One of the most perplexing yet poorly understood aspects of the international diplomatic response to the ongoing Gaza conflict has been the overwhelmingly pro-Israel orientation of Pacific Island states.
During the voting on two United Nations resolutions (October 27th and December 12th) calling on Israel to reduce the death and suffering of Palestinian civilians, many Pacific countries voted either against the resolution or abstained.
Why would these small island countries, on the other side of the world and with no direct links to Israel, choose to either oppose or not support this essential humanitarian gesture?
Explanations of this anomaly have rightly placed emphasis upon the intensely Christian character of Pacific societies.
Adherence rates in most Pacific countries sit above 90%. Across the region, Israel and Judaism are exalted as the sacred foundations of their faith. Governments drawn from these societies duplicate these views, which are then borne out in international forums such as the UN.
Such an analysis is not wrong, but it might be obscuring other factors that contribute to staunch support for Israel. If the breadth and strength of Christian faith was the basis for supporting Israel, why then did other fervently Christian nations such as Brazil or Nigeria support the resolutions?
The role of kinship in the Pacific Islands
There is one hugely important characteristic of the region’s culture that has been overlooked: kinship.
Kinship is fundamentally about a sense of togetherness. It may be created either biologically, through processes like parenthood, inheritance and so forth, or culturally, through marriage or adoption. Ultimately what it refers to is how and why people are related to each other.
The centrality of family, relatedness, blood and descent for Pacific society cannot be overstated. Kinship is the machinery of the region’s societies, the gears, levers and pulleys by which all communities function.
Of crucial importance in this respect is that kinship and family dictate and regulate access to all manner of material benefits, from marriage through to the benefits of economic development projects. If you can convincingly argue that your ancestors dwelt in or were even physically a part of a given territory, then you establish access to the relevant benefits.
Kinship is not simply a matter of who is related to who and who came from where. It is something thoroughly pragmatic and instrumental, a social charter for who gets what. As such, it follows that these structures warp and bend to fit novel scenarios.
Linking kinship and geopolitics
How can this Pacific cultural strategy help us understand the region’s geopolitical leanings?
First, we need to return to the basics of the Christian faith. It is not an overstatement to say that the ultimate goal of all Christians is to enter heaven.
A second crucial point is that the Bible explicitly mentions in several places that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and that they enjoy this privileged status by virtue of their genealogical descent from the ancient Israelites.
Such an arrangement makes perfect sense for Pacific peoples, whose entire ways of life are built on gaining benefits through family and kinship.
It should come as little surprise, then, that a common strategy adopted across the region in order to close the distance between themselves and the chosen people of God has been to accommodate them within local kinship networks. It is an ancient technique now applied on a fully global scale.
Just as various Pacific communities produce ancestral narratives that describe claims to different types of wealth, so too have they created family stories that position them squarely within the sphere of Christian sacredness.
Belief and diplomacy
In a variety of ways, people have woven Jewish people, their sacred geography, and the state of Israel, into their own kinship networks.
This may occur directly, as communities assert membership of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Various passages in the Bible describe the expulsion and resettlement of ancient groups by the then dominant Assyrian kingdom.
Jewish and Christian theologians later deduced that these exiled groups were still out in the world somewhere and had given rise to a range of populations. This theory became popular across the Euro-American Christian world in the 20th century.
It appears that this idea eventually found its way into the Pacific, especially Melanesia, where local people now advance the claim they have descended from these dispersed tribes, a strategy designed to ensure their salvation.
The kinship connection may also occur indirectly, through expressions of spiritual affinities with Jewish people. In any case, it is in a truly Pacific manner that kinship networks have opened and then closed around those things they wish to extract value from.
Since the politicians of the Pacific are drawn from populations that created familial intimacy with Israel and the Jewish people, it is inevitable these biases unfold in their diplomatic decision making.
It is worth noting, too, that recent promises of substantial aid money from the United States – Israel’s strongest ally – have likely strengthened this attitude.
But it is not clear whether this stance is permanent. We will have to wait and see whether religion continues to trump ethical considerations, as wider international support for Israel slowly erodes in the face of the disaster taking place.