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Israel and the Antipodes

During the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, a boulder smashed into a car, killing 23-year-old Israeli Ofer Mizrahi. The death toll from that earthquake was 181, including two Israelis besides Mizrahi. Mizrahi's Israeli traveling companions were uninjured and left New Zealand shortly after the earthquake.

Relevant Links
Deep Suspicions  Fran O‚ÄôSullivan, New Zealand Herald. Seven years after a spy scandal, New Zealand remains disconcerted by the presence of Israelis.

Several months later, the New Zealand Southland Times reported that Mizrahi had been found in possession of five passports. It stated that immediately following the earthquake, New Zealand Special Forces troops that had been following the Israelis secured the area; that there had been multiple contacts the day of the earthquake between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key; that the Secret Intelligence Service had obtained permission to investigate the Israelis; and that an unauthorized Israeli search and rescue team had been confronted by local police. The article further asserted that Mizrahi and his traveling companions were not backpackers but Mossad agents, connected to identity theft operations and to attempts to hack into New Zealand government computers.

All the allegations were quickly denied by Prime Minister Key and by Israeli officials. But the story continues to circulate through the Internet, pointing to the enduring suspicion of Israel in a remote corner of the South Pacific. Some of this suspicion may, in fact, be well founded.  But unfounded suspicion is also increasingly normal in small states where traditions of left-liberal politics and growing multiculturalism produce an aversion to power, and a gnawing conspiratorial and even anti-Semitic culture.

In many respects, relations between Israel and New Zealand are typical of those between smaller states. New Zealand extended diplomatic recognition to Israel in January 1949 and maintains a consulate in Tel Aviv. Israel reopened its embassy in New Zealand in 2010 after several years' closure due to budget cuts. The two countries share modest trade relations (around $50 million in exports from New Zealand to Israel, and $100 million in exports from Israel to New Zealand). Over 10,000 Israelis visit New Zealand each year, many of whom, like Ofer Mizrahi and his companions, are post-army backpackers.

But in 2004, a spy scandal shocked New Zealand. A suspicious passport application by a man who claimed to have cerebral palsy led to a sting operation that uncovered an Israeli intelligence operation, an effort to obtain genuine passports using false or stolen identities. The repercussions of the affair were immediate. Diplomatic contacts were banned by New Zealand. A visit by Israeli president Moshe Katsav was cancelled, as was a visit by then-Deputy Chief of Staff General Gabi Ashkenazi. The two Israelis attempting to pick up the passport, Uriel Zosha Kelman and Eli Cara, pled guilty and were sentenced to six months in prison, but were deported after serving only two. Both denied being Mossad agents, but New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark characterized the affair as being "far more than simple criminal behavior by two individuals." She further added that her government "views the act carried out by the Israeli intelligence agents as not only utterly unacceptable but also a breach of New Zealand sovereignty and international law."

Intelligence agencies from all nations routinely steal identities and forge passports. But Clark's tone of outrage reflected a sense of having been genuinely abused by a foreign power. Some of New Zealand's self-image stems from its positions as both a nation physically remote from world conflicts and, like Ireland and Holland, as a liberal voice punching above its weight in international affairs. In 2005, after back channel diplomacy, Israel expressed regret for the actions of its citizens in the passport affair, though it still denied they were on an intelligence mission. This was sufficient for ties to be restored.

But the wounds have not totally healed, and meanwhile, other increasingly familiar developments have emerged to affect New Zealand's 7000 Jews. After the passport affair, Jewish cemeteries in New Zealand were vandalized. In 2010, New Zealand banned sh'hitah (Jewish ritual slaughter of animals). This move was made under pressure from animal rights activists, but one report also indicated that the agriculture minister, a meat exporter, had been warned that Muslim countries would take umbrage over requirements for Islamic ritual slaughter from which sh'hitah was exempt. 

As that example illustrates, Jews are implicated in Islam's global crisis of modernity, which has crept into New Zealand's domestic affairs. In 2006, during the international crisis over the cartoons of Muhammad, 800 Muslims protested in Auckland and Clark called the decision by local newspapers to print the cartoons "gratuitous." Threats from Muslim countries to boycott New Zealand's meat and dairy products may also have contributed to her stance. In 2004 a judge permitted two Afghani women to testify in court with their identities masked with a full burqa. Recently, a visiting Muslim businessman has set up a branch of the "Obedient Wives Club," stating that "if a woman is told to wear a burqa or hijab so she does not tempt other men, then she should obey." Even though Muslims now account for only one percent of New Zealand's population, the country's media are prominently debating these cases and the larger question what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century.

What lessons may be learned from this debate, and from the controversy surrounding the death of Ofer Mizrahi? One lesson is that in many places—partly on the basis of past behaviorIsraelis are perennial suspects, and conspiracy theories emerge quickly on the basis of scant or misleading information. But another lessonone with much larger implicationsis that New Zealand and other small states are increasingly being drawn by mass communication and immigration into the contemporary world. In that world of multicultural and security issues dominated by Islam, New Zealand is no longer at such a remove. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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Geoff on August 15, 2011 at 8:56 am (Reply)
So based on this article, the information that the hikers were in fact agents is correct? The opening made it sound like NZ paranoia, but nothing actually refutes the reported discoveries.
Leor Blumenthal on August 15, 2011 at 11:17 am (Reply)
"All the allegations were quickly denied by Prime Minister Key and by Israeli officials."

I guess that probably isn't enough to refute a conspiracy theory. But honestly, what would be considered sufficient evidence to refute this accusation? Let's say the Israeli government was to provide a detailed profile on Ofer Mizrahi's life which did not include any indication he was an undercover agent for the Mossad. The believers in the conspiracy would counter that this is misinformation, a cover designed to allow Mr. Mizrahi to function as a spy. What if the other three Israeli backpackers were to deny the allegations? They would be accused of covering up for the Mossad or of being patsies and dupes of the nefarious Mr. Mizrahi.

What if the Witch of Ein-Dor were asked to perform a seance, in which she raised the shade of Ofer Mizrahi from Olam HaBa and when asked if he was an agent of the Mossad, the shade denied it? I'm sure the conspiracy theorists would probably go in search of the RaMBaM's comment that the Witch was a fraud (never mind that these Kiwis probably can't pronounce Moreh Nevuchim, much less read it.)

What if a Bas Kol were to ring out over New Zealand and Australia, in which a Heavenly Voice cries out the innocence of Ofer Mizarachi and condemns those who slander him posthumously? Would that be enough?
Steve on August 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm (Reply)
If Mizrahi was Mossad, Israel would never acknowledge that publicly. Either way, we don't know. New Zealand saying he was or Israel saying he wasn't doesn't solve much.
I don't get the transition into the Muslim issues.
Neil on August 16, 2011 at 2:59 am (Reply)
The article says "The article further asserted that Mizrahi and his traveling companions were not backpackers but Mossad agents, connected to identity theft operations and to attempts to hack into New Zealand government computers."

I am not sure if this is accurate.

The backpackers "Could" have been Sayanim but never Mossad.

The real issue is the Access that the Israeli Forensic Identity team had to the NZ Police computer systems. That it would only take 15 seconds for a Sayanim on that team to install a Back Door to the NZ Police computer systems.

The continual harping on by the media about "Backpacker Spies" is just to divert attention from the real issue.

The second issue is why has the New Zealand Prime Minister not taken this issue to the committee that oversees the NZ Security Intelligence Service?

Why is it that the committee hasn't been convened once in the over 2 1/2 years since John Key was elected Prime Minister?

Why is it that he has put himself in a position of being accused of kowtowing to Israel (remembering that John Key has a Jewish mother)based on his background instead of ensuring that this accusation could not be made by ensuring the SIS oversight committee is running correctly?

This issue has some way to run. He hasn't answered the questions put to him and is avoiding the question.

Best Wishes
Leor Blumenthal on August 16, 2011 at 9:51 am (Reply)
I knew it was a matter of time before the fact that PM Key is Jewish was added to the conspiracy theory. And Neil is correct: John Key should have made sure that his mother was not Halachically Jewish before being born.

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