of International law, in violation of United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.A deep-seated racism is always at the heart of colonialism and Israel is no exception. “The way to deal with Palestinians is to beat them up. Not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until its unbearable”. These were the words of Benjamin Netanyahu. Imagine if anyone said the same words but swapped the word Palestinians for the word Jews in the sentence. We would all condemn that as anti-Semitism. So why is there no outcry from western politicians or supporters of Israel when Israeli political leaders spew racist hatred on the Palestinian population?
Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan said in 1967 after taking over the West Bank that Palestinians should be made “to live like dogs, and whoever wants to can leave – and we shall see where this process leads”. Palestinians are told repeatedly they should accept defeat and go to Jordan or Egypt or any other Arabic-speaking country in the region. What Moshe Dayan and Netanyahu are saying to Palestinians would be the equivalent of New Zealand Europeans saying to Maori “We’ve taken over this land now so bugger off and go back to Polynesia –– and if you want to stay here without citizenship or rights we will brutalise you if you dare to resist.”
On the positive side there is condemnation of the Israeli government from courageous Jewish groups and individuals inside Israel and around the world. They speak out against the violent, vicious, racist, apartheid policies of the Israeli state and are an inspiration to all of us. Meanwhile Palestinians who survived the Nakba and stayed in Israeli controlled areas of Palestine have citizenship of the state of Israeli today and they have seats in the Israeli parliament.
But they suffer under an apartheid system of laws which discriminate against them. As George Orwell might have said “All Israeli citizens are equal but some are more equal than others” or as Netanyahu puts it “Israel is not a state for all its citizens”.
If you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel you are exempt from military service in the Israeli Defence Force – in fact you are banned from military service – and because you have not served you are denied state assistance in a whole range of areas. If you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel you are a second class citizen. You are living in an apartheid state.
Who is the international expert on apartheid? Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This Nobel Peace prize winner says the situation is worse for Palestinians than it was for black South Africans under apartheid.
Tutu says “I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing in the Holy Land that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under apartheid.”
When he is asked what the world should do about Israel’s discriminatory policies he says “name it apartheid and boycott!”. Most importantly for us Tutu says: “We could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through….non-violent means, such as boycotts and disinvestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”
It’s important to remember in this context that Israel, the UK and the US were the three last ditch supporters of white South Africa at the United Nations in the face of international condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid system. The situation in Israel was such a close parallel to South Africa that Israel was a natural ally. Back in the 1960s White South African President Hendrik Verwoerd used to say “Why is everyone picking on South Africa? Israel has the same system we have, so why are we being singled out?”. Good question.
So how do Israel leaders get away with these racist policies?
One important way is by the trick!
Speaking in 2002 former Israeli Education Minister, Shulamit Aloni, was interviewed on the US site Democracy Now and the interviewer asked: “Often when there is dissent expressed in the United States against policies of the Israeli government, people here are called anti-Semitic. What is your response to that as an Israeli Jew?
Ms Aloni’s response was: “Well, it’s a trick, we always use it. When from Europe somebody is criticizing Israel, then we bring up the Holocaust. When in this country people are criticizing Israel, then they are anti-Semitic. … and that is to justify everything we do to the Palestinians.”We see this “trick” used in New Zealand and around the world frequently and we will see it used tonight. In fact Israel has given up trying to win the argument for a Zionist state. They know its indefensible. So their focus has shifted to trying to shut down criticism of Israel. But throwing around claims of anti-Semitism like confetti against BDS supporters will not stop the struggle for Palestinian rights.
What should New Zealand’s response be?
It should be based on three things: Firstly, we must recognise that the so-called two-state solution is no longer possible. It has been buried under illegal Israeli settlements. The solution lies in a single, secular state where all ethnic and religious rights are protected in a democratic constitution which give equal rights to everyone.
Secondly, we have a developing understanding of colonisation and its devastating effects on Maori. We have begun to move forward on this as a country, but we have a long way to go.
Thirdly, New Zealanders have a proud record of standing up against racism and injustice. We took action in support of black South Africans suffering under apartheid and we can take action NOW to support Palestinians suffering under Israeli apartheid.
New Zealanders must demand: the end of Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land, the right of return for Palestinians expelled by Israel and the end of apartheid laws discriminating against Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship and…New Zealanders must support Palestinian calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. This means, for example, ending New Zealand Superfund investments in Israel, closing the Israeli embassy in Wellington and boycotting Israeli goods.
The fevered attempts by Israel to close down the BDS movement shows just how crucial it is in bringing pressure for change in Palestine.
We can multiply our effectiveness in doing these things by working together – so join your local PSNA group.
I want to finish with an appeal to the New Zealand Jewish community. I want you to consider the Star of David. For thousands of years it has been a positive symbol of Jewish religious and cultural practices. A symbol of the deep, rich family and community values that are at the heart of Jewish communities. Now I want you to consider what Israel has done with the Star of David on the Israeli flag. Successive Israeli leaders have transformed it into a symbol of colonisation, a symbol of subjugation, a symbol of military aggression and occupation, a symbol of apartheid, a symbol of racism and a symbol of brutal oppression.
I appeal to Jewish communities across this country to reclaim the Star of David from the Zionists’ ideology and rehabilitate it as a symbol of Jewish values, a symbol of religious and ethnic tolerance, a symbol of compassion and a symbol of pride. A symbol emphasising the mystical Hebrew concept of tikkun olam “healing or restoring the world”.
This means insisting that the New Zealand Jewish Council rename itself the New Zealand Zionist Council. It also means helping a new Jewish Council to emerge with the values needed to support freedom and justice for all peoples – beginning with freedom for Palestinians in the land they have lived in for thousands of years.
We know that this will be difficult, but you also need to know that across New Zealand there are many allies in the fight for Palestinian freedom and in the fight against the rise of anti-Semitism. I personally have been privileged to work alongside many Jews who were key players in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and who have supported and applauded our efforts in the struggle for Palestinian human rights.
Some of these courageous Jews have been Holocaust survivors themselves. They recognise racism, they recognise apartheid and they utterly reject the Zionist ideology.
Our group, the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa, will be with you at the forefront in fighting anti-Semitism. We hope that more of you will be at the forefront in the struggle to liberate Palestine. Kia ora koutou. I look forward to your questions.John Minto
Video of Mr Minto’s speech, Dr Cumin’s speech and the whole event can be found at https://israelinstitute.nz/2019/10/perspectives-on-israel-opening-remarks-of-dr-cumin-and-mr-minto/