Indigeneity and colonialism not useful metaphors for Israel

Ben Kepes 08 November 2023

I’m fortunate to serve on the board of an iwi organisation. Having the opportunity to get to know the intricacies of Te Ao Maori, even at a slightly superficial level, is fascinating.

One concept that I’ve started to get to terms with is ahi ka, a concept in Te Ao Māori that literally translates to the burning of fires. More symbolically, ahi ka speaks to the continuous occupation of whenua by Māori over a long period of time.

Ahi ka is a beautiful concept and touches the physical and spiritual – the literal lighting of fires for cooking and comfort, and the metaphorical intergenerational sense of place. Ahi ka, it seems to me, is the concept that explains why Māori feel the pain of dislocation from their land so viscerally. To Māori, the whenua is more than somewhere to plant crops or lay one’s head, it is the physical embodiment of generations of forbears, shared context, and place.

Given this context, it has been interesting in recent weeks to hear people opine on the Middle Eastern conflict claiming intersectionality between Māoridom’s experience and that of the Palestinians. Some suggest that Māori have an intrinsic connection to the Palestinian situation rooted in their own sense of dislocation.

The situation in the Middle East, however, couldn’t be more different from that here. In Aotearoa, many hundreds of years ago a people paddled their waka to a group of uninhabited islands. In those lands they settled, put down roots and became one with the land. 1000 or so years later, a colonial power descended upon the land, ripping the indigenous people from their homes and generally disrupting their sense of place.

The history of the area around modern-day Israel is completely different. The Middle East has been inhabited ever since prehistoric times. The cultures that have called the region home, even temporarily, have been varied. One thing has been constant for several thousand of those years – a Jewish presence in the land.

I remember visiting an archeological site in Israel some years ago and looking down at dirt covering tens of thousands of years of occupation. At the time I cogitated on the generations that had lived there and whose memories was lost over the millennia. I was, frankly, a little depressed at the futility of it all. Spending time coming to terms with concepts like ahi ka, however, showed that those collective memories were not lost. They are wrapped up in the songs, the stories, the food and, most fundamentally, the connection to the land.

The Middle East has its own version of ahi ka, a shared concept of connection to the land, of turangawaewae. Over all of those periods there has been a continuous presence in the region: Jews. Perhaps more poignantly, millions of Jews who had been dispersed to the four corners of the earth by conquest or expulsion continue this connection with the land. Israel is the cradle of our people – woven into our shared genetics, history and archeology. Our liturgy and literature, customs and conception of ourselves are rooted in the land of Israel

It is true that for thousands of years, this presence was tiny and that the formation of the State of Israel and migration have changed the dynamic from one of being a tiny, largely impoverished minority to one of being the dominant population base. It is also true that Jews had a centuries-long history of living in the many Arab countries in the region – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and Iraq all had significant Jewish populations which were decimated by expulsion, migration and, often, ethnic-cleaning.

So framing the Israel situation as one of Colonialism lacks even a rudimentary understanding. The sense that Jewish migration to Israel is one of “return” rather than one of colonisation is rooted in our psyche. Admittedly others feel this connection. Christians see Israel as the location of most of their Holy sites. And while the Koran makes no mention of Jerusalem, it is fair to say that, even if only in recent centuries, Israel has become important to Muslims.

It is for this very reason – the importance to a multiplicity of peoples – that in 1947 the British offered up a plan to create a two-state solution in the region – one state for Jews and one for Arabs. This was accepted without reservation by the Jews. As to the Arab leaders? They responded by declaring war on the Jewish population and vowing to obliterate the fledgling state. Framing the situation as one of 75 years of colonial Israeli aggression against a peaceful indigenous victim is just obscene.

Even more bizarre, is the mention of colonial occupation given the current focus is Gaza. This even more blatantly ignores the reality of the situation. From 1967 to 2005, the entire Gaza Strip was a part of Israel. In 2005, under the belief that it would encourage an enduring peace with Palestinians, Israel left Gaza – removing all residents, dismantling settlement etc. They gave total control of Gaza to the Palestinians. In terminology that Maoridom will be au fait with, Palestinians in Gaza were given Rangatiratanga over the lands they inhabited. It should be acknowledged that this has been seriously curtailed by the Israeli blockade, but also acknowledged that this blockade has been deemed necessary to ensure Israel’s security.

I would be the first to admit that the situation in the region is both tragic and highly complex. It is a region that has a history of war and division. It is also a region that fires passions of an unholy (and, sometimes, Holy) nature. But it is the place of ahi ka for the Jews and always will be.