The Zionist fascination with Africa began even before the birth of modern Israel. In his 1902 novel Altneuland (Old-New Land), Theodor Herzl wrote: "There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of the 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 in 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."
Herzl didn't live to see it, but in 1957 Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, became the first African state to gain independence from British colonial rule; it also became the first African country to grant diplomatic recognition to the Jewish state.
Herzl's dream of "redeeming" Africa came closer to fruition soon after, when Israel began sharing what it itself was learning about development with African countries, including Ghana.
This month, Ghana celebrated 50 years of independence and Jerusalem marked 50 years since the opening of Israel's first embassy in Africa.
JERUSALEM'S relations with Accra have been characterized by a mixture of idealism and pragmatism even as they've encapsulated the complexities encountered by Israeli foreign policy in the developing world. Israel's goal has been - and remains - to reach beyond our immediate, antagonistic neighbors in search of friendships and alliances in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Meanwhile, the Arab bloc has endeavored - then and now - to checkmate our every advance, isolate us from the developing world and the family of nations, their ultimate goal being to extinguish the Zionist enterprise.
I should explain my own interest in this west-coast African country. I first became acquainted with Ghana while in graduate school, through friendships with Ghanaian students at New York University. Before I knew it, I had stumbled upon a vibrant Ghanaian diaspora in New York - physicians, scholars, ex-government officials - each one fascinating, bright and full of warmth. My friend Norbert, for instance, made it a point to visit my mother during her many hospitalizations as a sign of respect for her age and a token of our friendship. He seldom so much as spoke with his own mother for years on end - because her village had no telephone.
So, as we mark 50 years in the Ghana-Israel relationship, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on where our two nations have been, where we are, and what we can realistically expect from each other.
FIRST TO where we've been: It was foreign minister Golda Meir who, in 1957, sent Ehud Avriel to become Israel's first ambassador to Ghana, transforming our consulate in Accra into an embassy. Golda herself attended Ghana's first anniversary celebrations in 1958, later reminiscing: "I didn't have any illusions whatsoever about the fact that [Israel's] role [in providing aid to Africa] would inevitably be small, but I was fired by the prospect of going to a part of the world to which we were so new and which was so new to us."
Golda met with Ghana's first president, the pan-African hero Kwame Nkrumah. Taking in the statues and coins bearing his likeness, she concluded that the "charming" Nkrumah had transformed himself into a "demigod." In her autobiography, Golda wrote that it was impossible not to admire Nkrumah - yet she found him less than candid and, in practice, unrealistic:
"He talked about the problems of Africa as though all that mattered was formal independence, and he seemed far less interested in discussing the development of Africa's resources, or even how he could raise the standard of life for his people.
He talked on one level, and I talked on another.
He talked about the glories of freedom, and I talked about education, public health, and the need for Africa to produce its own teachers, technicians and doctors."
Abba Eban, then our ambassador in the US, met Nkrumah in Washington in 1959, and found him "modest." Some years later, Eban wrote in his memoirs, he arrived in Accra and asked where he should go for his first appointment.
"I was informed that my driver would take me down Nkrumah Avenue, past Nkrumah University, and that on reaching Nkrumah Square, he would take me to my appointment with the nation's leader, whose title was The Redeemer. From this," Eban concluded, "I learned that modesty was a quality that could easily be overcome by a protracted taste of power."
DESPITE THIS political-cultural divide, Israel and Ghana enjoyed friendly relations. Jerusalem established dozens of development programs in a wide range of areas, and Israelis came to play a prominent role in Ghanaian construction and engineering projects. They helped Ghana set up its Black Star steamship company and trained its police force, air force pilots, doctors, dentists and veterinarians.
The relationship was by no means a one-way street, however. Ghana was the vanguard African nation. And Israel's connection with Accra was Jerusalem's gateway to diplomatic relations with 27 states in post-colonial Africa. By 1964, Israel was providing development assistance to dozens of countries on the continent.
For Israel, the African relationship was also psychologically important. The Jewish state wanted an outlet for its idealism - call it "Light unto the Nations Syndrome." Helping Africa allowed us to realize our altruistic aspirations. And with premier David Ben-Gurion focused on Israel's security and survival, the Foreign Ministry had substantial leeway in crafting an ambitious (even idealistic) African policy for Israel.
And yet, along every step of the way, Nkrumah was being challenged by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of pan-Arabism, whose political backing Nkrumah needed for his own pan-African aspirations, to explain Ghana's relationship with Israel. Arab countries used their leverage within African forums to push relentlessly for the "right" of Palestinian war refugees to return to their homes on the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice Lines.
It's worth recalling that the nonaligned bloc - theoretically, countries that would not ally themselves with either Moscow or Washington - had been established at the 1956 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, just before Ghanaian independence.
That's where Ghana's soon-to-be-president, Nkrumah, met and exchanged ideas with Third World luminaries including Nasser, Nehru, Ho Chi Minh and Zhou Enlai.
SOON AFTER independence, Nkrumah moved Ghana toward becoming a one-party socialist state. His leadership became ever more autocratic, his failed pan-African pretensions forcing the country to spend money it didn't have. A country which had become independent amid such high hopes sank into a morass of corruption and wastefulness.
Meanwhile, the more Ghana became "non-aligned," the more it tilted toward the Arabs. The January 1961 Casablanca Conference marked, in the words of University of Haifa political scientist Zach Levey, "the end of the special relationship between Israel and Ghana." Nkrumah signed a resolution promoted by Nasser "singling out Israel as the pillar of imperialism in Africa."
Still, at ambassador Avriel's urging, Israel's development aid to Ghana continued essentially until 1973 - when, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, Accra joined the rest of black Africa in cravenly bending to Arab desires by breaking ties with Israel.
The rupture was not only a political blow for Israel; it was an emotional one as well. Jerusalem's model for reaching beyond the Arabs using development aid in Africa had been shattered.
GHANA did not fare well on the course Nkrumah set. His regime was overthrown in 1966; another coup followed in 1972, yet another in 1979. Finally, in 1981, army lieutenant Jerry Rawlings seized control and created a stable populist regime. It tried to bring sanity to Ghana's socioeconomic affairs, though Rawlings was criticized for his regime's brutality toward political opponents.
To Rawlings's everlasting credit, in 2000 he facilitated a peaceful transition of power and the election of John Kufuor as president. Kufuor was reelected in 2004, in what outside observers attested was a fair campaign.
Sadly, though, given nearly 50 years of chronic political and economic instability, Ghana has suffered a demoralizing brain drain. Far too many of its best and brightest (using their Commonwealth connection) fled to Britain or the United States.
Still, Ghana's fortunes today are, relative to the rest of Africa, on the ascendant, as are the prospects of its 22 million people. Sixty-three percent are Christian; 16% Muslim and 21% traditional (though there is an overlap between those adhering to traditional African beliefs and Pentecostal/charismatic Christians).
Less than 3% of the Ghanaian population is HIV-positive compared with, say, 20% in Zimbabwe, 18% in South Africa, and 7% in Uganda. The country is rich in gold and cocoa; its per-capita income is $2,600, though much of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Subsistence agriculture engages 60% of its people; the World Bank puts the Ghanaian poverty level at 37%. And Ghana borrows heavily to stay afloat (38% of GDP is devoted to public debt). The country receives a staggering amount of international aid, but the consensus seems to be that it's actually doing good.
IN 1994, Israel and Ghana signed a renewal-of-relations agreement, and in 1996, Ghana reopened its mission in Tel Aviv. So where do Israel-Ghanaian relations stand today?
Ghanaian GBC Radio recently reported that Yossi Gal, the senior deputy director-general for political affairs at the Foreign Ministry, and other Israeli officials were in Accra on March 6 to attend the country's 50th anniversary celebrations.
It turns out that Israel's foreign policy decision-makers are keenly interested in nurturing closer ties with Ghana (and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa). But it strikes me that they have not been able to garner the attention of the political echelon. How else to explain that Israel couldn't muster a cabinet minister to attend the Accra festivities?
Today, Israel has diplomatic ties with 39 of the 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. African officials are regular visitors to Israel, and Nigerian Christians make frequent pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Overall, Israelis returning from the continent report, with pride, that Israel's image is remarkably good.
Regrettably, however, despite the continent's
importance to Israel, we have only nine embassies for all of Africa, making do with roving ambassadors. Thus Israel's ambassador to Ghana, Noam Katz, is actually stationed in Abuja, Nigeria. And despite Israel's appreciation of Ghana's weight in our Africa policy, its role as an island of democracy and its path of economic development, there is no Israeli embassy in Accra.
In 2006, trade between Ghana and Israel was relatively modest. Israel imported $6.5 million and exported $13.9 million worth of goods and services. Yet these numbers belie Ghana's true worth to Israel.
WHEN ISRAELIS look at today's Ghana, they see a country that is a major, responsible player in the international political arena, a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping efforts worldwide. Ghanaians staff the highest echelons of power in any number of international organizations (Kofi Annan, for instance, recently returned to Ghana after his tenure as UN secretary-general).
Ghana is also an important player in the Economic Community of West African States, as well as sitting on the International Atomic Energy Commission, where it recently voted with the West against Iran. It is currently one of 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, where it has been voting for sanctions against Teheran. And President John Kufuor chairs the 53-member African Union, successor to the Organization of African Unity.
All this may help explain why those who craft Israel's foreign policy want - despite an agenda necessarily dominated by the Arab-Israel conflict - to give a higher profile to Jerusalem's relationship with Africa in general, and Ghana in particular.
Israelis familiar with the issue say that current development aid to Africa is mostly free of any desire for a political quid pro quo. They say our involvement in Africa allows Jerusalem to spotlight the "good Israeli" and tap Judaism's tradition of tikkun olam or "mending the world."
Israel's support for Africa goes beyond "doing the right thing." Helping where we can allows our national psyche to feel like we're a real country, like we have an existence outside the Arab-Israel conflict.
And while it's unlikely that the scope of our aid to Africa will ever replicate 1950s-60s levels, Israel today administers a variety of training and development projects for Africa, directed by the Foreign Ministry's Center for International Cooperation (Mashav), that do the Jewish state proud.
For example, Israelis have been instrumental in building a trauma center in Ghana's second-largest city, Kumasi. Israel's private sector is heavily involved in Ghanaian agriculture, dairy farming and fisheries. Solel Boneh and Rolider are renowned names in the Ghanaian construction sector.
TO THE extent that we expect any return from the Ghanaians, Israelis familiar with the country's involvement in Africa tell me that Jerusalem would like Accra's help in regaining its official observer status at the African Union. (The current list of 47 non-African observers includes such countries as Finland and Iceland.) Since Israel is actually the only country bordering Africa (in Sinai) and has a long history of positive involvement with the continent, it strikes me that Jerusalem does deserve an observer slot. This is a message that Israel has repeatedly, and so far unsuccessfully, sent to Ghana.
What would we do if we got our observer status back? While Israel doesn't seem to want a say in African affairs, it views the African Union as a venue for facilitating a dialogue with Africa.
I ASKED some Ghanaians I met what their country expected from its relationship with Israel. Topping the agenda, they said, is for Israel to station an ambassador in Accra. They had thought this would happen when relations were reestablished. In a recent speech, Ghana's ambassador to Israel, Nana Owusu-Nsiah, called on Israel to send a resident ambassador to Accra, "for more meaningful bilateral cooperation."
At the very least, the Ghanaians told me, they'd like to see an Israeli consulate in their nation's capital. If an Israeli wants to visit Ghana, the applicant needs to spend about an hour filling out forms at Ghana's embassy in Ramat Gan. But if a Ghanaian in Accra wants to visit Israel, he needs to travel to Abuja, Nigeria - easily a day's journey - to the nearest Israeli consulate.
Ghanaians would also like to see Israel make it easier for them to work here legally. They asked why the Israeli government won't reach a deal with their government to allow, say, 400-500 Ghanaians to work here for a three-year period. Their talents could easily be put to use in our hotel industry and in practical nursing of the elderly.
After three years the Ghanaian workers would go home, with badly needed hard currency, and a new batch would replace them.
If you want better relations, the Ghanaians said, why not show some reciprocity?
A number of high-level Ghanaian officials and delegations have been to Israel in recent months, but almost no ranking Israeli officials have traveled to Ghana. It boggles the mind that when a country like Ghana asks for greater engagement, Israel's political echelon responds with indifference.
Ghanaians I spoke with also expressed frustration that too few Israeli businesspeople were taking advantage of opportunities in Ghana. Granted, they said, Ghana's bureaucracy can be off-putting. On the other hand, numerous incentives, guarantees and tax abatements make doing business in Ghana worthwhile. Ghanaians would welcome private-sector collaboration in any number of spheres, especially electricity, water purification and water distribution.
ISRAEL FINDS itself in a striking position: A country with huge influence in international affairs has repeatedly asked for our government to fulfill its commitment and station an ambassador in its capital, but for reasons beyond my ken, Israel is dragging its heels.
Not that we need more reasons to cozy up to Ghana, but here's another: Ghana plays a unique role for an important segment of the African American community - including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many black Americans trace their ancestors' forced exile out of Africa and into slavery to the Gold Coast. For its part, Ghana maintains a diaspora affairs minister to nurture its special relationship with the black diaspora. Closer ties between Accra and Jerusalem couldn't hurt the efforts of the pro-Israel community in Washington to solidify African American support for Israel.
THESE DAYS Africa still needs to be redeemed - not so much in the Herzlian sense, but from poverty, disease and despair. Of course, Israel has its own staggering societal and security problems, and there are those who'd say that Israel itself is in need of redemption.
Yet myopic and insular policies are unlikely to bring us the deliverance we seek. The more we reach out beyond the confines of the Arab-Israel conflict, the greater the chances of fulfilling our Zionist aspirations of normalcy, and our Jewish aspirations of being an light unto the nations.