SYDNEY, Australia – Jewish leaders in New Zealand will welcome 5775 this week relieved that conservative leader John Key has been reelected for a third term, but anxious about the increase in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents in the South Pacific nation.
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Key, whose Jewish mother Ruth Lazar escaped Austria on the eve of the Holocaust, led his center-right National Party on Saturday to a projected 61 seats in the 121-member parliament, trouncing the opposition Labor Party.
“The election centered mainly around economic policy and John Key’s roots would not have been a major factor in the vote among Jews or others,” said Alison Dyson, the president of the Jewish Federation of New Zealand.
“John Key’s government has in the past shown greater sympathy to Israel and the Jewish community than the previous [Labor] government, and during the most recent conflict with Gaza the foreign affairs department was not very outspoken and was reasonably balanced in their comments.”
Stephen Goodman, the president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, agreed that most Jews in the 7,000-plus community would be satisfied with Key’s victory. “While the Jewish community has had some issues with the National Party, such as the threats to shechitah [ritual slaughter, in 2010] … they have worked to enhance relationships with Israel and support the New Zealand Jewish community.”
But Goodman told Haaretz that several politicians had concerned the Jewish leadership during the campaign. He cited David Shearer, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman who Goodman said was “a strong supporter of the BDS movement;” Kennedy Graham of the Greens, also a BDS supporter, who failed to condemn the burning of an Israeli flag at a pro-Palestinian rally during the Gaza war; and Mana Party’s John Minto, a veteran pro-Palestinian activist who has led protests against visits by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, tennis player Shahar Peer and the Batsheva dance company.
“With the situation in Gaza there was an increase in anti-Semitic activity and rhetoric,” Goodman said. “We had a number of incidents of graffiti, threatening or abusive emails, some offensive telephone and other messages, pro-Palestinian protest marches with strong ant-Semitic overtones as well as a torrent of worrying social media posts.”
Goodman added: “This all served to make the community feel very nervous.”
Although Kiwi Jews have not experienced the size and scale of anti-Semitic incidents that have swept Europe and the Jewish world, including nearby Australia, they sense a shift, according to Dyson.
“There is an elevated sense of risk and insecurity, fuelled by some local events here during the Gaza pro-Palestinian protests and further heightened by the awareness of rising anti-Semitism elsewhere,” she told Haaretz.
The community is holding an anti-Semitism seminar in October, featuring Dr. Andre Oboler, co-chair of the working group on online anti-Semitism for the Israeli government’s Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism, Dyson noted.
Another Jewish leader, who declined to be named, told Haaretz: “We are subject to anti-Semitism at a lower level than seen in Europe and Australia, but that level is higher than New Zealand Jews have experienced in the years since the 2004 graves desecration.”
In 2004, more than 90 Jewish graves were desecrated and a prayer house at a cemetery in Wellington was set ablaze in the wake of the passport scandal, in which two Israelis were caught and jailed trying to obtain a Kiwi passport illegally. It triggered a major diplomatic crisis as Labor’s Helen Clark, who was then PM, severed high-level ties with Jerusalem until Israel apologized the following year.
“2004 had political overtones as it followed from the offensive Israeli behavior and Helen Clark’s denunciation of Israel,” the Jewish leader said. “The grave desecrations were sickening but not harmful to living people. This year’s events revealed animosities that were threatening to all the present New Zealand Jewish community,” she said.
During the 2014 election campaign, several billboards were daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti, one carrying the words “Lying Jew c*** sucker” alongside a defaced image of Key with a black hat and sidelocks.
Around the same time, Steve Gibson, a Labor candidate, posted a Facebook message describing Key as “Shonky Jonkey Shylock ... a nasty little creep with a nasty evil and vindictive sneer.” The post was later deleted, and Gibson apologized.
Key, who is not a practising Jew, said at the time: “My mother was Jewish, and some of my mother’s family went to the concentration camps. But for the Jewish community in New Zealand … they don’t deserve to be brought into some sort of personal campaign that’s directed at me.”
Key’s election victory comes just weeks after Israel rejected Wellington’s proposed envoy to Israel, Jonathan Curr. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it could not approve him because he is also being credited to the Palestinian Authority, even though Wellington’s envoy, based in Ankara, has occupied both roles since 2008, according to Kiwi officials.
Israel’s ambassador to Wellington, Yosef Livne, said in a Rosh Hashanah message this week that relations between the two countries remain strong.
“For the first time in a long time, New Zealand saw the arrival of a delegation of Israeli companies looking to expand the trade relations between our two countries. In art and culture, can anyone forget the splendid artistic performances of Israeli artists starting with Batsheva through [opera singer] Sivan Rotem and [classical pianist] Rami Bar-Niv?”