I’ve Got Friends in Low-lying Places . . .

By Moshe Sokolow
Thursday, December 6, 2012

The recent UN General Assembly vote granting observer nation status to Palestine was 138 in favor, 41 abstentions, and nine opposed.  In addition to the United States, along with Canada, Panama, and the Czech Republic, the few nations that supported Israel’s opposition to the resolution were Palau, Micronesia, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands.  It would be tragic if Israel were to lose the vote of any of its few reliable supporters at the United Nations, but that is just what might happen over the next few years—not due to any political intrigue but on account of global warming!  At the moment, the endangered ally is the island republic of Palau, and just this summer PBS aired a report, titled Paradise Lost, calling attention to the potential of climate change to inundate and eliminate Palau and its Pacific neighbors.

An archipelago of 300 islands lying in the Philippine Sea north of Australia, with a total area of only 459 square miles (Israel, by comparison, has 21,000 square miles) and a population of only 21,000, Palau more than makes up for its diminutive size with its consistent support of Israel in world forums.  Although all of Palau cannot scrape up even a minyan (a quorum of 10 Jews), its ambassador to the United Nations since 2004, Stuart Beck, is Jewish, as is Larry Miller, who served for 14 years as an associate justice of Palau's Supreme Court.  Somehow, Palau also produced two cyclists who competed in the 2009 Maccabiah Games.

Palauans, grateful for American support in rebuilding the country after the ravages of World War II and in establishing an independent constitutional government, voted in 1984 to adopt a Compact of Free Association with the United States.  They have exercised their vote on behalf of Israel’s interests without fail—and without obvious recompense.  In a word, they have acted altruistically, as genuine friends.

Nothing in its national profile would mark Palau as an obvious backer of the Jewish state.  Nearly 75 percent of its people are Christian, mostly Roman Catholic; an additional 10 percent follow Modekngei, a hybrid of Christianity and the ancient Palauan religion.  The island’s economic mainstay, apart from subsistence farming and fishing, is tourism; but, in spite of its tropical climate and its world renown as a diving destination, it has never been a port of call for Jewish midwinter cruises or Passover vacations.

Perhaps Palau’s unusually high literacy rate of 92 percent contributes to its open-mindedness?  Perhaps its geographical isolation frees it from restrictive diplomatic alliances or affiliations?  Perhaps its legacy of American largesse inclines it to a more Western and liberal political stance?  Perhaps, like other Asian cultures, it shares an affinity for millennia-old traditions?

Or perhaps it is reciprocal?  After Palau formally declared its independence in 1994, Israel hastened to afford the new country its first non-Pacific diplomatic recognition.

In January, 2005 a group of students from Yeshiva University High School, organized by then-high school senior Avram Sand, was appreciative enough of Palau’s foursquare support of Israel, and curious enough about the motives for its support, to pay a courtesy visit to the island to check it out.  They visited with Palauan students at their schools, met with government officials, and kept a most unusual Shabbat—which, on account of halakhic vicissitudes surrounding the International Date Line, was observed on Sunday.  "We represented a segment of the Jewish community that was grateful for the support that Palau provides Israel on a regular basis." said Sand.  "I was very interested in why these places halfway around the world had any interest in Israel whatsoever."

One of the events the students attended was a 20-minute meeting with the president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau Jr.  The students thanked him for hosting them and expressed their gratitude for Palau's firm support of Israel in the UN.  Shalom Sokolow, another YU High School senior, recited a special prayer for the people of Palau, including a passage from the Book of Isaiah that was chosen to honor Palau’s extraordinary attributes:

Those yonder lift up their voice, they sing for joy;
For the majesty of the LORD
they shout from the sea.
Therefore glorify ye the LORD in the regions of light;
Even the name of the LORD,
the God of Israel,
in the islands of the sea. (29:14-15)

It was reported that the students made quite an impression on their Palauan hosts.  Soon after they left, a Palauan high school student named Maungil Leoncio wrote an e-mail to the Forward saying, "They're the first Jewish people I met.  At first I was judging them by their cover but when I started talking to them, I started to like them a lot.  Their presentation was one of the coolest we've had."

For a geographically insular nation, Palau has a record of rather singular broad-mindedness, of which the State of Israel and the Jewish people are currently beneficiaries.  Palau supports Israel’s existential concerns, and perhaps the time is right to repay the Palauans by supporting one of their existential concerns: the gradually increasing erosion of their coastlands, the contamination of their farmlands by seawater, and growing threats to their vital barrier reefs.  The Palauans, in a novel and highly controversial legal maneuver, have asked the World Court and the UN Security Council to determine the extent to which all nations share a responsibility to insure that their greenhouse gases do not damage other nations.  Israel might well take note.

With the havoc wreaked by Sandy still so fresh in our minds, we should be particularly aware that our interests and the Palauans’ coincide.  To help them is to help ourselves—and vice versa—in more ways than one.

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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