As Israel's brutal attack on Gaza has continued, the New Zealand media has regularly approached the New Zealand Jewish Council and the Israel Institute of New Zealand for comment, without investigating either their composition or their claims to represent the Jewish community in New Zealand. But, writes Merilyn Gerson, both organisations are Zionist controlled and support Israel's war on Gaza. They exclude views that do not support Zionism and a lack of democratic structures means that they are not accountable to the wider Jewish community.

THROUGH THE weeks of Israel’s assault on Gaza, our media have solicited comments from the NZ Jewish Council (NZJC) and the Israel Institute (IINZ) without querying their composition or mandates. Publicly available information shows that the NZJC falls far short of representing the Jewish community, while the IINZ seems to be a Christian-libertarian company with one Jewish director.

The NZJC’s constitution claims that it is the representative body of NZ Jews. We could write the same words with as little meaning. This claim is based on the assumption that Jews affiliated with a Jewish synagogue or institution are represented by the structure that underpins the NZ Jewish Council. Jews with no institutional membership are entirely excluded. In fact, we don’t know how many or who or where they are.

The NZJC constitution and the Charities Commission / Incorporated Societies websites show that the Jewish Council structure is hollow. As sometimes happens in small communities, it seems to have become a collection of the willing. In this case, the willing are uniformly ardent Zionists who speak their views in the name of the whole community, while ruling other Jews in or out for their stance on Zionism. They have made Israel, not religion or Jewish inheritance, into a litmus test.

New Zealand’s Jewish communities were intended to be represented by Regional Jewish Councils. Are we really?

The Auckland Regional Jewish Council appears to be the only regional council in formal operation. They are obliged to inform the Charities Commission of any change in their officers, but the Charities Commission’s website shows no change to the Auckland Regional Jewish Council officers since 2006. Its six officers are the same individuals who signed the constitution itself.

(If the date rings a bell, that might be because 2006 was also the year of Hamas’s election. We have loudly objected to calling Hamas a representative of all Gaza on the strength of that expired mandate.)

The Wellington Regional Jewish Council (WRJC) is listed on the NZJC website and in the Wellington Jewish Community Centre directory, but no information is attached to the listing. It is not formally listed as a charity or incorporated society.

More than two years ago, the WRJC convened a public meeting whose participants “made clear their dissatisfaction with the Jewish Council’s tone of voice, composition, accountability and their narrow definition of the Jewish community’s shared interests.” The WRJC issued a public statement suspending its own operations until it can produce “a new constitution that can capture the voice and aspirations of the community.” To date, they have not done that. If the WRJC is operating in some informal sense, they have not consulted or accounted to the community.

The other regional councils may be informally composed, but they are not officially registered. The Jewish community of New Zealand is not represented by any accountable regional structure.

The national NZ Jewish Council can have up to 18 members, geographically divided to cover the entire country. Voting members of the Council are appointed from the Regional Councils, while non-voting members come from a list of affiliate organisations and synagogues. A number of the affiliate groups are not membership organisations that might offer real channels for community input, and none are non-Zionist. The full council chooses the NZJC Executive Committee and the Executive Committee chooses the President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer.  The Executive Committee may also establish subcommittees with people who are not on the Council.

Without a democratic regional structure that represents Jewish communities, we do not choose and cannot influence or recall those who purport to represent us. They do not account to us. Indeed, it’s not clear that they account to anyone. Longstanding members of Auckland and Wellington synagogues are not aware of any opportunity to attend AGMs (which need be comprised only of member organisations) or express their views. There is no public voting mechanism.

That is far from being a representative community structure.

The constitution of the NZJC does not contain the words ‘Israel’ or ‘Zionism’. Yet the NZJC’s devotion to Zionism and its vilification of any non-Zionist Jewish identity are its hallmark. The NZJC is effectively trying to define who is a Jew, a task for which they have no qualification or mandate whatsoever. The Dunedin Jewish community has publicly placed itself in solidarity with Palestinians. The NZJC’s statements would exclude the whole community.

Lacking any democratic accountability or intent to represent the breadth of the community, the NZJC cannot claim to be our representative body. In the absence of representation, we call once more on our synagogues and community institutions to find their voices and speak with empathy and vision.

Our media have also turned for comment to the Israel Institute (IINZ). The Jewish Council circulates IINZ materials as ‘helpful explainers’ of Israel’s war on Gaza. 

The two institutions are related through David Cumin. Shortly after her comments at the Christchurch anti-terror hui provoked a walkout by participants, Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses appeared on David Cumin’s podcast to announce their intention to “disempower … as much as possible” the Jews who “raise their voice” in pluralism.

The directors of the IINZ (only one of whom is Jewish) are also founding or executive members of the Free Speech and Taxpayers’ lobby groups, and other Christian Zionist organisations whose names might imply a Jewish provenance. The IINZ is not a Jewish institution although it does reflect Israel’s increasing Christian Zionist support. Media should make that clear when giving David Cumin airtime.

So, who speaks for the Jewish community? It is prejudicial and inaccurate for our whole community to be understood through these harsh, pro-war voices. Scores of NZ Jews have signed an open letter calling on our institutions to find their voice, their empathy and vision. They have yet even to distance themselves from Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church and others who support Israel’s war in the service of very different agendas.

We are alarmed by the perception that the whole Jewish community is rightwing and opposed to our equal human rights. We call on the media to include speakers who represent Jewish diversity, and we call on our Jewish institutions to speak up.

Merilyn Gerson is a member of Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa. This article was first published by Alternative Jewish Voices.


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