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July 20, 2020 8:01 am

The Connection Between Pan-Africanism and Zionism

avatar by Harold Brackman


Worshipers pray in distance from each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, amid coronavirus restrictions, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

Israel’s enemies today often ignore that Zionism and Pan-Africanism have intersecting histories. But they share one great commonality — both are international movements committed to unifying diaspora peoples to build up their own, newly-independent homeland.

My choice for the “godfather” of Pan-Africanism is Edward Wilmot Blyden. His trajectory ultimately led him to visit the Holy Land, whose destiny he envisaged as linked to “that marvelous movement called Zionism.”

Born to free parents on Charlotte-Amalie, capital of St. Thomas, Blyden prided himself on his “pure” African ancestry, yet also prized his close cultural ties with Jews, beginning with members of Amalie’s 400-strong Jewish community, which produced such expatriate luminaries as Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.

Young Blyden played on Synagogue Hill, watched the Yom Kippur services from outside the congregation, and struck up a youthful friendship with David Cardoze (Cardozo), later a rabbi, who taught him the rudiments of Hebrew.

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Discriminated against when he journeyed to the United States in 1850, Blyden was sent as an agent of the American Colonization Society to Liberia, the American “Back to Africa” experiment that in 1847 became an independent nation. He devoted the rest of his life to Africa as an educator, publicist, and diplomat, including an 1866 trip to Jerusalem that he wrote about in From West Africa to Palestine (1873). Blyden didn’t visit early Alliance Israelite Universelle projects, but nevertheless predicted that “Jews are to be restored to the land of their fathers” once “the misrule of the Turks” was overcome.

Blyden longed for the emergence among African-Americans of leaders to mobilize the selective return of some Blacks to help regenerate Africa. He was fascinated by Herzl’s meteoric rise as Zionism’s new Moses. His response to Der Judenstaat and the First and Second Zionist Congresses, held in 1897 and 1898, was a pamphlet, “The Jewish Question” (1898), published with the help of Liverpool merchant and African trader Louis Solomon.

Blyden wrote that “the history of the African race — their enslavement, persecution, proscription, and sufferings — closely resembles that of the Jews.” He also asked for Jewish support of Africa: “If the world owes an immense debt to the Jews, the Jews as well as the rest of mankind owe an immense debt to Africa; for it was upon that soil that a few nomads from Western Asia settled down, and, in the furnace of affliction … grew to be a nation. … Now, Africa appeals to the Jew.”

Unburdened by antisemitism, Blyden was also unprejudiced against Muslims. He believed that Islam might still contribute to Africa’s liberation.

Blyden pointed the way for Pan-African leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and Kwame Nkrumah — all intrigued by Zionism, but not all friendly toward Jews.

Blyden may be newly relevant as Israel continues to improve its relations with Africa in the 21st century.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African-Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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