Families of the hostages in Gaza join with members of the public in an evening march and protest around the Knesset on Dec. 12, 2023 in Jerusalem. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Israel a true Indigenous success story

New Zealand's Maoris and other Indigenous groups support Jewish reclamation of their homeland

In the news turbulence following the Oct. 7 pogrom in Israel, here and there one saw evidence of surprising Zionist bedfellows. A few months ago, for example, a fascinating video circulated on X, featuring, at an anti-Israel rally in New Zealand, a group of Maori men on stage in native costume performing their traditional warrriors’ “Haka” dance. The native words were unintelligible, but the cluster of Israeli flags amongst them, and the contemptuous affect in facial expression and body language directed against the pro-Hamas protesters spoke volumes.

New Zealand, as it happens, is the headquarters for the Indigenous Coalition for Israel (ICFI). Its co-director, Sheree Trotter is a Maori scholar with a doctorate in Zionist history plus a research oeuvre on the Holocaust and Israel to back up her opinions. In a 2021 article for Tablet magazine, “A Light for the Indigenous Nations” (Israel being the “light”), Trotter enlarged on the parallels that exist between her own and the Jews’ claim to indigeneity.

While conceding that there is no universally recognized definition of indigeneity, Trotter points to benchmarks that are generally accepted, most crucially “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,” all criteria, she stated, that the Jewish people fulfil. Maoris find connections to Jewish culture in their own traditions of geneology-reading and references to ancestor burials. In particular, Trotter cites Jews’ attachment to Jerusalem and its surrounding mountains as analogous to the deep ties of Maori to their own sacred mountains.

Jews’ continuous presence in the land of Israel for well over 3,000 years, Trotter writes, “affirms their ‘mana whenua’ or historic right to the land.” The Israeli immersion language school system — “ulpan” — created for the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language even serves as a model for the “kohanga reo,” Maori language preschools.

Trotter firmly rejects the colonialist narrative that dominates Indigenous discourse in Canada around Israel which, she correctly notes, “had its genesis in academic and has filtered down to politics and media, then promoted by historians of settler colonialism. According to this narrative, Israel is the archetypal intruder.” Settler colonialism, she insists, is the “wrong framework” for understanding Israel’s history. Trotter sensibly points out that “If an ethnic group like the Arabs (indigenous to Arabia) — who colonized Israel in the sixth century and imposed their language and religion on the conquered peoples — can claim indigeneity based on long-standing presence, then so can other colonizing groups. The rights and status of all indigenous peoples would be threatened by such an approach.”

On Feb. 1, one of Trotter’s cherished ambitions was realized in the launch of the Indigenous Embassy Jerusalem — Israel’s 100th embassy and Jerusalem’s fifth. This embassy will serve as an information hub to counter the anti-Israel narrative that Jews are foreigners in their own land, and to “galvanize” global Indigenous support for Israel. The embassy will also feature a digital product department to counter misinformation about Israel on social media. Trotter further envisages an NGO presence for the ICFI at the UN.

I watched the uplifting video of the inaugural ceremony, held at Jerusalem’s Friends of Zion Museum, replete with exuberant speeches from both Indigenous leaders and Israeli officials, complemented by rousing music and spontaneous dance, with many of the 200 delegates in traditional costumes. Among those in attendance were Indigenous people from Tahiti, Hawaii, Canada, the Hopi tribe in Arizona, the Arawak Taino from Puerto Rico and the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee. A ram’s horn — the “shofar” blown in synagogue on the High Holy Days — blasted in triumph. The common refrain was “We stand with you in your struggle.”


In his speech, Xami Thomas, a representative from the 15-million strong Khoi people, divided into 20 or so tribes spread throughout southern Africa, including Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, raised the issue of the genocide case against Israel his country brought before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He apologized for “the horrible thing that the ANC (African National Congress) government did to this glorious nation. We are sorry. They do not represent all the Khoi or all the people of Southern Africa. They did not consult us and the allegations are without any substance.”

Melodie Greyeyes, national director of Church’s Ministry among Jewish People, and a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation (Treaty Six area), was Canada’s Indigenous representative at the launch. Like so many of the other members of the ICFI, Christian belief is at the forefront of her attachment to Israel. For Melodie, Israel exemplifies a spirit of resilience she admires. “The world has pushed you (Jews) down,” she told me in a telephone interview, “but you have always risen up and overcome and declared life.”

Greyeyes and her husband spent three months in Israel after the pogrom, on kitchen duty for evacuees from southern Israel at a guest house run by Emmanuel Centre in Jerusalem. The CBC is normally very keen on Indigenous people’s stories of spiritual empowerment. A politically neutral observer might think Greyeyes’s story — not to mention the larger news item of an Indigenous Embassy Jerusalem’s Jerusalem launch — would provide good CBC fodder. But if one did think that, one would be wrong.