Long before the State of Israel was established, the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, recognized parallels between the black and the Jewish experience. “Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people,” Herzel wrote in 1902, “I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”
Herzl’s aspiration was taken up by Golda Meir, as foreign minister of Israel, after her 1958 visit to several African states, according to Jacques Assour, an expert on Israeli diplomacy and Arab issues, who recently spoke at Congregation Har Tzeon Agudath-Achim in Silver Spring, Maryland. The April 15 lecture was part of the Traditional synagogue’s Sunday scholar speakers series.
Since Meir’s time, said Assour, Israel has expanded its efforts to assist African nations in the realms of health, malnutrition, education, and more, and its approach has matured into a more sophisticated two-sided relationship with the region.
“Israel has developed innovative solutions in water technology, renewable energy, agriculture, health, telecommunications, and security, which are well suited to help the people of Africa,” Assour said. “These efforts have also resulted in improving Israel’s relations with African countries, trade, as well cooperation in Israel’s foreign relations.”
“For a long time, Africa, with its 54 nations, has been a political battleground for Israel and the Arab countries, with Israel trailing the Arabs in influence by a considerable margin,” he said. “Israel has only one vote at the United Nations [U.N.]; Arab countries have 18 votes in the U.N. and six in the Organization of African Unity [OAU]. For this reason alone, Israel realized that winning the confidence of the African people is critical.”
The golden age of Israel’s good relations with Africa ended after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, according to Assour. Many African nations changed their views of Israel as a peaceful state to an aggressive and expansionist power. In 1973, the OAU broke off diplomatic relations with Israel because of promises of cheap oil and financial aid by the Arab states; trade relations, however, remained unaffected.
As the perception of Israel by African states improved going into the 1980s, said Assour, these states also realized that the Arab oil-producing nations were not only failing to provide their promised aid but were also harming their economies by maintaining exorbitant oil prices. This led to “increased and improved” relationships with Israel, Assour said.
Today, he continued, Israel has diplomatic relations with 40 out of 48 countries south of the Sahara. Israel has 10 permanent diplomatic missions in this region of Africa, and there are missions from 15 of these states in Israel.
Furthermore, Israel is regularly invited as an observer at OAU meetings. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) chose Israel as the site of its first-ever seminar to take place outside of Africa in December 2016; and the first annual ECOWAS summit was held in Liberia in June 2017, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the first non-African leader, invited by the Liberian president to participate in the summit.
“All of these things happen without much fanfare or publicity,” Assour said. “Israel is bad in marketing itself, but what we see here is a miracle that has been taking place between a small state and the big African continent.”
By Frank Solomon and Kol HaBirah Staff
Frank Solomon lives in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a member of Har Tzeon Agudath-Achim.