AIR New Zealand: New report prompts debate over antisemitism 

There are concerning levels of antisemitism and widespread ignorance about the Holocaust in New Zealand, according to a new report.

The Antisemitism Survey of New Zealand 2021, conducted by Curia Research for the NZ Jewish Council (NZJC), put 18 internationally recognised statements of anti-Jewish sentiment to 1017 New Zealanders.

The study produced some disturbing results. Sixty-three percent of respondents agreed with at least one of the antisemitic views posed by the statements, while six percent expressed agreement with nine or more of the 18 anti-Jewish statements.

Twenty-one percent agreed with two or more classical antisemitic views, for example approving of statements such as “Jews have too much power in financial markets” and “Jews in NZ are more loyal to Israel than to NZ.”

Twenty-five percent expressed support for two or more extreme anti-Zionist views, characterised as “Zionophobic”, such as “Israeli government policies are similar to those of the Nazi regime” and “Israel is an apartheid state.”

Only 42% of the respondents could correctly identify that six million Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust, while 17% said they knew virtually nothing about the Holocaust.

In many ways, the findings were not a surprise. They came after a year which saw the 2021 Israel-Gaza military conflict and pandemic-related protests, both of which prompted a surge of antisemitic rhetoric and imagery.

Over the last two years, the NZJC has recorded the highest number of antisemitic incidents since records began in 1990.

Massey University Professor Paul Spoonley, an expert on far-right extremism, told AIR that antisemitism on the far-right has been on the rise since around 2016. But the findings of the survey highlighted how much antisemitism levels have increased over recent years. 

After the new report’s release, Spoonley wrote on Stuff that he had been involved in four surveys of the Jewish community since 1983. In the first three, the majority of respondents had not experienced antisemitism, and most did not see New Zealand and New Zealanders as being particularly antisemitic.

But by the 2019 survey, a different story had begun to emerge, and antisemitism was being experienced by a much larger proportion of those surveyed, he said.

His research on the radical right in the last few years has led him to conclude that “local antisemitism has migrated from being largely the preserve of an extreme fringe to a much more substantial component of local racism.”

While the report was received with dismay by many, there was immediate pushback about the “Zionophobia” aspect of it from others. Much of this came from well-known pro-Palestinian advocates, such as activist John Minto and the Alternative Jewish Voices (AJV) group.

They criticised the application of the widely-used International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in the survey, and referenced reports on Israel by NGOs, such as Amnesty International’s recent, widely contested effort to dispute that there was anything extreme or controversial about saying Israel is an apartheid state.

AJV said the NZJC report was “weaponising antisemitism” in a dishonest and dangerous way, while Minto said it missed the mark and was “trying to cower human rights activists with false smears of anti-semitism.”

Most of the criticism came from a handful of outspoken, ardent anti-Zionist members of the Jewish community and their “progressive” friends on social media, according to NZJC spokesperson Juliet Moses. 

“They seem to believe that antisemitism only comes from the far right and that any statement that mentions the words ‘Israel’, ‘Zionist’ or ‘Palestinian’ can’t be antisemitic because it is not antisemitic to criticise Israel, even if the statement in question does not actually involve criticism of Israel at all.”

Moses said the questions put to survey participants were arrived at after considerable thought and applied international standards. 

“It is possible to criticise Israel and advocate for Palestinians without antisemitism. It is also possible that Israel is demonised, delegitimised and subjected to standards applied to no other state, which true authorities on antisemitism understand as being a modern form of it.”

Several themes emerged from the survey which could help inform the formulation of practical solutions for the future, she added.

“One is about the need for Holocaust education. But also, the survey indicates that knowing Jewish people reduces the likelihood of harbouring antisemitic beliefs. 

“I believe interacting with people face to face is the best way to combat prejudice and hatred, and the survey backs that up. So, the more we do to meet people of different backgrounds, and promote initiatives to do so, the better – not just for Jews but for social cohesion generally.”