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‘This is who we do not want to ever become’: Dame Susan Devoy on anti-Semitism in New Zealand

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy responds to an anti-Semitic speech at an Auckland mosque. 

People who deny the Holocaust took place are many things, but most of all, they are liars.

Whether they are visiting Iranian clerics or whether they are members of a “White Pride” group – they are all liars.

Holocaust survivors are some of the bravest New Zealanders I have ever met. They’ve seen the very worst of humanity, they’ve looked evil in the eye and survived anyway. They embody the very best of humanity; they are true Kiwi battlers.

The Islamic Ahlulbyt Foundation Centre, which hosted the event at which the cleric, Hojatoleslam Shafie, New Zealand based Iranian diplomat Hormoz Ghahremani and others spoke, need to let the rest of us know whether they will continue to tolerate this kind of hateful korero at their events. They need to make a stand and let New Zealand know that they won’t help spread hate and lies.

Hanukkah Menorah. Photo: Getty Images.

But they are not the only ones. The hatred directed at Jewish New Zealanders did not begin with this Youtube clip. A few years ago an Auckland pre-schooler was attacked by strangers who ripped his yarmulke off his head because he was a Jew. Israeli flags have been burned on our streets and Jews blamed for the actions of a government thousands of miles away from Queen Street in Auckland. For many years our synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been consistently vandalised and attacked by cowards who come in the dead of the night to destroy headstones and spraypaint hate. That this happens here in Aotearoa makes me incredible sad, angry and ashamed.

Few Kiwis know that on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the war memorial in a New Zealand city was tagged with racist hate speech. In the early hours of that morning city officials, community leaders, us at the Human Rights Commission, police and others mobilised. Those words of hate were removed by daylight. Why? Because leaving them there was exactly what those people wanted: they wanted to be famous, they wanted their hate to go viral.

But leaving them there was not an option. We are the first country in the world to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and we weren’t going to let their racist words of hate dominate our ceremonies. We wanted that day to focus on celebrating New Zealanders who’d survived the Holocaust, to give thanks for their lives and to make sure the rest of us never, ever forgot the horrors they survived. Throughout that day we thought about those few, hateful individuals who would’ve been constantly refreshing their browsers hoping to see their handiwork trending. But they never did.

If we are to learn anything from the Holocaust it is that racism and hatred starts small. But we ignore it at our peril. All of us are responsible to ensure we live in a country where hate is never normalised. We can never let our country become one where racism goes unquestioned. And if we have to use glitter bombs to make our point – as some did at parliament over the weekend – so be it. It’s up to all of us to decide what kind of country we live in. While there are formal complaint processes that can and have been taken, just because something isn’t illegal does not make it OK.

Our religious leaders should be using their considerable powerful platforms to promote tolerance and peace across our communities. Whether it’s a mosque giving Holocaust deniers a platform or whether it’s an evangelical church spewing hatred about gay New Zealanders: this is not how we roll here. This is not who we are. This is who we do not want to ever become.

This article was updated on November 3, 2017 to clarify the speakers at the event.


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