UN Special Rapporteur facing smear campaign for calling out Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid 

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  December 21, 2022

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory Francesca Albanese has come under attack following her report highlighting Israeli settler-colonialism. 

The new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Francesca Albanese, has recently come under attack by a host of pro-Israel actors, including the supposedly free Israeli press. 

Albanese stepped into her role in May, following Michael Lynk, who had already been raising Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism towards the end of his six-year tenure. Albanese’s first report took these concepts a step forward. In a September report, she highlighted “settler-colonialism” in the heading paragraph, pointing to the “context of the settler-colonial features of the prolonged Israeli occupation.” 

“Apartheid,” in Albanese’s appraisal, is not even a sufficient term to describe the Israeli settler-colonialist paradigm. It’s bigger than Apartheid. And it is this call to accountability that has instigated Israel lobby groups and government officials into an all-out smear campaign.

The attacks against Albanese can best be summarized by a major hit-piece that was published last Wednesday in the Times of Israel. It contained a dossier of her supposed antisemitic statements and was titled, “UN Palestinian rights official’s social media history reveals antisemitic comments.” 

The center of author Luke Tress’s reporting is a comment made by Albanese in 2014, during Israel’s unprecedented summer onslaught on Gaza, where she used the words “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby.” Here is the segment from Albanese’s open letter, which the Times of Israel also provides:

“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 and continue to condemn the oppressed — the Palestinians — who defend themselves with the only means they have (deranged missiles), instead of making Israel face its international law responsibilities”.

Before digging into the context of this, it is important to note another irony here found in the piece’s third paragraph, where Tress himself uses the term “Jewish state” and “Israel” in the context of Albanese’s supposedly malicious usage of the term “Jewish lobby” rather than “Israel lobby.” So, it’s the “Jewish-state lobby” then? Anyhow, there is a lobby of Jewish organizations that are politicized towards Israel-apologia. As Jeremy Stern-Weiner points out in his defense of Albanese:

“[W]hen these lobby groups advocate for Israel, they often do so as Jewish groups. During Israel’s 2014 Gaza offensive, a typical press release read: ‘Jewish Leaders … Call on International Community to Stand With Israel’. The American Jewish Committee styled itself ‘the State Department of the Jewish people‘ as it ‘mobilized to … present the case for Israel’s military response to US leaders’.”

From one fallacy, the next is derived. The Times of Israel thus chides Albanese for claiming that the “Jewish lobby” is in control of the United States and that “references to Jews and Jewish lobbies wielding disproportionate power are viewed as antisemitic because they conjure age-old tropes and conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world from the shadows.” But did Albanese make such a generalization? She was referring to a specific context. Back to Stern-Weiner:

“[I]t’s clear that Albanese was referring to US support for Israel’s assault on Gaza, not to the US government in general. It is certainly possible to overstate the influence of American Jewish advocacy organizations, and any suggestion that such groups control US politics as a whole would be manifestly inaccurate. But Albanese didn’t say this.”

The Times of Israel piece goes on to cite the Israeli Foreign Ministry as part of its fusillade against Albanese. This is a ministry that actually houses the office of Hasbara – Israeli propaganda. The Ministry condemned Albanese’s supposedly “antisemitic comments.” If the Israeli Hasbarists said so, it must be true!

And if the Israeli Foreign Ministry gets a space, why not the Anti-Defamation League too? The ADL condemned the supposed invocation of “age-old antisemitic tropes.”

The Times of Israel did give Albanese some space to reply:

“Some of the words I used, during Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip in 2014, were infelicitous, analytically inaccurate and unintendedly offensive,” she said through her office. “People make mistakes. I distance myself from these words, which I would not use today, nor have used as a UN Special Rapporteur…. Following this clarification, our attention should not be distracted from the unlawful state practices which cause suffering for millions and denial of human rights on a daily basis in the occupied Palestinian territory,” she said. “This is what I am mandated to report on and which should be our focus.” 

But no, that is not enough, and the Times of Israel will not let her off the hook. The charges continue: 

“In 2018 Albanese posted a screenshot of a quote she attributed to David Ben-Gurion that said, ‘We will abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine.’ The quote appeared to be a translation of a disputed 1937 letter Ben Gurion wrote to his son.”

This is very sloppy – not Albanese’s sloppiness – Tress’s. Those words were said to the Zionist executive by Ben-Gurion; they do not come from his letter to his son. The screenshot of the citation linked to by the Times of Israel is probably Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel – Myths and Realities. The screenshot explains that the words were said at the Zionist Executive at the time but that they were reiterated to the family (in a letter to his son Amos). A similar quote from that letter is this:

“The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.” 

That letter and that quote (and others in the letter making the same point) are not disputed, this is just propaganda. It’s a sound historical fact

So Albanese was actually accurate, whereas Tress was pedantic, erroneous, and historically sloppy. 

What else angers the Times of Israel?

“She has also said Israel may be guilty of alleged major crimes including genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

We don’t need to really scrutinize ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity because this is a fairly mainstream understanding. It is also clear that Israel has applied ethnic cleansing, watch the film Tantura (2022) if you want to hear about it from the perpetrators themselves. War crimes? All the colonies (settlements) are just that by international law. Crimes against humanity? Apartheid is one of them, it’s not that controversial, and a host of leading human rights organizations are in consensus about that.

So, that leaves the charge of genocide. Tress links to Albanese’s post promoting a Jadaliyya interview with Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, author of the outstanding book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), on the concept of “incremental genocide.” Pappé’s immediate context is the 2014 Gaza onslaught, and it is certainly worth following his logic of how policies that may, in isolation, seem ad hoc policies amount to the strangulation of a civilian population. Indeed, Gaza has become officially “uninhabitable” by UN criteria. So there’s definitely something to consider there. It’s not at all antisemitic. 

What else, Times of Israel?

“She said this year that “dozens” of journalists have been killed in the conflict since the year 2000, all by Israel. According to the UN’s own statistics, both those claims are false.”

Oh, really, false? Let’s see. The link provided on “own statistics” is to a UNESCO graph of killed Palestinian journalists – but it is from 2002 onwards. There are 22 on this one. Add Aziz Yousef al-Tanh from 2000. It’s pedantic to claim that it’s not dozens. Anyhow, the Palestinian Ministry of Information lists 45 killed journalists by name, and there are higher counts yet. Albanese’s claim was also in the context of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh this year – a deliberate targeting for which Israel will not be held accountable. It’s beyond tasteless for Tress to attack this one.

It just goes on and on. Albanese said this, Albanese said that. All meant to distract from the work she is trying to do, which is obviously to shed light on the systematic aspect of Israeli crimes. 

The witch hunt is against Israel. Obviously. Not against Francesca Albanese, God forbid.

Luckily, many are coming to her defense. Just yesterday, 64 scholars, overwhelmingly Jewish, released a very strong statement “denouncing the smear campaign” against Albanese. May there be many others. 

Jonathan Ofir – is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark