Anywhere else, the desecration of 20 Jewish graves might have registered as a blip, another anti-Semitic act in an otherwise tranquil place with a miniscule Jewish population.
But here in New Zealand, the incident has shaken up a nation that prides itself on openness —and sparked an intensive round of national soul-searching.
The vandalism itself took place the day I arrived in Auckland for a two-week assignment. The days that followed brought predictable rounds of outrage from government officials and community leaders. Auckland Mayor Len Brown said the attack was “abhorrent,” according to the New Zealand Herald, the nation’s largest daily. “This kind of vandalism has no place in our city…The council and the local board are taking steps to improve the environment in this cemetery and prevent further such attacks.”
What I didn’t expect was outraged editorials in Kiwi newspapers in small municipalities far from Auckland, or multicultural protests against right-wing violence in response to the desecration.
The neo-Nazi graffiti preceded a march in Wellington by the ultra-right National front, the local web site Stuff.co.nz reported. Police haven’t drawn a connection to a wider far-right movement. Nor have many New Zealanders.
“I believe it to be unconnected to any coherent, let alone forceful, movement within New Zealand society,” said Michael Fallow, a staff writer at South Island daily the Southland Times, which condemned the vandalism in a strongly worded editorial. “Anonymous loutism is pretty much their entire arsenal.”
But Fallow warned against thinking that the hatred would disappear any time soon, either.
“It’s not isolated in the sense of standing alone as a solitary event unlikely to be repeated,” he said. “Sadly that is not the case,” said Fallow. “We do, occasionally, have Nazi symbols appearing hereabouts as rude, childish graffiti.”
Paradoxically, Fallow said the vandalism may not actually reflect a hatred of real Jews, especially since there are so few of them in New Zealand, just 7,500 in a nation of 4.5 million, according to a 2010 estimate.
“More likely it’s just venting a social anger,” he said. “It sits alongside (juvenile) gang tags and anti-police proclamations. “
A Jewish community leader in Wellington, New Zealand’s cosmopolitan capital, was less sanguine.
Irene Adler, secretary of the New Zealand Holocaust Centre, said there had been two acts of vadalism at cemeteries in Wellington, and an incident in which college students dressed up in Nazi regalia.
“I personally do have some feelings of disquiet,” Adler told the Forward. “I personally think that Anti-Semitism is still alive, if only in small pockets around this country.”
Still, says Adler, “Non Jewish people I know have been very supportive and apologetic,” and Jews continue to have a “growing profile” in this dual-island former British colony.
She noted that a recent exhibition on Anne Frank successfully toured the nation for two years and a well-received book was published this year prominent Jews who have contributed to the country through art, literature, music, and photography.
Fallow added that New Zealand Jews can take comfort in the fact that broad responses to the vandalism constitute “a sincere expression of a community wish to ensure the Jewish community was reassured about what this attack didn’t mean.”
And while he agreed that almost all New Zealanders would consider the act an aberration, he conceded that a small minority might be revellig in the attention it garnered.
“I suppose we shouldn’t forget: there’s at least a handful of wankers out there who are probably feeling pretty pleased with themselves,” he said