Green co-leadership contender Chlöe Swarbrick continued to use a pro-Palestinian chant, despite being told by a Jewish school in her electorate that it was considered by many to be hateful and offensive.

In an interview with Q+A, the Auckland Central MP defended leading a chant of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” at a rally in November 2023.

“I continue to hold true to the kaupapa that Palestinian freedom is necessary if we are to have longstanding freedom and justice in the region,” Swarbrick said.

“There’s a deeply problematic and intentional misunderstanding that is being painted across the Palestinian people here, whereby there is some presupposition that freedom for Palestinian people – who have been living under occupation for decades now – and are presently being subjected to a genocide … and we are talking about advocating for their freedom, and that freedom is being painted somehow as violence.”

She continued: “Perhaps that discomfort is something we should lean into because I think nowhere near enough focus has been paid to the genocide, which is literally playing out right now and is decimating the Palestinian people.”

Q+A has seen a letter sent to Swarbrick by Kadimah School in 2021, a Jewish special character school, which at the time was located in her Auckland Central electorate.

It followed a meeting Swarbrick attended at the school, following a different instance of Green MPs using the phrase.

The chant was condemned in Kadimah School’s letter, with the school’s principal and Board of Trustees chair describing it as “at best, a call for the destruction of the Jewish state and is widely considered a genocidal chant against the Jewish people.”

“This is not a question of intention, it is a request for a clear mandate and policy on how minority groups are protected while our leaders show support to particular groups without explicit or implicit calls for harassment, violence, or genocide,” the letter read.

Swarbrick confirmed that she was given that message by the school at the meeting.

The Jewish Council has also previously raised concerns with MPs using the chant, in letters exchanged with the Green Party.

Speaking to Q+A, Swarbrick noted that many Jewish peace activists do not consider the chant to be violent or antisemitic.

Pro-Palestinian activists strongly dispute that characterisation of the chant, saying it is instead a call for liberation from Israeli oppression in Gaza and the West Bank.

In the chant, the river refers to the Jordan River, which runs along the borders of both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank with Jordan, to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Green Party has previously pushed for broader laws regulating hate speech, covering a wider variety of groups than those covered by existing legislation.

Context

Decades of hostilities were reignited in October when Hamas gunmen broke out of the blockaded Gaza Strip, killing around 1200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and abducting around 250. Hamas is still holding over 130 hostages, but around 30 are believed to be dead.

Since that attack, the Israeli military launched a bombing campaign and ground invasion of the strip, killing around 28,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said his country will continue fighting until “total victory” over Hamas.

Israel wants to keep its forces on the ground in the Gaza Strip to continue dismantling the militant group’s vast underground tunnel network, neutralising rocket launchers and killing militants in its aim to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities.

The war has already unleashed widespread destruction, leaving parts of Gaza uninhabitable, displacing four-fifths of the population and sparking a humanitarian catastrophe that has left a quarter of the population starving.

Over the fifteen years preceding the current war, Palestinian deaths as a result of hostilities vastly outnumbered Israeli deaths.

Israel has also been criticised internationally for allowing settlers to encroach on the West Bank under the protection of the Israeli Defence Forces, in violation of the Oslo Accords, which were signed with the intention of bringing peace to the region.

South Africa recently brought a case to the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of breaching its obligations under the Genocide Convention, an international treaty which requires signatories to prevent acts of genocide from taking place.

The preliminary ruling by the court ordered Israel to do all it could to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide against Palestinians in the territory. It stopped short of ordering a ceasefire. It also ruled Israel must urgently get basic humanitarian aid to Gaza and submit a report on steps taken to abide by the ruling within a month.

Israeli leaders have rejected the accusations, saying their war in Gaza is against Hamas, not the broader civilian populations.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

Q+A with Jack Tame is made with the support of New Zealand on Air

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