My Word: The Ides of March in Christchurch

Relatives and family members of Naeem Rashid who was killed along with his son Talha Naeem in the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, pray during a condolence gathering at the family's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan March 17, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Relatives and family members of Naeem Rashid who was killed along with his son Talha Naeem in the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, pray during a condolence gathering at the family's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan March 17, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
New Zealand will never be the same again. There will always be a “before March 15” and an “after March 15.” A massacre of people peacefully at prayer is a special kind of horror. New Zealanders were particularly unprepared for this kind of terrorist abomination taking place in their green land.
For some six years I was a regular overseas’ contributor to Radio New Zealand’s “Nights” program. Roughly every three months, I was interviewed by presenter Bryan Crump, asking intelligent questions in pleasant tones. The producers usually wanted to know at least two weeks in advance what I would be speaking about. I always joked that two weeks is too far ahead to plan for someone dealing with the hectic pace of an Israeli news cycle. Nobody ever died of boredom here, I quipped.
I enjoyed those radio spots which, I hope, offered a different view of Israel, going beyond the usual politics and conflict to include topics ranging from Jewish religious holidays and customs to Israel’s obsession with the Eurovision Song Contest. The questions I was asked often gave me a glimpse at life in a country that couldn’t, it seemed to me, be more different.
It was literally night and day. The live interviews were broadcast in the late evening hours in New Zealand in what was still the morning in Israel. As I sweltered in the summer heat in Jerusalem, I would hear warnings of bad weather on the other side of the globe.
In November 2012, as Sabras ran for shelter when hundreds of rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, the biggest news story for Kiwis was the screening of The Hobbit, the movie filmed amid New Zealand’s dramatic scenery.
The tourism boost from The Hobbit series, the state of the dairy industry, and the ups and downs of rugby and cricket seasons seemed to remain headline news over there, while Israelis roller-coastered through highs and lows of wars and terror attacks, start-up successes and our own special contribution to the film world: Wonder Woman Gal Gadot.
When I went to sleep last Thursday, the main news story in Israel was the two rockets that had been launched that night from Gaza on the greater Tel Aviv area. I fully expected that to be the top story when I woke up. When my alarm went off and I turned on the radio to hear about an appalling massacre in Christchurch, I thought I might still be dreaming. A nightmare. Nothing I knew of New Zealand had prepared me for the possibility of a white supremacist entering mosques and mowing down worshipers at Friday prayers.
My heart went out to the families of the victims – and to all the ordinary, decent people of New Zealand who had to deal with the shock, grief and sense of violation.
The double attacks, in which 50 people were murdered by Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, were reminiscent of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last October in which 11 people lost their lives during Shabbat prayers.
Indeed, synagogues and Jewish schools in New Zealand were closed last weekend not, as some suggested, out of the undoubted sympathy, but due to security warnings.
White supremacists – like Islamist terrorists – attack Jews, Muslims and Christians, anyone they see as “the other.”
How do you deal with such horror? In Israel’s case, the answer is with a strengthened sense of solidarity. I have no doubt that New Zealanders, too, felt closer as they had to deal with the tragedy. The Jewish community – around the world – expressed condolences and rallied to help in whatever way it could.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Jeremy Sharon reported, Rabbi Ariel Tal, head of the Wellington Jewish Community Center, and Rabbi Natti Friedler, head of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation – both from Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel rabbinical emissary program – asked their respective communities to donate the traditional charity money given on the Purim holiday (celebrated this week) to support the families of the victims of the attack in addition to the Jewish poor.
Apart from the assault itself, New Zealand suddenly had to deal with an unexpected diplomatic crisis with Turkey, the sort of crisis familiar in Israel. Invoking the memory of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign in the First World War – in which British forces including ANZAC soldiers from Australia and New Zealand suffered a military disaster – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened those coming to Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments: “Your grandparents came here and returned in coffins. Have no doubt: We will send you back like your grandfathers.” Typical talk from the Turkish would-be sultan. And typically unhelpful.
THE MASSACRE in Christchurch temporarily diverted attention from the rockets launched on Tel Aviv, no doubt helped by the fact that no one was physically injured. The attacks marked the first time air raid sirens wailed out a warning in Tel Aviv since Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014. (Another war I tried to explain to the radio audience a world away.) The rockets revived the humor of wars past. As far back as the 1991 Gulf War, Tel Avivians have joked that neither they nor rockets can find parking places.
The IDF announcement the next day made me smile for the wrong reasons. According to the official statement, the rockets were found to have been fired “by mistake.” It’s an incredible excuse in both senses of the word. People might occasionally fire off a WhatsApp message to the wrong group of recipients, but accidentally firing rockets on a country’s main financial center is in the league of fatal errors. If nothing else, it calls into question who has access to Hamas’s rocket launchers and gets to push the button. If the system was accidentally operated while being cleaned, the question is, for what were they being cleaned and tested?
It might take a while to get a clear picture of what happened, and I wouldn’t rule out it being part of the internal tensions within Hamas. While the world was busy condemning Israel for defending itself, Hamas was busy beating up Palestinian journalists and protesters at rallies highlighting the abuse of the ruling regime in Gaza.
Israel’s response – hitting specific Hamas targets (with no reported loss of life) – did attract headlines. Reuters, for example, prepared a package of news photos under the heading: “Israeli warplanes strike Gaza,” with no mention of the attacks on Tel Aviv. As if the Israeli response – not the Palestinian projectiles – had come out of the blue.
When father-of-12 Rabbi Ahiad Ettinger and IDF soldier Gal Keidan were killed by a terrorist near Ariel on March 17, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza distributed candy to celebrate the success of the shooting attack.
The deaths of the 47-year-old exceptional educator and the 19-year-old gifted musician, who played the mandocello, passed without major international condemnation. (More attention was given to the terror attack in which three people were killed in Utrecht, bringing Holland into the unhappy club of European countries dealing with jihadist terrorism.)
When it comes to Israel, it seems some things never change. The United Nations Human Rights Council, which convened this week in Geneva for its 40th session, continued to single out Israel, accusing it of possible war crimes. Hillel Neuer, who heads the UN Watch NGO, was among those speakers whose microphone was cut when he tried to combat the bias. He was reading out a list of the countries participating in the anti-Israel debate, a list which includes human rights luminaries of the caliber of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Libya, North Korea and Sudan.
During my broadcasts to the Wellington radio studio, I was always aware that despite our differences – differences we should celebrate, not hide – ordinary people everywhere are concerned with the same basic things: healthcare, education, and financial and personal security. I feel for New Zealand, which now finds itself in a different world in which the rules of fair play have been brutally broken. They have discovered that nowhere is immune to terror. It is a world with which Israelis are all too familiar. Nevertheless, we also know that life goes on; and you must never give in to fear.