Gordon Campbell on the blockade against Chloe Swarbrick’s right to speak freely about Gaza

swarbtumbThe tut-tutting about what Green MP Chloe Swarbrick said and how she said it, and whether she could have/should have expressed herself in other ways has been farcical. Yes, emotions are running high about the Israel/Gaza conflict. Arguably though, it is when emotions are running high that free speech rights need to be affirmed, rather than curtailed for fear of causing offence. Lest we forget… In the most important New Zealand free speech court case in the past 50 years, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of anti-war protester Valerie Morse to burn a New Zealand flag, even nearby a major Anzac Day commemoration.

The power balance between the contending parties is highly relevant. By protesting the glorification of war in the way she did, Morse wasn’t stopping the Anzac commemorations from taking place. This is a crucial point. Because the Supreme Court test of offensive behaviour is set (as it should be) pretty high. Though you wouldn’t know it from the reaction to Swarbrick’s comments:

[It isn’t] enough that the behaviour was “offensive” in the usual sense, of producing anger, resentment, disgust, or outrage in others. To get a conviction against you, the Police would also have to show that your burning of the flag was so offensive that it affected “public order”. For your behaviour to have affected “public order” it seems that it would have had to prevent other people using the public space for their purposes.

Plainly, Swarbrick’s comments haven’t stopped the New Zealand Jewish Council from responding. Quite the contrary. It has been handed a microphone to vent its displeasure. The phrase used by Swarbrick to close her speech to the rally in Auckland, “From the river to the sea/Palestine shall be free” has been depicted by the Jewish Council as “offensive” and “anti-Semitic” and said to be a Hamas slogan that is code for “the annihilation of Israel.”

The opposing POV is that the slogan is a call for the right of Palestinians to be free, safe and equal citizens in their own homeland i.e. to be able to enjoy all the freedoms systematically denied to them. These restrictions include being forbidden the right to travel freely to every part of their homeland, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. What a dream.

Not so free speech

Is “From the river to the sea” to be regarded as a siren call to anti-Semitic violence, or is it a call for deliverance from oppression? During the 1980s, there were similar misgivings expressed about the activist chant “Amandla Ngawethu” (Power to the People) and about the looming bloodbath that this chant allegedly heralded for the rulers of white South Africa. It didn’t happen. There was a relatively peaceful transition to democracy. But it meant that there were no more Bantustans of the sort we see today on the West Bank.

Usually, Act Party leader David Seymour likes to portray himself as a champion of free speech. Not this time. According to Seymour, the “river to the sea” slogan has a “dark meaning” and he has called on Swarbrick and the Green Party to apologise for using those bad words. Why so? Because allegedly, those words offend certain people and generate an unseemly level of “ hysteria” that Seymour says is “totally unacceptable.” As he put it:

“They understand very well what the meaning of this phrase is, they understand what it means to many people in the New Zealand Jewish community. And they don’t just repeat it, they work crowds into hysteria, chanting it, it’s totally unacceptable.”

Hmmm. While Chloe Swarbrick can give a good speech, I’m not aware that anyone has ever been moved to hysteria by her oratory. I’d also wager that few people at that rally were being whipped up by Swarbrick into a frenzy of bloodlust against the Jewish community. In all likelihood, they would have been moved to compassion for the suffering in Gaza.

Also, here’s a thing. For all the fuss about the “river to the sea” slogan, the Jewish Council and David Seymour do not seem to have any trouble at all with the term, “Eretz Israel” (aka Greater Israel) by which Israel regularly lays claim (on Biblical justification) to absolute dominion over all the lands “from the river to the sea.” As recently reported:

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Likud Party [of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]in the party’s original manifesto in 1977, stated that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty”. [Likud] also argued that the establishment of a Palestinian state .“jeopardises the security of the Jewish population” and “endangers the existence of the state of Israel”. Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, has been among the promoters of international recognition of the Jewish historic claim to lands from the river to the sea.

Long ago, the Palestine Liberation Organisation adopted that same slogan, as a parallel call for equality and freedom for Palestinians, a call picked up subsequently by Hamas. That history raises a problematic question for the NZ Jewish Council and for David Seymour. If invoking freedom from the river to the sea is an expression of sovereignty that’s all fine and noble when espoused by Israel, how can the exact same notion be unacceptably dark and threatening when Palestinians use the same phrase to convey a similar dream of autonomy? The reality is that both groups regard the same homeland and the same holy places with similar reverence. But only the Palestinians get demonised for doing so.

Footnote One: All that aside, it is odd for Seymour to claim that if a sector of the community takes offence at what someone says, then that should be grounds for an apology. Did Seymour call on Posie Parker to apologise because the trans community felt threatened and took offence at what she said (and how she said it before and after her aborted tour this year?) Hardly. Trans people seem to be fair game and of concern only to the woke – but the sensibilities of the Jewish community need to be sternly protected.

Footnote Two: Just as oddly, the furore over Swarbrick’s turn of phrase is a microcosm of the same imbalance of power she was protesting. Meaning: the onus for restraint is being placed solely on the Palestinian side of this conflict. Swarbrick must not give offence. Similarly, the world is being expected to allow the brutal, murderous killing of 1,400 Israeli civilians by Hamas to write Israel a blank cheque for the subsequent slaughter of 10,000 Palestinian civilians, roughly half of them children.

While calling for restraint from everyone else, the Israelis appear to have cast aside any restraint in what they do, and the language they use to justify their actions. The Holocaust has been invoked, and the thousands of Gazan dead have been written off as “human shields.” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has described Palestinians as “human animals.” International calls for a ceasefire to the increasingly one-sided carnage have been rejected by Israel, because a ceasefire would – allegedly – allow Hamas to regroup. Of anything, the carpet bombing of Palestinian homes has been intensified. Yet any criticism of these out-of-control behaviours is deemed to be unacceptable.

Footnote Three

The shutting down of dissenting speech on Gaza has become a disturbing global trend. The British Labour Party has suspended its own MP Andy McDonald for using the same slogan at a rally as Swarbrick did. The UK Home Sectetary Suella Braverman has described pro-Palestinian rallies as “hate marches” and accused anyone who uses the “river/sea” slogan as calling for the violent elimination of Israel. During the early days of the Gaza conflict, for instance, Braverman reportedly wrote to the chief constables of England and Wales urging them to crack down on certain shows of support for Palestinians. Even the administrators of British Football have banned players from using the “river/sea” slogan, even on their own private social media accounts. Across Europe, it has been much the same story, as Al Jazeera has reported:

Austrian police [banned] a pro-Palestine protest on the basis of the chant, claiming that the slogan, originally formulated by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), had been adopted by the armed group Hamas. German authorities declared the slogan forbidden and indictable and called on schools in the capital, Berlin, to ban the use of keffiyehs, the Palestinian scarf.

Yes, Germans are banning the wearing of Palestinian headscarves in public. Countries are banning the public utterance of a slogan that has multiple and contestable meanings. Funds are being withdrawn from US campuses if and when students protest in support of the Palestinian right to self-determination. Here, the new government wants to ban the wearing of gang patches in public or even – if Mark Mitchell gets his way – the banning of facial tattoos that might give offence or may make people feel uneasy.

Footnote Four: The NZ Jewish Council please take note: Thus far, the major violence being perpetrated outside the Middle East over the war in Gaza has been primarily directed (by Islamophobe supporters of Israel) against Muslims, and against Palestinans. For example, there have been “fire-bombings” of mosques in Adelaide. Near Chicago, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was murdered (reportedly, he was stabbed 26 times) and his mother was seriously injured in what is being investigated as a hate crime.