Lawmakers Asked to Condemn Anti-Semitism After New Grave Desecration

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - New Zealand police stepped up security at Jewish cemeteries, and lawmakers were being asked Monday to condemn anti-Semitism after vandals targeted Jewish graves for the second time in three weeks.

The recent events are believed to be the first of their type in four decades, prompting concerns that anti-Jewish sentiment may have been stirred up by the Labor government's recent imposition of diplomatic sanctions against Israel.

Wellington acted after two Israeli men whom it accused of being Mossad agents were jailed for attempting to secure a New Zealand passport fraudulently.

On Friday, more than 90 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery outside the capital were damaged, and a chapel was torched. Three weeks earlier, 16 graves were desecrated in an old Jewish cemetery in central Wellington. In both cases, the perpetrators left Nazi symbols at the site.

Police were continuing investigations Monday into suspicion that the same individuals or groups may have been responsible for both attacks. Security was increased at Jewish cemeteries in Wellington and Auckland.

The first incident occurred just hours after Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered a harsh rebuke to Israel over the "spying" allegations, and the government was stung when critics charged that her statement had triggered the desecration.

The latest damage drew a swift denunciation from government figures, with Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen saying that "racism of any sort is ugly and unforgivable and has no place in New Zealand."

The government minister responsible for "ethnic affairs," Chris Carter, said he would introduce a statement in parliament condemning anti-Jewish sentiment.

"While such a statement is symbolic," Carter noted, "discussions with the Jewish community suggest it would be an important public gesture that would be welcomed by them at this difficult time."

Carter said he would be seeking support from lawmakers ahead of a motion planned for Tuesday.

He said all New Zealanders would appreciate the hurt caused by the desecration: "Respect for the dead and the memory of loved ones is fundamental to all of us."

'Anti-Israel policy'

Many New Zealand Jews regard Clark's left-leaning administration as the country's most pro-Palestinian government ever. It consistently votes against Israel at the United Nations and supported PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at a time other Western governments were shunning him.

Writing on a popular web-log, one Jewish commentator said New Zealand's reputation was being jeopardized.

"No longer the home of happy hobbits and a clean green environment, we have now joined the long list of countries where Jews can not feel safe -- in an atmosphere, deliberately or otherwise, fostered by this government."

The president of the Jewish Council, David Zwartz, said that many in the Jewish community were more worried as a result of the current climate.

"They've seen relations between the New Zealand government and Israel warm and cool over the years, and realize that some of that is political and not related to the Jewishness of the situation."

At the same time, he added, "this government's attitude has been persistently anti-Israel over quite a while, and I think that the response of the prime minister has been cashing in on a general anti-Israel trend that's been evident in other actions," like the warmth shown towards Arafat.

Clark's foreign minister, Phil Goff, visited Arafat in Ramallah last year at a time Israel and the United States were seeking to isolate him as an obstacle to the U.S.-sponsored "road map" peace plan.

Goff shrugged off Israeli criticism and was photographed hand-in-hand with Arafat, prompting accusations from political opponents at home that the government was pursuing an "incompetent" and "anti-American" foreign policy.

'The Jews did it'

Zwartz also noted that some callers to radio stations and writers to newspapers suggested Jews had vandalized the graves in a bid to create sympathy in the aftermath of the passport fraud case.

"That sort of thing really is very unpleasant and tends to stir up animosity towards the Jewish community," Zwartz said.

The leader of New Zealand's small ultra-right National Front party, writing on a white-supremacy website, also suggested that Jews were responsible for the latest attack.

"They get the media [coverage] from one attack, then they think 'this works,' so they do more themselves," Kyle Chapman said, then added that from the far-right perspective, it was "pointless" to take such action against "dead people."

In response to queries, Chapman said Monday that the perpetrators could be Jews wanting to elicit sympathy or win support for the passage of hate speech laws. Alternatively, they could be anarchists, Satanists, or simply "some drunken youths who had nothing better to do."

Asked what the National Front's views were on Jews, Chapman said Judaism was "anti-Christian."

Some Jews were "able to fit in" in a western culture, however. "Those that are not should not be here. Only people who are willing to be part of our culture and sovereignty should be allowed here."

Another National Front representative, National Secretary Kerry Bolton, said the group does not consider Judaism anti-Western per se, "just the perversion of it by Zionism."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow