There can be no doubt about the rising tide of antisemitism around the world. All too often New Zealanders think they are immune from such trends, isolated as the country is at the end of the world. But they are not – this particular trend is very evident in New Zealand.
The growth in antisemitism is most noticeable in the extreme words and behaviour often associated with the country’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but is also present in widespread social media venom. Meanwhile, there are changes in government and diplomatic language around Israel which demonstrate an increasingly unbalanced view of the country and its conflict with the Palestinians.
These trends have left the Jewish community with significant concerns about New Zealand’s relationship with Israel, as well as the government’s attitude towards the Jewish community itself. However, they have also acted as a call to arms for supporters of Israel.
One such supporter is National Party MP Alfred Ngaro – chairman of the recently launched New Zealand-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group. Ngaro is a man on a mission. That mission is to tackle the flood of biased information about Israel and to redress the resulting imbalance of perceptions.
For Ngaro, it is a personal matter. Although his family background and heritage is proudly Cook Islander, there is a Jewish link in there too. His grandmother’s father was a Polish Jew who ended up in the Cook Islands. While his grandmother never connected to the Jewish community, she often spoke fondly about her father and her background.
He also feels a strong connection through his faith. “I have a theology degree and was a pastor at one point and there is a Messianic aspect to my faith. As a result, I’m a big supporter of Israel as a nation and the Jewish people.”
But that means he has grown more and more concerned about increasingly unbalanced views and double-standards on Israel. It is important to try to correct false representations, which the public and the media buy into, about Israel, he says. “Instead we need to get people engaging and asking the right questions. Israel is not squeaky clean, just like all other nations. But it deserves to have a balanced case put forward.”
To this end, he is both determined and optimistic about what the New Zealand-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group can achieve.
There have been earlier incarnations of the New Zealand-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, but the launch of this new one was prompted by Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard’s decision to condense all the different Parliamentary Friendship Groups into regional clusters. This meant that Israel would be included in the Middle East & Africa group.
Ngaro says that arrangement was clearly not going to work as Israel and its interests would not be well served in this grouping. So he convinced the Speaker there should be a separate group for Israel. The new group was launched in August with the Israeli Ambassador, Dr. Itzhak Gerberg, in attendance.
The group has two major objectives. The first revolves around education and getting more accurate information out about both Israel and the Jewish community. The second focuses on engagement and building better relations. Both involve promoting, participating in and even organising relevant events.
Ngaro says the critical need for this type of work has been reinforced to him by two recent events. One was a planned cross-party trip by parliamentarians to Israel which was derailed when the Labour and NZ First MPs involved pulled the pin on it for various reasons. Another was the visit of British-Israeli Middle East analyst Dr. Jonathan Spyer: Ngaro invited all of his fellow MPs to events involving Spyer but relatively few made it along.
“Both were very disappointing and it means we need to be far more proactive,” he says. “We need a broad and constructive strategy that keeps marching forward in order to effectively tackle the biased information and views being propagated.”
For Ngaro, that means ramping up his efforts to put Israel’s case forward to his fellow MPs. But it also means working with Jewish community leaders; encouraging business links with, and delegations to, Israel; and better-educating youth on relevant issues, including the Holocaust.
The Jewish community is part of New Zealand’s story, he says. “So why are we not learning the history, heritage and culture of our Jewish community?”
Ngaro hopes that working with the community to better achieve these goals will, hopefully, lead towards some change in the public focus on Israel as a source of conflict. “I believe this is possible, but we need to be strong and vigilant, not fearful. We also need to think of Israel not as a problem to be solved, but as potential to be realised.”
As a final point, he emphasises his view that New Zealand’s co-sponsorship of the controversial United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in early 2016 under a National-led government was wrong. “I don’t believe the move followed the correct protocol. [Then Foreign Minister] Murray McCully should have gone back to cabinet with it. I believe it was wrong and I want to own the mistake and give my apologies for it.”