The story of the Jew in New Zealand begins with white settlement. As early as 1829 Cooper and Levy, a Sydney part-Jewish firm, had an agent in New Zealand. A year later Joseph Barrow Montefiore visited the North Island to establish trading ports, but though he continued trading for some years he did not settle. The first Jewish settler was Joel Samuel Polack, who lived at Kororareka in the thirties and recorded the story of his life there in two books (published 1838).
Among the directors of the New Zealand Company was Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, while there were several Jewish land purchasers. Three Jews came in the first 700 colonists to settle at Port Nicholson. In the north several Jewish firms trading at Russell moved to Auckland with the transfer of the seat of government. It was in that town in October 1841 that the first Jewish service was held when David Nathan, founder of L. D. Nathan and Co., was married. By 1848 there were 61 Jews in the colony. Ten years later there were 188, mostly in Auckland. The gold discoveries of the sixties attracted more and the figure grew to 3,216 in 1861, with a decline to 1,424 in 1878. From then on the growth was less rapid and in 1901 there were 1,611; in 1921, 2,380; in 1945, 3,470; and in 1961, 4,006. As a percentage of the total population, the Jewish group has remained fairly static at 0·2 per cent, but these numbers refer to those professing the Hebrew religion and are probably an understatement. Today there are synagogues in the four main centres, the congregation in Dunedin being the most southern in the world. Three synagogues, established at Nelson, Hokitika, and Timaru, are no longer in existence. New Zealand Jewry does not emphasise its Jewish affiliations through public worship or through strict adherence to orthodox Jewish practices. Indeed, there has been considerable intermarriage between Jew and Christian and, as a result, it is probable that many have been lost to the faith, particularly where the children have been brought up as Christians.
The early Jewish arrivals were mainly from England, many living there temporarily en route from the Continent. From about 1880 Jews arriving in New Zealand came from Poland and Russia, having been driven from their homes by Czarist persecution. A few, too few, in the years prior to the commencement of the Second World War escaped from Nazi persecution to find refuge in this country. Generally, there has been little anti-Semitic feeling in evidence. Considerable horror was expressed at the treatment of Jews by the Russians and, later, by the Germans. At the same time, however, little effort was made to welcome refugees and a campaign to prevent the admission of Jews to New Zealand was waged by a few.
Despite their small numbers, the Jews have played an important role in New Zealand life. In business, many important firms were originally established by Jews. L. D. Nathan and Co. is the oldest business in the country, while Joseph Nathan and Co. first produced “Glaxo” in New Zealand, though it now operates principally in England. Levin and Co. is another well-known commercial firm. In the brewing industry Hancock and Co. (now part of New Zealand Breweries) and Ballin Brothers were largely the work of the Davis and Ballin families. Bing Harris and Co., the D.I.C., and Hallenstein Brothers, with large interests in the clothing industry, were Jewish in origin. One of New Zealand's most famous politicians was Sir Julius Vogel, who was twice Premier, but he was not the only Jew to sit in Parliament. The names of Vogel, Benjamin Farjeon, and Frederick Pirani are as important in New Zealand journalism as that of Sir Louis Edward Barnett in medicine. Sir Michael Myers was Chief Justice from 1931 to 1946 and many other Jews have been prominent at the Bar. Cities and towns throughout New Zealand have benefited from Jewish generosity. It is difficult to choose, but perhaps the names of Myers, in Auckland, Levin, in Wellington, and Willi Fels, in Dunedin should be mentioned.
Life has not been difficult for the New Zealand Jew. In return he has contributed greatly to the country's development in almost every sphere.
by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.
- History of the Jews in New Zealand, Goldman, L. M. (1958).