Sprayed in black, the swastikas show up clearly against the pale gray tombstones in a historic Auckland, New Zealand cemetery, where vagrants drift and troublemakers lurk. The Hebrew words meaning May his/her soul be bound into the bond of life identify the graves as the resting places of Jews. Over twenty stone-pillared monuments were vandalized between Thursday night and Friday morning in the Grafton Cemetery, The New Zealand Herald reported Friday.
Tombstones were defaced with swastikas, curse words (some against Israel), and other malicious decorations. Descriptions of the vandalism ranged from “incredibly disappointing” – from Stephen Goodman, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council – to “very alarming” and “an very un-Kiwi [un-New Zealander] thing to do” – from Rabbi Samuel Altschul. The Israeli Embassy also condemned the vandalism as “vile desecration” and drew a larger connection to resurgence of world anti-Semitism to the Holocaust, not even seventy years in the past.
While this was apparently the first anti-Semitic tagging in the cemetery, Edward Bennet of the K Rd Business Association (the cemetery is on the corner of Karangahape Road and Symonds Street) told The Herald that gravestones were regularly tipped over; Rabbi Altschul confirmed that gravestone-tipping “happens quite frequently.” Mr. Goodman stated that plans were under way – and had been even prior to the defacing – for a chain-link fence to be erected around the cemetery to keep out the vagabonds who hang out in Grafton.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the New Zealand Jewish community has its roots in migrations from England that brought Jewish families to the European settlement in the 1830s. The community remained small – with fewer than thirty Jews – until the British gained sovereignty of the colony. When the gold rush on the 1860s seized New Zealand, hopeful Jews flowed in with the other prospectors, and the size of the community quadrupled from 1861 to 1867. By the time the last grave in the Grafton Cemetery was dug in 1887, the community had built the first synagogue and employed a shochet (ritual animal slaughterer) and mohel (certified circumciser). As of 2010, there are about 7,500 Jews in New Zealand – 0.17% of the total population – with four synagogues (two Orthodox and two Liberal Progressive – similar to Reform in the U.S.) as well as other, smaller congregations and two Jewish day schools.
The last yearly report about anti-Semitism in New Zealand by the Tel Aviv University-based Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism was published online in 2007, and it describes eleven anti-Semitic attacks – seven of which were tombstone desecrations. In 2006, there were thirty-two desecrations. Later that same year, a synagogue was spray-painted with anti-Semitic graffiti.
Arrests have already been made, two on Sunday and one on Tuesday, The Herald reported. Police are also looking into the defacement of a house near the graveyard – with similar graffiti – to see whether the two cases of vandalism are related. And Aucklanders turned out en masse to the graveyard defacement a day after it took place.
So, is anti-Semitism increasing in New Zealand, or even becoming the norm? While movements like Free Gaza Australia, March to Jerusalem, and Boycott Israel frequently cross the very narrow line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, they do not seem to have much clout, as they are relatively small. Anti-Semitism is, thankfully, still taboo in Western ideology and the public sphere, although political and social hate groups do exist, as they always have and, likely, always will.
Please note: the opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Ha’Am Newsmagazine.