There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.
So wrote Theodore Herzl, visionary and architect of modern Israel, effectively pushing the goals of the Zionist movement to not just the realisation of a homeland for the Jewish people, but assisting in securing freedom for African nations then under colonial bondage and civil rights for people of African descent living in western nations. Several Zionists applied themselves to this aspect of the vision, but it is Golda Meir, born Golda Mabovitch a hundred and eighteen years ago this week, who emerged as the builder of bridges between Africa and Israel.
When she was appointed Israel’s second Foreign Minister in 1956, Golda Meir announced that a cornerstone of her foreign policy was to reach out to the African states emerging from colonial rule. The rationale for this was lost to many at the ministry. After all, the new countries were often poorer than Israel and facing greater security, environmental and other problems; what could they possibly help Israel with? Moreover, this was the woman who once said, “There is no Zionism except the rescue of Jews.” At a meeting, Meir explained:
We Jews share with the African peoples a memory of centuries-long suffering. For both Jews and Africans alike, such expressions as discrimination, oppression and slavery-these are not mere catchwords. They don’t refer to experiences of hundreds of years ago. They refer to the torment and degradation we suffered yesterday and today. Let me read you something to illustrate the point.
She then read to them the passage from Herzl’s Altneuland which opens this article. In her autobiography, My Life, Golda expands on how she saw Israel’s common ground with African nations.
Independence had come to us, as it was coming to Africa, not served up on a silver platter, but after years of struggle. Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together and how to defend ourselves….We couldn’t offer Africa money or arms, but on the other hand, we were free of the taint of the colonial exploiters because all that we wanted from Africa was friendship. Let me at once anticipate the cynics. Did we go into Africa because we wanted votes at the United Nations? Yes, of course …. But it was far from being the most important motive …. The main reason for our African “Adventure” was that we had something we wanted to pass on to nations that were even younger and less experienced than ourselves.
Golda’s first trip to the continent was in 1958, starting in Liberia. In this country founded by freed Africans who had been enslaved in America, the Gola people crowned her Queen in a traditional ceremony, prompting Israeli poet Avraham Shlonsky to suggest that the Gold Coast (Ghana’s colonial name) be renamed the Golda Coast. From Liberia, she attended Ghana’s first independence anniversary. It was here that African leaders confronted her on the contradiction between Israel’s policy of aligning with France, then fighting to retain its African colonies, and her stated mission to reach out to independent African nations. Golda responded by reminding the Africans that while all of Israel’s neighbours were armed for free by the Soviet Union, France was the only country willing to at least sell the Jewish homeland weapons. “If you were in that position, what would you do?”
In Golda’s wake,thousands of Israeli experts in fields such as military, police and intelligence training, agriculture, regional planning and community work were dispatched, working in 33 countries across the continent. Many African leaders and technocrats visited Israel to see for themselves these brilliant ideas at work.
Her tenure as Foreign Minister also saw Israel vote at the United Nations in 1962 in condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid policy, having obtained the support of the Knesset. She said it would have been contrary to Jewish morality for Israel to have failed to raise its voice against the shameful iniquity of South Africa’s apartheid policy, adding that this was a matter that touched the very souls of the United Nations’ African members.
In newly-independent Zambia, Golda Meir joined African leaders on a bus tour of Victoria Falls, which borders my country, Zimbabwe, then a bastion of white settler rule called Rhodesia. The Rhodesian soldiers invited her to cross the border, but refused to admit her African companions. Golda declined the invitation.
With relations being the way they are today between Israel and most of Africa, it is very easy for all of this to be forgotten. Not long after this “Golden Age” (or should that be “Golda Age”?) of Israel-Africa relations, the Jewish homeland became closer to the apartheid South Africa it had denounced so vehemently. Sub-Saharan Africa yielded to pressure from North Africa, and more distantly located players, such as the Soviet Union, and began to sever ties with Israel. Golda’s question; “If you were in that position, what would you do?” came back to haunt her.
I believe that we are on the threshold of a revolution in relations between the African continent and Israel, one that takes us back to that Golden Age (Golda Age?) where this remarkable woman distinguished herself. She may not be around to see this, but I am sure to her last days, she kept up hope that it would happen soon. She left us an enduring legacy on which to build upon a new relationship.