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Is New Zealand a tolerant society?

Juliet Moses.

As the free speech vs hate speech debate goes on, offences against religious minorities suggest an undercurrent of prejudice exists in the country.

Both Jews and Muslims in New Zealand have been the targets of what might be termed hate crime.

Jewish headstones in cemeteries have been desecrated on several occasions, typically by being defaced with swastikas. It happened in Dunedin in 2015 and Auckland in 2012. The offender in the Auckland case, a 20-year-old man, was convicted of wilful damage, sentenced to 320 hours’ community service and ordered to pay $3000 in reparations.

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The judge said the offence could be classified as a hate crime but commended the offender for taking part in a restorative justice conference with members of the Jewish community.

Jewish graves were also targeted at Makara Cemetery, near Wellington, in 2004. But the living as well as the dead have been targeted.

Juliet Moses, a spokeswoman for the NZ Jewish Council, says a four-year-old boy wearing a traditional Jewish skull cap was hit on the head on his way home from school in Auckland in 2014.

Reports of other Auckland incidents have found their way into the Times of Israel. In one, a group of men allegedly shouted “f---ing Jews” at a boy walking in Remuera. And Moses says a rabbi was verbally assaulted in Karangahape Rd.

Desecrated headstones in Auckland’s Grafton Cemetery.

She says extreme anti-Jewish comments are common online: “‘All Jews should be exterminated’, that type of thing. Part of me doesn’t even blink at extreme statements like that.”

She has been targeted personally with hate mail, often emblazoned with swastikas. “It would surprise a lot of New Zealanders to learn that this sort of thing goes on.

“Social media has certainly exacerbated things. The discourse has deteriorated. There’s so much name-calling and polarising, much of it anonymous.”

Is it easier to dehumanise imagined enemies online? “Yes, that’s a large part of it. Plus people can choose their news sources and find websites where there are others of a similar world view and they can get affirmation.”

Yet Moses thinks existing legal safeguards against hate speech are adequate and says the NZ Jewish Council doesn’t favour tougher laws. It does, however, support proposals for police to gather statistics on the incidence of hate crime.

Where does she think the balance lies between hate speech and legitimate freedom of expression? “That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? That’s partly why we would oppose a change in the law, because everybody has a different definition of what hate speech is.

“The best way to challenge hate speech is through debate and discussion in the marketplace of ideas. And to do that you need to get things out in the open.”

Mehpara Khan.

Mehpara Khan, too, knows what it feels like to be targeted as a member of a religious minority. Khan, a Muslim, had stopped at a public toilet in Huntly with friends last year when she was attacked by a woman who hurled abuse, threw cans of beer at her and tried to punch her.

She had the presence of mind to record the attack on her cellphone and posted it online, showing her assailant calling Khan and her friends “f---ing Muslim bitches” and telling them to “get out of my patch”. Police used the video to identify the offender, a 27-year-old woman who subsequently pleaded guilty to two charges of assault and one of insulting behaviour.

The court heard she was drunk at the time and didn’t remember the incident. She was sentenced to 12 months’ supervision.

Khan, who works in corporate communications, was wearing a hijab at the time so was instantly identifiable as a Muslim. Did she consider it a hate crime?

“On paper, when you look up what a hate crime is, you can compare it to what happened and say, ‘Oh yeah, that looks and feels and sounds like a hate crime’, but to my mind, a hate crime looks and feels a bit more premeditated.

“It was definitely fuelled by prejudice, definitely fuelled by some racial or Islamophobic undercurrent, but I don’t think you could call it a hate crime.”

It wasn’t the first time Khan had been targeted. She has been told to go back where she came from (although she’s New Zealand-born), and was once confronted in a McDonald’s outlet by a man who began screaming at her about Israel and Palestine.

Mehpara Khan's attacker.

“After that incident, I decided that if anything like that happened again, I wasn’t just going to stand there and do nothing. When things like this happen to you, it takes a little bit of your power away. It makes you feel like a victim, and that didn’t sit very well with me.”

Was she happy with the outcome of the Huntly incident?

“I’m a really strong believer in restorative justice, so I would really have liked to see her [the offender] get a bit more help and rehabilitation. I think that with crimes like these, there needs to be dialogue – a chance to sit down and have a conversation, to confront your prejudices.”

Khan sees merit in creating new hate-crime legislation, “simply because it gives us a framework in which we can operate. Although I didn’t necessarily deem this a hate crime, I think there’s an unwillingness to admit that’s what it was. It’s an easier pill to swallow if you say ‘I was assaulted’ rather than ‘I was the victim of a hate crime’.”

Asked whether she thinks New Zealand is a tolerant society, she hesitates for a long time.

“That’s a really hard question for me to answer. When what happened to me went public, there was a lot of outrage and I received a lot of public support. For a lot of people it came as a shock, which for me signifies that it’s not a reality for a lot of people.

“That to me signifies hope. On the whole, we’re doing all right, but … it all depends on who you talk to and what community they come from.

“It’s challenging. There’s no easy answer.”

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.