Africa month: Contemplating Wakanda & Zion

Benji Shulman writes about the history of the relationship between Israel and Africa

Africa Month: Contemplating Wakanda & Zion  

30 May 2018

On 1st May 2018 the citizens of Addis Ababa received an unusual visitor.  Israeli president Reuven Rivlin touched down in Ethiopia becoming the first occupant of his office ever to make an official visit to the country. In his wake came a bevy of business people, NGO’s, government officials, and even Ethiopian-Israeli popstar Estrada. The event was just the latest in a number of Africa-Israel related initiatives over the last few years, including three trips to the continent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Rivlin joked that he was “returning the visit of Queen Sheba to King Solomon” and much like the original biblical visit, key items on the agenda included trade, culture and security.

South African pundits have tended to view this diplomatic engagement as something unusual, even sinister. However relations between Zion & Wakanda actually have a considerable pedigree. So being Africa Month, it seems appropriate to look up north, to try and understand why the continental approach to Israel tends to be so different from our own.  

Although Africa- Israel relations go back to the bible, the story really picks up around the late 1890’s. At the time, both Africans and Jews were the wretched peoples of the earth, victims of anti-Semitism, slavery, colonialism, racism and dispersion.  It is therefore unsurprising that solutions in the form of Zionism and African Nationalism evolved simultaneously.  The founder of Zionism, journalist Theodor Herzl, wrote in his seminal book, 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 a national Jewish liberation was a popular one. Marcus Garvey, for instance, 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”. Thus the idea of Jews having their own state was viewed with favour by early Pan-Africanists. Garvey championed what was known as “Black Zionism” and Liberian diplomat Edmon Wilmot Blyden referred to “that marvellous movement called Zionism” as a model for African emancipation.

The impact of this sentiment would find its way into the civil rights movement in America.  Hence the words of Martin Luther King Jr:  “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews You’re talking anti-Semitism”. The real impact of these ideas, however, were in Africa, where newly independent African states were being created in the 1960’s. History and ideology combined, becoming a compelling driver for co-operation and understanding. Kwame Nkrumah President of Ghana expressed it best in 1961, 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”. 

It was more than just commonalities between national ideologies, however, that drove the early Africa-Israel relationship.  At the beginning of the 1950s, the new-born Jewish state found itself with few friends.  The soon-to-be independent African states provided Israel with an opportunity to shore up its diplomatic defences. Israel made an attractive diplomatic partner in Africa. As such, a small country, Israel, was in no position to be an agent of neo-colonialism. In fact, having recently overthrown the British, Israel was a good example of a successful liberation struggle.

Moreover, African state builders appreciated the Zionist institutions that had brought about the creation of the country, and they sought to adapt them for their own projects. The Pan-Africanist journalist George Padmore, for instance, believed that Africa’s development could be fostered using organised infusions of funding from the African-American Diaspora, along the same lines as world Jewry had done. In the defence sphere, early Zionist military formations were the inspiration for the concept and structure of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

In planning MK, the Nelson Mandela leaned on Arthur Goldreich who had fought in the Israeli War of Independence, and read books by underground Zionist fighters. When Walter Sisulu visited Israel on his five-nation tour, he flew on Israel’s national carrier El Al. It was the only the airline in the world that would take a black South African passenger without a passport. Israel also did a lot to build up defence infrastructure in many other African countries, especially training their military and police. The first pilots of the Kenyan and Tanzanian Air Forces were all trained by Israel; and it was Israel that built Ghana’s first naval academy.

Finally, African states and Israel shared many of the same developmental challenges. 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 Israels.” This resulted in a vast array of joint projects across the continent including 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 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 giving assistance in building the parliament in Sierra Leone and the creation of Ghana’s Black Star line shipping company.

To ensure the ongoing success of these initiatives, many Israelis came to live in Africa to assist with programmes, particularly in health care. Through these engagements a specialist eye clinic was established in Sierra Leone and social work training provided in Machakos, Kenya. Many African citizens, in turn, went to Israel to study at its tertiary institutions, including the Weitzman Institute, the Hebrew University, and the Mount Carmel Centre which was dedicated to training women in the developing world.

Social cohesion was also on the agenda, Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta argued that, “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 Africa leaders had visited Israel, coming from what was then Central African Republic, Chad, Dahomey (Benin), the Congo, Gabon, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Madagascar, Uganda, Mali and Upper Volta (Burkina Faso).  Israel’s friends included President William Tubman’s, Liberia (who had voted for the establishment of the state in 1947 at the UN) and Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia.

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 had also opened embassies in Israel of which ten of them were based in Jerusalem, well before America had the idea. Included on this list were those of the Ivory Coast and Kenya. Israel also gained observer status on the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). It was the golden age of Zion & Wakanda.

Not everyone, however, was delighted by the increased Africa-Israel co-operation. The power of the Arab states in international diplomacy was growing, and their official policy position on Israel was annihilation. Watching the growing African-Israel relationship with concern, they did what they could to impede it. Championed by Egypt, they attempted to ferment anti-Zionist rhetoric onto the agenda of multi-lateral bodies such as the OAU.

These were backed-up by punitive economic actions.  The first serious attacks in these forums were taken in the early 1960s but were strongly rebuffed by the African states. 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 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.

Notwithstanding this success, however, all was not light and roses in the Israel-Africa relationship, and by the late 1960s the situation became strained. Much of this had to do with the familiar problems that bedeville the field of international aid, including the lack of large scale capital and effective technical transfer, solutions for long term sustainability and some focus shift by Israel to other continents such as South America.  This was added to a relentless Arab propaganda machine urging all countries to end ties with Israel. The situation began to take its toll and in the wake of the 6-Day War, four countries cut ties.   

The real change, however, started in October 1973 when Arab nations, lead by Egypt, launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. Although the attack would eventually fail, it introduced a new powerful weapon into the world of diplomacy: the global oil boycott. The Arab states threatened any country which had relations with Israel with an oil embargo. They also promised aid to those African countries that broke ties with Israel. The strategy sent the oil price rocketing, leading to a major economic crisis, but it proved to be an extraordinarily successful.

The combination of economic coercion and continuous propaganda added to the already strained Israel-Africa relationship. This 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. The golden age of Wakanda & Zion was over.

This situation remained as such until 1978 and the signing of the world’s first Arab-Israeli peace with Egypt. Although it took time, Africa-Israel relations began to slowly be restored. Israel now has as many as 40 diplomatic relationships in Africa with growing security, development and trade ties. Israel is looking for friends in Africa and observer status at the AU while the continent is looking to take advantage of Israeli technology in development and security. Is another golden age upon us? Its hard to say, but a new chapter of the saga of Zion & Wakanda is definitely evolving. 

By Benji Shulman, Board Member South Africa Friends of Israel, 30 May 2018