A trip to Israel is always meant to be intense. We were forewarned, not only by the organisers of the trip but also by a fellow Kiwi-journalist who have previously been on a similar trip to Israel.
However, nothing could prepare for such a media and academic study group that would put you in front of high-level decision-makers, leading political figures, journalists, academics, business and community leaders including representatives of Palestinian and Arab-Israeli society.
Recently a small New Zealand Media-Academic Study group travelled to one of the most volatile geopolitical hot-bed around the world - the Middle East - courtesy Israel-Australia Oceania Chambers of Commerce, to enhance Kiwi understanding of the nature of persistent conflict in this region.
Most of the members of the trip came back; either captivated, by the remarkable technological prowess of the country or by the willingness of Israelites to lead a “normal” life amidst the constant threats of military conflict, or purely in gratitude, for living in the paradise called New Zealand, away from all sorts of threats to peace, security and social cohesion.
The trip was indeed a revelation, one way or the other.
One of the most thoughtful moments for everyone in the group was the opportunity to represent New Zealand in paying tributes to the fallen Kiwi soldiers at the historic 102nd anniversary of ANZAC Battle of Beer Sheba ceremony. From a Kiwi-Indian perspective, it was momentous to appreciate the fact that Indian soldiers have also laid their lives in the true spirit of ANZAC that defines our Kiwi national identity.
The group was given access to a number of political, business, social and thought-leaders from both sides of Israel and Palestine – the two estranged nations – who are pitied against each other as a consequence of colonialism defending what they believe as their fundamental right of existence and self-determination.
Expectedly, the exposure to such diverse and mutually competing narratives had created more questions than probably getting answers.
On a different note, there was an acute realisation of the minimal engagement between New Zealand and Israel at diplomatic, political and people to people levels.
Often, the best thing heard about New Zealand from different speakers, analysts, political leaders, that the group was exposed to, was about our country’s pristine beauty.
However, the group was also able to leave an impression, probably a peaceful and long-lasting one, in the form of Waiata – a form of traditional Maori prayer of love, hope and peace – on the distinguished analysts and political leaders and hopefully on the land of Israel (and Palestine).
It was an impromptu decision taken by the group on the go, and probably one of the most important and reflective of what New Zealand has to offer to that part of the world – peace, kindness and hope.
However, it is in no way a lame excuse of the fact that New Zealand as a nation is not doing enough to engage with Israel, either diplomatically, politically or economy and trade.
With an ambassador based in Ankara, overseeing two other nations Turkey and Jordan along with Israel, who on an average visits the country barely four times in a year, the engagement at diplomatic level appears symbolic rather than sustained and extensive.
Undoubtedly, most of our bilateral relations are driven by trade and economics and determines the size of diplomatic operations we have in any host country.
Nevertheless, it seems that we have not done enough to dwell upon trade opportunities with Israel.
For uninitiated, Israel is the most advanced country in Southwest Asia and the Middle East in economic and industrial development currently witnessing a high technology boom, particularly in the start-up sector.
Ranked sixth in the world by Start-Up Genome’s Start-Up Ecosystem Rankings in 2019, Israel has been recognized internationally as the start-up nation, punching above its weight for a country with a population of only 8 million.
Different countries and regions around the world are seeking to replicate the creative environment that facilitates such a unique culture of innovation in Israel.
Is New Zealand not keen to learn and jump-start its own start-up environment, if benefitting from mutual trade is still a distant dream?
This was one of the key take-away from this media academic study group to Israel.
Have we given up on the idea of exporting New Zealand beef and lamb – our trademark products in European and American market?
On a lighter note, during one of our informal group dinners with the members of Israel’s Jewish community organised to give us a glimpse of local culture, this journalist was having a conversation with a Jewish lady who had emigrated from South Africa talking about what she likes and what she doesn’t like about living in her new chosen country of residence that actually rang some bells.
The beautiful lady, known as Brenda said one thing that captivated our common minds, “I do not like the taste of lamb here, so I stick to other meats.”
This was enough an incentive for everyone on the dinner table to divert the remaining time on the dinner table to talk about the appeal of Kiwi-lamb that we offer to the rest of the world.
Such sparkling ideas crisscrossed everyone’s mind, multiple times, during this engaging tour of the region.
Although, the views within our media and academic study group about the understanding of Israel as a country and the geopolitical challenges it faces in the region, will vary, like everywhere else in life.
This journalist, in particular, was a bit dismayed with the level of sporadic engagement of New Zealand with Israel as a country and the Middle East as a region.
We could probably do more, not only for the sake of diplomacy but purely for trade and economics.