From Jack Marshall and Norman Kirk to John Key and Jacinda Ardern; U.S.-born academic STEPHEN LEVINE has spent close to fifty years lecturing and writing on our politics.
As the spectrum of twenty-first century Aotearoa society continues to diversify, the contributions of new New Zealanders from North America keep on burgeoning in visibility and flavour. American and Canadian accents are now an unsurprising feature of life in Aotearoa, and are heard routinely on the six o'clock news, coming from many, varied ambits of expertise and livelihood. A few of these voices are Jewish; among them, stalwart Victoria University of Wellington political scientist STEPHEN LEVINE, whose role as a commentator on our election system is now decades-long. It's been a considerable journey for the amiable politics Professor, from a cherished childhood in the fabled Jewish communities of early and mid-twentieth century Brooklyn, N.Y.C. to scholarly life in the Wellington inner-city suburbs of Kelburn and Mt. Victoria.
December 2021 / Kislev-Tevet 5782
Stephen Levine, emulating John Key's election-night photo, on the front cover of Stephen's book Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election 2008.
Stephen with John Key, Wellington,
2012, launching ‘Kicking the Tyres:
The New Zealand General Election and Electoral Referendum of 2011’.
Jacinda Ardern with Stephen at
the launch of ‘Stardust and Substance:
The New Zealand General Election
of 2017’, Unity Books, Wellington,
EVERY THREE YEARS, Aotearoa New Zealand holds a general election, and each time the involvement of Professor Stephen Levine of Wellington’s Victoria University is the same. Always intensively engaged, the long-time political scientist scrutinises the action until the campaigning and voting are eventually over, and all of the results have been confirmed. In what could be described as the unofficial final stage of the election process, a major academic post-election conference takes place in the chamber of Parliament’s former Legislative Council. The new (or re-elected) Prime Minister and other party leaders are invited, along with journalists, academics, and a selected audience. The setting of Parliament, and the sense of occasion in bringing together all of the players, raises the stature of the event. The gathering is fun but also serious, with its unspoken focus on the value of our democracy which can never be taken for granted. Ever conscientious, Stephen sees to every detail, even selecting the food for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, ensuring that everyone’s dietary requirements are catered for.
For Stephen Levine, the highlights of hosting the event include introducing the Speaker of Parliament, who then formally welcomes everybody. After that, Stephen introduces the first speaker. Following the 2017 election, when Jacinda Ardern (having been leader of the Labour Party for less than two months) managed to put together a three-way coalition, it was Stephen’s happy responsibility to welcome her as the new and 40th Prime Minister. At thirty-seven, she was the second-youngest person to have ascended to the role—beaten by Sir Edward Stafford, who had become New Zealand’s third premier in the 19th century; also aged thirty-seven, but younger than Jacinda Ardern by fifty-two days. At the previous conference, in 2014, Stephen had the pleasure of introducing John Key for a third and final time as election victor. Having already served two full terms as prime minister, John Key had highlighted the importance of the post-election conferences for documenting New Zealand’s history for future generations, so that people could understand what had happened (at the election) and why.
Out of each conference emerges a book: an anthology of conference presentations, supplemented by chapters from other authors. The election of October 2020 was followed by a conference held in December. In the normal run of things, Stephen receives all contributions by the end of February or early March. He then edits the chapters, handing them to the publisher in May, and the book comes out one year after the election. The 2017 election book was launched at Wellington’s Unity Books, with Jacinda Ardern in the starring role, and was relaunched in May 2019 at the Auckland Writers Festival, with the Prime Minister addressing an audience of 2000 people at Auckland’s Aotea Centre. Any book marking a change of government is a major occasion; previously, the 2008 election book had been launched with the newly-elected John Key to a considerable audience in the Beehive’s Banquet Hall. For Stephen, some of the book launches have had an additional element, “firstly, the thrill of having your book published, and then the joy of having my son Spencer present, with my granddaughters seeing their Grandpa speaking.”
The book of the 2017 election, titled Stardust and Substance—which featured a cover illustration of Jacinda Ardern bearing a David Bowie-inspired red and blue lighting motif—and the new book of the 2020 election (Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 election) come at a time of heightened interest around the world in the New Zealand political scene. This is due in no small part to Prime Minister Ardern’s high profile, arising out of New Zealand’s thus far outstanding handling of Covid-19, and also the Prime Minister’s internationally-noted response in the aftermath of the 2019 atrocities at Christchurch’s Masjid al-Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre, with the subsequent efforts to implement more effective gun control policies in New Zealand.
Stephen's father, Samuel Levine,
as a young man, with his trumpet,
in the 1940s.
Stephen's mother, Amelia,
graduating from high school, around
the time that she and Samuel met.
Most of the kids at the public school that Stephen attended—known simply as P.S. 208—were Jewish. After school, Mondays through Thursdays, Stephen (and many of his friends) would cross the road to Hebrew School, which lasted for an hour-and-a-quarter from 3:30 pm. Unlike regular school, the atmosphere at Hebrew School was one that Stephen recalls as being gleefully unruly. Having already been in class for most of the day, “what we really wanted to do was to play stickball, a form of baseball … peculiar to New York streets and alleyways.” Their teacher, however, was one who Stephen remembers as a gentle, kindly Rabbi. Following Hebrew School, Stephen would occasionally surprise one of his uncles by calling in at his pharmacy on the way home.
The synagogue that the family attended was a Conservative one. Growing up, it seemed that not a Saturday went by when a different thirteen-year-old wasn’t being bar mitzvahed, with bars of Israeli chocolate being handed out to the kids at the conclusion of every service. At one point Stephen asked his father why they went to their synagogue—Shaari Israel—and not the other one (which was Orthodox) diagonally across from it on the other side of the street. His father’s unhesitating reply, “Because I like to sit next to your mother”, sticks in Stephen’s mind to this day as a testament to their relationship. Many years later, Wellington’s Jewish community would have the pleasure of meeting Amelia on some of the occasions when she visited New Zealand.
Among the pleasures of Stephen’s childhood were the Passover seders held at his grandmother’s house, three blocks away. The extended family gathering—with long tables pushed together extending the length of several rooms—would include the family of another uncle who had by then moved to Connecticut, the cross-table exchanges involving the Connecticut cousins (and their parents) a sometimes futile struggle to stifle hilarity. Playing its part on one memorable occasion (remembered over the years by Stephen’s cousins and by his mother) was slivovitz, a Central/Eastern European plum brandy renowned for searing the nose and palate, which Stephen was invited to drink up, in one gulp, by one of his uncles, with “extraordinary results.”
All in all, the Seder gatherings would centre, devotedly, around Stephen’s grandmother, who spoke mainly Yiddish, also known as “Jewish”, and who would refer to English as “Catholic” (perhaps understandably given that non-Jews in the neighbourhood tended to be either Italian or Irish). She had emigrated to the United States as a young woman with Stephen’s grandfather, who had managed to desert the Czar’s army, in which young men were conscripted to serve twenty-five years. Their entry into Di Goldene Medine—“The Golden Land”—fulfilled an iconic image of early émigré experience: “through Ellis Island they had come, with those millions of others, past the Statue of Liberty with the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus engraved at her feet.”
LEFT: A studio portrait of Stephen in late
1940s Brooklyn. BELOW: Stephen, marking his
Bar Mitzvah in 1958.
It was November 1971 that Stephen decided to come to New Zealand, arriving here in April 1972. By the time of his arrival, he had completed his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. studies (aged 25) at, in sequence, City University of New York (CUNY), in Brooklyn; the American University School of International Service (in Washington, D.C., where Stephen had a part-time job at the U.S. National Archives Building in the Exhibit Hall, with the revolutionary documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—on display, documents about which he would later lecture); and Florida State University in Tallahassee. A passionate interest in the 1956 War in which Israel, under threat, captured the Sinai Peninsula for the first time (with France and Great Britain taking the Suez Canal) is an event that Stephen considers as having been among those contributing to his engagement with politics and international relations. Other events taking place in that pivotal year, igniting Stephen’s interest in American politics and world affairs, were the Hungarian uprising (suppressed by the Soviet Union)—which the U.S. had encouraged but proved unable to do anything to assist—and the then Senator John F. Kennedy’s unsuccessful attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for Vice President, viewed (live on TV) by Stephen with absorbed fascination.
Seven-and-a-half years later, as President of the Democratic Club of Brooklyn College, Stephen invited President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps—emulated in New Zealand with the establishment of Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA)—to address the student body about the challenges and opportunities associated with this idealistic, yet practical initiative. In 1964, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Stephen was able to shake hands with Jacqueline Kennedy, and with President Kennedy’s brother Bobby Kennedy. Forty years later, at Victoria University, Stephen was instrumental in establishing the John F. Kennedy Prize in American History, and the John F. Kennedy Prize in American Government and Politics, in acknowledgement of “the ideals and inspiration provided by President John F. Kennedy”, and “to encourage excellence” in the study of American history, “the history of the relationship between New Zealand and the United States of America”, and the study of American government and politics. An Honours Board on the premises of the Political Science and International Relations programme includes a quote from President Kennedy, appropriate to the list of prize winners: “Happiness is the full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.
Stephen speaking at a memorial tribute to President John F. Kennedy, in 1964 at Brooklyn College.
Stephen observes that over the years the personalities of the party leaders have had an increased impact on how people vote, and on the degree to which people take an interest in the election process. Televised leaders’ debates have acquired greater importance, along with, of course, the way in which leaders are portrayed (or portray themselves!) through social media (alongside the reduced influence of print media). As for the composition of Parliament, there has been considerable change over the years. When Stephen first arrived in New Zealand in the early 1970s, there were eighty-four Members of Parliament, selected in a first-past-the-post election system: eighty of whom were men, with just four women. By contrast, following the 2020 elections, fifty-eight of Parliament’s members were women—a handful fewer than the men, with sixty-two MPs. In addition, there is clearly a much greater diversity now in terms of those who are entering Parliament and Cabinet, with many more Māori and Pasifika, as well as New Zealanders with roots in Asian countries.
* * *
Stephen Levine was born on 20 November 1945 in Brooklyn, New York. In his essay Catskills Memories—his personal contribution to A Standard for the People, the commemorative work produced in honour of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation’s 150th anniversary in 1993—Stephen recounts his brother remarking “that everybody comes from Brooklyn”, and that he, himself, had found remarkable the number of people he’d encountered over the years in many different places who claimed to have their roots there:
Saying that you come from Brooklyn does not, by itself, tell a listener very much. New York has always been a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct atmosphere and personality. Although our family led a very active life, travelling almost every holiday period, the environs of our own home constituted a miniature universe, complete and unchanging, with little resemblance to any other part of New York City … and little in common with other areas of Brooklyn to which I later travelled.
At a time when the United States was adjusting to its post-war destiny, Stephen was growing up in a warm and secure environment, thanks to his devoted parents, Samuel and Amelia. His mother was, Stephen recalls, highly attentive to the well-being of her children; her concern for helping her kids to process life’s inevitable disappointments became a bit complicated at times due to baseball, with Stephen supporting the Bronx-based New York Yankees while his brother backed the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles)-based Dodgers. His mother had to remain “neutral” when the Yankees played the Dodgers, opting for the Yankees to win one day, the Dodgers the next, so that both of her sons would be happy … an approach that worked until, tied at three victories each, a decisive seventh game loomed for the famous rivals.
Judaism and baseball were prodigious markers of identity: overlapping in the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax, the great Jewish-American left-hand pitcher who, in 1972, at age 36, became (and remains) the youngest player ever to be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Sandy Koufax’s name appears in the index to A Standard for the People; when Stephen showed the book to one of his cousin’s children, believing he would be impressed seeing his family mentioned in the book, his relative’s exclamation of delight was in seeing his family’s name, ‘Kraidman’, coming right after ‘Koufax’ …
Stephen’s parents met when Samuel, who played the trumpet and led a band that played in the Catskills over the summer months, needed a pianist. A friend—another musician—suggested that Samuel meet his teenage sister, Amelia. They met; she was hired; and the rest, as is said, is history. In years to come the family would pack up the car and head for the Catskills, where the young Stephen would look on proudly as his father held court as band leader and master of ceremonies during the festive evenings at the hotel. His mother was also active at the hotel, particularly when it came to dance instruction.
The neighbourhood in which the Levines lived was, at that time, the very Jewish East Flatbush, which lies approximately central to the Borough of Brooklyn. Their street, East 54th, was still an unpaved road when the couple purchased their home in 1945 (the year that Stephen was born). The purchase was considered “adventurous”, with Samuel having “moved away”—a mere three blocks south from the original Levine family home, in which Samuel’s mother, his older sister and brother-in-law continued to reside. Other family members—Stephen’s aunts, uncles and cousins— lived in close or immediate proximity: either next to his Grandmother’s home or just around the corner. In warm weather, when not away in the Catskills (or having a holiday in Miami Beach, Florida), an approximately ten-kilometre drive south-east would deliver the family to a cherished destination for Brooklyn’s residents, the famous Coney Island beach and boardwalk.
The 2020 election book was released in November 2021, with chapters from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, other party leaders, journalists, academics and several of Stephen’s former parliamentary interns. Providing analysis of the 2020 election—the campaign and the outcome— from a variety of perspectives, the book’s opening and closing pages also include material reflecting Stephen’s values and upbringing. Expressing gratitude to those striving to protect New Zealanders from Covid-19, the book’s dedication is “to all those responsible for keeping us safe and healthy in troubled times”, preceded by a quote from Psalm 91: “No harm shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your tent”, with the Preface also beginning with words from Psalm 91: “Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flieth by day; nor of the pestilence that walketh in darkness …”. More than 500 pages later, Stephen’s concluding chapter closes with quotes from the former UK Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks, taken from his commentary in his Passover Haggadah—no doubt the first time that a Haggadah has ever been cited in a book on a New Zealand election.