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Chlöe Swarbrick and the challenges of supporting Palestine without endorsing extremism

In brief
  • Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, known for accusing others of divisiveness, now faces anti-Semitism allegations for a pro-Palestinian Auckland rally chant.
  • “From the river to the sea” is linked to Palestinian nationalism and Hamas. 
  • The accusations against Swarbrick for her  grandstanding in this case is, hopefully, a lesson that foreign conflicts are contentious.  

Chlöe Swarbrick faces anti-Semitism allegations

In Auckland, at a pro-Palestine rally, Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick uttered the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which ignited a storm of responses from all sides. 

Swarbrick, known for accusing others of race baiting and divisiveness (often without basis), now, ironically, faces accusations of anti-Semitism and being anti-Israel . While her subsequent apology was met with scepticism by some, it’s unlikely her chant was a hidden message meant to harm Jewish people. Much like promoting ‘one person, one vote’ in New Zealand, as a counter to co-governance, is not dog whistling racism.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

Swarbrick’s apparent grandstanding in a cause quite outside New Zealand’s ability to have any effect, and the ad hominem attacks against her, as a result,, are largely a tempest in a teapot. But it should be a reminder that  politicians, both Swarbrick and her critics, are best advised to  avoid any sensitive foreign issues, unless they are very attuned to the trigger points. Otherwise, they may prompt rash accusations that impede constructive dialogue.

Chlöe Swarbrick and the challenges of supporting Palestine without endorsing extremism - Centrist
“Chlöe traverses the ‘Diplomatic Tightrope’ between diverse perspectives on human rights and security.”

Background of the slogan

The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ traditionally refers to a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, covering the area of present-day Israel. 

The slogan’s global usage has become a flashpoint. It is tied to Palestinian nationalism but also has controversial links to Hamas, whose military wing is designated as a terrorist group by New Zealand. The slogan was also included in the original platform of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party

Analysing the left’s perspective

Left-wing supporters of Palestine usually focus on human rights and international law. They say criticisms of Swarbrick may distract from humanitarian concerns. Swarbrick says she opposes anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and violence. She says her stance is about backing Palestinian rights. 

Supporters like Gordon Campbell point to New Zealand’s Supreme Court backing free speech. He refers to Valerie Morse’s case, where her right to protest, including burning the flag on Anzac Day, was upheld. Campbell says that free speech is vital, especially in emotionally charged situations, and should not be limited for fear of offence. 

Right-wing concerns

The right-wing typically prioritises national security and Israel’s right to exist. They are concerned that phrases like ‘from the river to the sea’ might be interpreted as extreme and could lead to violence. 

Jewish groups in NZ and abroad say they feel their communities have been increasingly targeted since the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023. ACT leader David Seymour, who asked for Swarbrick’s apology, reflects the worry that this language, regardless of intent, is offensive and distressing, especially to NZ’s Jewish community.

Nuance in public discourse

Supporting Palestinian rights doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with groups like Hamas. The debated phrase has been used by different groups, suggesting various meanings from Palestinian liberation to Israeli sovereignty claims.
The Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt, who says social cohesion is being tested, perhaps gets it right in calling for respectful discourse on all sides and exercising free speech responsibly.

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