This year, Papua New Guinea and Fiji announced that they would establish embassies in Israel. However, few in the Middle East know much about the island nations in the continent of Oceania, and less about their ties with Israel.
The vast expanse of sea that encompasses 14 sovereign island nations and their potential for building ties is yet to be explored both metaphorically and diplomatically. More importantly, they have the best record of voting in staunch favor of Israel at the United Nations – a place where allies are rare and should be valued, especially if the small nations can punch higher than their weight in terms of voting ability.
In Jewish, ocean-related lore, Jonah was stuck inside a sea creature, and the biblical tribe of Dan was known for its skilled sailors. Centuries later, the Pacific Ocean, the world’s biggest stretch of water and one of six inhabited continents. While it is the only continent with no known native kosher animals, it holds great potential for Israeli trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchanges.
The importance of the Pacific Island nations for Israel
Australia is the largest Oceanian nation and has a Jewish population of more than 100,000. The next biggest Jewish community is in New Zealand. These two nations constitute two-thirds of the continent’s population.
The continent’s 12 other smaller sovereign nations don’t have a European-origin majority. The Jewish communities there are so small that even international Jewish organizations like Chabad-Lubavitch have yet to make significant inroads.
Most Oceanian nations have small populations, yet they have seats at the UN, which means more say per capita at the international forums where issues – notably sovereignty over Jerusalem – are often debated. Countries that have voted in Israel’s favor at several resolutions are the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and Nauru. Yet, most Israelis probably haven’t even heard of these countries let alone learned how to point at them on a map.
After Australia and New Zealand, the nation of Papua New Guinea has the largest population (nine million). The rest contain less than a million people combined. There are 22 Arab nations and 27 European Union member states with a complicated, love-hate history with Israel. In contrast, the Pacific, with almost no history of antisemitism or anti-Zionism, is less frequently discussed. Despite the aquatic barrier, in the age of long-distance communication, why does this matter?
President Chaim Herzog was the first Israeli president to officially visit Fiji and Tonga in the 1980s. In 2020, then-president Reuven Rivlin visited the two nations. He would later tell then-Samoan prime minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi that he regretted not having visited his country. The previous year, Samoa and Israel arranged a visa-waiver scheme under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Most Oceanians are now Christian, so they have read biblical stories and are familiar with Jewish history. Israelis love the beach and surfing, and Oceania has a lot of both. Of course, traveling to the archipelagos is complicated since the countries are spread out and connecting flights are expensive. Still, Pacific Islanders do make it to Israel to see the holy places.
CONNECTING FROM a social perspective, the indigenous Moriori from the Chatham Islands in New Zealand suffered a genocide perpetrated by the Maori in the 19th century, and thus see parallels with the Jewish people’s own Holocaust. Other groups, like the Australian Aboriginals, have turned to Hebrew revival in an effort to restore their own dying languages after centuries of European contact.
Over the last two decades, Israeli trade with Papua New Guinea has doubled in volume, with these ties culminating in the creation of the future embassy. Papua is very resource-rich. The continent holds deposits of lead, zinc, cobalt and gold that Israel could import for its industries.
Before these economic ties, there were historical ones. There is the possibility that Jews may have come with 16th-century European explorers such as Abel Tasman and James Cook, who first traversed here. The first known synagogues in the region were built in the 1840s in Tasmania. Paul Samuel Bloomfield, an American-Jewish planter, settled in Tonga in 1869. Many of his descendants still live there.
Apart from the established Jewish communities, there are claims that the Gogodala people in the Western Province of New Guinea (under Indonesia) are the descendants of a lost Israelite tribe. The presence of so many individuals who are supportive of Israel and the Jewish people is an asset in the global fight against antisemitism.
Many Oceanian countries have agriculture-dominated economies, with fishing and production of crops such as coconut and sugar. Israel could import these products and also assist with agricultural innovations. In addition, underutilized crops from the Australian desert that were historically consumed by aboriginals may possibly also be grown in the Negev Desert. For example, the Kakadu plum has a much higher vitamin C content than oranges, and there are several more options to be explored.
The Pacific nations receive financial and other aid from Australia and New Zealand. However, Israel has more foreign-exchange reserves that could be used to assist in that capacity. In 2017, the Japanese-owned private-sector employer Yazaki Samoa shut down, causing 700 people to lose their jobs. Israel’s tech pioneers could have a new location in which to set up shop.
In addition, Oceanian islands are prone to disasters such as tsunamis and active volcanoes. Israel’s ability to assist with relief – as witnessed during the February 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake – could prove critical. Therefore, both sides have a lot to gain from economic partnerships.
So, while Israel bends over backward for rapprochement with many nations having rocky ties at best, maybe the country should also shift attention toward those with a more positive disposition who will reciprocate with positive gestures. With so much trade, tourist potential and other relationships to build, especially as they need allies at the UN, maybe it’s time to give thought to Oceania in the quest to forge long-term alliances.
The writer is a Holocaust historian from Sri Lanka. He has lived in many places and speaks 11 languages.