In December last year Israel’s daily Haaretz reported on a visit of Yoel Siegel, an economic consultant who works for Israel’s Foreign Ministery and Eran Brokovich, a marine biologist from the NGO Worldfish to the island of Malaita in Solomon Islands. The article reports the following:
Siegel was the main moderator of a 10-day economic development conference held in early November in Auki, the capital of Malaita, the largest province in the tiny Pacific nation of Solomon Islands. The purpose of the event was to discuss and turn into concrete policies Malaitan ideas regarding economic development, in the form of a Malaita Economic Stimulus Package document.
More than 50 people attended the conference, among them members of the provincial government’s cabinet, local chieftains and government figures, including members of the opposition, who arrived from Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara.
Support for Israel runs deep in the predominantly Christian Malaita. Many islanders believe that “those who bless Israel are themselves blessed,” in keeping with the Hebrew Bible. Some even believe that Israelites originally settled in the islands, thousands of years ago. People wear Star of David necklaces on the streets of Auki, and local residents assert that they “believe in Israel.” Israeli videos were screened over and over during the conference. When Siegel and Brokovich were taken on an outing, they traveled through jungles and saw villages decked out in blue and white with Israeli flags flying. In the welcoming ceremonies, children sang in Hebrew.
What is happening here? While the delegation from Israel came to Malaita to talk about development, many in the region were more engaged in expressing their belief in Israel. Normally development efforts, apart from being rare, are usually not greeted with much enthusiasm in this part of the Pacific because people know that at the end of the day nothing much will change because most of the funds end up in the pockets of administrators, leaders, and consultants. Apart from the question why Israel is interested working on development of Malaita, it is interesting to figure out what is happening in the local worlds since Israel is making inroads in their region. It is not unusual for Christians in the Pacific to attach great value to Israel as the (holy) land where Jesus was born and lived and which is the site of much of the events in the Old Testament. Yet to sing in Hebrew, to wave flags of Israel and to suggest, as I discuss below, that Malaitans are a Lost Tribe of Israel is less usual. And from an applied anthropology perspective, will, if Malaitan expectations about Israel are so deeply rooted in religious beliefs, a development effort by Israel proof to be more successful than, let’s say, by the World Bank? I will not answer that question below but ponder it and perhaps return to it later on Culture Matters.
In particular among the people of North Malaita, a widespread evangelical kind of ethno-theology alludes to the widespread idea that Malaitans are descendants of biblical kings, brought on the Ark to the Pacific, and continued to practise pure worship of God. Many also believe that the Lost Temple of Israel lies hidden at a shrine in the mountainous interior of their island where people used to worship ancestors. Moreover people suggest that the Bible imbues people with important roles in relation to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As Acts 1:8 includes Solomon Islanders in the Scripture and its sequence of events, this evokes a sense of urgency: Now that the word of God has reached the ends of the earth, things have to turn full circle.
Many can narrate how their ancestors travelled in canoes to the Pacific, people claim to have found Hebrew inscriptions on stones in the mountains, are sure that the Ark of the Covenant and the Lost Temple of Jerusalem are buried at certain locations in the mountains of Malaita and suggest to be able to provide letters from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem affirming recognition as Jews by Israel. They feel that they are currently living among Pharaohs, and recount stories of Israeli soldiers hiding in the mountains readying people for a liberation struggle. People also use the flag of Israel which they hang in churches, fly on roof-tops, and unfold during politically significant gatherings, such as during the peace ceremony in the provincial capital in Auki, in August 2003, which ritually concluded a regional conflict that began in 1998. During the ceremony Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF) commander Jimmy “Rasta” Lusibaea was the first to surrender his machine gun and a battle jacket that he wore whilst fighting rival militias from the island of Guadalcanal. Following Rasta, heavily-armed militants turned out in camouflage face paint, soldiers’ helmets and red bandanas to hand over an impressive haul of military firepower for destruction by soldiers of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). Some refused to surrender to foreign forces and marched to the ceremony under the flag of Israel.
Flag of Israel at the rooftop of a small trade store selling soft drink, cigarettes and music CDs in Auki, Malaita
Signboard of a private vocational school in Bita’ama, North Malaita
Besides its quite prominent materiality in the form of extensively using the flag of Israel people have produced a documentary film in 2004. The film asserts a verisimilitude between an ancestral shrine and the Temple in the Old Testament and speaks to an international audience while engaging in local disputes.
Critical elements of the new ethno-theology in North Malaita revolve around descendants of biblical kings who allegedly discovered Malaita, brought along the Ark, and continued to practise pure worship of God in this part of the Pacific. One of the shrines where pure worship of God allegedly took place is claimed by some to be the Lost Temple. Mimicking Old Testament meanings of the Ark for the Israelites wandering in the desert and the importance of the Temple as Israel’s first assertion of national identity, many in the movement consider the shrines on their land to be of utmost importance. Pushing the link between Malaita and Israel even further, a rabbi, a prophet and a filmmaker, produced a documentary film.
Cover of the documentary entitled the Discovery of the Lost Temple as sold at a shop below Auki Motel, Auki, Malaita in 2005 and 2006. According to the producer there will be no Part Two.
The film asserts that the verisimilitude between the shrine and the Lost Temple points to the claim that the treasures of the Temple are not in Israel but on Malaita. This claim is locally controversial for two reasons. First, it frustrates those who adhere to mainstream Churches because the temple story is often put forward to elevate local traditions and undermine missionary Christianity (and the related Roman Catholic and Anglican churches). Missionary Christianity is often associated with the British colonial government, European superiority, and Western normative systems that are believed to have disrupted social life and corrupted governance in Solomon Islands. The film suggests that Malaitans are a people chosen by God to fulfil prophecies such as Isaiah’s; that sons from afar will gather in Jerusalem at the end of time to share in the wealth, prosperity and justice of the Kingdom of God. As such, Solomon Islanders do no longer depend on white man’s Christian terms to get to Jerusalem. They could shortcut, as it were, the road to Jerusalem by taking out this critical centre of Christian faith from missionary Christian doctrine and positioning it in their own kastom (‘custom’).
Second, the claim to have found a temple of such significance on one’s land evokes disputes about territory. On Malaita, there is an intrusive tension between local landowners and the government and commercial agencies who wish to access land for development and infrastructure. This leads to a variety of disputes among landowners. Moreover, the claim hardly passes unnoticed due to the related attempts of the discoverers to establish themselves as charismatic leaders. The location of the Temple and its meaning was revealed first to Frank Daifa (of A’ama and Fo’ondo, and ‘discovery mission leader’), who thereupon began to excavate the shrine at a mountain behind his village of Fo’ondo. A few years later he met Anisi Maeta’a (of Central Kwara’ae and ‘discovery mission assistant’) in Auki who told him that a number of revelations had assured him that he was a rabbi. He was now seeking a way to shape this new identity. They also try to attract tour operators, tourists, official visitors from Israel, and the occasional anthropologist, which may lead to jealousy. Others would suggest that if it is true that they found the temple, the powerful Ark of the Covenant might fall in their hands. This fear should be situated in a context in which many believe that in pre-Christian times people piously believed in God, prayed to God and that God dwelled among the people. That those bygone times are detailed in the Old Testament is an observation held by many.
The film features short introductions by the two discoverers; Daifa and Anisi Maeta’a. They both list the names of their Israeli ancestors and descendants who came to Malaita. This is followed by a suspenseful narration of their discovery and it shows the excavated temple. Daifa leads the viewer through the site and explains the usages of the different parts of the temple. At this stage a graphical figure of the layout of the temple is shown. It is obviously based on the reading of 1 Kings 6:15 et seq.. The tabernacle consists of three parts of which the shrine and the Holy of Holies are the most important. Next Daifa explains while standing beside the so-called Stone Chart: “The cuts in the stone mark the location of treasures. The landscape of the whole island is engraved in the stone.”
Next, he takes the viewers to the Women’s Seat or Women’s Court and shows the remains of the First Altar in the Inner Court, the entrance of the Holy of Holies, the Altar of incense in the Holy of Holies, the entrance of the Inner Court and finally the Quarry. Then the film shows a prayer gathering at the site. Some twenty people are present, many of them wearing white robes. A ukulele player accompanies the signing of hymns. Daifa leads the service and in his sermon he urges the twelve language groups of Malaita to pray for their God-given role in the restoration of Israel to where the people of Malaita will go to see where they came from. This sermon tells that the unearthed Temple should provide the basis for a restoration of the world in terms of God dwelling among the people again.
Daifa, wearing a white robe, explains that:
The 14th day of October  is a day to remember. People from Kwaio, Fataleka, Kwara’ae and To’abaita have come together to make this day happening. We are hopeful that one day everybody [all twelve tribes of Malaita] will recognise that this is the place of worship of our ancestors who devoted their prayers to God. Why here?
Isaiah 60: 8-9 says, “Who are these who fly like a cloud. And like the doves to their lattice. Surely, the Coastland will wait Me. And the ships of Tarshish will come first. To bring your sons from afar, their silver and gold with them. For the name of the Lord your God. And for the Holy One of Israel because He has glorified you”.
In Isaiah’s vision, he saw something coming from the sky, coming back. He also saw a plane. This vision is about something he has been praying for a long a time. His vision is that all the people of Israel will go back to their homeland. This is happening. One man from England, Ballford, made a declaration. This declaration makes Israel into a nation again and all its people will return. But the problem is that until today they are in a war.
Then, abruptly, radically different footage is inserted and brings to the viewer fragments of a Christian World News item on the situation in Jerusalem following the fall of Israel’s government in September 2000. It discusses the ongoing talks about free access for all faiths to the Temple Mount and features an interview with the then Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert. Olmert says that he is trying to open up the Temple Mount so that people from all faiths can visit it. Next the film goes back to the prayer session at the temple site and Daifa continues:
They are all there. And I think they will in live peace. We carry a responsibility. This is told in Isaiah 60:9. All the ships and planes will bring us back. We must wait for God. Why? Because [of the] power and glory which our ancestor brought to this place. We must try to elevate this before we can return it to where our ancestors came from.
Then back to Ehud Olmert:
We are praying every day that God will soon come again to rebuild the Temple Mount and rebuild the temple that is the site of all the dreams and all the prayers of Jewish history for thousands of years.
And, finally, Daifa:
If we look at this Temple here we see nothing else than stones. But the power and glory is in your hearts and you must take time for God. For the formula for power and glory is here, that is why the Temple is here. I am telling you that this formula, the only one, is the order of worship as explained in the Old Testament. These are the Ten Commandments. The first one is about love and unity.
It is clear that the documentary is an attempt by Daifa and Matea’a to reassert a widely accepted reality with a thrilling story of discovery and pieces from Christian World News. The documentary is the first in its genre as there is no Solomon Islands documentary-making tradition or popular cinema yet. Eddi B. Bibimauri who lives in Auki, Malaita, produced the Lost Temple documentary. Bibimauri is an early associate of Michael Maeliau, the leader of the so-called Deep Sea Canoe Movement that has been active in the region since the early 1990s. At the time he produced the film he was no longer a follower of the movement but sympathised with Daifa’s quest to find the Lost Temple. Daifa was also a follower of the Deep Sea Canoe but his motivation for making the film is to compete with Maeliau by claiming more authority as discoverer of the Lost Temple. Maeliau had, according to Daifa, been speculating about the possibility of the Lost Temple being buried in the mountains of Malaita, but had never ventured into this powerful domain.
When I questioned him about this he replied, “He was too busy with his own status, money and travelling abroad that he forgot about the tribal history of Malaita.” “Is that all?,” I asked. “No,” Daifa replied,
Michael also can’t claim any land rights here, so he has no basis for claiming the pieces of land that may possibly hold the Lost Temple, so he did not dare to dwell on this any further. But I did and I found it, I did, but not many believe me (Interview with Frank Daifa, Fo’ondo Village, 5 February 2006).
During interviews with me, Daifa regularly insisted that Maeliau, by virtue of his descent, has no grounds to claim narrative or genealogical precedence over tracts of land where the Lost Temple and other important sacred shrines are located. Daifa’s attempt to site the Ark of the Covenant in his tribal land (which is ironically also under dispute) was inspired by the idea that it would make him a respected and famed person and that riches would flow towards him.
In contrast to Daifa’s and Maeta’a’s beliefs, Bibimauri told me that the meaning of the Lost Temple film is not so much about a claim that the First Temple of Israel is on Malaita, rather than in the Holy Land. Instead, it is about Malaita’s lost relationship with God and with the nation of Israel. Bibimauri believes that the end of time is about to happen and that therefore the time is right to take seriously such signs as the discovery of the Lost Temple. We may wonder what this bodes for the way in which people are going to participate in development efforts stimulated by the Israelis.
To be continued…