Interview. We spoke with Francesca Albanese, jurist and UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, who was accused of anti-semitism for a phrase in a 2014 social media post.

Francesca Albanese: Anti-semitism claims are a campaign to smear my work

Earlier this month, the lawyer Francesca Albanese, Rapporteur to the United Nations for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has been at the center of a media storm and is being accused of anti-Semitism. An Israeli newspaper, Times of Israel, went sifting through her social media posts back to 2014 and found in one of them a sentence explicitly referring to “Jewish lobbies” said to be exerting pressure on U.S. policy to cover up for Israel. We interviewed Francesca Albanese.

Ms. Albanese, what do you say to the charge of anti-Semitism concerning that post?

I have used the expression “Jewish lobby,” that is true – I want to say that this was out of ignorance, not out of ill intent. One need only read that phrase in context, part of the heartfelt appeal I made in 2014 to the archbishop of my diocese to solicit a donation for UNRWA (the UN agency), for which I worked. All this was in the context of a violent (Israeli) military offensive on Gaza that resulted in the death of more than 2,000 Palestinians including 550 children in 2014. Against this backdrop, I criticized the fact that, in the face of condemnations from so many countries, UN member states, Europe and the United States did not have a strong and clear position, or, most importantly, one that would lead to concrete action. And I criticized the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. In retrospect, I should have never used the term “Jewish lobby,” because it encompasses the whole Jewish people. And that is not what I meant to say. The correct statement would have been “the pro-Israel pressure groups” that also consist of non-Jews. The mistake was to lump together so many people who have nothing to do with this and who should not be connected to Israeli state policies. I have made amends and distanced myself from what I said back then, but now it has become the casus belli to launch a campaign against me and smear me with anti-Semitism, which is as far from the truth as it gets.

You weren’t attacked only by the Times of Israel.

The last few days have been intense, but I have been surprised by the outcry in my defense from so many Jewish organizations in the United States and Europe. Today I got a heartfelt letter written by an Israeli professor from Oxford, Avi Shlaim, in which he says that I am holding high the values of peace, justice and truth that are at the core of the Jewish tradition. There has been a campaign against me led by the usual groups, because I had been accused of anti-Semitism since before those posts were found. A lot of instrumentalization and a lot of manipulation, which, however, did not go well on this occasion, because there was a response of condemnation of the accusations against me. Some people said, yes, (Albanese) used the wrong words, but let’s talk about it. Anti-Semitism is a very serious issue, but we have to distinguish the issue of anti-Semitism from the issue of criticizing Israel’s policies towards Palestinians under occupation for 55 years.

The criticisms which, as you say, you have been subjected to for a long time, are aimed, in your view, at targeting your work as Human Rights Rapporteur in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories.

I think it’s that for the most part: the intent to demonize my person and my mandate so as to invalidate the investigations that I’m carrying out. And I would like to say that this is not just about Palestinian rights. I am stressing that dismantling the colonial set-up that Israel has put in place in the Palestinian territory it has occupied for 55 years is something that will promote security and better living conditions for both Palestinians and Israelis. Both peoples will benefit from dismantling this system.

You are also being accused of highlighting the Nakba, the Palestinian national catastrophe in 1948, and putting it on the same level as the Holocaust.

I have never made an equivalence between the Holocaust and the Nakba. Every time I have found myself writing or commenting on these two historical tragedies, I have always noted the heinousness, the gravity, the horror that was the Holocaust, which came at the culmination of centuries of racism, discrimination and persecution of Jews. I have never belittled or reduced the tragedy of the Holocaust to an equivalence. What I have done is to emphasize the knot that connects the two tragedies and the need to recognize that the Nakba is a historical fact. It is not a narrative, or an opinion, it is something that happened, it is a fundamental moment that marked the life of a people, transforming it forever. To disregard that is something extremely serious, historically, morally and legally.

Coming to your position as UN Rapporteur, what needs to be done so that the Palestinian people can also enjoy freedom and full independence?

There are three basic things. The first is that the same rights be recognized to the Palestinians that are recognized to other peoples in the region. I wonder why a right like the right to self-determination is still being debated as if it’s a matter of political expediency. It is a fundamental right; it is an inescapable norm of international law. There are rights that should not be implemented as a free concession but as an inescapable norm. The second is the application of international law, because one can get out of this impasse by applying it. The occupation is illegal, so it must be dismantled, the (Israeli) colonies constitute a war crime, so they must be dismantled. If the occupation and the colonies are not dismantled, international law provides for diplomatic, economic and political measures so that the state of Israel is encouraged to comply with international legality. Such as, for example, suspending military aid and stopping the marketing of products made in the colonies. The third and final point is an insistence on negotiations to achieve peace, which is a completely separate issue from the principle of Two States (Israel and Palestine). Two States is a fundamental issue on which the long-standing international consensus is based, which says that the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination will be exercised in the form of an independent state within the pre-1967 borders [when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem]. This is a fact to take into account for the implementation of a plan, and not because it would be the opening offer for a negotiation.

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