Africa and Israel’s roots are long-standing and ought to bear fruit for both

Israel and Africa are neighbours and our relations go back to the biblical time of Genesis. The very beginnings of Jewish peoplehood began when Jacob and his sons wandered to Egypt — to Africa — and the story of our exodus has been a source of human inspiration and freedom for thousands of years.

In modern times, the vision for a Jewish state was connected from the start to Africa. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, who posited the idea that Jews, too, should have our own homeland, also wrote in 1902 about African liberation: “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. … 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.”

And it seemed natural, in the shadow of the Holocaust, a newly founded, tiny state of Israel joined together with many independent African states, and led by then foreign minister Golda Meir to carry out Herzl’s dream, offered partnership in our shared post-colonial experiences. Israeli experts in fields such as agriculture, education, homeland security, policing and community work were dispatched, working in dozens of countries across Africa. Leaders, officials and students visited Israel to see for themselves the success of these policies as carried out in Israel.

Geopolitics is a complicated thing and countries often get swept up beyond their individual interests. So it was when, in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, nearly every country in Africa broke off relations with Israel, under intense pressure from Arab states.

In recent years, Israel and nearly all African states have found our friendship renewed by a more measured analysis of interests and opportunities in a modern world. Ghana partners with Israel on early childhood education. Ethiopia has used Israeli techniques to develop its horticulture industry and capacity to export flowers to Europe. Israel played a disproportionate role in Sierra Leone and Liberia in responding to the Ebola challenge and a unique Israeli innovation has helped reduce the risk of HIV infection for tens of thousands of young African men. Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria see that Israeli responses to radical Islamic terror have application to save lives in Africa. Rwanda sees Israel as a model of how a small country rebuilds after great tragedy.

This meeting of shared interests of peoples, not merely leaders, is exactly the crux of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to four countries in eastern Africa in July, the proposal of the president of Togo to organise an Israel-Africa security and development summit in Lomé next year and a special event planned next month on the sideline of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to highlight Israel’s deepening relationship in innovation with countries across the continent.

These shared interests also offer significant opportunities for South Africa. Israel’s world-renowned experience in defeating drought has created more water solutions for both Israel and its neighbours. Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians all now have more water and, potentially, a new window for co-operation, not conflict.

Early this year, Israel and South Africa agreed on a work plan that included exploring possibilities of exchanging study visits by delegations of senior officials to exchange experience in water management in drought conditions. A few months later, our embassy hosted a week of events with experts sharing water technology and management knowledge that is applicable to current challenges in Southern Africa.

We have also sponsored agricultural seminars in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, sharing Israel’s innovations and opportunities for partnership in ensuring food security and assisting emerging farmers. Similar events are being planned for Swaziland, Lesotho and other regions in South African in 2017.

South Africa and Israel are both vibrant, diverse democracies that hold outsized interest for the world. We share significant trade and tourism interests along with deep people-to-people ties. And South Africa’s ideal of dialogue, negotiation and a pragmatic quest for solutions to seemingly intractable challenges can have great resonance across my wider region, where too many different realities and conflicts often seem to be hopeless.

Obviously, there are benefits for Israel in a deeper relationship with Africa. An open dialogue with countries in Africa allows for Israel’s repeated call for immediate, direct peace negotiations with our Palestinian neighbours to be heard more clearly. As in other important regions, African countries should be entitled to both have a view on the political situation in the Middle East and a relationship with all of the parties, especially when promoting African interests are involved.

Nearly every country, large and small, looks to develop trade and other interests in Africa. That is good for both Africans and for people across the world. Israel is no different in looking to find benefits as well as offer meaningful co-operation. Deeper ties and awareness are already encouraging Israeli innovators and start-ups to emphasise developing responses that have application for African markets and not only focus on North America, Europe and Asia — all traditional and established partners for “Start-up Nation” (Israel is so named because it has the highest concentration of start-up businesses outside of Silicon Valley).

Israel should, of course, be an observer of the African Union. Today, no less than 80 non-African countries from all around the globe and dozens of international organisations are observers accredited to the AU. Nearly one in six Israelis have close family ties to Africa, and many more are descendants of immigrants from the continent. Such a straightforward relationship should be a natural reflection of the deep connection and interests that Israel and Africa share. It should not be held hostage to a decidedly minority attempt at isolation or the abuse of regional politics.

Another mutual benefit would be enabling an African voice to be heard in seeking opportunities for peacemaking in the Middle East. Without relationships, it is obvious that such a voice is muted. Africans should be able to speak clearly in places of real conflict such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and to assist Israelis and Palestinians by encouraging dialogue, compromise and rejecting terror and violence.

Those who truly care about helping both Israelis and Palestinians, and also prioritising development opportunities across Africa, should seek to be inclusive and encourage recent positive developments between Israel and Africa, rather than shun dialogue and co-operation.

Arthur Lenk is ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Follow him on Twitter – @ambassadorlenk

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Ambassador Arthur Lenk
Ambassador Arthur Lenk works from Israel. Shares Israeli innovation. Was Israel's Ambassador to Azerbaijan, then South Africa, eSwatini & Lesotho. Grateful for baseball. Speaker: Ambassador Arthur Lenk has over 15253 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

Africa study finds three million new genetic variations

The findings have wide relevance, from learning more about African history and migration to specific variants of people’s health

Extract from ‘The Journey: New Positions in African Photography’ — an introduction

A new book examines the great flourishing of photography across the African continent

Our world needs empathetic intervention — not heroes

The pandemic has reminded us of interconnectedness and that we need to see the world from various perspectives, especially in case studies

The Trump era is over. But the fight for democracy is just getting started

A respected and robust United States — with all of our flaws, mistakes and missteps — can be good for the defence of democracy, not least in Africa

Ethiopia is about to cross the point of no return

As the conflict between the national government and Tigray escalates, the window for intervention is closing fast

The European companies that armed the Ivorian civil war

AN OCCRP investigation reveals that Gunvor and Semlex brokered weapons-for-oil deals in early 2011 when Côte d’Ivoire was in crisis, despite a UN arms embargo

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…