Son of Jewish Refugee Elected Prime Minister of New Zealand

By | Nov 11, 2008

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

John Key, son of a Jewish refugee, was elected the next prime minister of Middle-earth New Zealand, the country best known for its kiwi fruit and as the gorgeous backdrop for the Lord of the Rings movies.

John Key

Ruth Lazar, Key’s mother, escaped Austria in 1939 with her family to Britain by paying for a paper marriage. After the war, she married George Key, and the couple immigrated to New Zealand. John’s father died of a heart attack when he was six. Ruth raised John and his two sisters by herself in public housing.

Key started out as a currency trader in his 20s and rose to become head of foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch and a multimillionaire. The center-right National Party recruited him to run as an MP in 2002, and his political career took off. Key has expressed admiration for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who moved the Labor Party toward the center, and is taking over after nine years of Liberal rule. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

Key campaigned as a moderate, but his policies include plans to eventually abolish special parliamentary seats for Maori and making the country’s greenhouse gas emission trading scheme more favorable to business.

On Sunday, he promised to follow through on tax cuts and pro-business, tough-on-crime policies that include registering the DNA of any suspect arrested for an imprisonable crime.

Like U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, Key is 47 and suffered from attacks on his inexperience during his fast rise to power. And like Obama, Key won the election campaigning on the theme of CHANGE (New Zealanders can believe in? :-)). Both men are members of minority groups and children of foreign-born parents (Obama’s father was a Kenyan). And Key even owns a home in Hawaii, where Obama was born.

Jeff Fleischer, a friend of mine who has just returned from a year-long journalism fellowship in Oceania, talked to Key in the run-up to the election. In Jeff’s piece for the World Jewish Digest, he writes that Key will be “the third prime minister of Jewish descent in New Zealand’s young history. (Julius Vogel served two terms as premier in the 1870’s and Francis Bell, the country’s 20th prime minister and first born in New Zealand, was the son of a Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity).”

Key does not practice Judaism but is involved in New Zealand’s Jewish community, which numbers around 7,000. He participated in the celebrations of Israel’s 60th anniversary and has donated to the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. He also has cousins in Israel, though he hasn’t visited the country yet.

Back in 2006, in his first speech as the leader of the opposition, Key talked movingly about his mother’s legacy:

My father died when I was a young child. I do not remember him.

I was raised, along with my sisters, by my mother, in a state house in Christchurch.

Back then I thought I was poor and, by most standards, we were. As I grew up, though, I recognized that what my mother gave to my sisters and I was far more valuable than money.

She instilled in us the desire to improve ourselves by our own hard work, the confidence that we were able to do it, and the hope that it was possible to do so. She instilled in me an ethic of hard work and determination and a genuine belief that “you get out of life what you put into it”.

The State gave me the education that allowed it to happen. Those fundamental characteristics that were instilled in me–and the opportunity that was given to me, which I seized–I believe readily translate to New Zealand society as a whole.

Hope (on the right) in New Zealand! Hope (on the left) in America! Long live hope around the world!

(Photo courtesy of Aaron Hey)

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