Professor Norman Simms was born in 1940 and grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn (my home town). He studied at Machzike Talmud Torah, Styuvesant High School, Alfred University, and received his Ph.D from Washington University in English Literature. He protested the War in Vietnam, moved to Canada to teach at the University of Manitoba, and from there to the University of Waikato, in Hamilton, New Zealand where he has been ever since.
He has increasingly devoted himself to Jewish studies and to the phenomenon of “crypto-Jews” as “secret agents” of rabbinic wisdom. He has published 15 books, including “Masks in the Mirror: Marranism in Jewish Experience” (Peter Lang, 2005) and “Festivals of Laughter, Blood and Justice” (Sussco, 2007) and hundreds of articles. He also edits and publishes the inter-disciplinary journal, Mentalities/Mentalities.
Simms’ own writings are utterly amazing in terms of their intellectual audacity and command of multiple disciplines. His work combines literary, language, historical, midrashic, and psychological skills. Simms moves effortlessly between the centuries in many voices. For example, his wonderful article, “Satanic Midrashim, or The Abuse of History,” in which he discusses contemporary Blood Libel cases (propagated by Israelis Amiel Toaff and Ron Edelist, among others) is typical, in that his sources and footnotes include nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century works in Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew, and English.
Given our past work together, I knew he would be the ideal person to consult on the most recent episodes of anti-Semitism Down Under.
Q: I’ve just read that you’ve had a spate of Jewish cemetery vandalism (in October of 2007) and that this is the third time in as many years that this has occurred. What begins as Israel-bashing in the media quickly turns to Jew-bashing in terms of smashed and overturned Jewish graves, swastika-and anti-Israel-graffiti. Given how few Jews live in New Zealand (5,000-6000 in a population of just over four million ), is this some kind of bad Jewish joke–Look Ma–Anti-Semitism without any Jews?
A: The key thing to explain is that anti-Semitism is not a popular everyday affair; it is limited to elites, the media and the universities. There may be some old bastards around from the 1940s. Apparently a fair number of Hungarian and Austrian Nazis slipped in while New Zealand was occupying Trieste after the last War. There are also some Dutch and Afrikaans racists, but these are minuscule numbers, though they make the loudest noise when they do something.
The danger is the attitude of the media and the government. Precisely because New Zealand is so small and faraway, it takes up key positions in international bodies–because it seems to be the morally pure, idealistic, utopian land at the bottom of the world; because so many people need to believe in a magical dream of New Zealand invented thirty or forty years ago. The problem–as well as the cause for relief–is the naivete, ignorance and indifference of most students to world affairs. They simply cannot imagine what the real world is like. For example, I just had a second year student write about Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale; and while she vaguely recognized that Jews were massacred in it and that the Prioress gloated, my student really thought it was a very pious tale and felt it showed how religious Chaucer was. If she knew what she was saying, it might be dangerous.
Q: Can you clarify what kind of anti-Jewish activities are going on over there?
A: Anti-Semitism comes in several forms, some more subtle than others:
First, the explicit desecration of cemeteries that usually comes every three or four years in waves following statements by the press or the government, against property not persons, though it contains threats (Death to the Jews, Israelis will burn for their war crimes, etc.);
Second, anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli smears in the press, radio, and television based on exaggerated and distorted criticisms which might be acceptable if not so extreme and matched with idealization of the poor suffering Palestinians, victims of colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, and linked therefore to Maori claims and complaints;
Third, almost unconscious and unintended statements and acts which treat Jews as a bizarre, exotic, and incomprehensible “other”, and can be in a positive form as well as negative (such as, “How wonderful of you to be a Jew, God’s Chosen, one of Jesus’ own people, etc.);
Fourth, government policy of favoring Arab States above Israel, and matching it with a general anti-American discourse, anti-nuclear and anti-globalization policies etc. On the whole, it is all a top down phenomenon, not popular.
Indeed, ordinary kiwis (New Zealanders) are far more sensible and sympathetic than the intellectual, media and government elites. Example: the programme for the forthcoming New Zealand Festival of the Arts seems top-heavy with Bush-bashing (plus Howard, Blair, Sarkozy, etc) “acts”, as though it were an unquestioned truisms that artists like all liberal people must be against Israel, the USA, and Western/Christian traditions.
Q: In 2004, the New Zealand government cancelled President Moshe Katsav’s visit because they claimed that two Israelis, sentenced to six months in jail in New Zealand for alleged “passport forgeries” were in reality, Mossad agents. You yourself have told me that there have been a series of Holocaust Denial mini-scandals at New Zealand universities from the late 1990’s on. Why is anybody so far away with so small a Jewish population bothering to engage in Holocaust Denial and to rail against Israel and the Jews?
A: This is a general tendency throughout the so-called Western world, but here, where intellectual and cultural people are relatively rare on the ground and self-coddled, there is no historical context, no cushioning complexity of society, and where it gets mixed up with what is called “cultural cringe” (kiwis feeling inadequate in the world and in their own eyes because they are such a teeny-tiny country, as well as with picking up trends, fashions and buzz-words that rattle around in people’s heads without any resonance–they are against things that don’t exist here and so tend to reduce them to kiwi size (i.e., Maori political correctness.) Self-righteous, smug and self-defensive, they really believe they are a good people, God’s own (godzone), and the most creative people on earth.
Q: Is this something new or has it happened before?
A: As recent studies have shown (from Australia, of course), New Zealand has been beset by British snobbish anti-Semitism from the beginning (witness the treatment by the Medical Association refusing to allow refugee doctors in before, during and after WWII). The institutionalization of Holocaust Denial through the Kupka Affair, the Hayward Business, etc. shows that universities are incapable of comprehending Holocaust Denial and anti-Semitism, so like the media, they transform it into academic freedom or free speech issues, and then paint themselves into a corner from which they snarl at the nasty Jews (and their allies) for “not being part of the team”.
Considering how many of the academic elite are still ex-pat Brits chaffing in their exile, they react with colonialist arrogance. Most students and staff, like the public, are unaware of what is going on and/or can’t comprehend the real issues, so the “battles” go virtually unnoticed. The trouble is that creeps like David Irving now have properly accredited academic theses to cite in their excremental presentations.
Q: Is anti-Semitism going to go away or will it exist for the foreseeable future in New Zealand?
A On a day by day basis, it is there in the attitude of the press and the government, but not in the general public. Most of the time what happens against Jews here or elsewhere doesn’t get mentioned in the media. The cemetery desecrations this past October made it into the local Wellington papers but nowhere else in the country. It is not something New Zealanders are interested in.
During the recent police raids against suspected terrorists, I could see the kaffias being worn, pick out the references to Palestinian support groups, and recognize the usual people who speak out against Israel, but none of the reporters noticed. It is nothing they care about, are trained to see, or told to watch out for by their editors. Maybe if someone were injured or killed, it would break through into consciousness.
When Jews started to kick up a storm about the Holocaust Deniers a few years back, the press did sit up: but then we were the news more than the Neo-Nazis. It was that we spoke about anti-Semitism that was the news.
Also unnoticed by the press, during the Kupka Affair (a Holocaust Denial scandal which took place at Professor Simms’s own university in which he became involved and about which I write in “The Death of Feminism”), were instances of anti-Semitism that oozed pass the verbal and symbolic to include blackmail, intimidation, and firebombs, along with false accusations of Jews painting bloody swastikas on buildings, etc. These issues have never been resolved and remain smoldering underground. But who knows and cares except the Jews? or the others who lost their jobs, retired early, or moved away in disgust?
Q: What is your own experience of this?
A: My own experience has been to feel the effects of the frustration and rage that comes in the face of these incidents. I have close friends who are Holocaust Survivors, and they have felt the pains and the return of awful old memories. Some members of the German Department at the university put their jobs on the line to expose the calumnies-and they were knocked back for it. A few went away, others could not for family reasons, and their careers have been blighted. It is not a pleasant thing to watch.
Thankfully, for what it is worth, my experience of anti-Semitism has been a matter of omission more than commission, innuendo rather than open slander–and just the way people walk away when you sit at a table or turn in the other direction when you approach. How could this be proved?
By indirect reports, I have learned–but can never prove–that my promotion was blocked for 30 years because I was called a medieval grotesque, a pilpul pedant, an intrusive hebraist. (That’s a word taken from Matthew Arnold and is a polite way of saying I am a Jew. My scholarly and literary work was always mocked and scorned, but most of the time the charges were so grotesque in themselves the documents had to be withdrawn, and then, with no letters of recommendation, there could be no promotion. I know other people pushed aside because even after twenty or thirty years at the university they could never “think like a kiwi” (or “us”). An interview in a national magazine was once canceled at the last moment because my photo “made me look like a dentist”.
Q: After nearly 25 years of trying to develop a Jewish community in Hamilton, you have found yourself ostracized by the very community you helped create because of your increasingly outspoken stands against Holocaust denial and anti-Israelism. By the way, this kind of ostracism has happened to other proud Jews as well, in Canada, Europe, the United States, and Israel during the last seven years. Can you talk about this?
A: I now see it as a mixture of old fashioned ghetto nervousness and modern dhimmitude. Yes, when it comes down to it, the biggest hurt was in losing so many friends and acquaintances. So add to the isolation of being down here at the end of the world the added burden of alienation. Givalt, givalt, givalt, as my Grandpa Dave would say.
Q: Are you worried about the immediate future?
A: No, I am not afraid in an existential way. But because of the apathy and indifference, we are safe.
Q: Where do you see the Jews of New Zealand in the next 10 years? 20 years?
A: That is a “big ask,” as they say around here. I am no longer part of the community here in Hamilton or elsewhere in New Zealand. A few remnants of the old group–three families–meet for a sort of imitation celebration of holidays.
Back to your question. My guess is that nothing will have changed. The Jewish community will still be the same size numerically, and so will continue to shrink proportionately. As such a tiny community, the marriage pool will determine the same things it has for the past 180 years: every family will have branches in Australia, Israel, and more and more in America; families will expand and shrink to follow life-cycles, with young people going overseas to find employment, partners, and to start families, then either returning to be with grandparents or grandparents going overseas to be with off-spring and further progeny; and the whole therefore staying steady; less than replacement levels of population, late and small birth-rates, fewer grandchildren in all, and a tiny trickle of newcomers through immigration.
The unknowns are the politics of overall demographics: will New Zealand tip over towards a non-Christian (worse than post-Christian and secular) society, further into the orbit of Asian social and cultural institutions, and continue the slide into third-world economic stature through opposition to technological industry, merit based education and rationality itself (superstitious ideologies, as among the Greenies)? I suspect everything will be just about the same for most people, if perhaps a little worse for the Jews…. As they always are.
Q: How might my readers acquire your work?
A: Special Editions, including The Phyllis Chesler Special of Mentalities/Mentalités Vol. 21:1 may be purchased in two ways : (a) directly from Outrigger Publishers, PO Box 1198, Hamilton, NZ; or (b) through amazon.com.
Q: Thank you so much for your time.