Israel: A Light for the Indigenous Nations

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First published in TabletMag.com

In 1886 Mount Tarawera erupted. So violent was the eruption that it was heard in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, nearly 300 kilometers away. Some feared that the loud explosions were cannon fire and that the city was under assault from Russian warships.

Many of my people died in the Tarawera eruption, most suffocated in the thick ash that descended upon the region. Destroyed too, were our thriving tourist businesses. The Pink and White Terraces, till then considered an “eighth wonder” of the natural world, had attracted tourists from around the globe and my people had built a strong local economy in their indigenous lands. Survivors of the catastrophe were taken in by nearby iwi (tribes) including Tapuika in the town of Te Puke. It was here that my mother and her family were to grow up.

For traditional Māori, mountains and land are supremely important to identity. Indeed, when we formally introduce ourselves, we do so by referencing our mountains, waterways, tribal affiliations, and then our genealogy. Last of all we declare our own names. We are known as tangata whenua, people of the land, our indigenous identity giving us a strong sense of connection to our ancestral lands.

Though I am Māori I have for many years worked in and around Jewish issues – the Holocaust, Zionism, advocacy and antisemitism. It is in more recent years that I have become increasingly aware of the parallels that exist between my own claim to indigeneity and that of Jews to the land of Israel.

There is no universally recognised definition of indigeneity. Indeed, there is much debate and a degree of fluidity on the question of definition.  Some hold the view that a strict definition is “unnecessary and undesirable”. However, a number of criteria have been established and are generally accepted:  self-identification, historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies; strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources; distinct social, economic, or political systems; distinct language, culture, and beliefs; form non-dominant groups of society; resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinct communities.

It is not difficult to see that the Jewish people fulfil the requirements for indigeneity. When a Māori person reads the genealogies in the Tanach, it resonates with the practise that is kept alive in Māori gatherings, where much of the speechmaking revolves around whakapapa, recounting genealogy to establish the connections between peoples. When Hebrew literature speaks longingly of the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, we think of our mountains which are remembered every time we present our pepeha (formal introduction). The places where our ancestors are buried are considered sacred, much like the reverence for the tombs of the patriarchs.

Though I did not grow up in the shadow of Mt Tarawera, it remains part of my identity. There is a similarity in the longing of Jews for Jerusalem, even (and especially) from the diaspora.  135 years on from the Tarawera eruption, there is a movement of my people to reestablish a community in that region, where we still hold land. In Māori culture we have the concept of ahi kaa (keeping the fires burning). A remnant remains in the land to keep alive the fires of occupation. The fact that there has been a continuous presence of Jews in the land of Israel for well over 3,000 years meets the criterion of keeping ahi kaa. In the Māori worldview it affirms their mana whenua or historic right to the land.

My mother’s generation was punished physically for speaking in their native tongue at school. It is only in recent decades that this unfortunate state of affairs has been reversed and the Māori language has experienced a strong resurgence. Interestingly, the Israeli ulpan served as an inspiration for one of the Māori leaders who established kohanga reo (Māori language preschools). Indeed, the revival of Hebrew serves as an inspiration to all indigenous peoples seeking to revitalise languages negatively impacted by colonisation.

The development of a distinct language, culture, and belief system within a particular land prior to colonisation is a defining feature of indigeneity, one shared by Māori and Jews. Many definitions of indigeneity include the characteristic of ‘non-dominant groups of society’. Some have asserted that this provision was a later addition, aimed squarely at preventing Jews from claiming indigenous status. The notion that a people suddenly loses indigenous status by virtue of having achieved their long sought self-determination undermines the very concept of indigeneity. Fiji, for example gained its independence in 1970, but this did not mean that indigenous Fijians thereby lost indigenous status. While the other aspects of indigeneity are intrinsic to identity as a people, the requirement to be non-dominant in society is an external, political and social feature that is subject to change. An aspiration (in this case self-determination) does not render a people non-indigenous by the attainment of its goal.

So, in regard to Israel, why does this matter? Because a colonialist narrative has taken hold in the popular imagination, by which Jews are seen as foreign colonizers who have displaced the indigenous Palestinian population. The colonialist narrative had its genesis in academia and has filtered down to politics and media. It has been promoted by settler colonialist historians, Palestinian academics, politicians and anti-Israel activists. Israel is portrayed as the archetypal intruder. Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi has said, ‘…the modern history of Palestine can best be understood in these terms: as a colonial war waged against the indigenous population, by a variety of parties, to force them to relinquish their homeland to another people against their will’.  The wording may vary but such a view has been widely disseminated. For example, in 2016 the Palestinian leadership attempted to sue the British government over the Balfour Declaration, for supporting the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in (then) Palestine. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad-al Maliki stated that ‘…hundreds of thousands of Jews were moved from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine at the expense of our Palestinian people whose parents and grandparents had lived for thousands of years on the soil of their homeland.’ The narrative has been strengthened by the most basic of classic propaganda techniques: repetition.

However, maintaining the claim that Israel is a settler colonial state par excellence requires a great deal of massaging of the facts, and comes at great cost – history collapses in the process. It is a politically motivated and highly selective rendering of the past, a distortion rather than a truthful account.

Israeli historian Benny Morris, while deftly rebutting Khalidi’s aforementioned thesis has pointed out that the commonly understood notion that colonialism involves an imperial power gaining control over another country and ‘settling it with its sons’ simply does not apply to the Zionist venture. He argues, ‘By any objective standard, Zionism fails to fit this definition. Zionism was a movement of desperate, idealistic Jews from Eastern and Central Europe bent on immigrating to a country that had once been populated and ruled by Jews, not “another” country, and regaining sovereignty over it’.

Historian Derek Penslar also challenges the colonialist narrative, pointing out that the Jews returned to their ancient homeland, ‘not for its strategic value, natural resources, or productive capabilities but rather because of what Jews believed to be historic, religious, and cultural ties to the area known to them as the Land of Israel.  Zionism was based in concepts of return, restoration, and re-inscription’.

I would argue that settler colonialism is the wrong framework within which to view Israel’s history. A better lens is the growing field of indigenous studies.

Some indigenous scholars have seen the importance of fighting for the recognition of Jewish indigeneity as a means to address ‘territorial disputes between Arabs and Jews, the protection of both Jewish and Arab rights, and the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere’. One such academic, Dr Nan Greer, former Adjunct Professor, University of Redlands, has argued that the indigenous rights of the Jewish people should be enshrined in law.  She points out the importance of an indigenous people’s connection to a distinct location rather than a broad, generalised region, ‘such as Arab-Muslim groups claiming lands in multiple nation-states throughout the Middle East’. If a group like the Arabs, which colonised Israel in the sixth century, and imposed its language and religion on the peoples conquered, can claim indigeneity based on long-standing presence, then so can other colonising groups. The rights and status of all indigenous peoples would be threatened by such an approach.  In New Zealand a few pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) have sought to claim indigeneity. This effectively undermines any indigenous rights Māori might have, such as those articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The indigenous argument strengthens Israel’s claims to its historic homelands, thus providing an important foil to the BDS campaign. For example, earlier this year, the New Zealand Super Fund, an entity which invests tax-payer money, decided to divest from Israeli banks because they provide mortgages to Israeli citizens wishing to build homes in the settlements. Preventing an indigenous people group from building in their indigenous homeland is a breach of indigenous rights. According to Article 26 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired’.

Self-identification is an important aspect of indigeneity. Indigenous peoples reserve the right to assert their own understanding of what makes them indigenous. One Māori tribal elder has set out three criteria by which his people claim to be indigenous to Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Taketake (long established) E roa e noho a tatau i runga i te mata o tenei whenua he iwi taketake tatau. We have long lived on the face of this land, thus we are indigenous.

Nonamata (ancient) E tini nga pakiwaitara nonamata o tatau tupuna ki tenei whenua koia he iwi taketake, ka tu ai au hei tangata whenua ki tenei whenua. I hold the many ancient narratives of our ancestors which allows me to be indigenous and a person of the land.

Toi (original) Ko te take hei iwi taketake e au ki tenei whenua i tataiheke e au mai nga Turehu me nga Patupaearahe ko nga iwi Toi o tenei whenua. I am indigenous to this land because my genealogy descends from the Turehu and the Patupaearahi, the original peoples to this land.

Many individual Jews and certain groups have asserted their indigeneity. However, Israel has seldom made use of the language of indigeneity. Nevertheless, Greer points out that under the Basic Law – Nation-State Law ‘the Jewish people have self-declared their status under state laws, as an indigenous people’. She argues, ‘While not possessing the word “indigenous” in the Hebrew language, Israel has utilized all terminology under international law to declare itself indigenous to its homelands, the Nation-State of Israel. Through this self-declaration, Israel protects its indigenous population nationally as a distinct people. Israel also protects itself as an indigenous nation under the accepted working definition of the United Nations’.

Indeed the Basic Law affirms that ‘the land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established’ and the ‘national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination’. It asserts that ‘the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’.

In summary, the importance of the indigenous argument is manifold. Most importantly, it is a strong element of identity for Jewish people. It provides a counterweight to the false narrative that Jews are foreign colonisers in the region. It is in Israel that the distinctive Jewish culture and religion developed. Strong connection to the land and ancestors has been maintained over millennia, and is further confirmed by archeological, literary and genetic evidence. Embracing indigenous identity could be an important tool in resolving disputes over land ownership. Finally, denying Jews their indigenous rights and identity undermines the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere.

Whether it be Mt Zion or Mt Tarawera, the connection between indigenous peoples and their land is one that endures – it remains central to individual and corporate identity.