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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Queen Elizabeth II has appointed Victoria University political science professor Stephen Levine an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his "services to education and the Jewish community" of New Zealand.
Levine, who is originally from the United States, moved to New Zealand in 1972, accepting an invitation to teach at the university. His work has been crucial to maintaining the history and life of the country's Jewish community.
"I was just amazed, kind of thrilled really," Levine said on Wednesday, describing his initial reaction to receiving his award. "Who would have expected that a nice Jewish person from Brooklyn would come to be awarded by the queen?"
He also discussed what the appointment meant for the Jewish community as a whole.
"The fact that I am honored for servicing the Jewish community means that the community itself has been regarded as having made an important contribution to the development of the country," Levine said.
Levine has written about the New Zealand Jewish community for the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora and the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. His two works - A Standard for the People, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, and his monumental study, The New Zealand Jewish Community - are an essential source of information for all those trying to understand Jewish communities, especially in the Diaspora.
The professor has also written extensively about New Zealand's politics and international relations.
Though he has served as chairman of the New Zealand Jewish Council, as well as other notable leadership positions, Levine maintains that his greatest contribution to the country's Jewish community has been his recording of its history.
"By preserving its history, I have added and preserved its identity," he said. "If a people forget their history, it will have a hard time surviving in the future."
Today, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish population of New Zealand is estimated at around 10,000, making up 0.23 percent of the total population of 4.2 million.
The story of New Zealand's Jews "is like the story of the Jewish people, trying to survive with limited number... It's such a small community. Its survival always seems to be somewhat tenuous," according to Levine
Dealing with the problem of "acculturation," the Jews of New Zealand continue to hold on to their Jewish tradition.
"They see an observant Jew, who doesn't hide the fact that he's Jewish, who comes to synagogue; a man who comes to Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim," and this inspires others to hold on to their Jewish identities, Levine said.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key expressed his appreciation of the professor as having "made an outstanding contribution" to New Zealand. The honor bestowed upon Levine allowed "the New Zealand public the opportunity" to recognize the Jewish leader's "hard work, dedication and achievements," Key said.
The honor will be presented to Levine in a ceremony in September.