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 Maori that literally translates to the burning of fires. More symbolically, ahi ka speaks to the continuous occupation of whenua by Maori 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 Maori feel the pain of dislocation from their land so viscerally. To Maori, 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 Maoridom’s experience and that of the Palestinians. Some suggest that Maori 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.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • Lovina McMurchy |

    Hi Ben – I think what the Maori are relating to, is being a subordinated culture who has had a history of mis-treatment, poverty, unequal access to healthcare, jobs and opportunities. Similar to Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland (ie I am a Maori Irish Catholic so feel the pain of both sets of people). I don’t think its really a question of “who was there first” but how can the region provide a place of dignity for all cultures, all of whom have had a substantial presence in the area over the last 1000 years? What I have read is that Palestine is one of the poorest nations in the world and that Palestinians have suffered 10x the number of casualties in all of these wars than Israelis. But even then its should not devolve into a competition of how many people were killed on either side. War is just bad for everyone. I think there are a lot of people who support finding a peaceful solution which acknowledges the right for both Jews and Arabs to have a homeland and to aspire to have peace and security.

    • Except that many pro-Palestinian advocates (including some of our MPs) articulate it precisely as a “who was there first” situation.

      You do realise that the Palestinians have been offered a two-state solution a handful of times int he past and they’ll always turned it down, right?

      • But it is also fair to say there have been actors on both sides who have had no interest in a two state solution. I suspect if my wife were to ask her Palestinian friends they would have a very different take on the two state solutions that have been offered and Israel’s role in them never coming to fruition. My wife lived in East Jerusalem for four years and traveled regularly across the West Bank, and into Gaza several times, her ability to speak Arabic enabled her to have in-depth conversations with Palestinians (in couple of cases she had firsthand accounts of alleged torture described to her; one allegedly carried out by Hamas, the other by the IDF). As worker for an aid agency every time she flew into and out of Israel she would be strip search and interrogated by Israeli authorities because she had travelled into Gaza as part of her work (its something that happens very frequently with aid workers according to my wife). She saw the actions of the Israeli state firsthand in the way they treated Palestinians, and it wasn’t good.

        • I guess (in reply to the searching of people who have been to Gaza) the reason for that is years and years of terrorist bombings from infiltrators from Gaza. Unfortunate, but true.

  • Nothing like a pakeha telling Maori what to believe to start the week.

  • I am pākehā but have been fortunate enough to unpack some of this whakaaro with Māori friends and colleagues. I have come to learn that they connect some Māori feel to the Palestinians stems from the reality of being treated like a subordinate group within their own land, alongside the physical and spiritual displacement endured. Palestinians were forcibly removed from homes they have lived in for generations and thousands were killed in the process of establishing Israel as a state. A “return” to one’s home should not come at the expense of another persons home or life.

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