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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XXIII — Jews in the Legislature

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Chapter XXIII
Jews in the Legislature

The splendid record which the Jews in New Zealand had achieved in the civic life of the community was equalled by their record as representatives of the people in the New Zealand Legislature. From the time that Julius Vogel was elected as a member of the House of Representatives in 1863, at least one Jew occupied a seat in the Legislature for a continuous period of over ninety years. The break in the chain occurred with the abolition of the Legislative Council on 1 January, 1951, and the death of the Hon. Elliot R. Davis in 1954.

New Zealand's Upper House differed from England's House of Lords and the Legislative Councils in Australia. A seat in the House of Lords was gained by appointment to the nobility or through hereditary descent. In Australia, although at first a seat on the various councils was by nomination of the Governor of each colony, by 1860 all but one of the colonies had resorted to responsible government of the people by the introduction of elections for both the Upper and Lower Houses. In New Zealand, however, throughout the existence of the Legislative Council, which was established in 1853, until its abolition, membership was entirely by nomination of the Governor. Until 1892, the Governor regarded appointments as his sole prerogative, but after a dispute with the Government of the time, the Governor was informed by the Colonial Office that he had to take the advice of his responsible ministers. All appointments to the Council carried with them the title of "The Honourable".

In the nineteenth century three Jews were appointed to New Zealand's Upper House—Nathaniel Levin, Samuel Edward Shrimski and Charles Louisson. Nathaniel Levin of Wellington was called to the Council in 1869, and retired in 1871 before leaving New Zealand permanently to reside in England. He did not make one speech. He had been offered a seat in 1862, but did not accept it as he intended travelling abroad at the time. Charles Louisson of Christchurch received his call in December, 1900. Rare honours came to S. E. Shrimski. He had the unique experience of sitting as a member of both the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament, and when called to the Council was appointed for life. Elected to the House of Representatives in May, 1885, as a member for Waitaki, he later changed his constituency to become member for Oamaru, finally resigning from the Lower Chamber to page 165 be called to the Upper House as the Legislative Councillor for Otago. He seldom spoke in debate, but on and off for years, in both chambers, whenever the matter of compulsory religious teaching in schools arose in discussions on the Education Bill, he would let his voice be heard. As the Chairman of the North Otago Education Board and Vice-President of the Otago branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association, he had a personal interest in the subject.

In 1877 a public controversy broke out about the matter. Previously, in Christchurch, L. E. Nathan had solved the problem by arranging with the Board of Education that Jewish children whose parents objected to their being examined in the New Testament, could have them examined only in the Old Testament. When Parliament threatened to introduce compulsory religious instruction in schools, the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, on behalf of the other communities, prepared a petition opposing the scheme and declared itself in favour of free, compulsory, secular education. In Parliament, Shrimski attacked the Church of England and the Presbyterian clergymen of Dunedin who overwhelmingly turned down a proposal that nothing should be done until the Roman Catholic and Jewish authorities had been consulted. He claimed that Jews supported the State and that they should not have to go to extra expense in order to teach their children or listen to religious instruction repugnant to them. He did not favour Jewish children absenting themselves during scripture lessons as it would make them the "targets for ridicule and sneers of other children". Supposing the Protestants were in the minority, he continued, would they like Jews or Catholics to make laws to which they objected? Although members in the Legislative Council protested against the non-recognition of the Christian religion in the Education Bill, all amendments to eliminate compulsory religious instruction were passed.

Five years later, attempts to introduce amendments into the Education Bill in order to permit Bible readings in schools were strenuously opposed by Shrimski amongst others. He advocated that the introduction of Bible readings would destroy the educational system. All children, he said, should be educated under one roof. The House, he continued, "sympathized greatly with the torture to which a certain portion of God's creatures have been subjected. And what is the cause of all this? To a large extent denominational education." He hoped that the education system would not be interfered with. The House translated his hopes into reality by voting against the amendment by sixty-three votes to fourteen.

Shrimski rose again a year later as the champion of democracy when he protested in Parliament against the Auckland Education Board's demanding that teachers should register with the religious denomination to which they belonged. When the Minister gave evasive answers to his questions, page 166 he indignantly declared that it was an invidious thing to ask a man to declare what his religion was.

When Shrimski transferred to the Legislative Council, a further attempt by the diehards to introduce Bible readings prompted a splendid reply by him reviewing most of the arguments against its introduction. His speech influenced the Council to reject the amendments by seventeen votes to sixteen. In the Lower Chamber, Vogel made a pertinent observation when he stated that he favoured a religious upbringing, but that religion should not be taught in schools. The State could not be a teacher of religion.

The diehards never gave up, and again and again they brought in amendments to alter the Education Bill. The Council was almost equally divided and the matter was finally shelved for a number of years when the Council voted equally and the Speaker gave his casting vote against any alteration of the status quo.

Shrimski's participation in the debates concerning education seemed to give him courage, for he began to speak more frequently on various subjects. He particularly championed the cause of the Chinese, admiring their industry and honesty, and loathing the tyranny which some unenlightened people would have enjoyed inflicting upon them. Horror and persecution in his own country of birth inspired him to fight fearlessly for the underdog, especially for a people long misunderstood by Westerners, and of whose many virtues they remained either ignorant or apathetic.

Besides the problem of compulsory religious education in schools, another question which concerned all the New Zealand Jewish communities came before Parliament in 1894. The Government introduced a Bill which had as its purpose the improvement of conditions in the matter of the slaughter of animals. Fearful that the Bill would affect the Jewish method of Shehitah, the committee of the Dunedin Synagogue, its minister and the mayor of the city, telegraphed the mover of the motion, D. Pinkerton, to insert a clause allowing Jews to continue with their method of Kosher slaughtering. To their relief, Parliament agreed.

Popular William Hort Levin was elected member of the House of Representatives for the City of Wellington in 1879, and in 1881 as member for Thorndon, but during his term of office he hardly ever took part in debates. Nevertheless, he probably would have been elected to Parliament for as long as he would have desired on account of his popularity, but ill-health compelled him to resign to the regret of many in the capital city and in Parliament itself. Bendix Hallenstein's term in the Lower House as member for Wakatipu lasted only for a year, during which he spoke three times, asking two questions and reading a maiden speech from paper owing to his difficulty with the language. Yet he had specific ideas concerning Vogel's spending on public works. Although he looked upon himself as a progressive page 167 man, he regarded Vogel's programme as too daring. He spoke feelingly about his adopted country which he wished to make a home for his children. Knowing his limitations in speech, and preferring commerce, he did not stand for Parliament again after his initial experience, but gave his mind to business in which he was eminently successful.

In contrast to Levin and Hallenstein, Frederick Pirani, when elected to the House of Representatives for Palmerston North in 1893, spoke frequently and brilliantly on every conceivable subject which came before the House for discussion. Many believed he would eventually outshine Julius Vogel. Independent, a trenchant critic and forthright in expression, with an appreciation of a piquant turn of phrase learnt during his experience as a journalist, he was one of the Young New Zealand Party which offered troubled opposition to the Seddon Government, and became a thorn in its side. But he never reached Vogel's heights. Pirani did not learn to compromise. Vogel did, though not at the cost of principle. Vogel also had the knack of political timing, knowing when to change his tune and tempo, and thus became one of New Zealand's outstanding politicians and one who, in the period of his parliamentary life, achieved for the advancement of the country more than any other man in his generation and after.