David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, had serious reservations about the United Nations (UN). An ardent Jewish nationalist, and a proponent of self-reliance and direct action, his guiding principle in foreign policy was, “What matters is not what the Goyim (non-Jews) say, but what the Jews do”. In accordance with this dictum, he disdainfully referred to the world body as “oom-shmoom”. Oom is the Hebrew acronym for United Nations. The sobriquet oom-shmoom implies that the UN is of no importance and can be safely ignored.
While the disdain popularized by Ben-Gurion continues to define Israel’s approach towards the UN, the sentiment does not extend to those within the world body who investigate Israeli practices or seek to hold it to account. In such cases, derision gives way to relentless vilification. A particularly egregious example is the effort by Israel and its apologists to discredit and disqualify Francesca Albanese, the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory Occupied Since 1967.
United Nations Special Rapporteurs are prominent legal experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and tasked with monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation throughout the world. Unpaid and serving for fixed terms, they enjoy more political independence than salaried UN officials.
Several times a year, the Special Rapporteur on Palestine produces detailed reports on Israeli transgressions. Occasionally, these result in resolutions that condemn Israel's actions. Israel, however, rarely responds to the substance and findings of these reports, and critical resolutions slide like water of a duck’s back. Its routine response is to shoot the messenger; its weapon of choice for character assassination is to cast the messenger as an anti-Semite. It does so even if the Special Rapporteur happens to be Jewish, as was the case with Richard Falk, who served in this position from 2008 until 2014.
Criticising the state of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are two distinct phenomena. Zionism is the official ideology of the State of Israel ̶ a sovereign state in a specific geographical location. Judaism is a religion and its adherents live both inside and outside the State of Israel. Anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews as Jews wherever they may be. Anti-Zionism is opposition to the ideology of the state of Israel or to some of its specific policies and practices as an occupying power. It is thus perfectly possible to be an anti-Zionist without in any way being an anti-Semite.
It is also possible to be both an anti-Zionist and an anti-Semite. If hatred of Jews is the motive for criticising Israel, that is anti-Semitism. Israel and its apologists in the West, however, persistently, and often deliberately, conflate the two phenomena in order to smear supporters of Palestinian rights and critics of Israel with the poisonous brush of anti-Semitism.
Accusations of anti-Semitism have been the predictable treatment meted out to the current Special Rapporteur on Palestine, Francesca Albanese. Albanese is exceptionally well-qualified for this function, an onerous task which she performs pro bono. She is an academic, an international lawyer, and a leading expert on Palestinian refugees, the largest stateless refugee community in the world today. She is the co-author, with Lex Takkenberg, of Palestinian Refugees in International Law, the most comprehensive legal treatise on the subject, published by Oxford University Press.
In December 2022, Albanese was pilloried by a posse of Israeli officials, Israel apologists, ideologically motivated journalists, and social media activists for allegedly anti-Semitic comments made years ago that, it is claimed, disqualify her from serving the UN in any capacity. The Israeli mission to the UN, which had objected to her appointment in the first place, calls her a pro-Palestinian activist who harbours significant bias against the Jewish state. The Israeli government, which banned her immediate predecessors, Michael Lynk and Richard Falk, from conducting field visits to the West Bank, is similarly obstructing her access. Top US officials have also joined the chorus of protest about some of Albanese’s comments.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a 14 December 2022 letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, wrote that “Albanese must be removed, and the Human Rights Council’s biased witch hunt against Israel must be dismantled if the UN hopes to retain credibility”. This is neither a new nor original criticism, but rather a recycled refrain used to silence any and every voice within the United Nations even remotely critical of the state of Israel. That is the real witch hunt.
That Albanese is forthright no one can deny. In sharp contrast to many UN diplomats, she is not afraid to speak truth to power. Her mandate is to “investigate Israel's violations of the principles and bases of international law”, and this is what she does without fear or favour. She describes herself as a militant jurist. She loves her profession and insists that if justice is not for everyone it is for no one. Unlike her detractors, who prioritise anti-Semitism above other forms of racism, she is consistent in opposing all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. She is also unswervingly and commendably forthright in her advocacy of human rights and free speech.
The evidence advanced for the claim that Albanese is anti-Semitic is jejune and utterly unconvincing. The Times of Israelled the charge on 14 December 2022. In what looked like a politically motivated attack, it dredged up a Facebook post of hers from 2014. In it she wrote, “America and Europe, one of them subjugated by the Jewish Lobby, and the other by the sense of guilt about the Holocaust, remain on the sidelines”. The offending post was written in her personal capacity, eight years before she assumed her UN position. The context, invariably left out by her critics, was a savage Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including 550 children. As is Israel's wont, the assault was fraudulently named “Operation Protective Edge”. But there was nothing protective about it. It was the use of force against civilians for political purposes and as such amounted to an act of state terrorism.
Albanese had every reason to castigate America and Europe for doing nothing to restrain the aggressor. Using the term “Jewish lobby” was unfortunate because it feeds into the stereotype of covert Jewish power. It would have been more accurate to use the term “Israel lobby”. And to say that America is “subjugated” by this lobby was surely an over-statement.
Albanese acknowledged that she had misspoken and has distanced herself from the language she used. At the same time, she affirmed her determination to not be distracted from her mandate of reporting on Israeli human rights abuses, and to not let others define who she is or what she stands for.
Albanese’s self-reflection made little difference to her detractors. Their problem with her is not the language she used, but rather the scrutiny she generates about Israel's flagrant violations of international law and her principled defence of Palestinian human rights. Implicit in the attacks upon her is the notion that holding Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian rights is ipso facto anti-Semitic. It would have been more honest on their part to state this directly. More broadly such attacks aim to deflect attention from the fact, stated by Palestinians for decades and in recent years confirmed by the world’s leading human rights organizations, that millions of Palestinians live under an apartheid regime that deprives them of their basic rights.
Focusing remorselessly on past comments posted by Albanese on social media, her detractors are also determined to deflect attention from the substantive work she has produced since her appointment by the UN Human Rights Council. Her first report, submitted In September 2022, constituted a profoundly analytical and meticulously documented examination of the right to self-determination as it applies to the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. In this document Albanese goes further, or rather deeper, than the landmark human rights reports that conclude that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians amounts to the Crime of Apartheid. She has not dropped the apartheid framework, seeing it as necessary but also insufficient. Rather, the novelty of her analysis lies in establishing the legal framework for viewing the occupation as the product of settler colonialism. Seen from this perspective, Israel-Palestine is not a conflict but a relationship between an occupier and an occupied, between a coloniser and a colonised. This colonial reality, Albanese argues, entraps both peoples, and realizing the Palestinian right to self-determination is the key to transforming this reality, because without it the Palestinians will not be able to fulfil any of their other basic rights. Dismantling the occupation and the apartheid regime that is inextricably linked to it is thus, according to her, the fundamental pre-condition for a peaceful settlement in Israel-Palestine.
Albanese is openly critical of the international community for its hypocrisy in advocating for a two-state solution while doing nothing to promote it, for talking the talk without walking the walk. Her report represents a paradigm shift: the law should direct politics and not the other way round. Small wonder that she is not popular with Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. Unable to refute her arguments, they resort to ad hominem attacks and character assassination. Their purpose is to discredit her, to deflect her from fulfilling her UN mandate, and to undermine her efforts to hold Israel to account for its quotidian violations of international humanitarian law.
Recently, several campaigns have been launched to pressure the UN to remove Albanese from office. This latest series of attacks followed a tweet she posted, stating: “Israel has a right to defend itself, but can't claim it when it comes to the people it oppresses/whose lands it colonizes.” That argument is a legitimate interpretation of the law. Consequently, her tweet was mispresented and distorted, and its caveat omitted in order to advance the false claim that Albanese denies that Israel has any right to self-defence. For politically motivated Zionist groups like UN Watch, NGO Monitor, and the International Legal Forum, the tweet served as a convenient pretext to escalate the personal attacks on Albanese.
The International Legal Forum, which presents itself as a global network of over 4,000 pro-Israeli lawyers and activists, in a 11 April 2023 letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, unleashed an intemperate diatribe against Albanese and cited her tweet as “further evidence” of her “relentless, systematic and unhinged bias against Israel”. Tellingly, it called on the Secretary General not only to dismiss Albanese, but to abolish her position entirely. “The UN would be far better served”, it concluded, “by replacing Ms. Albanese’s mandate with a Special Rapporteur for Combating Antisemitism”. The ILF cooperates closely with the Israeli government and has also received funding from it.
On this occasion, the Israeli government intervened directly at the official level in an aggressive effort to ostracize and silence the Special Rapporteur. Amichai Chikli, Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs and the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism, sent an additional letter to the UN Secretary General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. After denouncing Albanese’s “reprehensible, irresponsible and terror-inciting remarks”, Chikli urged the UN to “terminate Ms. Albanese’s position permanently”.
This conduct is consistent with Chikli’s track-record as an ultra-nationalist right-wing politician. In a podcast in 2021, for example, Chikli dismissed the Palestinian identity and called for it to be eliminated. “It is all built on opposition to Zionism”, he said. “That is the national identity of Palestinians. There is no Palestinian national identity with a positive content of its own. Therefore we won’t be rid of this conflict until this national identity ceases to be”.
Another target picked by the Israeli government is the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2021. Its mandate is to investigate all alleged violations of international law, as well as the root causes of the conflict, “including systematic discrimination and repression” in the territories in question. Its first report, issued in May 2022, found extensive evidence of numerous Israeli violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as of systematic impunity and a lack of accountability for the perpetrators of such abuses. Israel refuses to cooperate with the commission and dismissed its report as “distinctly antisemitic”.
Another senior UN official targeted by a smear campaign is Craig Mokhiber, the director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Mokhiber has an impressive track-record in human rights work that spans more than four decades. Because of his explicit criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, ideological media outlets and organizations specialized in defending Israel, like UN Watch and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, launched a coordinated attack in March 2023, framing Mokhiber as “extreme anti-Israel” and “antisemitic”. The Israeli Mission to the UN in Geneva duly issued a statement amplifying these ad-hominem attacks.
Israel’s preferred weapon in waging a global delegitimization campaign against its critics is the “Working Definition of Antisemitism”, which the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted in May 2016. As many commentators, lawyers and scholars of anti-Semitism have pointed out, the IHRA working definition is poorly drafted, internally incoherent, hopelessly vague, vulnerable to political abuse, and altogether not fit for purpose. It does not fulfil the most elementary requirement of a definition, which is to define. The vacuous two-sentence core definition does not mention Israel by name, but no fewer than seven out of the eleven “contemporary examples of antisemitism” attached to it for purposes of illustration, relate to Israel.
Predictably, one of the items in the charge sheet against Albanese is her strong criticism of the IHRA definition and her call to the European Union to review and reconsider its endorsement and use of that definition. She pointed out that conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism often leads to accusing human rights groups of anti-Semitism, when in fact they express legitimate, evidence-based concerns about Israeli policies. Quoting Kenneth Roth, the former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Albanese wrote on Twitter that “such framing also devalues the meaning of anti-Semitism and weakens the fight against it”.
The United Nations, which Ms Albanese views as slow and cautious as a dinosaur, has recently taken further steps relevant to holding Israel to account. In January 2023, the General Assembly requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague to give an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. Israel denounced the request, arguing the ICJ is biased against it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a despicable decision”. Palestinian support of the referral to the world court was dubbed by Israeli officials an act of “diplomatic terrorism”. This is the kind of talk that gives chutzpah a bad name. The truth of the matter is that Israel is afraid of the ICJ – not because it is biased, but because it is impartial.
More worrying for Israel is the decision by the previous Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, to investigate war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The ICJ is a civil proceeding; the ICC is a criminal investigation. Whatever the source of the challenge, however, Israel's instinctive reaction is to go on the offensive. It is a long-time practitioner of the maxim that offense is the best form of defence. The more Israel's brutal and criminal actions are exposed, the more aggressive its spokespersons and aligned lobby groups become in their efforts to smear and deter its critics.
What the Israeli government and its confederates abroad have in common is the inability or rather unwillingness to countenance any objective reporting on Israel. They are hard-wired to treat any criticism of Israel, however fact-based, logical, and rational, as proof of anti-Jewish bigotry. Paradoxically, the only people who get a free pass are real anti-Semites like former American president Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, and Jair Bolsonaro, the former President of Brazil. All three are notoriously racist politicians but outspoken supporters of Israel. Anti-Semitism and pro-Zionism are not as mutually exclusive as it might seem at first sight. As Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement and visionary of the Jewish state, predicted over a century ago: “The anti-Semites will become our most loyal friends”.
Today, it is Israel that is in the dock, not the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in The Palestinian Territory Occupied Since 1967. Albanese is an outstandingly competent and conscientious international expert. She deserves nothing but credit for the courage and commitment she has demonstrated in discharging her UN mandate. She can even wear most of the attacks on her from Zionist quarters as a badge of honour.
One final irony. The three main pillars of Judaism are truth, justice, and peace. Albanese personifies these values to a remarkably high degree. And there will be many Jews worldwide, disturbed by Israel's betrayal of these core Jewish values, especially since the formation of the aggressively anti-Palestinian, far-right, xenophobic, homophobic, and openly racist coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who may have reason to thank her for upholding these values at this critical moment in Israel’s history.