AIR New Zealand: Hamas war leads to sharp rise in antisemitism
Dec 21, 2023 | Miriam Bell
New Zealand, like many other countries, is struggling with economic challenges, stretched housing affordability, cultural divisions, and climate change pressures, and has a brand-new government. And yet the Israel-Hamas war is dominating public discourse.
Since October 7, there have been “pro-Palestine”, or more accurately anti-Israel, protests every weekend. They are supposedly motivated by a desire to end the violence, but that’s not what the angry, baying crowds, and their cries of “free Palestine” and “from the river to the sea” suggest.
The Dec. 10 Auckland protest, billed as “the biggest march to support Palestine in Aotearoa’s history,” attracted around 2,500 people.
Inflammatory rhetoric, justifying the Hamas attacks and denying Israel’s right to exist, has been part and parcel of these protests. The media coverage of the protests, and the inaccurate historical revisionism that accompanies them, has been largely uncritical.
For most Jewish New Zealanders, this “pro-Palestinian” movement is linked to a deeply worrying rise in antisemitism – one reflected, and amplified, on social media, and one that has moved from words to action.
Since October 7, both the Auckland reform synagogue and the Christchurch synagogue have been vandalised, the Israeli and US embassies have been defaced with political graffiti, and a statue of a long-serving Jewish Mayor of Auckland had a swastika painted on it.
On the Oct. 13 “Global Day of Rage,” all synagogues, New Zealand’s only Jewish school, and the Holocaust Centre were closed due to security concerns. Prominent Jewish New Zealanders have been targeted with abusive messages and intimidation.
In November, more than 70 anonymous bomb threat emails were sent to schools, hospitals, courthouses and places of worship around the country. Five synagogues received threats.
A Holocaust Centre survey of Jewish parents revealed evidence of high levels of antisemitism in schools. Fifty percent of respondents said their children had been subjected to antisemitism in school since October 7.
The situation was not helped by a political vacuum in Wellington during the post-election period, as the three parties that now make up the new Government sworn in on Nov. 27 negotiated a coalition agreement.
In the meantime, the Green Party and Te Pati Maori stepped into the breach, and pushed a fervently anti-Israel line. At one protest Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick led chants of “from the river to sea”, after Labour Party MP Phil Twyford was forced off the stage for condemning the Hamas attacks of October 7.
Once the National-led Government was sworn in, and NZ First leader Winston Peters took up the role of foreign minister, a motion relating to the war was put forward by Peters and debated. It called for all parties to take urgent steps towards establishing a ceasefire, unequivocally condemned the Hamas attacks, and recognised Israel’s right to defend itself.
The motion was ultimately supported by all parties, but the debate was fiery and included Labour MP Damien O’Connor accusing Israel of carrying out genocide in Gaza.
This prompted the NZ Jewish Council and Holocaust Centre to issue a release on inflammatory language, pointing out the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” had specific meanings, and should not be bandied about.
Jewish Council spokesperson Ben Kepes said that “when some of our political leaders use these terms it directly incites antisemitic behaviour, and we call on all leaders to consider their words carefully.”
Israel Institute of NZ co-director Ashley Church said the new Government had hit the ground running, and was saying the right things in relation to the war.
The use of “unequivocally” in the condemnation of the Hamas attacks, the call for the hostages to be released, and the recognition of Israel’s right to self-defence were important, he said.
The pro-Palestine protests were actually pro-Hamas protests, he said, but they had been relatively muted compared to the violence of other such protests around the world.
“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised to see the rise in antisemitism that has accompanied them. There is a flare-up in antisemitism whenever there is Israel-Palestine conflict, but this time it is particularly bad.
“What has surprised me is the speed at which people went from sympathising with Israel after the Hamas attacks to expressing antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism. The ignorance, and the hypocrisy of so many involved when it comes to Israel, is appalling.”
There have been some rallies in support of Israel. One in the grounds of Parliament attracted about 600 people.
It culminated in the presentation of a petition calling for New Zealand to list Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organisations being presented to Government MP Simon Court.