We already know that Israel is the Start-Up Nation. A week spent learning about Israel’s commitment to global responsibility in Kenya, made it clear that Israel deserves a second nickname – the Stand-Up Nation.
In February, I co-led a group of young professionals from Boston to visit Kenya as part of a new initiative called Project Inspire run by Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Consulate General of Israel to New England. The program offers young adults the chance to witness Israel’s work in sustainable social, economic and environmental development.
Project Inspire’s motto is: Get Inspired. Inspire Others.
In Kenya, it’s easy to get inspired by Israel’s work. As Kenyan President Kenyatta, told Israeli President Rivlin, “We in Kenya hold Israel as a dear and very special friend. This is a friendship not only born out of a long history of fraternal relations but is also manifested in very real and concrete corporation in a number of important areas.”
On our trip it wasn’t unusual to see an Israeli flag painted on a gate or hanging on a wall. We visited schools where children sang Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, and another that proudly flew an Israeli flag.
Israel’s relationship with the African continent stretches back more than six decades. In 1957, Golda Meir – then Israel’s Foreign Minister – traveled to the African continent. Moved by the poverty and hardship facing the young nations, Meir was determined that Israel should help.
She saw that the challenges faced by the young African nations were similar to those faced by Israel – adapting to newfound independence, contending with dry and arid farming conditions, and grappling with persistent conflict.
In 1957, Israel was still a young nation of Holocaust survivors, farmers, and refugees who themselves were not yet settled. The country’s population had doubled in its first few years, straining the economy of the fledgling state. To provide for the burgeoning population, many common goods, including food and clothing, were rationed.
Despite the hardships they faced at home, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, were committed to helping abroad. They established MASHAV – Israel’s international aid agency – to provide assistance in health care, education, resource conservation and gender equality. With the birth of MASHAV, Israel became one of the first countries to extend its hand in friendship and support to nations in Africa.
This support continued after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Many African countries cut political ties with Israel following a threat from the Arab nations to impose an oil boycott on all countries that had ties to the Jewish state. Nonetheless, MASHAV continued to work with the continent’s farmers, teachers, engineers, and doctors.
Why has Israel demonstrated such steadfast support? Certainly not because it is benefiting in United Nations votes or multilateral support. Rather, Israel’s commitment to international development is rooted in its values as a Jewish state. As David Ben-Gurion said, “The State of Israel will be tested not by its wealth, not by its army and not by its technique, but rather in its moral identity and humanitarian values.”
We saw this commitment each day on Project Inspire.
At the Mathare Special Training Center, a school for individuals ages 12-45 with disabilities, we met teachers who have received training from MASHAV to advance their mission of being an inclusive center of excellence in vocational training.
We saw Israel’s commitment at Star of Hope Primary School in one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. Israel has supported the school with sanitation facilities and a greenhouse to help feed the school’s 828 students. During our visit, Israel’s ambassador to Kenya Noah Gendler, opened a computer lab that will open a new world of opportunities for those students.
And we saw Israel’s commitment to humanitarian values at the farm of Albert Kamatu. He recently returned from a month-long MASHAV training program in Israel, where he learned tools and technologies to optimize his crop yields and conserve resources.
Throughout the trip, we saw how Israeli technology, know-how, and innovations are improving, enriching, and saving lives.
Next month, Israel will celebrate 70 years as an independent Jewish state. In just seven decades, it has grown from a struggling developing nation to an economic powerhouse and a leader in global innovation.
We took a parched and barren land and made it bloom through water recycling and desalination. We built schools and hospitals that are leaders in medical and technological innovations. And we built state-of-the art infrastructure and a robust economy.
Israel is a testament to the ability of a small people to overcome impossible odds by the sheer force of our commitment to knowledge, innovation, and compassion. But that wasn’t enough. We then took that knowledge, innovation, and compassion and shared it with the world.
What started as a modest program focused on grassroots capacity building, has blossomed into an extensive program of cooperation throughout the developing world. Since its founding 60 years ago, MASHAV has worked in 132 countries, and trained over 270,000 people. It counts among its graduates the current president of Honduras, the former Foreign Minister of Georgia, and half of the government of Guatemala.
Golda Meir once said, “Fan the tiny inner spark of possibility into flames of achievement.” Israel has done so at home, it is doing so in Africa, and throughout the world.