AIR New Zealand: Protests become antisemitism super-spreader events
Mar 4, 2022 | Miriam Bell
Anti-vaccine activists protesting outside New Zealand’s Parliament are promoting their demonstration as peaceful, reasonable and non-threatening. But it is a highly divisive event which has the potential to be an antisemitism super-spreader.
Since the protest – which the vast majority of the population does not support – began, there have been multiple reports of antisemitic signs and graffiti. These have included a Nazi swastika painted on a statue outside Parliament and a ute with “Jewcinda” – a slur referring to New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern – scribbled across the cab. There have been frequent comparisons of vaccine mandates and public health restrictions to the Holocaust and Nazism, and misappropriations of the Star of David.
On social media, particularly platforms favoured by the protestors such as Telegram, antisemitic imagery and rhetoric have been circulating regularly. On Counterspin Media, an online channel affiliated with Steve Bannon, a controversial former advisor to Donald Trump, which has been broadcasting live from the protest and getting thousands of views, the hosts have been telling people to read the antisemitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
And then there is the presence of well-known neo-Nazi and far-right activists at the protest. One Counterspin host, Kelvyn Alp, established an armed militia to try to overthrow the NZ government in the early 2000s. At the protest, he has encouraged demonstrators to storm Parliament and arrest MPs, while making multiple threats to kill MPs.
Members of Action Zealandia, the country’s largest neo-Nazi group with reported ties to violent overseas extremist groups, are also present at the Wellington protest. They have been posting photos from Parliament grounds and sparked an investigation after posting footage from atop one of the Parliamentary buildings.
At a satellite protest in Christchurch, Kyle Chapman, the former leader of the National Front, and prominent white supremacist Philip Arps, who was jailed for sharing the livestream of the Christchurch mosque shootings, were present. Arps was earlier arrested in Picton on his way to Wellington, after allegedly saying he was heading to a “public execution”.
Protest organisers have dismissed these neo-Nazi connections, along with the threats, harassment, and aggressive behaviour directed at the general public, politicians and the media. They say these fringe elements do not represent the bulk of those there.
But even if this is the case, a problem, which has been well articulated by many commentators, remains. That problem is association.
As Stuff political journalist Andrea Vance wrote: “Chant hare krishna, grow herbs, practice yoga and smoke the peace pipe all you like. The minute you pitch your tent next to a swastika, a noose swinging for politicians and journalists, and extremist Kelvyn Alp, you are aligned. Worse still, you are being exploited to cloak the fact this protest is being manipulated by extremists.”
Professor Paul Spoonley, who studies far-right groups, said there had been a surge in online hate and antisemitism in New Zealand over the last two years, but the threat of the protest was that it could renormalise antisemitism.
This would give a new generation access to the noxious ideas and theories of antisemitism and, for some, they would stick, he said.
“Groups like Action Zealandia and individuals like Kelvyn Alp are not ones to waste a good crisis. They would see the protest as a good opportunity to influence and recruit. That’s the formula for the far-right – intercede in heightened situations and offer up their conspiracy theories as an explanation.”
Spoonley said the fact that many of the protestors were anti-authority and anti-government meant they were a natural constituency for the far-right to target. “I could see antisemitism in New Zealand getting a lot bigger because of all the people who have been exposed to what has been circulating at the protests, and it becoming the norm for them.”
Holocaust Centre of New Zealand Chair Deb Hart said it appeared fringe groups were latching on to the anti-vaccine mandate cause and trying to manipulate it. That was disturbing, but it was hard to say how accepted their messages would be by non-extremist protestors, she said.
Her concern is the distortion of the Holocaust and the trivialisation of the experiences of survivors through disrespectful and inaccurate comparisons of vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
“It is a long bow to draw to compare the public health measures instituted to protect the public from a pandemic with the Holocaust. The intent is wholly different: even if you disagree with how they are doing it, the Government is trying to save lives as opposed to the Nazis who were trying to murder millions of people.”
Hart said people had the right to protest, but they did not need to cite the industrial extermination of six million Jews as a comparison while doing so.
These comparisons were insensitive and appalling, as was the disruption to this year’s UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day event in Christchurch by anti-vaccination protestors, she added.