A Chance To Save The World A Thousand Times
By Jeremy Rose
Legend has it that some of my ancestors spent time in the Sinai Desert.
But I doubt that Richard Prebble had people like my grandparents, who arrived in New Zealand as refugees from Hitler in 1939, in mind when he spoke of the danger of letting too many refugees from "desert cultures" into New Zealand. Mr Prebble was, it seems clear to me, using thinly veiled code language for Arabs, Africans and Muslims.
The idea that peoples can meaningfully be reduced to "desert cultures" versus, presumably, verdant cultures, is too silly to countenance. Are Iraqis, who come from the land that gave birth to agriculture, best described as being from a "desert" or "verdant" culture?
We live in an age where discriminating against people on the grounds of race or religion is both legally and socially unacceptable. That, regrettably, doesn't mean there aren't people who would like to. It would be a rare person who hasn't heard the phrase: "I'm not racist, but..."
Mr Prebble's construction is slightly, but only slightly, more subtle. With the rich world still trying to come to terms with the events of September 11 the time is as ripe as it will ever be for unscrupulous populist politicians to try and win favour by fear mongering about strange and foreign people flooding our shores.
His plea for the white farmers of Zimbabwe to be allowed into the country because they would "fit in" is reminiscent of the White Australian Policy. His press release tellingly makes no mention of the black victims of Mugabe's regime.
New Zealand's refugee policy must be driven by the needs of the world's 14 million refugees, not used as some-sort of recruitment drive for immigrants that the ACT Party feels will "fit in" to New Zealand society.
My late, great-aunt Lola Hirschfeld never fitted into New Zealand society. I once asked her why she had returned to Austria, the country which had murdered so many of her friends and relatives, straight after the war. "There are fascists everywhere," she said. "At least in Austria they know how to make a good cup of coffee." Her time in New Zealand was far from happy.
Lola's son, Yair, who was born in New Zealand and never felt at home in Austria, went on to become one of the Israeli instigators of the Oslo Peace agreement. His sister, Miriam, also emigrated to Israel and became the head nurse of the World Health Organisation. New Zealand provided a refuge for them when they needed it and I'm proud of that.
That the family left following a campaign of vilification by Truth newspaper who felt my great uncle Edi had been too successful it has to be said tempers that sense of pride.
Whether someone "fits in" as often as not has as much to do with the people they're trying to fit in with, as the person themselves. Refugees in New Zealand have enough challenges to deal with without having political leaders making ignorant and gross generalisations about their cultures and questioning their suitability for settlement in New Zealand.
There have been numerous newspaper articles of late itemising the cost to New Zealand of taking in refugees but none trying to assess the value. It could be that the value of having someone like, for example's sake, the philosopher Karl Popper spend time in New Zealand as a refugee simply defies a balance-sheet approach to journalism. But I'm convinced New Zealand is an infinitely more interesting and vibrant place thanks to the contribution of generations of refugees.
Conservative politicians are fond of talking about the need for New Zealand to pull its weight in international affairs. More often than not they are bemoaning a lack of "investment" in weapons.
The fact is we're not pulling our weight when it comes to accepting refugees. We take less refugees than Australia or America on a per capita basis and have done for decades.
Refugees are by definition people who have fled life threatening situations. More often than not they are rotting in refugee camps in countries with barely enough resources for their own people let alone tens of thousands - or in the case of countries such as Iran millions - of refugees..
If the oft quoted Talmudic saying "He who saves a life saves the world" is true then New Zealanders have a chance to help save the world a thousand times over every year. We should be thankful we're in a position to help and do it simply because it's the right thing to do.
* Jeremy Rose is a Wellington-based freelance writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com