Most New Zealanders didn't know Michael Hirschfeld was Jewish. And in any case, the Labour Party president liked to say, it would hardly matter if they did. "It's a funny thing,” he used to say, but one of the worst things about New Zealand, from a Jewish point of view, is that Jewishness is a non-issue."
Presumably, then, he would have enjoyed reading the obituaries which appeared in his name when he died in 1999, most of which paid close attention to this aspect of his life, although few actually managed to draw a satisfying connection between the culture that meant so much to Hirschfeld and this millionaire socialist's impressive accomplishments in public life.
If many New Zealand Jews look fondly out to Israel, Hirschfeld had his own reasons for looking back. In 1925, his parents moved from their native Vienna to the Arab town of Haifa, where they established the Nechushtan elevator factory, one of the port city's first Jewish-owned manufacturing firms. Two years later, apparently disturbed by anti-Arab prejudices they encountered in the soon-to-be-declared Jewish state, they moved on again -- this time to New Zealand, a last-minute second-choice to the US.
Here in New Zealand, Prime Minister Norman Kirk, a leader long fascinated by Jewish culture in general and the kibbutz ideology in particular, recognised Hirschfeld as an up-and-coming young activist he could do business with, and brought him into the political fold.
Hirschfeld moved up the Labour ladder in the unlikely role of seamen's union representative, and for a time appeared destined for a parliamentary career. But in the mid-1970s he was drawn away from politics by the pressures of a young family and the responsibility of running the family business, the Mico Wakefield industrial supply firm. At its height the firm employed 450 staff and had a turnover of $160 million. In 1994 he sold the business for $52 million, thus cementing a paradoxical reputation he would acquire as being New Zealand's wealthiest socialist. He was always quick to brush off the implied criticism. "I don't think the amount of money one has,” he liked to say, “is relevant to the values one holds.”
As if to underscore the point, he re-entered national politics as the Labour Party president on whose watch one of the country’s most-successful centre-left prime ministers, Helen Clark, was ushered into power shortly after Hirschfeld’s untimely death.
Image header above is a 'placeholder' image while we find an image for this short biography. The image is of a Marriage Canopy from an Unknown Artist/Maker 1867/68, English and is currently at www.thejewishmuseum.org. The image was taken as a part of the Google_Art_Project http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Unknown_Artist,_Maker_-_Marriage_Can...