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June 6, 2018 9:23 am

The Positive History of Israeli-African Relations

avatar by Benji Shulman


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo: Twitter.

Just last month Israel scored another big diplomatic win in Africa, when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin successfully toured Ethiopia. He took along a massive entourage, including government officials, business people, NGOs, and even Ethiopian-Israeli singer Ester Rada.

Africa holds a very particular place in Israel’s foreign policy. In order to understand why, it is worth going back and studying the history of Africa-Israel relations.

While relations between the two regions go back to the Bible, the story really picks up around the late 1890s. At the time, both Africans and Jews were the wretched peoples of the earth, victims of antisemitism, slavery, colonialism, racism, and dispersion.

It is therefore unsurprising that solutions in the form of Zionism and African nationalism evolved virtually simultaneously. Theodor Herzl, for example, wrote in his seminal work Altneuland (1902), “Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish to also assist in the redemption of the Africans.” In African intellectual circles, the idea of Zionism was well regarded.

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The father of Pan-Africanism, Marcus Garvey, argued that “many white men have tried to uplift them, but the only way is for the Negroes to have a nation of their own, like the Jews, that will command the respect of the nations of the world with its achievements.”

Garvey championed what was known as “Black Zionism” and Liberian diplomat Edmon Wilmot Blyden referred to “that marvelous movement called Zionism” as a model for African emancipation. With the newly independent African states that were being created in the 1960s, history, ideology, and now diplomacy combined, becoming a compelling driver for cooperation and understanding.

African state-builders appreciated the Zionist institutions that had brought independence. The Pan-Africanist journalist George Padmore, for instance, believed that Africa’s development could be fostered using organized infusions of funding from the African-American diaspora, along the same lines as the United Jewish Appeal.

In the defense sphere, early Zionist military formations were an inspiration for Nelson Mandela’s armed resistance against apartheid. The first pilots of the Kenyan and Tanzanian Air Forces were all trained by Israel, and Israel built Ghana’s first naval academy.

Kwame Nkrumah. the president of Ghana, expressed it best when he said, “We understand one another, Jews and Negroes. We were both oppressed for a long time and now we both have our own independent states.”

Of course, African states and Israel shared many of the same developmental challenges. Tanzanian President Juluis Nyerere observed in 1957 that “Israel is a small country… but it can offer a lot to a country like mine. We can learn a great deal because the problems of Tanganika are similar to Israel’s.” These attitudes resulted in a vast array of joint projects across the continent in construction, agriculture, aquaculture, health care, hydrology, youth movements, regional planning, engineering, community services, and many others.

John Tettegah, Secretary General of Ghana’s Trade Union movement, said that his visit to Israel had “given me more in eight days than I could obtain from a British university in two years.” Some of the more interesting projects included assistance in building the parliament in Sierra Leone and the creation of Ghana’s Black Star line shipping company.

In the social sphere the idea of Jewish unity was also attractive. Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta argued, “You have built a nation with Jews coming from all corners of the world; we want to build a unified Kenya of a multitude of tribes joined together through Harambee (working together).”

By 1965, most major African leaders had visited Israel, and by 1973 Israel had established relations with 32 African states, more than any other country in the world with the exception of the former European powers. Many African countries also opened embassies in Israel, 10 based in Jerusalem.

Of course the Arab states were not happy about this new cooperation, but the African states didn’t care. As Julius Nyerere put it, “We are not going to let our friends determine who our enemies are.” Besides the risk of losing their friendship with Israel, African leaders were apprehensive about Arab inference in their domestic affairs and they had bitter memories of the sub-Saharan slave trade.

At one point during a UN debate, a Saudi Arabian delegate accused the Ivory Coast of “selling out” to Israel, to which the Ivorian delegate responded, “The representative of Saudi Arabia may be used to buying Negroes, but he can never buy us.”

So despite Arab pressure, African delegations helped put Israeli representatives on the boards of the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. In return, Israel was a regular backer of anti-apartheid resolutions at the UN, eventually having the most votes against apartheid of any Western nation.

Still, the Arab states continued with their rhetorical assault and, over time, Israel-Africa relations also began to strain due to their own internal dynamics.

Then, after the Yom Kippur War, things changed radically.  The Arab states threatened any country that had relations with Israel with an oil embargo. They also promised aid to those African countries that broke ties with Israel.

The combination of economic coercion and continuous propaganda was too much for African states to bear and they began abandoning Israel en masse. President Senghor of Senegal put the situation plainly: “The Arabs have the numbers, space, and oil. In the third world, they outweigh Israel.” By the end of 1973, Israel found itself with only four official friends in Africa.

This is partly why there is so much pageantry involved in Israel’s latest forays into the region. The ramping up of engagement between Israel and Africa is highly symbolic of the country’s renewed ability to engage unhindered with its continental neighbor. Many challenges still remain, but there is no lack of interest from both sides. One can only hope that these are encouraging signs for a long term positive relationship.

Benji Shulman is a board member of the South African Friends of Israel.

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