There has been talk recently about the anti-Semitism present at the Wellington protest. Experts in extremism, media, and politicians have discussed it.
I have not been to the protest and even if I had, I am not sure if I, or anyone else, would be able to get an accurate understanding of how prevalent it is, except to say that there is clearly a pernicious element there.
I have seen the "Jewcinda" ute, the swastika graffiti, some of the social media chat, the speech referring to "Soros", "Rothschilds" and "cabal" – all, in this context, anti-Semitic dog-whistles.
This is all disgusting, yet sadly unsurprising.
Anti-Semitism is, unlike other forms of racism, "punching up" racism. At heart, it is itself a conspiracy theory, the premise being that a cabal of shadowy Jews is using its outsized, almost supernatural powers to manipulate world events for its own nefarious ends.
Dig deep enough in many, if not most conspiracy theories, and you will find this mythical Jew at the bottom – or perhaps more appropriately at the top – of it.
Of course, the word "Jew" is often not uttered. Instead, it may well be a dog whistle as I just mentioned. Often these days it is "Zionist" or the collective Jew, being the Jewish nation-state, Israel – like when Israel is accused of being behind 9/11, a pervasive belief in parts of the Middle East.
Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and intimidation are nothing new at protests and rallies in Aotearoa, but it is not always from the far-right or white supremacists.
A week after the barbaric mosque attacks in 2019, a speaker at a "Love Aotearoa Hate Racism" rally for the victims said he believed the gunman got his funding from "Mossad" (Israel's renowned spy agency) and "Zionist business". This occurred in Auckland's Aotea Square, just down the road from the country's largest Jewish community centre, which contains its only Jewish school – under armed police guard, for fear of a copycat attack. No one at the rally spoke out against it – in fact, there was some support.
Swastikas and the flag of Hezbollah (whose military wing is a designated terror organisation in New Zealand) have appeared at other demonstrations.
Some of those who have felt so outraged by the anti-Semitism on display at the Wellington protest have been silent about these other manifestations of anti-Semitism – even those inciting violence - and indeed have found common cause with some of those manifestations. Ironically, it has been suggested by some of those same people that I am downplaying the anti-Semitism at the protest or worse, condoning it.
I am doing neither. I am refusing to politicise anti-Semitism and treat an obviously disparate group of individuals as a monolith.
One of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is that every human is made in the image of God. The equality and dignity of the individual are paramount. That means taking every person in good faith as you find them and would want to be found. It means trying to understand what makes a person tick, their lived experience, their hopes, and fears.
We have rightly heard a lot about protecting the vulnerable from getting Covid – including the poor, ill, and Māori, with lockdowns and other aspects of our pandemic response, but less about how they disproportionately bear the brunt of that response too – such as through job losses, being crammed in substandard housing, missing medical treatment and lack of IT for kids.
I believe that right now in Aotearoa we have more disruption and uncertainty than most of us have ever known. Fear and anger can lead to othering and dehumanising people whom you mistrust, perceive as being different or disagree with. No one is immune to this.
The critics of the protesters are as prone to this as the protesters. But if we do that to the protesters, we risk exacerbating their sense of victimhood and disempowerment – whether we think it is justified or not – and that is fertile ground for conspiracism and extremism.
I suspect that what many protesters have found at the protest is a sense of belonging and community that they have felt stripped of until now.
Reformed American Neo-Nazi Christian Piccolini changed his ways when for the first time he meaningfully interacted with the people who he thought he hated, and who sought him out to talk to him. He has said that being treated with compassion had the most powerful transformative effect on him.
I am certainly not suggesting that we should meet with the far right or offer them our understanding. I abhor them. I am suggesting, though, that we should think about how we confine them to the very fringes of society and what we can do to not create the conditions that drive genuine, peaceful protesters - who are reported to be the majority – into their arms.
That begins with, even if we don't support them, treating them as individuals, understanding them, and not demonising them. We should expect the same of them, and that they unequivocally disavow violence, abuse, and racism.
If we want to rescue our nation from the self-destructive path that other Western democracies are treading, it is in all our interests to restore the trust that has broken down and find our shared humanity and values.
• Juliet Moses is the spokesperson for the New Zealand Jewish Council