Dear Statistics NZ, we are not Israeli / Jewish

Once there was a Jewish religion. Then code 51117 made us all officially Israeli.

Before Nakba Day, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) advised the Wellington City Council that ‘the Israeli Ambassador or other Israeli groups’ might be discomfited by the sight of Palestinian colours. We wondered which Israeli groups were being given a veto over Wellingtonians’ peaceful use of public space. Tongue in cheek, we wrote, ‘can it possibly be that MFAT doesn’t know the difference between the NZ Jewish community and an Israeli pressure group?’

We set out to educate MFAT about the difference between ‘Israeli’ and ‘Jewish’, only to find that NZ’s official, current ethnic statistical classifications do not distinguish them at all!

Our search turned up only one result, only one way to be Jewish in Aotearoa:

Every ethnic category that we might write on a form (and there are far more labels than this website recognises) has been coded as a subset of category 51117, Israeli / Jewish.

The New Zealand Department of Statistics’ ethnic coding is not the norm. The UK’s Office for National Statistics shows a category ‘CT0753 – Ethnic group: Jewish’ with no reference to Israel. Nor does Australia’s ethnic ‘Jewish’ category #42 mention Israel.

The Australian and UK statisticians understand that Israel is a state. ‘Israeli’ names a citizenship, not an ethnicity. Only Israel itself uses the Jewish religion as a nationality. Naturally, we wonder who might have advised our government statisticians to adopt this outlier Israeli practice in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The same coding is presumably used throughout our official statistics. Coding is an abstract act of organising, but it quickly creates real-world consequences by defining the categories of subsequent descriptions. Here, for example, the same categories describe Wellington’s ethnic composition.

We object to this coding, because Israeli / Jewish names us inaccurately. We further – and at high volume – reject the category’s political consequences. Israeli / Jewish confines our global religion to a territory, and it enlists New Zealand Jews in Israel’s project of ethnic nationalism.

  1. Israeli / Jewish is inaccurate

Our ethnic statistics subsume all non-Israeli Jews into Israeli citizenship, and classify Palestinians as an ethnic group unrelated to their land. That also neatly encapsulates Israel’s nationalist project.

The merging of ethnic Jewishness with Israeli citizenship flatly contradicts the New Zealand Department of Statistics’ own definition of ethnicity:  ‘Ethnicity is a measure of cultural affiliation. It is not a measure of race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship.’

There is no reason to include a classification of Israeli citizens in our ethnic statistics. We don’t record Canadians or Australians as a distinct ethnic group. Having created an Israeli category, it is an additional wrong to populate that category only with Jews.

The people who reside in the territory governed by Israel are roughly half non-Jewish Palestinians.  State citizenship is an administrative matter in a world governed by states. Residency constitutes citizenship, not religion or any other identitarian qualifier that can be used to create tiers of rights. This is why the NZ Department of Statistics rightly separates ethnicity from citizenship in its words, although not in its action.

It’s especially important to treat Israeli citizenship according to the global norms of citizenship. To do otherwise would be complicit in the erasure of all those non-Jews who are presently disenfranchised and discriminated against.

Conversely, the majority of the world’s Jews are not Israeli. Depending on one’s definition of a Jew (and oy, please don’t ask us about the who-is-a-Jew thing!), there are 15 – 20 million Jews worldwide. Around 46% of us are Israeli. Our government has just relocated the rest of us, and coded away two thousand years of Jewish diasporism.

Aotearoa’s 7000 Jews are 0.035% of the Jewish population of our world. We do not wish to statistically vanish into Israel’s manufactured demographic majority, thank you.

We are not Israeli / Jewish. We are ethnically Jewish citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand

2. What kind of Jew refuses to be Israeli / Jewish? Many.

ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist protest, Toronto 2017. Photo: Marilyn Garson

Israel was established on the premise that Israeli citizenship would be attached to Jewish identity, not to residency as citizenship is constituted in pluralist states like Aotearoa. That founding imaginary privileged a global Jewish population who could belong at will, at the direct expense of a local indigenous population who would never be allowed to belong to their land. That bit of ethnic privilege was coded into Israel’s Law of Return. It grants rights to every Jew and ignores every Palestinian’s UN-mandated Right of Return. Israel’s 2018 Nation-State Law hardened and extended ethnically differentiated rights. It legislated that self-determination belonged only to Jews in Israel, not to Israel’s citizens.

You can see the ethnic imaginary at work in the Jewish Council’s recent survey of antisemitism in Aotearoa. Respondents had to agree that Jews are indigenous to Palestine, or they would be labeled antisemitic. The Jewish Council’s survey did not allow any pluralist belonging that might better reflect the thousands of years of settlement and fluid peoplehood in Palestine / Israel.

Israel’s regime has now calcified into one which the global human rights community calls apartheid.  We are deeply offended that our own government should require us to be associated with apartheid each time we name our Jewish religion on a census or any other official form. We are Jews and we are not occupiers.

The former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset or parliament, Avraham Burg, is seeking to break the same Israeli / Jewish coding. Born into a prominent family of religious scholars, Burg takes the ethics of Judiasm to heart. He is suing to be released from his Israeli / Jewish nationality because it violates his religious principles to be identified with the oppression of non-Jews. His statement to the court rejects Israel’s definition as a state ‘belonging to the Jewish nation, and [he writes] that he is no longer willing for his “nationality” to be listed as “Jewish” in the Interior Ministry’s records.’

We are not willing to be recorded as Israeli / Jewish either.  This coding has deep epistemological and ethical implications. It politicises our wondrous, ancient religion and identifies us with the ongoing harm that Israel is doing to our fellow Semites, the Palestinians.

We have asked Minister David Clark to change the codes. We are Jewish New Zealanders and we want our religion back.

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa New Zealand (not Israel)

6 thoughts on “Dear Statistics NZ, we are not Israeli / Jewish”

  1. Ridiculous and offensive to those of us who do not identify in any way with Israel,and are appalled by its policies. As a British Jew recently settled in NZ, I’d like to thank you for this statement


  2. I am so surprised by this. Please keep us informed as to Clark’s response and whether you want others to write to him.


    1. I will. As soon as we have a response, we will share it. This coding is now quite old, and I hope that Stats NZ will recognise it as an anomaly, overdue for correction. If there is any doubt that the classification is a meaningful matter, it might well be helpful for others to write!


  3. I hope we can have an update that is not as depressing – shame on Statistics NZ for this. Thank you so much for highlighting this shameful display of ignorance, and for doing something about it.


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