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Behind the Headlines the Jews of New Zealand

March 31, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Since their arrival among the first British settlers in New Zealand nearly a century-and-a-half ago, Jewish New Zealanders never felt seriously troubled by anti-Semitism. They do now. An upsurge of what may be called traditional anti-Semitism is deeply concerning the tiny community of approximately 4,000 Jews who live mainly in the cities of Auckland and Wellington, the country’s commercial center and political capital, respectively.

The anti-Semitism comes principally from a newly formed rightwing group, the League of Rights, similar to the one in outlook and practice in Australia. It is well organized and amply financed. Its leadership speaks of patriotism but its literature includes well known canards about Jews and Israel. There is anti-Semitism, too, from the far left but unlike the circumstances in Australia, it doesn’t have “a look-in,” says Ernest Markham, president of New Zealand’s Zionist Federation.

An indication of New Zealand Jewry’s concern is that for the first time in their history they held a seminar on anti-Semitism–what it is, how it works, what to do about it. Under auspices of the local B’nai B’rith, about 250 Jews gathered in Auckland, paying admission to receive “irrefutable evidence that there are forces at work here in New Zealand right now that all should know about and that no one can afford to turn away from.”

For New Zealand, the turnout was a record number, Dr. Kim Heppner of Auckland observed. The attendance represented about one-seventh of Auckland’s total Jewish population.


New Zealand, the size of California and with a general population of three million, is hurting from inflation, unemployment and a decline in exports of its agricultural products. Many of the jobless, farmers, pensioners and others on fixed incomes consequently are diverted to scapegoats as the cause of their woes–the usual channel in times of stress being the Jews. Markham recalled similar feelings during the economic depression in the 1930s but not to the same organized extent. Incidentally, Markham’s forebears came to New Zealand from Britain in the 1840s.

In general terms, New Zealand’s media follows the national government’s line that perhaps could be called “even-handed” on the Arab-Israeli situation but some elements are frequently and conspicuously anti-Israel. The government is conscious of New Zealand’s market for its meats and woolens in the Middle East and performs gestures of friendliness to Arab governments and their foreign policy tactics since their countries import New Zealand products and thus help the two-island nation’s economy.

This commercial factor was ascribed to this reporter as the probable basis for Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s criticism last October of President Carter’s Middle East policy that Muldoon felt showed too much concern for Israel.

Despite the rise of anti-Semitism, New Zealanders of whatever ethnic origin or religious faith get along well together as individuals. There is a feeling that should anti-Semitic groups threaten the rights and livelihood of Jews the majority of New Zealanders, staunchly supportive of political democracy, would vigorously defend their Jewish compatriots.

Auckland’s present mayor, incidentally, is Colin Kay, an Orthodox Jew who was elected last October in succession to another Jew, Sir Dove Myer Robinson who was mayor for 12 years. In its 120-year history as a city, Auckland has had five Jewish mayors. At present, New Zealand’s 88-member parliament has only one Jew, Eddie Isbey, a Laborite.


As in Australia, New Zealand’s communities, that include converts to Judaism, strive mightily to preserve their heritage and help Israel and Soviet Jewry. About 100 Soviet immigrants now live on the two islands. The community has a 25-year-old monthly publication, the Jewish Chronicle, published in Wellington that seeks to explain Israel’s positions and counter anti-Semitism.

Educationally, Wellington maintains a kindergarten and Auckland has a developing school that now has five elementary grades. There are synagogues–Liberal and Orthodox–in both major cities and also synagogues in Dunedin, a Scottish-style town far down in the southern island, and in Christchurch, the English-style city closer to Wellington.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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