Oceans apart

New Zealanders launch their very own aliya organization.

new zealand aliyah 88.29 (photo credit: Jeremy Wimpfheimer)
new zealand aliyah 88.29
(photo credit: Jeremy Wimpfheimer)
Separated by thousands of kilometers of open sea and 11 time zones, two groups gathered at opposite sides of the world last week. While a small contingent of about a dozen Jews met in Auckland, New Zealand, on February 8 a party of more than 100 olim from New Zealand celebrated the official launch of the Israeli branch of the Israel New Zealand Friendship Association (INZFA). Today, more than 1,000 "Kiwis" call Israel their home - with a large number living in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Those numbers are expected to rise with this new development. The organization's founders are hoping that the lure of Jerusalem and the Jewish State will serve as an attraction to this Jewish community located on the far side of the Earth. While compared to other local Anglo communities the New Zealand community is tiny, the association's founders believe the sense of solidarity that New Zealanders feel will allow the organization to flourish. Prior to this event, Israel's New Zealanders had met at several impromptu social gatherings, but last week's event marked the group's official registration as an approved nonprofit and the formation of a board of directors. The relationship between New Zealand and Israel has been severely strained in recent years following a series of incidents that culminated in a temporary cessation of diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and the New Zealand capital of Wellington. Since the Israeli government closed the embassy in Wellington in 2002, Israel has had no official diplomatic presence in New Zealand. Currently, all Israeli diplomatic operations for the region are handled out of the Australian capital of Canberra. While Israeli officials claim that they closed the embassy for budgetary rather than diplomatic reasons, the move marked the end of a 53-year Israeli presence in Wellington. There is no official representative of the New Zealand government in Israel, either, but the consulate in Ankara, Turkey, is responsible for New Zealand affairs dealing with Israel. For passport and immigration issues, dual citizens of Israel and New Zealand must attend the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. The relationship between the two countries became particularly tense in March 2004, when two Israeli citizens were arrested and served a three-month jail term for attempting to illegally order passports posing as New Zealand citizens. The New Zealand government publicly alleged that the two men, who have since completed their sentences and been deported, were acting as Mossad agents. While an October 2005 meeting between Israel's then-Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and New Zealand Ambassador Jan Henderson, who is permanently placed in Ankara, was intended as a formal diplomatic reconciliation, the affair continues to cloud the relationship between the two countries. Moira Turley, deputy head of mission in Ankara, attended the organization's inaugural event in Ra'anana, but in her remarks avoided any mention of the recent history between her government and Israel. She described the organizers' initiative as an important step toward promoting "friendship between the two countries." Against this backdrop of diplomatic tension, organizers are hoping that INZFA will succeed in playing far more than just a social role. According to Beit Shemesh resident Yitzchak Triester, who was behind the opening event, the organization is designed to "create and encourage cultural exchange between New Zealand and Israel." Though initially INZFA will be involved in organizing social gatherings for the New Zealand community in Israel, Triester hopes that in the long term the group will develop a more structured network of support services to both aid olim and encourage further aliya. The New Zealand Jewish community numbers about 5,000 people. There has been a Jewish presence in New Zealand since the mid-19th century, with Jews enjoying prominent roles in the broader society. Anti-Semitism is not generally viewed as a major problem. A large percentage of New Zealand Jews belong to Orthodox synagogues and the communities, based primarily in the larger cities of Wellington and Auckland, maintain small day schools with an active rabbinate. Zionism is central to the educational environment among Jewish youth. Participation in such youth movements as Habonim and Bnei Akiva is high and aliya has always been popular. John Ponger, a Kiwi financial adviser who lives in Gilo, made aliya in 1976. His youth involvement with Habonim and a communal appreciation for Zionism, he explains, made the decision to move to Israel that much easier. "We always had a love for Israel and then with the Six Day War, everybody just decided to pick up and go," Ponger says. Shimon Givon, who worked as an emissary to the Auckland community for the Jewish Agency from 1972 to 1976, believes that Zionism is perhaps embraced more heavily among New Zealanders than those from other Anglo communities. "In a place that is so far away from the rest of the world, Jews look for something that is special, and for the New Zealanders that special something became a love for Israel," he explains. With the hopes that INZFA will continue to help encourage the influx of aliya, the association is joining other Anglo-oriented organizations set up for a similar purpose that have since become a solid component of the Anglo community in Israel. David London, executive director of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), is pleased about the new organization. "Olim organizations from smaller communities like New Zealand are very significant for acclimating into Israel. It's an important step that will only serve to strengthen their community and the broader community of Anglo olim." Kiwis are proud that their country is famed for having a 12 to 1 ratio of sheep to people, scenic landscapes and a competitively friendly relationship with Australia. "New Zealanders are best known as warm and friendly people while Australians are loud, arrogant and drunk," quips Mark Jablonka of Rehovot. Given the chance to respond, an Australian immigrant who gave only his Internet moniker, "Aussie Dave," said with a smirk, "About New Zealanders, I'll say only this - they have a beautiful country."