by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor
In times past, Africa was known as the “dark continent,” a mysterious, romantic place filled with tribal cultures, exotic wildlife and beautiful landscapes. It was a destination for Christian missionaries as well as those who dreamed of the adventure of the big-game safari. For many decades, however, violence and turmoil reigned throughout much of the continent. African countries struggled for independence while African culture faced the onslaught of a modern world that threatened its very existence. Today, although violence, terrorism and tribal warfare remain serious problems in certain areas, Africa is a very different place.
No longer so mysterious, 21st-century Africa is the home of 1.216 billion people, 54 nations and some of the most rapidly growing economies on earth. It is also the place where Israel is building some of its strongest relationships since the development of what some are calling a post-American world.
Israel’s interest in Africa is not new. As a fledgling state under the leadership of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s strategy for the future included what Ben Gurion called an “Alliance of the Periphery.” Israel would build strong ties with non-Arab/Muslim states beyond their immediate neighbors, including African nations. Then-Foreign Minister, Golda Meir, worked political miracles in building those relationships. By finding common ground such as a desire for independence and histories fraught with tragedy, alliances were formed that would provide Israel with increased international support, strategic-security backing and growing economic ties. In return, Israel shared technology and training that brought badly needed progress in the areas of agriculture and medicine.
Unfortunately, this relationship which held so much promise for both sides was short-lived. Significant pressure from Arab states threatened the alliance, and Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was the impetus for the destruction of Ben Gurion’s dream. Guinea was the first country to end the relationship followed by Uganda under the leadership of Idi Amin. These actions had an unfortunate domino effect and by the mid-1970s, 35 African states had severed ties with Israel; twenty-six Israeli ambassadors had been sent home and the Alliance of the Periphery was no more.
In the ensuing years, the two sides of Ben Gurion’s alliance took very different paths. Israel struggled against constant military threats and international meddling, yet emerged as a powerful nation and the only democratic state in the Middle East. African nations, however, devolved into civil and religious wars which decimated much of the continent. Israel saw steady economic growth while African economies were in shambles. Israel became a technology giant and a world leader in military and security arenas. African nations saw no such growth, and many found themselves at the mercy of an African Muslim bloc while poverty, hunger and disease overwhelmed their populations.
For many, the situation seemed more than hopeless. In 2000, The Economist featured Africa on its cover under just that title, “Hopeless Africa,” focusing on what most experts considered a very bleak future. Plagued by warfare, famine and AIDS, much of the population had been left brutalized and scarred. The average wage was less than $2.00 per day and the average life span under 50. Though the UN and countless international aid organizations struggled to give meaningful assistance, brutality, despotism and corruption existed everywhere. It was enough, the article stated, to make the world give up on the entire continent.
Yet, a scant ten years later saw the same magazine feature Africa on its cover again, this time under the title, “Africa Rising.” For most of that decade, African nations had maintained 6% annual growth, developing the fastest growing middle class in the world. Six of the fastest growing nations on earth were African, as were three of the five fastest growing economies. Suddenly, Africa had more mobile phone users than the US or Europe; international investors were taking notice and that brutalized, scarred population was being replaced with highly motivated young entrepreneurs and increasingly prosperous consumers.
What happened? The Economist claimed Africa had finally pulled up its sleeves and gone to work. They had reformed their governments and restructured their economies, a testament to human strength and ingenuity. But Josh Reinstein, executive director of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, has a very different and surprising answer. “It is really simple,” Reinstein says. “Bible-believing Christianity happened to Africa. And that’s the best thing that could have happened, not just for them, but for Israel as well.”
In 1910, less than 1% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa was Christian. Today, over 25% of the world’s Christian population is African. Of the continent’s 54 countries, 35 have Christian populations of over 30%, many as high as 90%. Nigeria’s population is 63% Christian as is Ethiopia’s, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo boasts 93%. Seven African nations now have Israel Allies caucuses in their own parliaments; many have officially declared themselves Christian nations and have openly Bible-believing leaders.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa recently, he met with many of these leaders. Suddenly, Israel and Africa have more in common than a “desire for independence and histories fraught with tragedy.” These Christian politicians see Israel in a whole new light, as a nation set apart by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They recognize the biblical imperative for Christians to support Israel, not just on a personal level, but a national one.
Reinstein says it is a bit surreal to walk into an African prime minister’s office and see a Star of David on the desk, an Israeli flag in the corner and a mammoth poster of Jerusalem gracing the wall. But the importance of these relationships cannot be overstated. Africa still desperately needs the technology and innovation that Israel has to offer, as well as assistance in the areas of security and intelligence. And Israel needs good friends, especially in the United Nations where the votes of these African countries have already made a difference for the Jewish state.
Perhaps Ben Gurion’s Alliance of the Periphery is not dead after all. And this time, with its strong biblical roots, it has a much better chance of survival. It is, Reinstein says, a match made in heaven.
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