Survivor's son and Israel fan tipped to be New Zealand PM

By Dan Goldberg, October 24, 2008

The son of an Austrian-Jewish refugee whose mother escaped the Nazis is tipped to become New Zealand's prime minister next month.

The election of John Key - who told the JC of his admiration for Israel - may also end a period of dire diplomatic relations between Wellington and Jerusalem.

Mr Key, 47, has been ahead of Prime Minister Helen Clark in all major polls for the last year, although the gap narrowed last week as the parties officially launched the election campaign.

If Mr Key leads the National Party to victory over the Labour Party on November 8, it will draw to a close the worst chapter in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

This was sparked in 2003 when Foreign Minister Phil Goff incensed Israeli officials by visiting Yasser Arafat in Ramallah at the height of the intifada.

Worse followed the following year when two apparent Mossad agents were caught trying to illegally obtain a New Zealand passport.

In the wake of the scandal, Mrs Clark issued a blistering attack on Jerusalem and suspended high-level relations for over a year until Israel apologised.

Days after the incident, vandals burned a prayer house to the ground at a Jewish cemetery in Wellington in what was described as the worst antisemitic attack ever in New Zealand.

Although Mrs Clark, in power since 1999, hosted a kosher dinner last month in parliament to acknowledge the country's Jewish community, some believe a Key government will be more sympathetic to Israel.

"The current Labour Party has within its leadership several people that are ideologically fixated on certain positions, some of which mean an automatic disdain of Israel's policies," said Nathan Lawrence, resident of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand.

"There is likely to be greater balance [under Key]. This will have little to do with Key's Jewish background, but more so the greater open-mindedness of the centre-right parties to the realities of the world."

Mr Key told the JC that it was "understandable" that relations with Jerusalem were "a little bit strained" after the so-called "passport affair" but said there's "no use in reliving it".

If elected, he said he hopes to visit the Jewish state, where he has cousins. Mr Key's mother, Ruth Lazar, was saved by her aunt, who paid a British soldier to marry her, enabling Ruth, her brother, mother and grandmother to obtain British visas and escape Austria in 1939. And he wants to pay tribute at Yad Vashem to those of his mother's family who did not survive the Holocaust.

"It would be [a poignant moment]," he said. "I very much want to go there, in part because obviously I'm interested and also as a mark of respect for my mum."

Mr Key, who criticised Mrs Clark for not supporting the war against Iraq, said Israel and New Zealand have similarities.

"We are small in nature and we are entrepreneurial and Israel has achieved some amazing things in terms of its high-tech space. I think there's a lot New Zealand can learn from Israel."

Mr Key and his two sisters were brought up by their mother in poverty in Christchurch after their father died in 1967.

But it was in London that he became a millionaire, working for Merill Lynch for several years before returning home in 2001 and embarking on his political career. Although conscious of his Jewish roots, Mr Key's childhood was largely devoid of religion.

"I'm very respectful of the Jewish faith and in general I'm very respectful of religion but I'm just not actively religious myself," he said.

But some fear Key's roots may work against him. As one Jewish leader put it: "There is a deep anti-Jewish, anti-Israel sentiment in New Zealand. If Kiwis know he's Jewish, he would need to prove that he is not biased toward Israel."

If Mr Key wins, he will not be the nation's first Jewish PM. Julius Vogel served in the 1870s and Sir Francis Bell, who later converted to Christianity, spent two weeks in charge in 1925.


Last updated: 2:14pm, October 23 2008