A jilted love affair in Africa

Golda Meir saw Israeli assistance to the continent as a Jewish imperative.

golda meir africa 298 (photo credit: Archive)
golda meir africa 298
(photo credit: Archive)
Consonant with the austerity of the beleaguered little country it spoke for, the Jerusalem compound of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1959 was as drab and ordinary as a barracks. Inside its prefabricated conference room, 15 Foreign Service greenhorns sat stiffly upright in straight-backed chairs around an oblong table at whose head sat Israel's most celebrated model of straight-laced probity, foreign minister Golda Meir. She was confessing to her novices that she was having a love affair with Africa. In a tone full of conviction and in a Hebrew filled with Milwaukee-sounding pronunciations, she told us there were two things she wanted to drum into our heads: "One is, coming to the aid of the newly independent African states is an emotional thing for me. It is a drive toward universal self-determination and justice which lies at the very heart of my Labor Zionism. Indeed, my African policy is a logical extension of my socialist Zionist principles in which I have always believed. "And the second thing is" - she raised two fingers into a V - "we Jews share with the African peoples a memory of centuries-long suffering. For both Jews and Africans alike, such expressions as discrimination, oppression, slavery - these are not mere catchwords. They don't refer to experiences of hundreds of years ago. They refer to the torment and degradation we experienced yesterday and today. Let me read to you something to illustrate the point." She picked up a book and opened it at a marked page: "What I have here is a novel called Altneuland - Old-New Land, written, as you should know, in 1902 by the founder of the Zionist movement, Dr. Theodor Herzl. In it…" She paused to rummage inside her copious black leather handbag from whose depths she extracted a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles which she perched on her bulbous nose. "In it, Dr. Herzl describes the Jewish state of the future as he imagined it might be. I shall read to you what he said about Africa, and remember this was in 1902: "'There is still one 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. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. 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 own people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans."' GOLDA MEIR'S patrician features rearranged themselves into an earnest and dedicated expression, and her voice went husky when she avowed, "It has fallen to me to carry out Dr. Theodor Herzl's vision. Each year more and more African states are gaining national independence. Like us, their freedom was won only after years of struggle. Like us, they had to fight for their statehood. And like us, nobody handed them their sovereignty on a silver platter." There was now a glint of thrill in her clever eyes when she went on, "In a world divided between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' Israel's nation-building experience is uniquely placed to lend a helping hand to the new Africa. We have a vast amount of expertise to offer. For this purpose I have set up a new division for international cooperation, and you people are going to help staff it. We are going to send out to the new African states scores, even hundreds, thousands of Israeli experts of every sort - technologists, scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers, agronomists, irrigation experts. They will have but one task - to unselfishly share their know-how with the African people. So now you understand why Africa is an emotional thing for me?" She leaned into her chair, combed back her bunned hair with the fingers of both hands, lit up a cigarette, and eyeing us through the flame of the match, said, "Does anybody want to ask me a question?" A hand went up. "Are you not afraid the Africans will view us as the new colonialists?" "No, I'm not. Unlike the Europeans Israel is totally free of the taint of colonial exploiters. And unlike wealthy America we can't offer money to win influence. What we have to offer is our nation-building experience, nothing else, no strings attached. Few developing countries in the world have accomplished what we have accomplished. As a new country, we built ourselves up from scratch. Now they, as new countries, are starting from scratch. We have the know-how, a vast reservoir of practical experience to share with them. All we ask from Africa in return is friendship." "No political quid pro quo, no UN votes - nothing at all?" somebody had the temerity to ask. GOLDA MEIR took a puff of her cigarette, inhaled deeply, pursed her lips, and gazed over our heads at the ringlets of smoke spiraling one by one in expanding wreaths from her mouth to the ceiling. Then, in a small voice, she said, "At the end of the day, what we give to Africa we give without conditions." "But why not something political in return?" asked the same questioner, persistent. The foreign minister settled her elbows on the table, steepled her fingers, threw the doubter an expression of disapproval, and, with exasperation, said, "Have I not got through to you - this it is a matter of principle, of ideology, of Zionist faith?" She stubbed out her cigarette and brooded over an amethyst brooch pinned to the lapel of her plain black jacket, clearly pondering her next thought. When it came her voice went stubborn: "Of course I am hoping for something in return, but I won't say so in public. And I'm not counting on it. Let me tell you neophytes why I'm not counting on it." She stood up, stretched her shoulders, and began prowling the length of the room, arms rigid, head down, talking nonstop in whole paragraphs: "When I'm at the United Nations I look around me and think to myself, we have no family here. Israel is entirely alone, less than popular, and certainly misunderstood. All we have to fall back on is our own Zionist faith. Why should this be so? Why such solitude? Why is it that we are the only country in the world which is Jewish? Why are there not more Jewish states, just as there are so many Christian states, Muslim states, Hindu states, Buddhist states? Why are we the one country in the world whose language is Hebrew? Why are there not more Hebrew-speaking countries, like there are English-speaking, Arabic-speaking, French-speaking, Chinese-speaking? "No other country in the world shares our language, our religion, our history. Everybody in the United Nations is grouped into blocs, bound by a common geography, or religion, or history, or culture. They vote together in solidarity. We have nobody! Our most natural regional allies - our Arab neighbors - don't want anything to do with us. Indeed, they want to destroy us. So we really belong nowhere and to no one except to ourselves, impelled by our own Zionist faith. The one blood tie, the one kindred bond we have with anybody at all in the world is with our fellow Jews in the Diaspora, and everywhere they are a minority, and nowhere do they enjoy any form of national or cultural autonomy. But now" - her voice went gritty - "independent African states are beginning to emerge, and I want to leapfrog over our hostile neighbors and build bridges of fellowship to them. So, yes, I hope for something in return but, no, I don't count on it." This extraordinary woman, then in her early sixties, born in Russia and raised in Milwaukee, once a kibbutz pioneer and married to a man - Morris Myerson - who gave up on her because he could not keep up with her relentless Labor Zionist ardor, spoke that day as if there was such a thing as an all-conquering "Zionist faith" that need not bow to overwhelming odds. Her lan, her will to pit the Zionist faith against the rest of the world, was what would enable the Jewish state to transcend the regional isolation imposed by the Arab states and extend its vision far beyond its frontiers to Africa. In this distilled version of her Jewish world view, Golda Meir made no attempt to answer her own formidable question: why, indeed, was the Jewish state without sovereign kith or kin in the family of nations? By her account, Zionist faith was the equalizing factor in international affairs. She stated this as if it was an unyielding fact of diplomatic life. THROUGHOUT MY years in the Foreign Service this question intrigued me greatly. To this day I have found no rationale to its mystery other than what a heathen prophet, Balaam, foretold in the childhood days of the Jewish people. Thirty-eight years after the children of Israel embarked on their Exodus from Egypt and two years before entering the Promised Land, the Bible records Balaam articulating the future destiny of the Jewish nation in these words: "This is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Numbers 23:9). One does not have to be a mystic for the moral imagination to be stirred by this improbable vision which spelled out in startlingly accurate terms the singular experience of the Jews in all of history. As for foreign minister Golda Meir's bold African initiative, she did succeed in building up a vast structure of assistance programs across that continent. But then came the Yom Kippur War, 1973, and it all fell to pieces overnight when African leaders severed relations with the Jewish state and roundly censured its prime minister, Golda Meir. The writer is a veteran diplomat. avner28@netvision.net.il