A vicious wave of anti-African sentiment is engulfing Israel. A week ago, border agents at the Ben Gurion International Airport deported a visa-carrying South Sudanese student. He’s an “infiltrator,” they say.
In May, rioters in south Tel Aviv torched African-owned shops and assaulted immigrants. Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai compared African asylum seekers to “the Iranian threat.” He even took pains, as a Sephardi with Tunisian roots, to call himself a “white man,” further distancing himself from Africa.
As a Sierra Leone-born writer and former Fulbright Fellow to Israel, I’m very disturbed and disappointed by this escalating prejudice against Africans in Israel. Jews and Africans from the Saharan south have had a relationship spanning 400 years.
Jews were welcomed when they first came to West Africa.
In the late sixteenth century, crypto-Jewish traders, called the Lançados, fled the Portuguese Inquisition for the coastal villages of modern-day Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Senegal’s Petite Côte. Islamic African rulers allowed them to settle and build a lucrative business in contraband weapons, ivory, hides, gold, and wax.
As the ultimate gesture of acceptance, African rulers gave the Portuguese Jewish traders their daughters to marry. When agents of the Inquisition threatened to drag the Jews back to the torture cellars in Lisbon, the Africans protected them. Due to assimilation, the Lançados disappeared into history.
Jews weren’t seen again in sub-Saharan Africa until 1958, when then Foreign Minister Golda Meir sent Jewish technocrats to help newly independent African countries get on their feet. But prior to that, the two factions were friends. Liberia voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947 and was the third country to recognize Israel.
When Meir toured West Africa in 1958, the Gola tribe made her a paramount chief. But Meir’s Africa advocacy wasn’t solely based on friendship: It was borne out of the political fallout of the Bandung Conference in 1955, a high-profile gathering of 29 Asian and African countries in Indonesia.
Arab delegates and Egypt’s Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser blackballed Israel’s invitation to the conference. They blasted the Jewish state and convinced the African-Asian delegation to adopt a resolution condemning Israel.
To disrupt its diplomatic isolation after the Bandung debacle, Israel launched its foreign aid program to Africa and Asia.
The Israelis established agricultural cooperatives, youth training programs, medical infrastructure, and joint industrial enterprises in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and other sub-Saharan countries. At first, the Africa-Israeli honeymoon was romantic. In 1962 Newsweek called the affair “one of the strangest unofficial alliances in the world.”
The relationship came to a screeching halt following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Egypt pushed other African leaders to cut diplomatic ties with the Jewish state – claiming that Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was a violation of Africa’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, African leaders uncovered an illicit affair between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa.
To everyone’s dismay, Israel was selling the racist, pariah government arms and other military technology. Africa and Israel didn’t talk to each other for over a decade.
It took until the early nineties for Israel to establish full diplomatic ties with 40 African countries – partly because of the laissez-faire business conditions which development loans from global financial institutions levied on African economies. A band of Jewish tycoons arrived in sub-Saharan Africa; today, they oversee a 1.6 billion dollar arms export market and own virtual monopolies in the mineral industry.
Long gone are the genial diplomats of the 1960s who, due to their kibbutz backgrounds, weren’t afraid to go into an African bush to build something that matters. Privateers who profit from their political connections now wield enormous influence over Israel’s foreign policy in Africa.
Dr. Tamar Golan, Israel’s biggest advocate for Africa, died in 2011. With the new breed of Israeli tycoons, African communities look in horror as billions of dollars are funneled out of their lands. The Israelis support the people with embarrassingly small tokens like a village water pump.
A Bloomberg exposé linked one Israeli diamond magnate to back-scratching bribes and backroom deals with Congolese politicians and Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s ex-foreign minister who recently resigned amid an investigation.
Africans in Israel are despised and deported while Israeli-owned businesses mint billions off Africa’s back. This long history shows that Africa and Israel are entangled in an abusive, co-dependent relationship.
Now is the time for Israel to improve its relationship with the African Diaspora. Israel is again facing isolation from the international community and sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, represents the largest regional bloc on international forums, and is a hotbed for regional security against pockets of Islamic extremism.
After 400 years, the Jews may still need an African anchor.