New Zealand set to elect Jewish prime minister

Key's part has a positive outlook in winning the elections, said he hopes to visit Israel one day.

John Key (photo credit: )
John Key
(photo credit: )
It has fewer than 10,000 Jews, less than 0.2 percent of its four million inhabitants. But New Zealand is set to elect its third Jewish prime minister. Opposition National Party leader John Key, whose mother is an Austrian Jew, is far ahead of the Labor incumbent, Helen Clark, in the polls. An election may be called at any moment, but must be held by November 15. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post this week, Key, who turns 47 on August 9, said he was "not a deeply religious person," but still saw himself as part of the Jewish community, and had an interest in Israel because of his heritage. "If I become prime minister, I would like to visit... I am definitely keen to go," Key said. It would be his first trip to the Jewish state. "New Zealand has a warm relationship with Israel," he said, adding that "there is quite a lot of synergy" between the two countries, citing their small size. Key's mother, Ruth Key (née Lazar), escaped the Holocaust as a child by fleeing to Britain. In a profile published in the New Zealand Herald, it was reported that "the person who has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on John Key is his mother." Key told the Post that "Mum didn't practice the Jewish faith when I was at home, but she sometimes took me to synagogue, and she was always very active in the Jewish community." Ruth came to New Zealand after WWII with Key's father, George, but became a single mother of three in 1969 when he suffered a fatal heart attack. "I have been involved in fund-raising for Hadassah [Medical Organization in Israel], and we had a celebration for the 60th anniversary of Israel," Key said. According to the Herald, Key's party has had a consistent 20-point advantage over Labor in polls taken since August 2007. "We are running a very positive campaign," Key said. "They are starting to look quite tired... And we have been leading in the polls for about 15 months now." Julius Vogel, a practicing Jew, served two terms as New Zealand's premier in the 1870s. And Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, a non-practicing Jew and later convert to Christianity, became the country's 20th prime minister in 1925. If Key does indeed becomes the country's third Jewish premier, he says there are lessons to be adopted from the Israeli experience. "We hear great things about how strong the [Israeli] economy is," he said. "We are worried about the academic and economic performance of New Zealand and we have been looking at some of the things that Israelis have been doing with mentoring programs, hi-tech and venture capital." In reference to his views on Israel's role in the Middle East, Key said, "Most New Zealanders who are aware of foreign politics understand the threat to Israel from Iran." As prime minister, he said, he "would make the case that it is in the world's interest if we could have a peaceful solution to the nuclear situation in Iran and North Korea." Before New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, the Jewish population numbered fewer than 30 people. Subsequent Jewish immigration came in four waves: from the United Kingdom in the 1800s, refugees from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, from Britain in the 1950s, and most recently from Israel, South Africa and the former Soviet Union. Most Jews today live in Auckland and Wellington.