March 15 was a horrific reminder that white supremacist ideologies put all minorities in danger, writes Ali Nissenbaum.
1997: We’re window shopping at Christchurch’s Mid-City Markets. Between the incense holders and Kurt Cobain T-shirts we come across a stand selling Nazi jewellery. My friend Yasmin, who’s much braver than I am, confronts the saleswoman: “That’s disgusting!” The saleswoman explains that the pendant, an imperial eagle holding a swastika in its claws, is actually an ancient Christian symbol that has nothing to do with Nazis. None of us are convinced. It takes me a few minutes to realise I’m shaking.
2001: My psychiatrist checks me into a respite home. My fellow patients include a White Power supporter who is disgusted when the television broadcasts a Black musician, and proudly tells us about racially harassing an Asian woman on the bus. One of the staff members must notice my panic, because she tells me, “just ignore Vicki.” Apparently it has not occurred to anybody that putting a suicidal Jewish teen in close quarters with a neo-Nazi might pose a safety issue.
2004: A few days after the police catch two Israeli citizens – possibly intelligence agents – attempting to steal the identities of New Zealanders, I wake up to the news that a Jewish cemetery in Wellington has been desecrated with antisemitic graffiti. A current affairs television show interviews a local neo-Nazi about the attack. Who does he think is responsible? They probably vandalised their own cemetery, the neo-Nazi opines, to get sympathy for their countrymen. The television host neglects to ask the neo-Nazi what he means. Aren’t the ‘countrymen’ of Jewish New Zealanders other New Zealanders?
2013: I’m one in a crowd of many, and we’re all marching against privatisation of state-owned assets. We’re halfway up Willis St on our way to the Beehive when I overhear a man behind me saying, “this is all because John Key is a money-hungry Jew”. My friend Maia immediately turns around and interrupts him, “that’s anti-Semitic and it is not ok”. The guy doubles down: You don’t understand the historical context, he says, ‘they’ took over this country with their money, he says. Eventually he gives up on justifying his bigotry and concludes that Maia must be Jewish.
I could go on and on with examples of the everyday antisemitism I’ve encountered in New Zealand, but I don’t want to bore you. Suffice to say that bigotry against Jews exists, and that it is tolerated, minimised and ignored.
The Islamophobic terrorist attack in Christchurch was a gruesome reminder that bigotry against Muslims is a major – and deadly – problem that plagues New Zealand as much as it does other Western countries. This bigotry didn’t sprout from nowhere, it’s been carefully nurtured by politicians, media, and lobbyists over several decades.
It’s also been a timely reminder that the growing popularity of White supremacist ideologies endangers all ethnic and religious minorities. The same weekend that Christchurch’s Muslim community were reeling from the mass murder in the city’s mosques, a Jewish cemetery in Fall River, Massachusetts was desecrated with swastikas and Nazi slogans. Sikhs and Hindus have also reported threats on their gurdwaras and temples. Meanwhile politicians and journalists continue to promote racism against tangata whenua, Pacific Islanders, and Asians.
On top of all this, there’s been a disturbing attempt to exploit this act of White supremacist terrorism in Christchurch in order to promote antisemitism. In the last week I’ve noticed multiple social media posts full of neo-Nazi buzzwords speculating that the attack was funded by Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. A speaker at Saturday’s Love Aotearoa Hate Racism rally in Auckland pushed the same conspiracy theory. I have no interest in defending Mossad, but there is zero evidence they were involved in the attack, nor do they have any motive.
According to Daniel Harper, who analyses the White supremacist movement on his podcast I Don’t Speak German, this conspiracy theory is being promoted on a White supremacist podcast hosted by notorious neo-Nazi Johnny Ramondetta. Andy Fleming, who has monitored the Australian far right for the past two decades on his blog, agrees: “it’s standard operating procedure [for neo-Nazis],” he told me. The aim of spreading these allegations is obvious: it fuels antisemitism, creates conflict between the Muslim and Jewish communities, and deflects attention from White supremacists.
There are also some in the Jewish community who are complicit in propagating anti-Muslim hate, especially against Palestinian and other Arab Muslims. Perhaps they think that if they prove useful to the cause of White supremacy, they might be protected from its violence. Perhaps they are so invested in enabling the Israeli state to continue ethnically-cleansing Indigenous Palestinians that they don’t care if Jews in the rest of the world get hurt in the process.
But there are many more in our community who understand that our safety and our religious freedom is inseparable from that of our Muslim cousins. This is the time for us to form alliances with everyone who is threatened by White supremacy and Nazism, including tangata whenua, ethnic and religious minorities, disabled people, and trans people.
Right now, we each have a choice. We can choose the easy road: tell ourselves that this isn’t us, that New Zealand is peaceful and tolerant, that the murderer was a foreigner driven by a foreign ideology. That road is pleasant, but it’s also circular; it leads us back to where we started. Alternatively, we can take the harder road, the steep, rocky one: we can acknowledge that New Zealand is a colonial state, and that the fight for justice begins with decolonisation. We can do the hard work of recognising and dismantling those racist structures that marginalise anyone who’s not a Pākehā Christian. That road is long and tiring, but it’s also the best way to honour the 50 human beings murdered in Christchurch, and to ensure that no one suffers that kind of racist violence ever again.