Kiwi in a kaffiyeh or a tui in a tallis? Ann Beaglehole looks back at New Zealand's approach to the formation of the state of Israel 70 years ago and the early New Zealand-Israel relationship.

AuthorBeaglehole, Ann

On 29 November 1947 New Zealand voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which recommended the partitioning of British mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. While accepting that partition was not the perfect solution to the problem of meeting both Jewish and Arab aspirations, New Zealand saw it as the fairest in the circumstances. New Zealand's support was qualified. It favoured a two-state solution then--and still does today. This is reflected in its support for Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016, which said that Israel's settlements in Palestine territory violate international law and undermine a two-state solution.


It is almost 70 years since the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which recommended the partitioning of the British Palestine mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Now is a good time to look back at New Zealand's role in Resolution 181 and to the beginnings, in the 1930s and 1940s, of the country's relationship with Israel. On 29 November 1947 New Zealand voted for the partition resolution, which was adopted by the General Assembly by 33 votes to thirteen. New Zealand's view was that while partition was not a perfect solution to the national aspirations of Jews and Arabs, it was the fairest one in the circumstances. During the committee discussions, New Zealand's UN representative, Carl Berendsen, supported the partition resolution, speaking out for the necessity of implementation provisions. In May 1948 the state of Israel came into being. It could not have happened without Resolution 181 first ruling that a Jewish state and an Arab state should legitimately be established.

In 2016, New Zealand sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2334. This said that Israel's settlements in Palestine territory violate international law and undermine a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It called on Israel to stop creating new settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and on both Israeli and Palestinian authorities to stop acts of provocation, destruction and terror. The resolution was adopted and Israel withdrew its ambassador in New Zealand as protest. After New Zealand and Israel had patched up the relationship, Prime Minister Bill English said in 2017 that he stood by Resolution 2334. New Zealand's position on Israel is 'what it has always been' and the resolution was in line with 'longstanding government policy'. The New Zealand Jewish Chronicle of July 2017 reported him as saying that Israel and New Zealand were good friends and friends are able to question each other. The Labour-NZ First coalition agreement in October 2017 included a reference to the 'lack of process followed prior to the National-led government's sponsorship of UNSC 2334'.

Some commentators have called New Zealand's actions in sponsoring Resolution 2334 sound diplomacy, pleased to see the country standing strong for the Palestinian cause. Others have praised New Zealand's conscientious even-handedness; or remarked that the gesture was largely about trade. An acquaintance of mine said that as New Zealand did not get the two-state solution it voted for in Resolution 181, further action was justified. The president of the New Zealand Zionist Federation attacked the governments hypocrisy on the grounds that New Zealand has a history of treating its own indigenous population less than honourably, yet decides to sponsor a resolution condemning the indigenous people of Israel. That view makes little sense, not least because New Zealand has made strides in recent years to address past wrongs against Maori.

Immigration origins

The hypocrisy accusation has another resonance, however. This is in relation to New Zealand and the 'Palestine question' in the 1930s and 1940s, when considered in the context of New Zealand's position on Jewish immigration to New Zealand before, during and after the Second World War. It is this aspect of the origins of the New Zealand-Israeli relationship that I want to explore in this article. The two issues--the 'problem' of Jewish refugees and the 'problem' of a Jewish homeland in Palestine are related, of course, for the roots of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) are in Jewish persecution in Europe. First, I will discuss New Zealand's response to Jewish refugees. Next I will consider how the 'Palestine question' played out in New Zealand politics in the 1930s and 1940s. I will then look at New Zealand's role in the establishment of the state of Israel through the United Nations. Are the origins of New Zealand's so-called even-handed approach to the Middle East conflict to be found in the country's position during 1947-50? Did New Zealand's distinct and independent point of view make a useful contribution? How valid is the hypocrisy accusation?

The country's involvement in the establishment of a Jewish homeland and in protecting the interests of the Arab population of Palestine went far beyond its immediate material, economic and strategic interests. To try to explain this I look at the role of key people in the 1930s and 1940s who were involved, particularly Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser (committed to a Jewish homeland) and UN representative from 1946 to 1951 Carl Berendsen (committed to collective security and international law). Fraser had close Jewish friends in Wellington and was sympathetic to the Zionist movement. He was so enthusiastic in fact that senior External Affairs officials sometimes felt his 'Zionist exuberance' needed 'to be constrained'. (1) Berendsen had a Jewish background, though brought up as a Catholic. His mother was Fannie Asher, the daughter of a Jewish businessman who had been a storekeeper and trader in Wellington in the early 1840s. (2) Berendsen had great hopes of the United Nations as a basis for future world peace. He was a firm believer in collective security and international law and was opposed to the use of the veto in the Security Council. Fraser and Berendsen, often clashing at a personal level, had a difficult working relationship.

Before going any further, I had better put my cards on the table. As a teenager in the 1960s, I belonged to Habonim (Hebrew for 'the builders'), a Zionist youth group, where we held hands and sang about...

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