Zionism Out of Fashion With New Zealand's Jews

David Zwartz, former president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, says that the Zionist Federation of New Zealand continues in name only. But a new organization has emerged, focusing on Jewish identity instead.

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David Zwartz, former honorary Israel consul in New Zealand.
David Zwartz, former honorary Israel consul in New Zealand.Credit: Dan Goldberg

In one of the farthest corners of the Diaspora, Zionism has fallen “out of fashion” to the detriment of the “struggling” Jewish community.

That’s the verdict of community elder David Zwartz, 77, a former president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, former honorary Israeli consul and the only Jewish Kiwi to receive the World Zionist Organization’s Jerusalem Prize.

“Zionism has been out of fashion for 10-15 years,” Zwartz told Haaretz during an interview in Sydney.

It was largely a “reaction to unpopular [Israeli government] policies,” he said, tracing the decline back to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, during that country's civil war.

“People became disillusioned; they didn’t see it [the war] as just.”

Three decades on, the impact is palpable, Zwartz said. “There’s less cohesion in the New Zealand community because of the turning away from Zionism.”

The closure last year of a Jewish school in the capital Wellington, leaving just one school in Auckland, and the demise of the monthly Jewish newspaper about two years ago are “signs of a less active community,” he said, assessing Zionism in New Zealand as Israel celebrated its 66th Independence Day.

Nowadays, the Zionist Federation of New Zealand “continues in name only,” Zwartz said, adding that there’s been no branch in Wellington for about a decade.

But a new organization has emerged, the Jewish Federation of New Zealand - the replacement of the word “Zionist” with “Jewish” perhaps a reflection of the changing sentiment among the country’s 7,000-plus Jews.

It may also be a reflection of the fact that openly identifying as a Zionist in New Zealand is “unpopular,” Zwartz said.

He should know. When Israel temporarily shut its embassy in Wellington in 2002 as part of a cost-cutting package, Zwartz became honorary consul.

Two years later Helen Clark’s left-wing Labor government suspended high-level diplomatic ties after two Israeli agents were caught and jailed for illegally obtaining a New Zealand passport.

“It was bloody awful,” Zwartz said. “They severed ties and I was not allowed to associate with any government people.”

The furor reached his doorstep. “I had demonstrations on my front lawn because I was honorary consul,” Zwartz added. About 30-40 protestors demonstrated outside his house, and he went outside to try to speak to them. “We had an argument - they shouted at me and I shouted at them.”

Days later came what was described as the worst anti-Semitic incident in Kiwi Jewish history when scores of Jewish gravestones were daubed with anti-Semitic graffiti in two cemeteries, and a prayer house was torched.

“My contention still is that the graves happened because of what happened with the passports,” Zwartz said.

Today, he admits the vast majority of Kiwi Jews still support Zionism. But it’s a passive position.

“That’s very different to being actively involved in community activities relating to Zionism or things that might publicly identify them as Zionist because that’s the unpopular thing within the wider New Zealand community," he said. "Everybody in New Zealand is more cautious than in Australia in terms of openly expressing support or allegiance to Israel.”

It wasn’t always so. Zionism was “the core” of the New Zealand Jewish community in the 1960s and 1970s, Zwartz said.

Today, however, perhaps the biggest boon to the Jews is their conservative Prime Minister, John Key, whose mother was a Jewish refugee from Europe. Though he doesn’t practice Judaism, Key attends Holocaust memorial ceremonies and maintains close ties to the local Jewish community.

“Politically things are good for Jews but communally we are struggling,” Zwartz concluded. “It’s qualified gloom.”

CORRECTION: The last word of this article was changed from 'doom' to 'gloom' on 18/05/14.

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