Jews in New Zealand are reeling from the worst anti-Semitic attack in the nation’s history. Ninety-five headstones were toppled over in the Jewish cemetery at Makara, outside the nation’s capital of Wellington. The cemetery’s chapel, used for prayers before burials, was gutted by fire, leaving only swastika-etched walls standing.
The fire was discovered early in the morning last Friday. The cemetery is in a remote area where the nearest residences are more than a mile away.
David Zwartz, the president of the New Zealand Jewish Council and a member of the Wellington Jewish community, spoke to JTA shortly after visiting the scene.
“The headstones are all made of granite — extremely tough and extremely heavy,” he said.
“They all withstood the manhandling and none was damaged. However, it took three policemen to lift one back into position, so we can only assume that whatever group carried out this attack must have b! een quite large. This is nothing short of heartbreaking.”
The desecration comes just three weeks after an attack on the Bolton Street Jewish Cemetery, which sits 400 yards from the nation’s Parliament building. Sixteen headstones were desecrated in the attack on the Bolton Street cemetery, which is no longer in use. Some of the headstones dated back to 1850, only 10 years after the city was settled.
In response to the attacks, security has been increased at all of the city’s burial places. The Jewish community in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, has also stepped up protection of its cemeteries.
The Bolton Street attack took place on the day two Israelis were jailed for six months for fraudulently attempting to obtain a New Zealand passport. Though no Mossad links were confirmed in the court case, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark described them as Israeli intelligence agents. After their sentencing, Clark imposed heavy diplomatic sanctions on Israel.
The M! akara attack shook the country. An extreme right-wing group, the Natio nal Front, denied any involvement and openly condemning those who had carried it out, as did the anti-Israel Palestine Group.
Zwartz added, “I have had strangers pluck my name from the phone book and offer their help to rebuild the prayer hall. All in all, the entire country has rallied to support the Jewish community.”
New Zealand’s ethnic affairs minister, Chris Carter, will seek a bipartisan declaration this week from the New Zealand parliament condemning anti-Semitism. He said, “The despicable acts that occurred at Makara last night have no place in our peaceful country. All people regardless of their ethnicity can appreciate the deep hurt Wellington’s Jewish community is feeling right now.”
New Zealand’s acting prime minister, Michael Cullen, also condemned the attack.
The Rev. John McCaul of the Wellington Council of Christians and Jews also spoke out, saying “We assure our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community of our sympathy and support at this d! ifficult time.”
The president of the Wellington’s burial society, Michael Bedder, announced the community’s intent to rebuild the damaged chapel and said that “It’s very hard to believe that such a thing could happen in such a peaceful country.”
The Wellington City Council, responsible for maintaining the region’s cemeteries, has committed to repairing the Makara damage within 48 hours.
Police are continuing their investigation into both attacks.
Following the desecration of the Bolton Street Cemetery, a solidarity meeting was held in Wellington, which has roughly 1,500 Jews.
Another solidarity gathering has been planned in the wake of the Makara attack.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.