(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 23.)
In his recently published autobiography, Don Brash reflects on the contribution made to many Western countries by minority groups that had been forced to leave their homelands because of discrimination.He theorises that people under pressure are driven to succeed. Brash specifically mentions Huguenots, Quakers and Jews.
This resonated with me. My forebears on my father’s side were Huguenots – Protestants who fled France in the late 17th century to escape persecution by the Catholic majority. They settled in tolerant Denmark, from where my grandfather emigrated to New Zealand in 1890.Huguenots spread themselves around the world. They were among the earliest settlers in New York and also migrated in large numbers to the Cape of Good Hope – hence the frequency with which French surnames, such as du Plessis, de Villiers, Joubert and du Toit, occur in South Africa.
The Jewish diaspora, of course, is well known. Ashkenazi Jews, many of them driven out of central and eastern Europe by campaigns of harassment known as pogroms, have been hugely influential in business, science and the arts in the United States, in particular.They have also punched well above their weight in New Zealand. One of our most energetic early premiers, Julius Vogel, was Jewish and Abraham Hort was a prominent figure in early Wellington. Woolf Fisher was a founder of Fisher and Paykel and Bendix Hallenstein established the retail chain that bears his name. In the brewing and retail industries, the Myers and Nathan families have been key players for generations.
Many New Zealand Jews were not only highly successful in business but were, and are, generous benefactors to the community. Whether this arises from a sense of gratitude to a country that offered them freedom from persecution, I couldn’t say.But back to my own forebears. On my paternal grandmother’s side, I’m descended from Danes who left their homeland after the province of Schleswig, where they lived, was invaded by Prussia in 1864. The decisive battle of the Danish-Prussian war was fought around their farmhouse.
Rather than live under the rule of Germans who were bent on suppressing Danish language and culture, they emigrated in 1875 and settled in the Manawatu, where they prospered as farmers, timber millers and merchants.My mother, meanwhile, came from an Irish Catholic background. Her forebears left Ireland in the 19th century for the same reason as millions of others: poverty, religious discrimination and subjection to British rule.
My wife’s family, too, came to New Zealand looking for a new life, free of the bitter experiences of the Old World.Her Polish parents had been forcibly transported to Germany in 1944 and put to work in Nazi labour camps. They had witnessed indescribably shocking things and both lost their entire families.
When the war ended, Poland had effectively been taken over by Stalin’s Soviet Union and there was no point in returning. Some of their friends made the mistake of going back and were never heard from again.Rendered stateless, my in-laws spent nearly 20 years looking for a country that would take them in. In the end it was New Zealand that welcomed them – this after friends had emigrated here and written to them saying what a wonderful place it was.
These family stories are probably not exceptional. We are a society of immigrants. The circumstances they left behind may have differed, but virtually everyone who came here – including, for all we know, the first Maori arrivals – was motivated by a desire for a better life.It’s true of the Dalmatians who came here to dig kauri gum in the late 19th century, it’s true of the Pacific Islanders who came here to work in car assembly plants in the 1960s, and it’s true of everyone who arrived in between. Why else would people uproot themselves and risk an uncertain future in a strange land?
Perhaps not all of them had experienced the acute pressure that Don Brash refers to in his book – the type that threatens people’s very identity and existence; but I believe they all came here determined to construct a better society than the ones they had left behind. And they probably included a disproportionate share of determined and aspirational people – risk-takers who were not prepared to go on living in unsatisfactory circumstances.I think that helps explain the sort of society we have become. By world standards we are a liberal, tolerant and even idealistic society. That was confirmed in the recent international Social Progress Index which ranked New Zealand No 1 in the world – and most significantly, scored us highest on freedom, tolerance and inclusiveness.
We have not only left behind poverty, repression and lack of opportunity. Crucially, we seem also to have left behind old feuds and rivalries.To backtrack momentarily, my wife’s family, although Catholic (like most Poles), was sponsored on arrival in New Zealand by a Methodist community in Palmerston North, which found them a house and helped them settle in. Even in the 1960s, when religious differences were far more pronounced than they are now, this seemed to signal that New Zealand was able to rise above petty sectarianism.
Mercifully, anti-semitism has never taken root here. It’s as if there’s an unstated understanding that the divisions of the Old World – whether it’s Jew versus Christian, Irish Catholic versus Irish Protestant, Croat versus Serb or whatever – have no place in the new one.And long may it remain so. I reckon there should be an imaginary quarantine bin at airports where arriving immigrants discard old prejudices in the same way as they dispose of prohibited foodstuffs.
Of course we’re not perfect, as a contemptible Wellington footballer demonstrated recently when he made monkey noises at a rival player from Africa. But we should be proud that we’re an inclusive society, as has been shown by the way we’ve painlessly adapted to greatly increased inflows of Asian immigrants. We are now one of the world’s most cosmopolitan societies – a remarkable transformation that has been achieved with minimal fuss.In an election year, when rival politicians will be doing their best to paint the blackest possible picture of their opponents, it does no harm to remind ourselves that this is actually the Most Civilised Little Country in the World.