Monday, January 29, 2024

Fraser Macdonald: Why some of Israel’s staunchest support comes from the Pacific Islands

One of the most perplexing yet poorly understood aspects of the international diplomatic response to the ongoing Gaza conflict has been the overwhelmingly pro-Israel orientation of Pacific Island states.

During the voting on two United Nations resolutions (October 27th and December 12th) calling on Israel to reduce the death and suffering of Palestinian civilians, many Pacific countries voted either against the resolution or abstained.

Why would these small island countries, on the other side of the world and with no direct links to Israel, choose to either oppose or not support this essential humanitarian gesture?

Explanations of this anomaly have rightly placed emphasis upon the intensely Christian character of Pacific societies.

Adherence rates in most Pacific countries sit above 90%. Across the region, Israel and Judaism are exalted as the sacred foundations of their faith. Governments drawn from these societies duplicate these views, which are then borne out in international forums such as the UN.

Such an analysis is not wrong, but it might be obscuring other factors that contribute to staunch support for Israel. If the breadth and strength of Christian faith was the basis for supporting Israel, why then did other fervently Christian nations such as Brazil or Nigeria support the resolutions?

The role of kinship in the Pacific Islands

There is one hugely important characteristic of the region’s culture that has been overlooked: kinship.

Kinship is fundamentally about a sense of togetherness. It may be created either biologically, through processes like parenthood, inheritance and so forth, or culturally, through marriage or adoption. Ultimately what it refers to is how and why people are related to each other.

The centrality of family, relatedness, blood and descent for Pacific society cannot be overstated. Kinship is the machinery of the region’s societies, the gears, levers and pulleys by which all communities function.

Of crucial importance in this respect is that kinship and family dictate and regulate access to all manner of material benefits, from marriage through to the benefits of economic development projects. If you can convincingly argue that your ancestors dwelt in or were even physically a part of a given territory, then you establish access to the relevant benefits.

Kinship is not simply a matter of who is related to who and who came from where. It is something thoroughly pragmatic and instrumental, a social charter for who gets what. As such, it follows that these structures warp and bend to fit novel scenarios.

Linking kinship and geopolitics

How can this Pacific cultural strategy help us understand the region’s geopolitical leanings?

First, we need to return to the basics of the Christian faith. It is not an overstatement to say that the ultimate goal of all Christians is to enter heaven.

A second crucial point is that the Bible explicitly mentions in several places that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and that they enjoy this privileged status by virtue of their genealogical descent from the ancient Israelites.

Such an arrangement makes perfect sense for Pacific peoples, whose entire ways of life are built on gaining benefits through family and kinship.

It should come as little surprise, then, that a common strategy adopted across the region in order to close the distance between themselves and the chosen people of God has been to accommodate them within local kinship networks. It is an ancient technique now applied on a fully global scale.

Just as various Pacific communities produce ancestral narratives that describe claims to different types of wealth, so too have they created family stories that position them squarely within the sphere of Christian sacredness.

Belief and diplomacy

In a variety of ways, people have woven Jewish people, their sacred geography, and the state of Israel, into their own kinship networks.

This may occur directly, as communities assert membership of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Various passages in the Bible describe the expulsion and resettlement of ancient groups by the then dominant Assyrian kingdom.

Jewish and Christian theologians later deduced that these exiled groups were still out in the world somewhere and had given rise to a range of populations. This theory became popular across the Euro-American Christian world in the 20th century.

It appears that this idea eventually found its way into the Pacific, especially Melanesia, where local people now advance the claim they have descended from these dispersed tribes, a strategy designed to ensure their salvation.

The kinship connection may also occur indirectly, through expressions of spiritual affinities with Jewish people. In any case, it is in a truly Pacific manner that kinship networks have opened and then closed around those things they wish to extract value from.

Since the politicians of the Pacific are drawn from populations that created familial intimacy with Israel and the Jewish people, it is inevitable these biases unfold in their diplomatic decision making.

It is worth noting, too, that recent promises of substantial aid money from the United States – Israel’s strongest ally – have likely strengthened this attitude.

But it is not clear whether this stance is permanent. We will have to wait and see whether religion continues to trump ethical considerations, as wider international support for Israel slowly erodes in the face of the disaster taking place.

Fraser Macdonald, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Waikato
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article


Nuku said...

Dear Mr. Macdonald,
Thank you for this cogent analysis. There is a resonance here for me personally.
1) My cultural background is "European", and for various reasons, I don't put much value on my kinship relations. I feel much closer to my non-family related friends then I do to the living members of my immediate family. As a result, the major role that kinship plays in the lives of Pacific (and other peoples) lives is a blind spot for me, and hard to comprehend. Thank you for shining light on this. I'm sure Pacific people would find it hard to comprehend living a life where kinship is not highly valued and doesn't structure one's entire life.
I spent years in the Pacific Islands cruising on my yacht, and stayed for weeks anchored in front of small villages, so I have some experience with "tribal" based cultures. There's a huge difference between those cultures which are "group/kinship" based, and modern European cultures which are based on the individual.
2) When I first came to Nelson N.Z. years ago on my yacht, I went to the marae to ask about the meaning of the name Nuku which had been given to me by some locals in Fiji. In the course of that discussion, I mentioned that my mother's family were Russian Jews who emigrated to Palestine in the the 1890's. The Maori elders then told me all about their belief that they were one of the Lost Tribes. They also expressed their "kinship" with the Israeli people and how they admired them for being a oppressed minority people who, though surrounded by enemies, were strong warriors and fought back.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

An important factor here is henotheism - the belief, held by tribal peoples, that all tribes have their own god(s). A henotheist does not deny the existence of the gods of other peoples. When a people who are technologically and economically advanced make an appearance, tribal people assume that their prowess comes from their particular god(s). If it appears that the god of the other lot is accommodating and will accept members of other tribes as worshippers in return for favours, then it makes all the sense in the world to start paying homage to that god as well as (not 'instead of') your own (you have to keep your own one(s) happy too or they'll make life hard for you). The upshot is a mosaic of imported and indigenous beliefs.
I always considered it bizarre that tribal Melanesians amongst whom I lived for almost 2 decades placed so much store in a Middle Eastern tribal deity brought to them by mostly European missionaries. It did explain why they loved all the gory bits in the OT about mass slaughter and pack rape of enemy tribes.

Anonymous said...

I will go with anything that constructively and positively helps unify and create a common understanding and respect among people. Sameness not required, political, cultural, social, sexual, gender, racial, religious dominance not required. Simply respect and courtesy.

We have had crusades, ethic cleansing, religious wars, Nazism etc etc etc. Where are the great leaders who can overcome this and create a future for people?

Robert Arthur said...

Not so much a factor in the Islands, but a few years ago a maori group welcomed an Israeli group here. I was somewhat perplexed. But the Israelis have quite effectively dispelled a race from the country, and this was/is the ultimate intent of many trace maori toward mere colonists. Atareta Pohananga stated so directly..