Welcome to Race Relations, Dame Susan Devoy

Dame Susan Devoy was recently appointed Race Relations Commissioner, amidst some controversy.  Like many, I was surprised by the appointment – I’d expected someone to be appointed to the position had some experience in the field, and was known to practitioners.

It’s a done deal now – the appointment has been made, and I think what’s missing is some acknowledgement that although her formal qualifications may be lacking and her actions in the distant past not quite aligned, Dame Susan is a very capable person and has demonstrated willingness to do the job well.  Furthermore, her appointment represents a big opportunity – to bring positive communication about race relations to the general public, rather than continuing to preach to the converted.

My friend Joan Buchanan who (inter alia) runs the Spirit of Rangatahi programme organised a welcoming event on behalf of the faith communities in Wellington earlier this week at the Wellington Jewish Community Centre, which was well attended.  I was unable to be there in person as I was overseas on business, but I prepared the following message for the event:

On behalf of the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation, the local Jewish Community, and the Wellington Council of Christians and jews, Bruchim habaim to everyone, and a special brucha haba’ah to our special guest Dame Susan Devoy.

That’s Hebrew for tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.

I’m Dave Moskovitz – I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person tonight, as I am in California on a long-planned business trip and won’t be back in Aotearoa until Friday.  But thanks to technology, hopefully I can be with you in some ethereal way.

In our foundation text, the torah, the law, the five books of moses, the first five books of the bible, we are commanded to welcome the stranger no less than 36 times.  This commandment is repeated more than any of the other precepts in the Torah, which we can take as an indicator of its importance, as well as the importance of being reminded to fulfil this commandment.

In the Talmud, our 66 volumes of interpretation of the Torah, Peiah chapter 1 verse 1 says:
“These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure: To honor father and mother; to perform acts of love and kindness; to attend the house of study daily; to welcome the stranger; to visit the sick; to rejoice with bride and groom; to console the bereaved; to pray with sincerity; to make peace where there is strife. And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.”

To welcome the stranger and to make peace where there is strife.  These are at the very top of the priority list of the things we must do in life.  And these tasks are at the heart of the job of the Race Relations Commissioner.

Our previous commissioner, the much loved and respected Joris de Bres left some very big boots to fill.  He did an excellent job of encouraging new relationships, and shoring up the societal infrastructure that supports communities’ ongoing encounter with each other as well as wider society.

But we have now have the opportunity to take this message to a new audience, to ordinary New Zealanders who do not necessarily identify as being “different”.  Dame Susan, because of your personal brand, you are uniquely positioned to deliver this message.  I’ve never been a particularly sporty person, but I always cheered for you on the squash court when you won titles overseas for New Zealand.  And now I hope we’ll have the opportunity to be even prouder of you off the squash court, while you’re making a real difference in enhancing our societal cohesion and understanding at home, for lifting your game beyond the game.  Your good work can ensure that we live in a safer and more harmonious country where, according to the ultimate Kiwi value, everyone has a fair go.

Your job is to remind us and wider society that we gain strength from our diversity, and that together we can build a New Zealand that is far richer, more interesting, and more globally connected.  New Zealand can be a global model for how people from seemingly incompatible backgrounds can thrive together in fellowship and achieve great things together, for our own communities, for our country, and for the world.
That’s no small job.  Let’s not be deluded: despite the fact that many New Zealanders believe we have the best race relations in the world, there is still an insidious undercurrent of racism and xenophobia, more prevalent in some quarters than others, sometimes silent, sometimes open.

Some people reluctantly accept this as the price of freedom of expression.  However I believe that it is up to each of us to call out our family members, friends, colleagues, and others when they exhibit bigoted behaviour, as bigotry is not acceptable under any circumstances.  And for the people who don’t even know that they are behaving in a bigoted and hurtful way, it’s our job collectively to help educate them.

Dame Susan, I know I speak for everyone in the room tonight when I say that you will have our individual and collective firm support in your new job.  It is not a job that can be done effectively by one person in a vacuum, or even an Independent Crown Entity.  It is a job that all must to do in order to keep our country great, and ensure a bright future for all of our children.  I know you can call on any of us to help you out should you ever need it.   As I explained at the beginning, we Jews are enjoined by divine decree to help you in encouraging all New Zealanders to welcome the stranger and make peace where there is strife; I can’t speak for the other faiths and ethnicities in the room tonight but I know we all have similar traditions, beautiful in the way they are expressed in their own voice.  In this, as in many other things, we are united.

And should you somehow not manage to satisfy absolutely everyone with every single action you take (or decide not to take), you’ll find us an understanding and forgiving lot – no doubt you’ll need to exhibit both the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job in your new job.  You should know that we’re all right behind you, and we want you and your cause to be successful.

So welcome, we hope to have frequent interactions with you, and as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t be a stranger!”.

I’d like to finish with a Hebrew song, which quotes from the first verse of Psalm 133: Hine ma tov u ma naim, shevet achim gam yachad – Behold how good and how pleasing it is to sit together in unity as siblings.  If you know the song, please join in.