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Around the Jewish World Desecrations Are a Wake-up Call for New Zealand’s Jewish Community

August 11, 2004
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They were deeply disturbing images to wake up to on a mid-winter Friday morning: Over 90 desecrated gravestones, a burnt-out prayer house and two swastikas — one emblazoned on a wall, the other carved into the ground among the fallen headstones. Even more disturbing was the fact that these images didn’t come from Europe or the Middle East, but from normally placid New Zealand, from Makara cemetery in Wellington, the capital.

For a society that prides itself on fairness and tolerance, the attack was a shock that left Jews and non-Jews alike wondering who could have done such a thing, and how it could happen in a “God-zone.”

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence said many members of his Auckland Hebrew Congregation were distressed by the attack, the second such desecration in weeks.

“It’s an incredibly emotive attack on consecrated ground. Every culture understands our ancestors are not to be touched — it violates the whole i! dea of ‘rest in peace.’ And it evokes the most terrible memories, especially for the older generation, of the past,” Lawrence said.

But for many, Lawrence suggested, the most disturbing aspect may be the realization that New Zealand is not immune from anti-Semitism.

“As a Jew here, where people felt comfortable, secure and non-threatened for so long, suddenly there have been a number of not necessarily connected incidents which have made Jews in New Zealand more aware they are Jews in New Zealand,” he said.

The recent desecrations follow a highly publicized trial of two Israelis who fraudulently tried to obtain a New Zealand passport. With public sentiment already turning strongly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian, Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the men of being Mossad agents and imposed diplomatic sanctions on Israel, which has refused to confirm or deny that the men worked for its intelligence services.

That followed a spat over fiercely anti-Israeli –! and, some said, anti-Semitic — drawings by a prominent New Zealand e ditorial cartoonist, as well as a dispute over whether to allow Holocaust denier David Irving to give speeches in the country.

New Zealand does not have a history of overt anti-Semitism. Lately, however, there has been a noticeable public shift in perceptions of Israel, said John Barnett, a prominent member of the Jewish community.

“This shift can be seen in the media and at government levels,” Barnett said, “and there is no doubt that for many people, being Jewish is synonymous with Israel.”

A film and television producer best known for the international movie hit “Whale Rider,” Barnett believes New Zealand has changed from a strong supporter and friend of Israel to a country that sees Israel as an aggressor and the Palestinians as underdogs in the Middle East.

Barnett said “lunatic fringes” may have felt emboldened by Clark’s outburst against Israel after the recent passport affair.

“I don’t think Clark thought her words would do any such thing. She’s a d! ecent person who doesn’t set out to hurt people,” Barnett says. “But her comments say to some people that it’s fair game to commit acts like this.”

There has been much debate about Clark’s motives for making such strong statements on the affair. Speculation ranges from a desire to present herself as a strong leader to trade considerations.

Opinions vary widely even within the Jewish community. At one end of the scale, some believe Clark’s administration is extremely anti-Israel; at the other, there’s the more cynical perception that Clark used the affair to distract voters from political problems at home.

David Zwartz, president of the country’s Jewish Council and Israel’s honorary consul in New Zealand, also said Clark’s comments could have been a trigger for the cemetery attacks.

“There has been a long-term hardening of governmental policy towards Israel, and the government is now less sympathetic than it ever has been,” he said.

Zwartz points out a numb! er of diplomatically unfriendly actions on the part of government memb ers. They include Foreign Minister Phil Goff’s visit to Yasser Arafat — Israel has asked world leaders to stop meeting the Palestinian Authority president because of his ties to terrorism — and New Zealand’s recent voting pattern on United Nations resolutions relating to Israel.

“The intifada has not been well-reported here. There hasn’t been balanced coverage at all,” Zwartz said. “And that has built up a certain amount of antipathy toward Israel and, by extension, the Jewish community here, because people have never been very good at distinguishing between the two.”

The result has been a subtle change in the public attitude. After the Aug. 6 vandalism at Makara cemetery, responses were a little mixed.

Government reaction was immediate, with Michael Cullen, the acting prime minister, calling the attack ugly, unforgivable and “totally unacceptable.” Minister for Ethnic Affairs Chris Carter submitted a proposal to Parliament for a resolution denouncing anti-Semi! tism, and the resolution passed unanimously Tuesday.

But a sampling of talk programs and Internet chat rooms reveals darker sentiments about Zionist conspiracy theories and Jews complaining too much. For some New Zealand Jews, the slowness to comment on the part of some notable social and media commentators — or even their outright silence — speaks volumes.

So the community itself must become more vocal, said Janine Gaddie, a student at the University of Auckland.

“There’s a lot of indifference here until it’s close to home and hits you directly,” Gaddie said. “New Zealanders don’t tend to be to politically active, so there has to be some action people really take notice of.”

Gaddie, who is president of the local chapter of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, decided it was time for her organization to act last weekend. Some 700 posters denouncing the cemetery desecration and requesting an end to hatred were plastered around three Auckland campuses. !

“Within the Jewish community, there’s been a lot of support toward us for taking the lead,” she says. “The Jewish community has been quite silent before, so there is genuine gratitude to AUJS for trying to address the issue and bring it to public notice.”

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