After the Obama administration voiced "dismay" earlier this month at the decision by the Jerusalem municipality to approve 900 new housing units in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, straddling the Green Line, former housing minister Meir Sheetrit quipped that the White House seems to think that Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since Camp David, not King David.
Criticisms of Obama's earlier Cairo speech - which urged Arabs and Muslims to accept the reality of the Holocaust but not the Jews' historic claim to Jerusalem or the modern Zionist movement's century-long connection to the Holy Land - are on point but are only half the story. America's first African-American president not only suffers from historical amnesia regarding Israel's pre-1948 roots, he is also oblivious to African and African-American debts to the Zionist movement.
The story begins in 1898 when Edward Wilmot Blyden - whose status as the founding father of the modern pan-African movement was recognized by Cheikh Anta Diop, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah - lauded Theodore Herzl's launching of "that marvelous movement called Zionism" in Der Judenstaat (1896). Born into a free black family on Charlotte-Amalie, capitol of St. Thomas, Danish Virgin Islands, Blyden always prided himself on his ties to Amalie's 400-strong Jewish community which produced such expatriate luminaries as Impressionist painter Camille Pisarro and whose rabbi taught him the rudiments of Hebrew.
After unsuccessfully pursuing a theological education in the US, Blyden became an agent of the American Colonization Society to Liberia, the American "Back to Africa" experiment that in 1847 became an independent nation. Devoting the rest of his life to Africa as an educator, publicist, and diplomat, he traveled widely including an 1866 trip to Jerusalem about which he wrote in From West Africa to Palestine (1873).
Blyden did not visit early Alliance Israelite Universelle projects, but nevertheless predicted that "Jews are to be restored to the land of their fathers" once "the misrule of the Turks" was overcome. He also longed for the emergence among African-Americans of "a Negro of Negroes, like Moses was a Hebrew of the Hebrews - even if brought up in Pharaoh's house."
Without any knowledge of Blyden, Herzl in his 1902 novel, Altneuland, has Zionist Professor Steineck remark: "Now, that I have lived to see the return of the Jews, I wish I could help to prepare the return of the Negroes... All men should have a homeland." This was Blyden's view until his death in 1912.
FAST FORWARD to the 1920s. Americans, white and black, are riveted by the pyrotechnic conflict between Marcus Josiah Garvey, the Jamaican-born "Black Moses" and leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and W. E. B. Du Bois, godfather of the NAACP. In 1918, when he launched his newspaper, The Negro World, Garvey cabled British foreign minister Arthur Balfour to do for Africans what the Balfour Declaration promised to do for Jews. Subsequently, his attitude soured toward American Jews, whom he unfairly blamed for his conviction and deportation in 1927 for mail fraud and for their support for Du Bois's civil rights agenda. Yet, despite praising Hitler after 1933, Garvey never abandoned "white Zionism" as the model for his own "Back to Africa" crusade.
Du Bois outgrew the patina of genteel anti-Semitism he absorbed at Harvard and German universities as he worked with Jews such as Joel and Arthur Spingarn and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in founding the NAACP. The issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 helped crystallize Du Bois's decision to launch the Pan African Congress in 1919. In Paris that year, he declared: "The African movement must mean to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews, the centralization of race effort and the recognition of a racial front."
In 1921, Du Bois commented favorably on the completion of blueprints for a Hebrew University on Mount Scopus "in the new Palestine." In 1929, he blamed "the murder of Jews in Palestine" by "ruthless and bloodthirsty evil-doers" primarily on British maladministration. His sympathy for Jewish victims of persecution worldwide made him one of a handful of intellectuals to recognize in the midst of World War II the unfolding of the Holocaust.
Polish Jewish adventurer and Zionist Jacques Faitlovich established the American Pro-Falasha Committee in 1922 and brought Emmanuel Taamrat, the first Falasha to come to the New York, to study in the US around 1931. Arnold J. Ford, leader of one among many "Black Jewish" congregations asserting a hereditary connection with the biblical Hebrews, decided after a meeting with Faitlovich to move his congregation to Addis Ababa where he showed them films about the Holy Land and preached Jewish-Arab reconciliation. Carried over from Haile Selassie's heroic resistance to Mussolini in 1936, "the Ethiopian mystique" among Christian as well as "Black Jewish" African-Americans remained overwhelmingly pro-Zionist through 1948 - with the exception of such fringe groups as Elijah Muhammad's The Nation of Islam.
Menachem Begin, who met secretly with the UN's Ralph Bunche, winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for his mediation of an end to the first Arab-Israel war, recalled Bunche saying: "I can understand you. I am also a member of a persecuted minority."
THE SUBSEQUENT anti-Israel shift in African-American and African opinion - far from being a natural evolution of historical attitudes - was very much driven by the white leftist party line. It began as early as the 1956 Suez Campaign with Du Bois. During the Popular Front era when the Kremlin's line had been pro-Israel, Du Bois denounced Saudi Arabia's unrepentant continuation of the slave trade and criticized the Arabs for "widespread ignorance and poverty and disease and a fanatic belief in the Mohammedan religion." U-turning after the new anti-Israel party line, Du Bois in a 1956 poem, "Suez," portrayed Israelis as "the shock troops" of Anglo-American imperialists.
The 1967 Six Day War completed rather than began the transformation of Israel, in the minds of African-American radicals like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from an anti-colonial David battling the British Goliath to an imperialist ally of America's Philistines, intent on conquering the Egyptian frontier of African anti-colonialism. Rejecting the pro-Israel spin placed by earlier African-American preachers on Psalms 68:31 - "Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands to God" - Carmichael had already enlisted under Gamal Abdel Nasser's banner: "We are Africans wherever we are. [Israel] is moving to take over Egypt. Egypt is our motherland - it's in Africa." Israel's Trotskyist Matzpen movement subsequently encouraged American Black Panthers to go one step further by staging a hostile occupation of the Jewish state.
It took until the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Arab oil embargo for African nations to follow African-American nationalists by drastically distancing themselves from Israel.
Yet the Zionist template's hold on African and African-American thought - about which Malcolm X declared toward the end of his life: "Pan Africanism will do for the people of African descent all over the world, the same that Zionism has done for Jews all over the world" - still occasionally surfaces in black memory. It remains to be seen whether it will survive the age of Obama.
The writer is an historian with a PhD from UCLA for a dissertation on the history of black-Jewish relations. He lives in San Diego.