It was virtually the first thing my Hebrew teacher taught me, upon finding out I’m a New Zealander. The Hebrew song “L’Cheot B’New Zealand” (To Live In New Zealand), performed by the Israeli band Ethnix. The song is based on a poem written by famous Israeli politician and journalist, Joseph “Tommy” Lapid (father of Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid).
In the poem, Lapid wistfully dreams about what it would be like to live in a place like New Zealand, on an island far away from oppression and harm, where people spend their quiet days watching sheep get shorn, free from conscription, free to grow up and die of old age.
In a lot of ways, his poem does sum up the New Zealand experience. I have seen more than my fair share of sheep shearing on my dad’s big farm! And I do miss the brilliant green, rolling countryside, the small country schools, the small community atmosphere. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
While working on an archaeological excavation in Israel, one of my Israeli friends asked me when the last war happened within New Zealand’s borders. The answer surprised him — it has been around 150 years (and at that, New Zealand’s conflicts have been comparatively small) — something a world apart from the regular conflicts Israel faces.
But I would much sooner live in Israel.
Don’t get me wrong — I love New Zealand deeply. But Tommy Lapid is exactly right, toward the end of his poem: that, after all, when all is said and done, the hard life in Israel is not worth exchanging for the easy life anywhere else in the world. New Zealand has a short history. Much as I hate to say it, it has not been at all a crucial lynchpin in world geopolitics. The history of the land of New Zealand has nowhere near the same depth of meaning as that of the land of Israel.
I grew up with the Bible, and have had the chance to live (at least for a little while) in Israel. The sights I saw, the history I felt, the dynamic nature of the place — you can see why it is nicknamed the center of the world. And, evidently, “owning” the center of the world comes a lot harder than merely “owning” an “edge piece” like New Zealand.
On our excavation site in Jerusalem, you would see Israeli soldiers being toured around the dig perimeter. I was told that this is a part of their initiation — for the soldiers to understand what it is that they are fighting for, fighting to preserve. New Zealand doesn’t have that kind of thing. That same sanctity of place isn’t there, isn’t treasured like that, in New Zealand. That is part of what makes a country so great; as Lapid wrote, worth enduring hardship for.
A couple of years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a UN General Assembly speech, in which he quoted part of a passage from Amos. He referenced it alongside the unique hardship Israel faces, as a country just trying to survive in a mad world. The complete passage (Amos 9:13-15) prophesies a time when “the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them … And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them, saith the Lord thy God.”
Perhaps, when that day of plenty comes, my fellow New Zealanders will also be composing their own poems:
“L’Cheot B’Israel …”