When Defence Minister Ron Mark met Israel's Prime Minister on January 27, Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as asking New Zealand to change its definition of anti-semitism so that it includes political opposition to Zionism.
Netanyahu's office website reports that he told Mark, "The main attack against the Jewish people today is the attacks against the Jewish state and the attempt to delegitimise the very right of the Jewish people for a state of their own. This is called anti-Zionism, and we ask not only all our friends, but all decent countries everywhere to include [in] the definition of anti semitism, anti-Zionism as well. And so I've just made that request from you as well."
We write as two committed Jews, members of a synagogue, engaging in regular prayer and daily study. We believe in the enduring, prophetic school of Jewish thought. As per our understanding of our religion, law and justice, we are not Zionists.
For that, Netanyahu would like you to call us anti-semites – pathological Jew-haters. He would deny us the right to challenge Israel's actions, as we challenge the actions of any state (including our own). If New Zealand forecloses on political debate in this way, it will forfeit its potential role in seeking justice for Israel-Palestine.
We are not unusual in our beliefs. Zionism has always been disputed by Jews on a range of religious grounds. Some of our greatest modern thinkers objected to the methods and choices of Jewish nationalism, including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber. They urged different arrangements of space and power.
Debate is especially strident within the Jewish community now, as growing numbers of humanist, mostly young, Jews stand up to protest Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.
The Quaker community also protests, and so its development agency has been banned from Israel. Netanyahu is asking you to believe that, because they are not Zionists, all of these people must be motivated by a sinister loathing of Jewishness itself.
What do they oppose? What is the Zionism that Netanyahu is asking New Zealand to protect?
Netanyahu's settler-colonial Zionism refuses to share place or power. It has dispossessed Palestinians. It downgrades the rights of non-Jewish citizens, legislating that "the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people". Although 20 per cent of Israelis are Arab/Palestinian, Netanyahu has stripped Arabic of its official status as a national language.
What has this got to do with New Zealand? Heaps – with New Zealand in particular.
Netanyahu's Zionism should resonate here. New Zealand has acknowledged its own colonial project and recognised that the ravages of colonialism persist. We know that mechanisms – beginning with the Treaty – are (only) the foundations of our long, imperfect, national work-in-progress of partnership. That experience gives us a national voice, a particular harmony to offer to Israel-Palestine.
New Zealanders will not make the peace in Israel-Palestine from this distance but we must demand that a dignified peace be made. Until it is, we must actively support the institutions that protect endangered lives and uphold human rights. Our collective protest helps to raise the cost of perpetuating injustice, and reward constructive steps forward.
Individuals act from moral obligation, governments have formal obligations to uphold the agreements they sign on behalf of their citizens. In an advisory opinion that referred to Palestinians' right to national self-determination, the International Court of Justice reminded state signatories to the Geneva Conventions that they "are under an obligation, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law".
Now, today, our Government must roundly reject Netanyahu's intentional confusion of political challenge with anti-semitism. When Zionism is blurred into Judaism a political project is elevated to the status of a protected religious belief. A policy is shielded from political or legal scrutiny. We strenuously object to that, because Zionism is not the religion that we want our neighbours to respect, learn about, and protect alongside their own faiths.
Progress toward human equality depends upon fearless activism. Power holders have always tried to chill protest and postpone their loss of privilege. We urge our neighbours and our Government not to be deterred by Netanyahu's name-calling. We think he has it backward: justice is pro-Semitic.
•Fred Albert is a retired public servant in Wellington. Marilyn Garson, of Hokianga, has worked in communities affected by war since 1998, including Afghanistan, 2005-10, and the Gaza Strip, 2011-15.