Today on The Detail, Sharon Brettkelly talks to Kiwis Tameem Shaltoni and Ben Kepes.
Shaltoni calls himself a Palestinian-New Zealander, born in Jordan, from a refugee family with relatives remaining in Gaza.
Kepes was born in New Zealand of Holocaust survivor parents, and has family in Israel.
Two very different sides of the Israel-Palestine divide; two stories that come from a background of trauma; two stories that in many ways aren’t that different at all.
“My grandparents on both sides were dispossessed by Israel in 1948,” says Shaltoni. “They were expelled from their homes in Palestine. Subsequently my dad was born in a tent in a refugee camp in Gaza. My mum, she was born in Damascus in a refugee camp. They met and married in Jordan and that is where I was born. Then we came to New Zealand in 2014.”
Kepes says his parents were refugees from Western Europe, and survived the Holocaust – “so there’s this huge context that has always kind of been there in the background, but after October 7 has become really acute to myself and to other Jews in New Zealand.”
Shaltoni says he wanted New Zealand to be his home, “and I almost believed it till March 15.”
“So when the [Christchurch mosque] terrorist attack happened it was sort of like a wake-up call, and I came to the conclusion that no matter how I really wanted to believe it, there would be always something wrong, something that is not quite right.
“It’s not just a matter of small micro-aggressions, racist remarks, it’s more serious than this and we all saw it, that there is sometimes hate that is willing to kill us. So I came to that conclusion that probably I was a little bit naïve about it.”
Meanwhile keeping in touch with family in Gaza is difficult.
“We don’t know exactly what’s happening with them, we don’t have reliable communication with them,” he says.
Amongst his closed community network in Hamilton there are four families who’ve had people in Gaza killed in the past three weeks. The strain is showing in lack of sleep and weight loss.
Last time he managed to check, his own family there was safe, although they had no food or clean water, and about 50 internally displaced people were living in one flat.
Back in New Zealand, Shaltoni says he doesn’t feel as safe here as he used to. There’s been abuse and threatening behaviour happening to friends around him who’ve displayed their Palestinian identities.
“We know it’s a matter of time before someone gets hurt.”
But “we can’t expect a police car [out] the front of the house of every Palestinian”.
Police have heightened protection for some high profile Jewish New Zealanders, says Kepes.
“I know people who are almost house-bound because they are scared to go outside,” he says. “There is this underlying fear that I have never experienced before in my life.
“You can’t get further from the Middle East than New Zealand and it’s so out of context for people here. Generally that’s a conversation that hasn’t been had. What has been incredibly jarring for all Jewish people in New Zealand, and for Israeli people in New Zealand, is seeing the response post-October 7 … we always had this sort of naïve thought that ‘this is New Zealand, no one cares’ … we always thought we were kind of immune to the very worst of antisemitism.
“Post October 7, really the world has changed for us.
“To see other New Zealanders walk down Queen St in Auckland, or the Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch, and burn the Israeli flags, say ‘death to the Jews’ … call me personally a genocidal racist,” says Kepes.
Jews in New Zealand are “a tiny, tiny population and we’re all very close. I have two cousins who are serving in the army who are probably in or around Gaza. I have friends whose relatives were murdered, taken hostage on October 7.
“You think about that context where we as a people are deeply traumatised and are absolutely grieving, and the next day, rather than people showing empathy and understanding, are chanting ‘gas the Jews’.
“There’s a lack of empathy and understanding there that is deeply distressing.”
Hear Tameem Shaltoni and Ben Kepes’ stories by listening to the full episode.
Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.