Martina Lauer: a German, Pro-Palestinian Activist for Palestine in Canada

Martina Lauer
by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik. – In the following my interview with the pro-Palestinian activist and translator Martina Lauer. Martina was bon in 1960 in Southern Germany and has lived in Ontario for more than 20 years now. She taught German and History in Germany and German as a second language in Britain and Peru. She sometimes translates reports about the non-violent resistance in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for ProMosaik and Palӓstina Portal.
MR: How important is the support for Palestine in the West?
ML: The defenders of Israel often accuse pro-Palestinian activists of neglecting other important events and serious human rights violations in other parts of the world. Why not fight for justice in Tibet, Kashmir or Syria? Pro-Palestinian activists acknowledge human rights violations anywhere because their activism is based on international law and not the idea that only one group deserves respect for their rights. We focus our criticism on Israel because Western governments maintain their unconditional support for Israel and tell us that Israel is the exemplary democracy and light onto the nations in the Middle East. Remember that Washington sends more than $3 billion every year to Tel Aviv and currently there are negotiations over a substantial increase of the annual subsidy. We support Palestinians because their voice is ignored and their suffering seemingly irrelevant compared to Israel’s need for security. Our Western government’s support for the current ethnocracy in Israel and Israel’s apartheid rule over the Palestinians is hypocritical because it goes against democratic values, so we are trying to defend these values by criticising Israel. Unconditional support for Israel is incompatible with international law and the rule of law. We have to judge our governments according to their willingness to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against the Palestinians.
MR: What does Zionism and Anti-colonialism mean to you personally?
ML: Zionism’s starting point is the perception that Jews are foreigners in their country of origin and that they form a nation or even a race. For Zionist Jews there is only one solution to this anomalous situation and that is the establishment of a Jewish state. Since the beginning of the immigration of European Jews to Palestine, the Zionist movement fought for the exclusive right to build a state in Palestine. The rights of the Palestinians to a state in their homeland were not relevant to the Zionists, who believed their rights came first in the land. Palestinians could wait for their state until Zionism had reached its goals. Zionists were atheists but used the Bible to justify their presence in Palestine. Referring to the Bible as a land registry allowed the new state of Israel to claim that it had roots in the region. They claimed that Israel was merely a continuation of the biblical history and the 2000 year lapse was irrelevant.
The assumed history of Israel as the heir to previous Hebrew kingdoms and the biblical promise of the land to the chosen people could be used as a justification of the invasion and land theft. What Palestinians had created during the absence of the “true owners” of the land could be ignored, usurped or destroyed. The Zionists said that Palestine was a land without a people, without its own culture or society. Zionism also claims that Jews across the world are automatically a part of the Jewish nation and should live in Israel. Critics of Zionism have pointed to the negative consequences for Jews worldwide when Israeli Prime Ministers claim that they speak of all the Jews in the world. Consequently, could they make all Jews responsible for the brutal and illegal actions of Israel? I don’t think so.
Is Zionism racism? If Zionism wants to achieve its goals at the expense of the Palestinians, then Zionism is racism. In Palestine, we can see on a daily basis how the basic rights of Palestinians are violated to make possible the privileged life-style of the Jewish Israelis. However, not all Jews are Zionist. Some orthodox Jews are Antizionist because they believe that if a state is to be created, it should be done by G-d, not humans. Various orthodox groups have taken part in our demonstrations in Ottawa during the numerous Israeli assaults on the Palestinians in the Gaza strip. Sometimes members from Neturei Karta join us from Montréal; at times, orthodox Jews come here from New York to speak out against Israel’s claim that it acts in the name of all Jews.
The debate over Israel’s legitimacy within the 1967 borders comes up in discussions among Canadian pro-Palestine activists. Should we just focus on demanding an end to the occupation or do we also have to call for the return of the refugees to their homes in present day Israel? In the last decade, Canadians have been taking a closer look at their own history of colonisation and the need to acknowledge the damage done to the societies that had been built on Turtle Island prior to the European invasion. During Israeli Apartheid Week in Ottawa, organisers always point out that Ottawa is on occupied Algonquin territory. Speakers from Palestine and the First Nations present joint talks on the consequences of colonialism for the colonised population, the destruction of society and culture and the military and legal measures taken to relegate the indigenous population to small disconnected parcels of land. Palestinians and First Nations face similar challenges: Gaza and many reservations up North don’t have clean drinking water; Palestinian and First Nations schools get less funding than schools serving students from the dominant part of society.
Canada can give us hope too. A Truth and Reconciliation Committee was established to study and document the history of residential school where from 1870 to 1996 hundreds of thousands of children from First Nations families were taken, often against their will, to be brainwashed and “to kill the Indian in the child. These children were robbed of their territorial, cultural and social roots (and thousands were robbed of their lives). Forced to face the grim reality of colonialism, Canadian society has opened up to build a different relationship with the First Nations. Idlenomore, a campaign started by aboriginal women to fight for equality, has brought together the descendants of the colonisers and the colonised to join in round dances and sit-ins. In the Canadian media, we don’t just hear from white experts about the problems on reservations. Increasingly, experts from different First Nations groups are finally allowed to speak for themselves.  During the last elections, First Nations politicians have called on their fellow inhabitants of Turtle Island to vote to make sure that there would be a change of government. Many First Nations refuse to take part in elections in a state that began as a British (and French) colony and is not a legitimate state in their eyes. However, it seems that many indigenous Canadians followed the call to vote and helped dethrone the unpopular (and extremely pro-Israel) Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The example of Canada shows that you can admit to the colonial origins of a state without destroying it as many Israeli or German politicians claim. A truthful look at history can make way for real compromise and legitimate governance.
In Canada, some politicians and the Israel lobby try to equate Antizionism with Antisemitism. But those that criticize Israel simply want to protect the rights of Palestinians, not denigrate the rights of Jews. We are not against the rights of Jews unless it involves the right to brutalize Palestinians.
As a new citizen of Canada, I was introduced to the wrongs of colonialism in this country. In Germany, we saw so-called “Indians” (this is a racist term used by colonizers to refer to First Nations people) as noble savages. In Canada, I saw First Nations as real societies that were destroyed by the settlers.
Canada has started to look at its own crimes against First Nations, Metis and Inuit people, and it is slowly taking steps to right the wrongs of the past and present.
Canada is in a post-colonial period while Israel is still in a colonial period. Israel must make sweeping changes to its policies to end the colonization of the Palestinians.
MR: For me, the question of Palestine is about colonialism. How do you see it?
ML: The Zionist movement has its origins in Europe. It came to Palestine “under the shadow of the British gun” as Gandhi put it to build a new Israel on Palestinian land. When a group of people take possession of the land of another group and drive out and kill the indigenous population to build their own state on that stolen land, that is colonialism.
The justifications for the invasion are only relevant to the colonisers because they want to appease their conscience and explain to the next generation why they committed those crimes. The victims of colonialism have a different perspective: They were relegated to the status of lesser humans who get their rights allocated according to the needs of the coloniser. Their rights, their history and the political, economic and cultural achievements are eradicated and ignored in the new political order. Hanan Ashrawi once said that a solution to the conflict can be found once Israelis see Palestinians as equal human beings.
At first, I thought that the Palestinian question would be solved once Israel ended its occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I have come to the conclusion that the colonial movement of Zionism needs to disappear from Palestine. Since the end of the 19th century, Palestine has suffered under the colonialism of the British Empire and the Zionist movement. Does this approach mean I am calling for the destruction of Israel like some people even in the pro-Palestinian movement claim? Well, yes and no. As long as Israel is the Jewish state, Palestinians will be treated as lesser beings on their own land. As a Jewish state, Israel protects the superior status of Jewish Israelis and Jews worldwide in the Holy Land. This is a form of apartheid, where the state does not guarantee equal rights for all but protects the privileged status of the colonising population.
When you analyse the Zionist project in Palestine as colonialism, you open the doors to solidarity with the struggles of other colonised peoples. First Nations representatives take part in the Gaza flotillas. On the remote reserve of Moose Factory in Ontario, Palestine is mentioned in conversations about the indigenous struggle for equality in Canada. When people in Kashmir throw rocks towards India’s occupation soldiers, they remember the Palestinian resistance. During the non-violent protests in the West Bank village of Bi’lin and other neighbouring villages, Palestinian activists describe their collaboration with Israeli and International activists as an integral and necessary contribution to the ongoing campaign of peaceful resistance against Israel’s colonisation.
Finally an example from Canada: Mike Krebs is an activist in the pro-Palestinian movement and in Idle No More. The initiators of this First Nations campaign chose the name to call for immediate action to protect Native rights, honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water against increasing attacks by the federal government under the conservative and extremely pro-Israel Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mike Krebs has native ancestry and to him the connection between the Palestinian and indigenous Canadian struggle is a “natural one.”
“Both peoples have a deep sense of relationship to and responsibility for the land,” says Krebs. “And when that land is taken away, it destroys the culture.” He points out that both the Israeli and the Canadian government hoped that the original population would either assimilate or die off. He says:
“Well we haven’t all died, or gone away. We’re still here and getting stronger. There’s a political and cultural revitalization going on that neither Canada nor Israel might have expected or wanted.”
MR: How important is the collaboration of human rights activists,authors and journalists and why?
ML: In the West, Israel gets the full support of the governments, the Media andimportant institutions. When Israel attacked Gaza again in 2014, members ofParliament and the Senate did not visit Gaza or Ramallah, yet they came to Tel Avivto show that the
Canadian political system stands behind Israel even when it commits atrocities. InWestern countries, the pro-Palestinian organisations face a powerful oppositionfrom their elected representatives, the pro-Israel lobby, and the media, whichrefuses to report fairly about the situation. All Canadians need to band together andtake action in defence of the Palestinians. One example from Canada: In 2008, theCanadian author Anne   Laurel Carter wrote The Shepherd’s Grand-Daughter, a teenbook about the life of a Palestinian family under Israeli occupation. The book hasbeen honoured with eight awards including the Canadian Library Association Bookof the Year for Children Award and the Society of School Librarians InternationalBest Book Award and this book became part of the Ontario school curriculum.Canada’s B’nai Brith protested and demanded that the book be removed from therecommended-reading list arguing that it was ‘anti-Israeli propaganda’. In Toronto,The Shepherd’s Grand-Daughter is no longer part of the Toronto School Boardcurriculum, but the book is still recommended by the Ontario Library Associationand is read in other parts of the province. The pro- Palestinian lobby group CJPMEworked together with historians and artists to create a mobile exhibition that can beshown anywhere, in schools, universities libraries etc.. The
exhibition aims to show Canadians the atrocities committed to create Israel bycomparing the colonial history of Palestine, South Africa and Canada. We have tolearn to take a hard look at our own history of crimes and injustices, and connect itwith what is happening to the Palestinians, so we can end up on the right side ofhistory. When we walk from Auschwitz to Gaza, we have to stand with thepopulations, not with the occupation army.
MR: What is the situation in Canada? How much Hasbara do the pro-Palestinian activists face?
ML: In the last 10 years, Israel could count on the unconditional support of the conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In 2006, when Israel bombed a UN post during the Lebanon war and killed four observers, among them one Canadian, Harper sharply criticised the UN and accepted Israel’s arguments in defense of the attack.
The absolute support for Israel did not begin with the Conservatives. The Liberals have a long history of active support for Zionism and for Israel based on ideological and economic factors. Eighty percent of Canada’s exports go to the US. When your economy depends on the US, you have to make sure you are welcome not only in the White House but also in Congress. Harper’s blind support for Israel, couched in the language of a Christian fundamentalist, created unease in the political establishment which feared the loss of Canada’s image as the peacekeeper and mediator. In 2010, Canada for the first time lost an election to the UN Security Council to tiny Portugal even though the Canadian UN ambassador tried to sweeten the deal with gifting generous amounts of Maple syrup (which probably came from Maple trees from tree farms because most of the old growth forests were already chopped down) to UN member states.
The pro-Israel lobby in Canada is not very visible. We simply hear that the newly elected Prime Minister immediately talked to Jewish Canadian organisations or that leading politicians received an award. This is quite different from the US where everyone knows the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) or AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). The annual AIPAC conference in Washington is a gathering place for government ministers, Senators and Presidential hopefuls who always show up before the elections. In Canada, politicians, journalists and university administrations often work hand in hand to get pro-Palestinian events cancelled. When Israeli Apartheid Week gained momentum since its inception in 2005, politicians in the federal and provincial legislatures increased their condemnation of the use of the term apartheid and branded this annual series of lectures and discussions about Israel’s apartheid system as anti-Semitic. In 2010, a Conservative member of the Ontario Parliament brought in a motion to condemn the term “Israeli apartheid” and a majority of Liberal and Conservative voted in favour. In 2009, both universities in Ottawa banned a poster for Israeli Apartheid Week because of the depiction of a Palestinian child in Gaza under attack by an Israeli helicopter gun ship which it said was “inflammatory and capable of inciting confrontation.” Pro-Palestinian activists recognise the language: Undue criticism of Israel causes fear in Jewish students and violates the norms of “civility”.
Zionists, just like Anti-Semites, seem to believe that all people of Jewish faith or descent automatically belong to the national Jewish collective and do not want to distance themselves from Israel’s actions. This year, a general assembly at Montreal’s McGill University was called anti-Semitic because a majority voted in support of BDS. The depiction of Palestinian resistance in the Student’s Centre at York University led a Jewish donor to threaten that he would withdraw support for some of the university’s programs. The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center described the arms divestment effort at York, since it includes Students Against Israeli Apartheid, as “a malicious campaign that targets and singles out the Jewish community as a collective, demonizes Israel and Israelis, applies unfair double standards to Israel at the exclusion of other nations in the Middle East and rejects the legitimacy of Israel as the only Jewish state in the world, thereby inciting an abhorrent resurgence of anti-Semitism.”.
The heavy handed pressure by the pro-Israel lobby sometimes backfires: The smaller parties on the left had to learn that most of their supporters do not support Israel’s brutal attacks on Gaza and that many Canadians are appalled that their elected representatives restrict fundamental democratic rights at the behest of a foreign government.
Three years ago, the Jewish Tribune (JT) published an interview with the only parliamentarian from the Green party, Elizabth May. CJPME, the pro-Palestinian lobby group, had invited her to speak at the annual fund raiser. But during the telephone interview, May criticised the group and maligned it as anti-Israel. When the interview was published, May was sharply criticised by fellow party members and CJPME withdrew the invitation. One year later, May distanced herself from the president of the Green party when he issued anti-Palestinian statements during the Israeli attack on Gaza. He had to resign and May had learned her lesson.
When a majority of parliamentarians from the Liberal and Conservative parties supported a motion condemning the BDS movement, May disagreed: She stated that the party did not take part in the BDS campaign but would not condemn BDS as anti-Semitic based on the fact that the united Church in Canada fully supported BDS. A few days later, May posted a petition on the website of the Canadian parliament that called on Prime Minister Trudeau to reverse the motion and called for a just and peaceful solution of the legitimate demands and historic rights of the Palestinians. In 2013, May attended a fund raiser for the Jewish National Fund, but in June 2016, she officially backed a resolution by the Green Party which calls for revoking the charitable status of the JNF Canada. The resolution is expected to be endorsed by the Green Party’s Convention in Ottawa in August. Canada’s third largest party, the NDP became more pro-Israel under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair. During last year’s election campaign, several NDP candidates were pulled back when the rival Conservatives published the candidates’ past criticism of Israel. Mulcair lost the elections and many party members hope that the new party boss will be more progressive. However, Canada’s pro-Israel lobby will remain strong as long as Washington holds on to the special relationship with Israel.
MR: How did you come to be an activist for human rights?
ML: As a student, I joined Amnesty International and worked with a local AI group to write letters and inform people. As such, the work of a human rights activist is noble. However, in those days, I did not realise that this kind of activism could be used by governments to rally public support for unlawful policies. The books of Noam Chomsky, the noted American linguist and critic of US foreign policy, opened my eyes to the use of human rights to defend illegal Western interventions and to get people’s support for an aggressive foreign policy. His book about Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and the special American relationship with Israel, “Fateful Triangle”, showed that mass media selectively reported without context to assure support for government policies and play down or ignore the violations of international law and the UN Charter committed by our governments. He points to the distinction between worthy victims on our side and unworthy victims whose suffering is ignored. The Palestinians are a prime example. We rarely see the reality of life under the Israeli occupation nor hear that Israel’s collective punishment and the colonisation of the Palestinian Occupied Territory violates international law. Lately, I have observed that some human rights organisations call for a military intervention or tell us to support one under the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Our politicians and many NGO’s have championed certain worthy causes that supposedly justify drone strikes, torture and military attacks. These days I see myself as a political activist and not just a defender of human rights under the guidance of government-sponsored organisations.