I’d always wanted to visit Africa. It’s such a big and diverse continent with so much beauty. Until this year, I had not planned to do so. Then suddenly, plans changed. To be honest, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was not on my top-ten list to visit, and then it became the first African nation to do so.
This opportunity was made possible by my friend Rev. Albert Mbenga, who heads a Christian group called Congo Bless Israel. He had come to my home in the Judean mountains last year to share his vision and extend an invitation to join a huge national event he was planning to connect Congolese with Israel.
Congo and Israel have an important relationship. We established diplomatic relations following Congo’s independence in 1960, until after the Yom Kippur War, when African nations were pressured by the Arab League to sever relations with Israel. At the time, Congolese president Mobutu reportedly said he was making a conflicted and difficult choice between relations with a neighbor and relations with a friend. We were the friend and lost out.
Congo: A natural ally of Israel
But my hosts in Congo believe that it was Africa that lost out, and Congo in particular. Congo is the second-largest country in Africa physically, and fourth in terms of population. However, it’s the only one among the top five that is overwhelmingly Christian – more than 90%. That makes Congo and Congolese natural allies with Israel, and my hosts want to see that built up so Congo will be blessed.
An indication of this is embodied in DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, who is a devout Christian and ardent supporter of Israel. As a young man, he spent time living on a kibbutz. As president, he committed to opening an embassy in Jerusalem. He also became a leading advocate for Israel to rejoin the African Union (AU) as an observer.
The AU vote was the catalyst for my trip and the events in which I participated. My Congolese hosts feel that after Congo severed relations with Israel, they became cursed. Indeed, Congo is one of the poorest nations in Africa, if not the world. Where there used to be significant industry, today there is much less.
Now, under the auspices of a leader who is one of the staunchest advocates for relations with Israel in Africa and for Israel to rejoin the AU as an observer, the time is ripe, they believe, to take a proactive approach to enhance relations.
So I was invited to participate in meetings with civic, religious and government leaders. A massive prayer event was planned ahead of the AU vote, with support from a wide spectrum of Christian leaders and denominations.
A spin-off of this is a Zoom prayer event for Christian and other leaders throughout Africa that I had the privilege of organizing. We’re praying that God will not harden the hearts of Africa’s leaders, but rather bring them to warmly welcome Israel to the AU.
I EXPERIENCED the warmth and love for Israel and the Jewish people from the moment I arrived. Protexia [having connections] is not only an Israeli thing, it seems. As I descended to the tarmac from my Ethiopian Airlines flight, a man approached. “Mr. Jonathan?” he asked, and in French told me to come with him. This was the first time I ever used my high school French. As I followed this stranger who knew my name, I chuckled to myself at the joke my son made when I left about being kidnapped.
Escorted beyond the crowds, I was brought into a building where they were checking COVID vaccination statuses. Not that that matters so much anymore, but I produced mine and was waived along to passport control.
Then another man approached me, “Mr. Jonathan, come follow me,” he said. He was unique because he spoke some English and was dressed in traditional Muslim attire. In a continent where there’s often friction between Muslims and Christians, and the former are not typically prone to love Israel, I didn’t take this for granted. I now found myself sixth in a VIP passport control line where clearly I was being honored as an Israeli, all prearranged by my host.
For those who knew what it was, I was identifiable as a Jew the whole trip, with my blue kippa standing out against my gray hair. For people who travel to Europe and other parts of the world where Jews have to exist incognito or risk overt antisemitism, I loved being able to keep my baseball cap in the suitcase.
The truth is that wherever I was, I was welcomed with warmth, even honors, as an Israeli Jew. People wanted to shake my hand, take their picture with me and just be in my presence. It’s not because I am so great but because of who and what I represent to them. Many don’t know what an Orthodox Jew is, but they knew Jesus was a Jew, that he came from Israel, and that modern Israel is important.
Identifying as a Jew was no problem – it was even a blessing; but eating as a Jew was not as easy. I packed lots of non-perishables to sustain me. But I also connected with the delightful Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila at Chabad of Central Africa, who could not have been more gracious.
Not all Chabads are the same. Chabad of Central Africa is the gold standard. Because my trip coincided with Tu Bishvat, I brought kilos of dried fruits for myself and also for Chabad. Rabbi Bentolila was as welcoming to me as he was to my Congolese friends and kept insisting that if I needed anything, to let him know.
CONGO IS not so distant from Israel, but getting there takes some time. One has to apply for a visa at the Congolese embassy in Tel Aviv, which requires a bunch of paperwork; a yellow fever vaccination; and multiple visits. The staff are friendly and invited me to tea one afternoon, where I got to learn about their country.
As for embassies, Israel would be well served to open an embassy in Kinshasa. Direct relations with a country this size, that’s so pro-Israel and so significant in Africa, just seems to be in our interest.
Congolese Christians know about blessing Israel and being blessed from Genesis 12:3. They want to see Congo thrive under the leadership of their president, who is a role model in Africa and the world.
Israel has skills and technologies to be a reciprocal partner in that blessing. It won’t be about harvesting minerals and exploiting Congo as other countries do but about investing in and building up Congo and using this as a model of partnership in the world, and Africa specifically, for which Israel has been known and strived for.
The writer is president of the Genesis 123 Foundation and RunforZion.com, building bridges between Jews and Christians. Reach him at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.