Israel’s vibrant democracy, commitment to helping African neighbors and its representation of a centuries-old dream by the Jewish people to return to their ancestral homeland stand as a beacon of hope and a source of strength to the emerging nations of Africa.
That message from Olga Meshoe Washington, CEO of Defend Embrace Invest (in) Support Israel and board member of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel, received a warm welcome from the almost 200 attendees at the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Central New Jersey Love of Israel brunch March 19 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick.
Washington, a Christian Zionist from South Africa who has visited Israel six times, spoke of an intertwined relationship that has uplifted the nations of Africa and has provided Israel with friendships and alliances. “America may be Israel’s strongest ally, but Africa is Israel’s most strategic ally,” she said. “I’m all for it.”
She decried those who support the “Free Palestine” movement, whether on college campuses or on social media, as being “morally warped” because the statement calls for “extinguishing the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”
“Just as Japanese people get to call Japan home and the Swiss get to call Switzerland home, the Jewish people have a right to a home,” said Washington.
Her visits to Israel showed her a country open to all religions, races and others, and she dismissed the idea of apartheid as a made-up definition by “Israel haters” with “pretzel-like twisting” designed to demonize the world’s only Jewish state. As a South African, Washington said that accusing Israel of apartheid trivializes the humiliation and suffering of Blacks there who to this day deal with the lingering effects of real apartheid.
Her message was echoed by Central New Jersey JNF President Barbara Israel Bortniker, who told the crowd that as Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary it has blossomed into a thriving democracy where the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community are respected in a country built by the descendants of slaves who fled Egypt, and is populated by pioneers, Jews expelled from Arab lands, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopians, some of whom were rescued from death, among others.
Bortniker said much like the ancient Israelites who joined together to build the Tabernacle, JNF and its supporters have joined to help Israel with water resources, to build parks and playgrounds, to support those with disabilities and special needs and to provide firefighting and rescue services, among other initiatives.
Justin Lee, a Rutgers University senior, participated in one such JNF initiative, the Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission, which brings non-Jewish student leaders to Israel.
Lee, who is also Black, said he found Israel very different from the country portrayed in the media locked in an endless conflict with the Palestinians. He went to Masada and the Dead Sea, witnessed the pride displayed by disabled young people participating in the Israeli Defense Forces’ Special in Uniform, met with Israelis of all types and learned about something people in the United States never experience—having to run to a bomb shelter at a moment’s notice.
Lee, a resident assistant and student athlete who hopes to join the Air Force after graduation, said he now has a new perspective about Israel and talks to his family, friends and peers about the country.
For Washington, Israel showcases a special spirituality where “the prophets, the Torah all come alive in a special way.”
“To millions of Christians around the world it is testament that our own Bible can be true,” she said. “I believe in truth and justice, and I believe in being an ally.”
She stressed that many Black leaders look to Zionism in Israel as a road map for the Black Diaspora. The relationship between Blacks and Jews has its roots in the Bible, when King Solomon welcomed the Queen of Sheba into his court, and Washington believes there is a Christian mandate to support Israel.
The story of the Jewish Exodus from slavery in Egypt provided inspiration to enslaved American Blacks who sang about it in the spiritual “Go Down Moses” and other songs. More recently, Beyoncé used the image of the baby Moses floating down the Nile in the video for her “Black is King” visual album celebrating African hospitality and traditions.
Washington cited famous American Black civil rights leaders such Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, who were ardent Zionists, drawn by Israel’s democratic ideals and the triumphant return of the Jewish people.
She touched on Jewish support for the Black community among Zionist leaders. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism wrote: “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.” Herzl recounted how Africans were ripped from their homelands, stolen and sold “like cattle” and said after he witnessed the redemption of the Jewish people he wanted to assist in the redemption of Africans.
Golda Meir would later make a point of assisting the emerging nations of Africa from her time as foreign minister through her tenure as prime minister, referencing the common bonds of nation building, shaking off colonialism and oppression, and learning how to reclaim the land.
Washington said in scores of countries across the African continent Israel has offered the hand of friendship, training police, helping with agriculture, building hospitals, providing financial help and regional planning. African leaders have been invited to Israel to learn skills to help them advance their countries.
“Golda Meir believed what was learned by Jewish Israelis could be learned by Blacks across Africa,” she said.
Today, Washington said many Africans still view Israel in a positive light, adding, “Let me tell you, the ordinary African is more Zionist than anti-Zionist.”
And although the continent is often seen as being wracked by war and division, it also possesses much of the world’s arable land and mineral resources, which could help feed the world. “Africa is not poor,” she said. “It is very rich but we have problems, and we need friends to help us overcome these problems.”
Russa, China and Iran are cozying up to Africa and its riches, “but I say no thank you” noted Washington, who instead said, “The real and meaningful relationship that benefits my people and the continent is with Israel.”
She closed her remarks asking that Hashem grant Israel respite from its enemies before affirming, “Am Yisrael Chai.”
By Debra Rubin