By Emily Gian
I have just returned from an overseas vacation with my family. My husband is Israeli and for some reason, I will sometimes get nervous if people ask where he comes from. Despite the fact that we never travel to particularly “unfriendly” countries or areas, you never can tell what sort of reaction you might get when you tell them you are Israeli. Perhaps, it’s for that reason that I feel wary when the question is asked.
Such as when we were spending the day in the Big Bula Water Park on Fiji’s Denarau island and one of the staff members came up to us saying “which one of you is Israeli?”
In my head, I was quickly trying to work out why he was asking and what the ramifications would be if we told him. I had always thought Fiji was a pretty relaxed country, but the question and the way it was worded threw me off guard. The rest of our group remained quiet but my husband quickly piped up, “it’s me”.
The staffer turned to my husband and started gushing, “oh wow, I have always wanted to meet someone from Israel but never have! This is such an honour.” He was beaming from ear to ear and one would have thought that he was meeting a famous celebrity or sportsman – of which my husband is neither. It was then I noticed another staff member, a young woman, standing behind him shyly, also wanting to meet the Israeli!
When I asked what the fascination was about Israel, he proceeded to tell us that he is a very devout Christian and had been learning about the country and its holy sites for his entire life. He said he always reads about Israel in the news, understands its trials and tribulations and could not believe he was finally able to meet an Israeli in person.
This fascinated me. As someone who works in Israel Advocacy, I am defending Israel from attacks from the media on almost a daily basis.
On that day, I had been reading about Bob Carr’s misguided attempt to introduce a resolution at NSW state level recognising a Palestine ruled by two separate dysfunctional governments bent on either destroying its neighbour or simply on inciting violence and mayhem on its citizens. The same Bob Carr who not that long ago was lamenting about the Israelis “Judaising” the “great Arab city” of Jerusalem. I had also been reading of the UNESCO resolutions denying the Jewish heritage of Jerusalem and Hebron and about the unsuccessful bully boy tactics that BDS supporters Roger Waters and Ken Loach hypocritically attempted to persuade the great English rock band Radiohead from performing in Israel (hypocrisy because at least one of them is earning shekels from works currently showing in a theatre in Tel Aviv as we speak).
So what was our new friend reading about Israel in the news that had left such a positive impact?
Interestingly, he asked my husband if he could write “if I have God on my side, nobody can hurt me” in Hebrew so that he could tattoo it across his chest.
The encounter left me gobsmacked and interested to learn more about what it was about Israelis and Israel that was so enamouring for Fijians.
The next few days were filled with similar encounters from the dreadlocked man who painted our kids’ faces during the day telling us that he “loves Zion”, to learning of Fijian children named after Israeli landmarks, to the waiter on our final night telling us he “feels blessed to meet the people from the Bible”.
And on the second last day, my family took a small road trip and passed a church called “Zion” with an Israeli flag flying high. They were on their way to a Jet Ski safari so they did not have the chance to discover the “story” behind the flag, but later in the day we coincidentally met someone who lived in the village and he told us that the church had received the flag for activities they were doing for their equivalent of Sunday School and everyone was so excited, they decided to fly it from the mast.
I had never realised it before, but it turns out that Israel and Fiji have very strong ties. Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama visited Israel just last year where he had a very successful and warm meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu where they discussed ways to advance agricultural cooperation, among other things. PM Netanyahu was set to reciprocate by visiting Fiji following his visit to Australia this year but it had to be cancelled due to logistics and scheduling.
Fijian soldiers make up part of the peace-keeping forces along the Israel-Sinai border as well as up north in Syria and Lebanon.
In a world where Israel is often isolated in the international arena, it is important for it to have allies, particularly if they can assist in some way against the anti-Israel Arab voting blocs at the UN.
But perhaps the warm feeling Fijians have towards Israelis in general has more to do with the love of their religion and a zest to know and understand more about the place where all of the bible stories took place. One person was particularly excited that my sister-in-law lives right next to Nazareth because it was the birthplace of Jesus. From reading the Bible they know precisely how ridiculous Bob Carr and UNESCO sound with their reinterpretations of reality. And they have a nose for questionable reporting that we see in the media and of the spite and the hatred of parts of social media.
I suppose that I have become so inured by poor journalism, the failure to check facts and the biased agenda of some reporters and of those who write (and deliberately mangle) the headlines that I am pleasantly surprised to hear someone greet us as Israelis and as Jews and not be met with disdain!
On our way home, we had another experience that we have all become used to in this day and age and that is the security check and metal detectors on our arrival at the airport – a chore that we have to endure even in a simple and happy place like Fiji.
Sadly, these metal detectors are a necessary evil that are tolerated everywhere in the world. It seems that there are metal detectors everywhere – not only in airports but in schools, malls and stores, sports stadiums, churches, synagogues and mosques. They even have them in Mecca’s Holy Mosque and while they are annoyance, we grudgingly accept them because they are for the personal safety of all who enter those spaces and they deter the world’s nasties who in some parts of the world are described as “terrorists”.
Why was I not surprised on my return to the reality of home to read about a terrorist attack in the Holy City of Jerusalem, beloved to so many of different nationalities and faiths? And why was I not surprised to learn that there is one part of that city where the worshippers protest at the installation of metal detectors – where the protests are instigated by religious leaders, where in some cases the protests have turned violent and where some in the media not only justify this behaviour but virtually airbrush out of existence the terrorist acts that made it all necessary?
Sadly, the lesson I have learned in the past week or so is that the world that we know today is no holiday place.
Emily Gian is the Media & Advocacy Director for the Zionist Federation of Australia.