AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Late-morning light bathed the landscape in bold colors. It’s early summer here, and the sun was already very strong, broiling. It’s also the season in which the pohutukawa trees burst into crimson blossoms along the roadside. The view from the heights of this Auckland suburb of Orakei is breathtaking, like almost every place in the beautiful country of New Zealand: an azure bay, endless green meadows, homes, boats and of course sheep. Only a few skyscrapers spoil the horizon, on the other side of the bay.
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The sound of birdsong sliced through the silence. An Australian magpie was perched on a structure atop a hill, singing a song unlike any I’d ever heard in my life. The landscape was equally inimitable. The colors of the magpie, black and white, blended with the black and white of the structure, which serves as a marker for ships at sea. Soon another magpie arrived, and the two began singing to each other, a serenade for two magpies, a hypnotic duet, before flying away.
Unavoidably, Israeli poet Nathan Zach’s “A Second Bird” leaped to mind: “A bird of such wondrous beauty I shall never see again / Until the day I die.”
On the slope below, close to the waterline, is the tomb of New Zealand’s 23rd prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, with a large stone obelisk rising over it. Savage, who served as the country’s first-ever Labour prime minister, from 1935 to 1940, is considered to be the father of its social-welfare policy. He was laid to rest here in 1940, at Bastion Point on the coast, a gesture of esteem for someone who became a beloved figure to his nation. “The New Zealander of the century,” The New Zealand Herald called him.
But the hill above the grave site of the adored premier is fraught with a more recent, different and painful history. Forty years ago, hundreds of people barricaded themselves here for 506 days. They were Maori from the Ngati Whatua tribe, and were joined by white human-rights activists who came to show solidarity with them in what was called an “occupation” but was actually a liberation.
It was an indigenous display of protest and independence, revolving around ownership of the land on which we were now standing, above Bastion Point. The so-called occupation lasted from January 5, 1977, until May 25, 1978, when the protesters were evicted, ending 17 months of a determined civilian, nonviolent struggle. Some 230 people were arrested during the eviction, but no one was hurt. The event became a milestone in New Zealand history.
A television report broadcast here on that May day when the occupiers were evacuated carries the voices and the images. On film, the site looks more like Woodstock than like Umm al-Hiran, the Bedouin town in the Negev where a villager and an Israeli policeman were killed last January. In the footage, hundreds of unarmed New Zealand police and soldiers are seen quietly removing the demonstrators, who had camped here for almost a year and a half in order to restore the land to its Maori owners. No blood is shed, no violence erupts; there’s only singing and weeping. The activists later claimed that the police had orders to open fire at them, but that didn’t happen: The officers were unarmed throughout the eviction. The reporter likened the convoy of police vehicles arriving at the site to a military convoy in World War II, no less, but to Israeli eyes, which have seen violent evictions in the Negev and in the territories, the Bastion Point incident is a model of nonviolence and civil resistance.
The only fatality was little Joanne, a 5-year-old Maori girl who died in a blaze caused by a heating stove that the protesters on the hill lit on a cold winter night in one of the makeshift structures they lived in – tents, trailers and huts. Near the place where she died, on the lower slope of the hill, stands a memorial to Joanne Hawke – a Maori sculpture and a commemorative sign that tells her story.
The Negev Bedouin have reason to be envious of the Maori achievements and of the solidarity that some of the white European population, known as pakeha in the Maori language, have demonstrated for them. In the end, the land in question was returned to its Maori owners, even though they are not permitted to build on it. Bastion Point is now the greenest hill in the vicinity of Auckland, a nature reserve and a national heritage site for the country’s indigenous people. Atop the hill today is a small Maori village with well-kept homes in a uniform style, among them the house of the leader of that protest 40 years ago, Joseph Hawke, the uncle of Joanne. He was a two-term Labour member of Parliament, serving until 2002, and is now a homebody. His son, Parata Hawke, told us the story of the hilltop protest his father led. He was a boy then, and thought his dad was taking him on a picnic.
The younger Hawke, a social activist who has nine daughters, is a handsome man in his fifties, head shaved with only a ponytail in the back, adorned with a traditional wooden ornament. Barefoot and wearing shorts, Hawke first speaks in the Maori language before switching to English. His family’s original surname was Haka, but his father anglicized it, like many other Maori.
The television in the guest room in his parents’ home, where he’s now staying, is tuned to Al Jazeera in English. He serves his guests homemade bread with butter. A magnificent Maori singer, named Paitangi, with a tattooed chin, will accompany him in her powerful voice, at a solidarity rally with the Palestinian people (where I was speaking). Parata Hawke is active in that movement and is well informed about events in the Middle East. He has a collection of ancient Maori wooden weapons, including a 300-year-old spear, which he forbids strangers to touch.
Roger Fowler, who was active in New Zealand’s large-scale movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, was present during the entire “occupation.” He married his Maori bride, Lyn Doherty, on the hill in the midst of the protest. In recent years he’s been a vigorous and determined activist for Palestinian rights. This week he took part in a demonstration of hundreds of people outside the American consulate in the city, against the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. When the Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe’er took part in a tournament in Auckland some years ago, Fowler threw a tennis ball onto the court in an attempt to disrupt the match. He also took part in a raucous demonstration against the apartheid regime in South Africa when that country’s rugby team played at Eden Park, Auckland’s largest rugby stadium, in 1981. It was the South African team’s last game in New Zealand before the regime changed. And speaking of rugby – every match here begins with the haka, the Maori war dance.
About 750,000 residents of New Zealand are Maori, 17 percent of the population. In most realms of life, the Arab citizens of Israel, whose proportion within the population is roughly the same, can only envy them. There are no Maori ghettos, Maori are well integrated into society, mixed marriages are a matter of routine, and at Auckland’s international airport visitors are greeted by typical Maori artwork and murals. There are also five Maori universities in New Zealand.
Nevertheless, Parata Hawke says that his people are still in the midst of a battle for their land, their heritage and their national honor. It’s a war of attrition, he says. “They stole our land and killed our people,” he explains, “and until the occupation of the hill, no one even talked about it.” For the Palestinians, he suggests nonviolent resistance. “If we take another route, we’ll lose.”
The Maori Party sustained a defeat in the last election, in September, not managing to get even one seat at the House of Representatives, the country’s legislature, which, like Israel’s, has 120 members; most Maori vote Labour. But Winston Peters, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister in the current right-wing government, is the son of a Maori father and a mother of Scottish origin.
The road to having an Arab foreign minister in Israel is still very long.
The foreign minister of New Zealand’s “big sister,” Australia, is not an aborigine. Julie Bishop is white, industrious and ambitious. She receives the guest from Israel warmly and courteously in her office in the Parliament building in Canberra. She even plies the stranger who has come to meet her with gifts: stuffed kangaroo and koala bear toys. Our conversation takes place off the record, but her position on the Palestinian issue wouldn’t shame any Israeli right-wing leader. It’s easy to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt so comfortable on his visit here last February. Hard-right MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) would feel equally at home here.
Australia’s Jewish lobby wields dramatic influence. Almost every new MP is invited on an “informational” trip to Israel, along with many journalists. And signs of the Israeli propaganda machine are hard to miss here. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who has changed his views since leaving office, also points to the large donations that Jewish activists make to the two big parties when explaining Australia’s one-sided approach. Carr is one of the few politicians in Australia to have a balanced approach to Israel and the Palestinians, who is not a member of the Greens.
Mark Coulton, deputy speaker of Australia’s House of Representatives, a member of the National Party that is part of the ruling center-right coalition, is an anomaly here. He tells us that he returned a few months ago from a visit to the occupied territories – very different from what is seen on the Israeli information tours – and has since become one of the independent, exceptional voices in the House against the Israeli occupation.
Coulton, himself a farmer, was especially shocked by the attitude of the occupation authorities toward Palestinian agriculture. He won’t forget the farmers he met from the Qalqilyah area of the West Bank who can’t access their land because it’s on the wrong side of the security barrier, or the shortage of water they suffer – in contrast to the abundance of water in the Jewish settlements – and the butchered olive trees.
In Australia, in any event, the Israeli occupation can go on celebrating. Its only opponents, pretty much, are the Greens. Beautiful Australia, with its beaches and its affable people, is occupied with other matters. A major furor erupted here recently when it emerged that some members of the House and the Senate hold dual citizenship, sometimes even without being aware of it. Now they have to resign. On the margins of that storm there were also some who asked about the question of dual loyalty of Australia’s Jews, although that question did not come up for public debate. The Jewish establishment there can go on activating its effective, aggressive pro-Israel lobby without interruption. “Israel, right or wrong,” is its slogan, I’m told.
All of that is forgotten as though it’s air on Karekare Beach, about an hour’s drive from Auckland. The sand here is black with bits of glittering iron; the landscape is rocky and wild. This is where Jane Campion’s film “The Piano,” with its unforgettable landscapes, was filmed. Now, in early summer, the beach is empty. Here, on the shores of the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, opposite the cliff and the rocks, the waves and the black sand, almost everything is forgotten amid nature’s ravishing beauty.