I love the Symonds St cemetery. I love that it’s right in the middle of the city where anyone can enter, not locked up behind a fence. I love that a Jewish cemetery in a mostly non-Jewish country can be in the middle of the city where anyone can enter.
I love sitting in the cemetery and reading the inscriptions on the headstones. It’s comforting reading Hebrew in New Zealand. It makes me feel less alien here. I don’t know anything about the lives of the people buried in that cemetery, but it’s reassuring to see that Jews have a history in this country—as much as any other Tau Iwi anyway.
I imagine that’s exactly why neo-Nazis targeted the Symonds St cemetery. To them, Jewish people are not part of New Zealand society (along with other non-White, non-hetero people). Attacking a 19th century Jewish cemetery is a way of attacking Jewish existence in New Zealand.
It’s hard to describe how I felt when I read about it. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In 2004 the Jewish cemeteries in Karori and Makara were vandalised by neo-Nazis. So it’s always at the back of my mind, the possibility of anti-Semitic attacks. But that didn’t stop the shock that hit me this afternoon. It’s the same shock I felt the first time I saw swastika jewelry being sold at a New Zealand shop. It took me a few minutes to notice I was shaking.
The people who attacked the cemetery spray painted swastikas and 88s on Jewish headstones. They also sprayed ‘fuck Israel’ on a grave. Why spray anti-Israel slogans in a cemetery that pre-dates the Israeli state’s existence?
I am not a Zionist and I don’t support Israel. I support freedom and equality for everyone living in historic Palestine and I support the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. I don’t think that ‘fuck Israel’ is an anti-Semitic slogan—except for when it’s spray painted on a dead Jew’s grave.
Whoever vandalised these graves wasn’t acting out of solidarity with Palestinians. White supremacists attack Muslims just as much as they attack Jews. But anti-Semites are perfectly happy to hijack Palestinians’ struggle for liberation from a racist state, when it serves their racist agenda. That’s something the global Palestine solidarity movement has been addressing recently after a Palestine solidarity organisation tweeted an anti-Semitic video. Both Bekah Wolf and Ali Abunimah have written about it. The discussion on anti-Semitism in the Palestine solidarity movement lead over 100 Palestinian activists to sign a statement condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Zionism and all other bigotry.
Anti-Semitic attacks on diaspora Jewish communities hurt both Jews and Palestinians. They reinforce the Zionist claim that Jews aren’t safe unless Israel remains a Jewish-supremacist state—and that this justifies the horrific consequences for Palestinians and other non-Jews. Anti-Semitism and Zionism are both racist ideologies and they reinforce each other.
I’m sad that the response to these racist attacks is to increase security, including building a $250,000 security fence around the cemetery. We should be addressing the root of the problem, which is to say, we should be addressing anti-Semitism and racism.
I’m relieved that so far no one’s attempted to exploit the situation to garner support for Israel.
Defending Jewish people’s right to live in peace anywhere in the world is part of the wider struggle against racism and colonialism, in Palestine and elsewhere. Conflating Jews with Israel serves anti-Semites like the people who spray painted swastikas on 130-year-old graves, and it serves Zionists like the IDF soldiers who terrorise West Bank Palestinians. It doesn’t serve anyone’s struggle for liberation.