We filed an OIA to ask how racism became foreign policy

On June 24 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) announced that Aotearoa had joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), ostensibly to combat antisemitism and Holocaust ignorance or denial. We filed an Official Information Act (OIA) request to find out how that was decided.

New Zealand’s observer status does not mean that we have accepted the notorious IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, which silences criticism of Israel by calling it antisemitic. That definition still has no standing in this country. We must not let its advocates introduce it by stealth, as the NZ Jewish Council did when it used that definition to call Kiwis antisemitic for supporting the findings of human rights organisations. Our observer status in the IHRA certainly elevates the risk that the IHRA working definition could be introduced to Aotearoa as a matter of foreign policy, negating local views – precisely as this OIA file shows that MFAT has neglected public discussion to date. We have described the IHRA organisation and our risks here, and proposed some ways to resist both the IHRA working definition and the real antisemitism that we encounter.

Make no mistake, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is not a gesture to the Jewish community. It is the taking of sides: Zionist Jews against all other Jews, against Palestinians and their allies, and against the human rights community. We want to know (a) how this became a foreign policy matter, and (b) whose interests MFAT privileged – for that is the effect of acting behind closed doors.

MFAT kicked our OIA back, then narrowed it and then delayed their reply –  and still MFAT declines to tell us who initiated this process. They refer to the inter-departmental provision of the Official Information Act, so someone else was involved – but MFAT won’t name them. 

The OIA file summarises that Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta agreed to apply for IHRA membership in August 2021. The application was made in April 2022. Copies of the IHRA membership submission would go to the Prime Minister and Associate Minister for Foreign Affairs. Recommended referrals for documents include the Ministers of Justice and Ethnic Communities. Contacts for ongoing work are all MFAT staff. MFAT released no evidence of any community consultations beyond the NZ Jewish Council, whose proposed delegates to the IHRA were all approved.

Based upon the information that MFAT has disclosed:

  • An action dealing substantively with racism does not include a single mention of the Commissioners of Human Rights or Race Relations.
  • The IHRA regime would sever the treatment of antisemitism from all other forms of racism, yet the file shows no debate and zero evidence of the wisdom, efficacy, or desire of New Zealanders to do so.
  • A file establishing a separate Holocaust curriculum does not mention the Minister of Education or curriculum institutions.
  • The file reports that groups of teachers are already being brought biannually to Israel. It does not propose educating our teachers about Palestinian history, and records no consultation with Palestinians.
  • A file that refers to the Christchurch murders as a marker for our risks does not then consult the Muslim, antiracist or human rights communities as to the effectiveness of the interventions it proposes.
  • A file that refers to the IHRA working definition shows no input from a single group or representative of the communities who have been vilified by the international enactment of that definition. A definition that divides Jews into Zionists and antisemites shows not one minute of consultation with the Jewish community as a whole.

In May, during the very weeks covered by these documents, MFAT issued policy advice to local councils warning that Palestinian expression on Nakba Day would be ‘likely to evoke [redacted] criticism from the Israeli Embassy [redacted] and a fairly diverse group of supporters of the state of Israel.’  Having submitted our IHRA membership application in April, having advised city councils to suppress Palestinian expression in May, MFAT led us into the IHRA in June.

MFAT recommends that we should not adopt the notorious IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism ‘at this time’. It notes that those who support the IHRA definition ‘engage heavily in the media and online’. MFAT does not disclose that those heavy social media users are its only community interlocutorss.

On the basis of its recent actions and these documents, MFAT can not be regarded as a trustworthy actor on these sensitive, local issues.

Deborah Geels wrote for the Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade that IHRA ‘observership would … demonstrate solidarity with New Zealand’s Jewish community’. As with the Wellington Regional Jewish Council’s suggestion that the Wellington City Council adopt the IHRA definition with no public consultation in February 2020, that kind of solidarity is properly called capture.

We say as we have said before, you do not enact solidarity with the Jewish community by harming our neighbours. The great benefit of the human rights paradigm is its empathy: it values us equally. The IHRA regime severs the political interests of Zionist Jews and addresses them at the expense of all others. Nothing good will come from its hierarchy of human worth.

We have written to Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, asking her to scrap this decision in light of MFAT’s failure to involve or consider the rights of those who will be affected by it. We can best address racism through a human-rights-led engagement among New Zealanders – led by our Commissioners for Human Rights and Race Relations.

Alternative Jewish Voices of Aotearoa New Zealand

7 thoughts on “We filed an OIA to ask how racism became foreign policy”

  1. GOOD ON YOU !!!!!!!!!

    huge love,


    On Sun, Aug 28, 2022 at 11:57 AM Sh’ma Koleinu – Alternative Jewish Voices


  2. This article condemns the definition of anti-semitism, but I am having trouble finding the actual words of the definition in this article. Could someone help?


      1. Marilyn, thanks for sending that – but I still can’t find the definition in question. Could you tell me what it is? It might be helpful to put it directly in your article so we can see the definition being criticised. Cheers, Emily


      2. Many thanks, Fred. The list is very interesting and also contradictory. In one place it exempts criticising Israel, but later includes it in the definition. The scope and vagueness of the definition is very like the proposed changes to NZ hate speech laws. I sent a submission on the unintended consequences of those proposals. Cheers, Emily


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