AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND — If we were to truly honor the late, great Stephen Hawking, perhaps it would pay to remind ourselves of the principles the acclaimed physicist really stood for. One of those principles was Hawking’s commitment to the boycott of Israel in response to Israel’s longstanding policy of egregiously violating the rights of millions of ordinary Palestinians.
In 2013, Hawking publicly withdrew himself from a conference in Jerusalem on the future of Israel — stating that he had decided to “respect the boycott,” having received advice from Palestinian academics.
“A people under occupation will continue to resist in any way it can. If Israel wants peace it will have to talk to Hamas like Britain did with the IRA [Irish Republican Army],” Hawking said in 2009, speaking in regard to Israel’s brutal assault of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. “Hamas are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people and cannot be ignored.”
One Guardian commentator in particular called Hawking’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “turning point.”
However, boycotting Israel is nowhere near as risk-free as boycotting and sanctioning states such as Syria, North Korea or Iran. Boycotting Israel comes with unforeseen consequences that shed light not only on the power and reach of the Zionist lobby and to adherents of the Zionist agenda, but also on how weak the argument in favor of promoting Israel’s human rights-abusing agenda is. If their argument were strong, would they need to actively and forcibly silence those who dissent?
States such as New Zealand have found this out the hard way and continue to grapple with the issue to this day. The problem that Israel will always have with New Zealand is that New Zealand has long held itself as a beacon of human rights and individual freedom. Whether or not this is, in fact, the case is irrelevant because New Zealand has to continue to maintain that façade, particularly regarding its approach to the international community. To this day, the country continues to point to its boycott of Apartheid South Africa — not too long ago, mind you — as a moment of historical pride.
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Just for ease of reference: as far back as 1989, South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu said:
If you change the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa.”
Nelson Mandela’s grandson, a staunch BDS supporter and member of parliament, also said last year that Israel “is the worst apartheid regime.” Nelson Mandela himself famously believed that his people’s freedom was “incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
New Zealand cannot look upon its history with pride while continuing to ignore the subjugation of the Palestinian people. It is for this reason that New Zealand, while appeasing Israel as much as realistically possible, has not held back in its criticism of Israeli policies.
Then-Prime Minister John Key stated in 2014 [emphasis added]:
We just have to acknowledge that the argument that the Israelis are putting up — that people can get out of harm’s way because they’re giving notice is a bit flawed in its logic. These are people that just can’t get out of harm’s way. And I think for most people watching this they would just say it’s soul-destroying. You’ve got young children, you’ve got families — this is a situation that has to end and common sense has got to prevail.”
New Zealand’s role in BDS
According to Stuff.co.nz, a prominent New Zealand media website, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund excluded three companies from its $20 billion investment portfolio on reasonable investment grounds in 2012. The report stated:
All three companies — Africa Israel investments and subsidiary Danya Cebus, Elbit Systems Ltd, and Shikun Binui — are involved in constructing Israeli settlements or a separation barrier in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which have been deemed illegal under international law.”
The Superannuation Fund considered the aforementioned companies’ involvement to be inconsistent with the United Nations Global Compact, the benchmark against which the fund measures corporate behavior. According to Stuff, the fund also “factored in votes by New Zealand for UN Security Council resolutions demanding the stopping and dismantling of the separation barrier, and the cessation of Israeli settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
The move was enthusiastically received by the BDS movement, which has been slowly making gains in New Zealand. In early 2011, Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer failed to return to New Zealand’s ASB Tennis Classic after having been the subject of significant protests during 2009 and 2010. She previously had told the media she was keen to come back — thus New Zealand’s BDS movement saw her non-appearance as a significant win for their cause, which again draws its roots from New Zealand’s pressure over South African sporting teams in the 1980s.
The most famous example of New Zealand making historic gains for the BDS movement is that of pop singer Lorde’s cancellation of a concert that was scheduled for Israel in June of this year. In a statement distributed by Naranjah, the Israeli promoters of her Tel Aviv show, Lorde wrote:
I’ve received an overwhelming number of messages and letters and have had a lot of discussions with people holding many views, and I think the right decision at this time is to cancel the show.”
Israel’s response, while hardly surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to official Israeli policy, was for an Israeli legal-rights group to sue the two New Zealanders who allegedly convinced Lorde to cancel her performance in Israel. The not-for-profit Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, the legal entity behind the lawsuit, has known links to the Mossad.
The lawsuit is being brought under a cynical law that attempts to completely undo any legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies. The goal is to neutralize the BDS movement, though one would have to wonder as to how realistically it can be applied in practice, given that New Zealanders should be free to speak their own mind in their own country about another country’s human rights abuses.
Imagine if South Africa had passed and enforced such a law on New Zealand in the 1980s, and consider the status of the apartheid state today if these obstacles had presented themselves.
New Zealand, Israel, and the UN
In 2016, the Obama administration shocked the international community when it abstained from vetoing a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories. However, this particular resolution wasn’t merely supported by New Zealand — New Zealand was actually one of the resolution’s co-sponsors. According to accounts in Israeli media, as reported by The Guardian, the Israeli prime minister called New Zealand’s then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully before the vote to state:
If you continue to promote this resolution, from our point of view it will be a declaration of war. It will rupture the relations and there will be consequences. We’ll recall our ambassador [from New Zealand] to Jerusalem.”
As referred to above, New Zealand has an appearance to uphold, and McCully moved forward in promoting official New Zealand policy undeterred. “This resolution conforms to our policy and we will move it forward,” he allegedly stated in response.
A senior Israeli official also threatened to New Zealand’s ambassador to Israel that if the resolution came to a vote, Israel would close down its embassy in New Zealand’s capital city in protest. Indeed, Israel withdrew its ambassador shortly after, barred New Zealand’s counterpart from entering Israel, before announcing it would pause sanctions but only “until further notice.”
McCully also publicly said at the time that Israel should not be surprised by New Zealand’s position, stating:
We have been very open about our view that the [security council] should be doing more to support the Middle East peace process and the position we adopted today is totally in line with our long-established policy on the Palestinian question.”
Has Israel not considered that, instead of resorting to bullying countries into submission, it could simply respect international law and discontinue its settlement expansion in the occupied territories?
It wasn’t until June of last year that Israel agreed to restore its diplomatic ties with New Zealand. A letter sent by then-Prime Minister Bill English to Benjamin Netanyahu almost appeared to apologize to Israel for the UN vote, though this particular restoration would not last long.
Donald Trump’s catastrophic Jerusalem debacle at the end of last year, which saw almost the entire world uniting against the U.S. and Israel, also involved New Zealand taking a swing at both the U.S. and Israel. This time, the resolution in question, brought forward by Turkey and Yemen, was aimed at condemning and rejecting Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Some 128 states voted, with only nine states in total backing the U.S. and Israel.
At the time, the Trump administration warned the entire world that it would be watching closely and taking names, warning too that he would cut funding to those states that voted against the United States. Because of the delicacy surrounding the issue and the warnings that preceded the vote, some countries, including Australia and a number of other smaller Pacific states, abstained from taking part in the UN vote at all; yet New Zealand participated to Israel’s detriment, the U.S.’s stern warning notwithstanding.
New Zealand’s recently elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made it clear that her country would not be “bullied” on the UN vote, and reaffirmed New Zealand’s commitment to a two-state solution, stating:
New Zealand has and has always had an independent foreign policy – we base our decisions on principle, not being bullied. We will always take a principled foreign policy.”
Ardern also said, specifically in reference to Donald Trump’s decision to attempt to rename Jerusalem as the capital of Israel:
Some of the things that we saw by international actors like the United States recently, those are decisions that should only be made in the context of a resolution around a two-state solution. It took us backwards, not forwards.”
Clearly, progress on the Israel question is slowly but surely being made, owing to the strong commitment of actors in places like New Zealand, who continue to move forward unafraid of the consequences — safe in the knowledge that the BDS movement and its principles fall in line with the goals and aims of boycotting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
For those still in doubt on this question, a UN report authored in March last year accused Israel of imposing an “apartheid regime” of racial discrimination on the Palestinian people. Shortly after its release, the official who approved its publication resigned amid a whirlwind of pressure from the United States and Israel to remove the report. It has since been withdrawn, but the conclusions continue to correspond to the reality of the state of Israel.
Top Photo | Anti-apartheid demonstrators march through Auckland, New Zealand to protest the tour of South Africa’s Springbok rugby union team. The tour had proceeded, in the face of bitter opposition from critics of South Africa’s system of apartheid with the sanction of the New Zealand Rugby Union and government of then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, July 3, 1981 . (AP/New Zealand Herald)
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a practicing attorney with an interest in human rights, international law, and journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Otago, where he obtained degrees in Law and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter at @TVsLeaking.