First published on Times of Israel

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, Sheree Trotter reflects on New Zealand’s role in the establishment of the state of Israel. 

In 1948 NZ Prime Minister Peter Fraser was criticised for his ‘Zionist exuberance’ by one of his most senior officials, at a time when the NZ government was vigorously debating recognition of the state of Israel. 

Peter Fraser’s biographers described him as a man of principle who was an old fashioned human rightist, ‘tied on a tight leash to the under dog’.

Fraser was a great friend of the Jewish people and advocated for them on numerous occasions. 

In 1943 he spoke emphatically against the ‘Nazi Fascist tyranny’ calling it ‘one of the blackest chapters in the history of the human race’. He was appalled at Nazi treatment of the Jews, which he referred to as the ‘savagery of the civilised barbarians of today.’

The horror of the Holocaust, combined with the refugee crises of European Jews undergirded his passionate support for the establishment of a Jewish state. He declared New Zealand’s intention to stand ‘four-square for justice for the ancient home’, and advocated strongly for the return of the Jews, arguing, ‘The Jewish people naturally and rightly want to go back to Palestine’.  

His enthusiasm was not just a response to the Nazi persecution and attempted annihilation of the Jewish people, but was also based on admiration for what Jews had achieved in Palestine. Indeed, many in the Labour Party identified with the Zionist project because of socialist affinities. They admired the pioneering drive and industry of the Zionists in restoring the land and turning malarial swamps into productive land. They believed that their small nations shared values of democracy, egalitarianism and the desire to create a better society.

At the 1945 post-war San Francisco conference, which established the United Nations, Fraser gained international stature as a leader of small nations. He believed that an international system such as the UN would provide ‘the best means of securing universal peace and justice’. 

Fraser second from right

Fraser also advocated for the Jewish people in San Francisco, declaring:

Whatever can be done to help the persecuted Jewish people shall and must be done to the utmost ability of all right-thinking men. There should be no antagonism or misunderstanding between the Jewish and Arab peoples, as everyone living in Palestine would naturally benefit from what the Jewish people have made out of a land which was once desert, until the desert bloomed as a rose. Palestine is very akin to the ideals of New Zealand except that the Jewish people went into Palestine with a tradition of privation… ..I hope and believe that the representatives from this country who take part in the council will stand four-square for justice for the ancient home and new hope of the Jewish people. 

Fraser saw the UN Partition Plan of 1947 as a fair solution which ‘involved the least injustice to the rights of both parties’. He stated that if the Palestinian Arabs were to set up a government within the territory allocated to the Arab State by the General Assembly, NZ would be equally willing to recognise it. However, under no circumstances, would he recognise or accept the right of the Arabs to proclaim a unitary Arab state throughout the whole of Palestine, as such an action would be in flagrant contravention of the General Assembly resolution. 

Fraser was keen to recognise Israel immediately upon its May 1948 declaration of statehood but came under sustained pressure from Britain not to do so. As a member of the commonwealth, New Zealand sought to act in concert with other members. New Zealand had taken an independent path on the 1947 vote, believing that partitioning the land and offering a state for the Jews and a state for the Arabs was the fairest solution. Fraser was then persuaded by Britain to hold off recognition of the state of Israel, while any likelihood of ‘persuading the Arabs to agree to a truce remained’. 

Fraser was disturbed by the British government’s attitude; alarmed that Britain continued to supply munitions to the Arabs and at the involvement of British officers in the Transjordan Arab Legion.

Fraser also had to contend with his own cabinet who voted to follow Britain’s lead. Fraser and Walter Nash were the only two that voted to proceed with recognition.  All others voted against the motion. This was the occasion on which Alister McIntosh, felt the need to constrain the Prime Minister’s “Zionist exuberance.”

New Zealand accorded de facto recognition to Israel simultaneously with the United Kingdom on 29 January 1949. In May 1949 the United Nations General Assembly voted to grant Israel UN membership. New Zealand supported the resolution along with thirty-seven other countries and finally accorded de jure recognition to Israel on 28 July 1950, along with Britain. 

Peter Fraser steered his nation through the difficult years 1940-1949. While he didn’t gain the public affection won by Michael Joseph Savage, he was an astute, gifted politician, who put the needs of the nation above the party. He was greatly loved by the Jewish community who afforded him the great honour of inscribing his name in the Golden Book. They viewed Fraser in the same light as previous Zionist leaders who had contributed significantly to the establishment of the Jewish state; Arthur Balfour, Lloyd George, Jans Smuts and Winston Churchill. 

Peter Fraser stands as an example of a man driven by principles of justice and human rights, willing to go ‘against the tide’ for what he believed was right. He demonstrates the power of the individual to influence the destiny of nations.