Israel and the Antipodes

By Alex Joffe
Monday, August 15, 2011

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.

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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