President Macky Sall of Senegal meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Monrovia, Liberia, on June 4. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Israeli Government Press Office

In first, Senegal and Guinea send ambassadors to Israel

Senegal and Guinea are sending ambassadors to Israel for the first time.

The two predominantly Muslim countries in West Africa are to present their credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, The Times of Israel reported.

The two will serve as non-resident ambassadors. Senegal’s Talla Fall, who also represents the country in Egypt, will work from Cairo, while Guinea’s Amara Camara will be based in Paris, according to The Times of Israel.

Amid increasing criticism of Israel’s right-wing government from Europe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made improving ties with African countries a priority, visiting the continent twice in the past 14 months.

Israel’s diplomatic ties with Senegal and Guinea have not been without bumps in the road.

In June, Israel and Senegal announced “an end to the crisis between their two countries.” Three months earlier, the Jewish state permanently downgraded ties with Senegal when it co-sponsored an anti-settlement resolution in the United Nations that passed.

Last year, Israel and Guinea re-established diplomatic ties after 49 years. Guinea had broken off relations following the Six-Day War in 1967.

Amid rising Islamism in Africa, Israel-Senegal ties still flourishing

Struggling to be heard over a flock of bleating sheep, Israel’s ambassador to Senegal invites a crowd of impoverished Muslims to help themselves to about 100 sacrificial animals that the embassy corralled at a dusty community center here.

The October distribution, held as French troops battled Islamists in neighboring Mali and one month after Muslim radicals killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, is held annually in honor of Tabaski, the local name of the Muslim Eid al-Adha feast. The distribution is broadcast on national television in a land that is 95 percent Muslim, providing Israel with a powerful platform to burnish its image among Senegalese.

“It registers very strongly with locals that Israelis give them sheep for a Muslim holiday while most Arab embassies do nothing,” said Eli Ben-Tura, the Israeli ambassador.

The animals are just part of the millions that Israel has spent over the years in Senegal, a French-speaking Western African nation of 12 million where the average monthly salary is $158. In return, Senegal has supported Israel’s erection of a barrier to protect itself from Palestinian terrorism and, in December, signed over oil prospecting rights in its territorial waters to an Israeli-owned mining company.

Over the past decade, Israel's trade with Senegal has more than tripled.

“Like Israel, Senegal is an island of stability in an unstable region,” Ben-Tura told JTA in an interview last week at the Israeli Embassy overlooking Independence Plaza in Dakar, the capital city.

The importance Israel places on its partnership with Senegal was evident in Ben-Tura's speech on April 30 at Israel’s 65th Independence Day celebration at the Grand Theatre National, a magnificent structure built with Chinese funding in 2011 near Dakar’s main port.

Speaking to an audience of 1,000, Ben-Tura listed Israel’s latest gifts to the country: training for hundreds of farmers; preparations to train thousands more by Israeli experts stationed in the country; and the establishment of a permanent depot for agricultural equipment and disease control.

Even intercultural activities have not been overlooked. After speeches by Ben-Tura and Mamadou Talla, Senegal's minister of professional training, Israel Ballet artistic director Ido Tadmor and 40 local artists performed a modern dance routine featuring tea cups. Dozens of onlookers avidly recorded their every move on smartphones.

“Cultural exchange with Africa has been neglected for too long,” Ben-Tura said.

Yet beneath this seemingly symbiotic partnership may be a deeper concern.

Mali, which used to be part of a federal entity with Senegal, last year witnessed an Islamic insurgency so powerful that French troops were called in to quell it. Some 475,000 people became refugees, many of them in Senegal. Some observers believe Senegal is wooing Israel and the West mainly for protection from the Islamic upheaval.

“The effects of the insurgency are not felt here for the time being,” said Oleg Sergeev, minister-counselor of the Russian Embassy in Dakar. “But the Senegalese authorities are turning westward out of concern over the possibility that the Mali insurgency may be trickling over.”

As an impoverished Muslim nation heavily dependent on foreign aid, Senegal must toe a careful line in its embrace of the Jewish state. Anti-Semitic books with titles such as “Hitler the Zionist Puppet” are sold here at bookstands and in 2009, several hundred people burned an Israeli flag at a rally to protest Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

The Senegalese government, then chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, condemned the attack as “unjustified and unacceptable.” Still, the government’s condemnations never went beyond words.

“It was a very strong reaction, but it didn’t have an impact on diplomatic relations,” said Christian Clages, the German ambassador to Senegal.

Senegalese officials declined to address the reasons for their country's closeness with Israel. But observers attribute it variously to the country's moderate brand of Islam, its relative openness to the West and its past disillusionment with Arab regimes. In 1973, under pressure from Arab countries, Senegal severed its ties with Israel.

“The Arabs threatened sanctions and promised free oil but never delivered, to the bitter disappointment of the Senegalese,” said Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official who negotiated the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1994.

Senegalese moderation was on display in 2012 when Jamra, one of the country's leading Islamic associations, protested the release of an anti-Muslim film, “The Innocence of Muslims.” The online video triggered violent protests around the world, but in Senegal, it led to the first meeting between Jamra and the Israeli Embassy.

Jamra’s executive president, Imam Massamba Diop, told JTA he learned in his November meeting with Ben-Tura that Israel had nothing to do with the film. And despite his organization's generally pro-Palestinian posture — it considers Israel’s blockade on Gaza illegal and organizes pro-Palestinian activities in Dakar — Diop supports his government's friendly relations with Israel.

“The Senegalese people deeply appreciate the event,” Diop said of the embassy's sheep distribution.

Another Senegalese Muslim leader, Sheikh Paye, arrived at the Israel Independence Day celebration in a shiny, traditional white-and-gold imam robe. A spiritual leader in one of Dakar’s 19 neighborhoods, Paye told JTA that his attachment to Israel stems neither from gratitude for its largesse nor considerations of realpolitik.

“My late father used to be a good friend of several Israeli ambassadors here,” Paye said. “He died three months ago, shortly before the Israeli Embassy’s invitation arrived. It’s an honor to represent him here to people from a country he loved but never visited.”

For we were strangers

When I first began taking trips to West Africa while working on my doctorate in African history, I assumed that while there I would keep my Judaism to myself. This was not out of fear of anti-Semitism, but, rather, I thought there would be no one to share it with. There, since my research is on Catholic education, I am often assumed to be Catholic. Even my name, which in the United States is generally a giveaway to my Jewish background, inspires amusing comments such as, “Rachel! What a good Christian name!” When people don’t assume that I am Catholic, they generally ask: “Are you a Muslim or a Christian?” Yet my experience of talking about Judaism in Senegal has taught me that Judaism doesn’t have to be a missing third category. Instead, it can be a conversation starter. 

Despite the fact that Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country with a small Christian minority, it is also home to some Jewish expatriates, mostly from the United States and France. This is a community I sought out when I first arrived in Senegal. In 2009, at a Passover seder in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, I met a researcher who happened to work in a field related to my own, and we continued to meet to exchange ideas. Making this contact over the seder table enabled me to have a fruitful connection to Senegal that I would not otherwise have had. The seder was a multigenerational, multicultural mix of Senegalese, French and Americans. We ate some Sephardic and some Ashkenazic foods, which inevitably provoked debates about who had the best recipes for various dishes. It was hosted by an American Jew posted in Dakar for the U.S. Foreign Service. His apartment was filled with artifacts from all over the world, from the various places he had lived for his work. He was the quintessential wandering Jew, with a diplomatic twist.

The experience of eating Jewish food and being surrounded by people who understood where I came from made situations like this seder comfortable and familiar. I was sharing a table with people who had a common set of reference points and who had somewhat similar experiences growing up in a Jewish community. However, I have found that the most enriching interactions where my Judaism has come into play have been in much less familiar contexts. 

These moments often followed an initial query about my religious beliefs. This can happen with just about anyone I encounter in a chance meeting, or with co-workers at the NGOs where I have volunteered. Asking what religion you are in Senegal is like asking what school you go to as a student in the United States. It is a way for people to locate you in their sense of social geography. Although at first I hesitated in my response, I began to routinely answer that I am Jewish. This provoked a range of reactions, from confused to intrigued, or some combination thereof. People have often tried, in follow-up questions, to relate my Judaism to their own beliefs. Thus I often find myself answering questions like “What do Jews think about Mohammed?” or “Jews believe in Jesus, too, right?” 

Before working in Senegal, I’d never had to explain to others what Judaism meant to the same extent or in the same fashion. While this was sometimes slightly bewildering and frustrating, it was mostly refreshing and liberating. So often, as American Jews, we’re confronted by negative Jewish stereotypes. By contrast, in most instances the Senegalese people I was talking to had little or no preconceived notions of Jews. I could explain things in my own way, according to my own experience and beliefs, and in so doing reaffirm what I personally find positive about being part of a Jewish community. Further, these conversations have reminded me that even in moments when I have truly felt like a stranger in a strange land, Judaism can help me connect to others. Experiences that I feel are so constitutive of my Jewishness — such as gathering for a good meal after a lifecycle event or a religious holiday — are relatable for any Senegalese person. 

The author, third from left, shares a meal during a visit to Senegal. Photo courtesy of ACI Baobab

My most memorable conversation about Judaism happened in an unexpected place — at the airport. When I arrived at the departure terminal, a security guard checked my passport. He recognized my last name as Polish and asked if I was Jewish. After three months in Senegal, this was the first time that a Senegalese person had directly asked me that. (In fact, several trips to Africa later, this remains the only time a West African has guessed that I am Jewish.) This security guard told me he was a devout Christian and studying to be a priest. I think he was just as amazed to have a living Jew standing in front of him, rather than merely reading about them in the Bible, as I was taken aback by meeting someone with such a deep knowledge of and appreciation for my heritage. The line was slow, so we had time to talk about his studies and to discuss the “Old Testament.” Before too long, our conversation was interrupted by some commotion ahead of us. It soon became apparent that my flight was overbooked. All remaining passengers were told that they could not get on the flight, and that we should return in 48 hours for the next flight out on that airline. 

When I came back two days later, the airline company made it clear that it wasn’t going to let me on that flight, either. Thankfully, the same security guard was there. He recognized me and, without my having to ask, he went out of his way to ensure that I was put onto my flight. When I thanked him profusely, he nonchalantly shrugged and then responded matter-of-factly “we are both people of the Book.” 

I would never have guessed that my last name would catch this security guard’s eye, or that opening up about Judaism and the Book could also open the door to an airplane. As I sat down in the only remaining seat on the plane, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and relief. I could not have asked for a better sentence or sentiment to conclude my trip to Senegal. 

Every year at Passover we conclude the seder with the wish “Next year in Jerusalem” expressing a desire, among many things, to see the end of a wandering, diasporic existence. However, being a Jew in West Africa has taught me to fully embrace the role of being a stranger in a strange land. Passover has a deeper resonance when I reflect on the warmth I experienced at the seder in Dakar, as well as all of the moments I’ve shared with people in West Africa talking about Judaism and other religions. I am grateful that these conversations leave me feeling less like a stranger in a strange land and more connected to the people and places where I work. 

Rachel Kantrowitz is a doctoral candidate in African history at New York University. She is currently conducting dissertation research, and is based between France and West Africa.

Islamist leaders vow unity against Israel

At a conference that drew a roll-call of the Islamist leaders who have gained influence in the wake of Arab Spring revolts, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal won a noisy welcome and pledges of support on Thursday.

A day after Israel assassinated Hamas's top commander in the Gaza Strip in a new offensive, hundreds of delegates at the conference in Sudan burst into applause and cheers as Meshaal, dressed in a suit and open-necked shirt, entered Khartoum's hangar-sized Friendship Hall.

“Khaybar, Khaybar,” the crowd chanted as Meshaal shook hands with other Islamist leaders, in a reference to a battle in Arabia where the Prophet Mohammad and his followers defeated Jewish defenders in the 7th century. “The army of Mohammad has started to return.”

Although most attendees were Sudanese, some came from as far as Indonesia and Senegal.

Among the delegates were the leaders of the Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia that have come to power through the ballot box in the wake of the Arab Spring, a regional shift towards the Islamists that has also helped embolden Hamas.

Israel has bombed targets in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for two days, saying its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Fifteen Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the flare-up.

Condemnation of the Israeli offensive has been led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, from the now dominant Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, told the conference in Khartoum: “The blood of our brothers who were martyred yesterday, just yesterday, in Palestine, in Gaza, this is what waters the tree of Islam.”

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party, said: “In truth, the mother of the revolutions was the blessed Palestinian revolution.”

Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country where a long serving strongman was unseated through popular protest.

Sudan's own Islamist government, headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, came to power in a 1989 coup. Vice President Ali Osman Taha said Israel had no respect for international law. “This madness is a danger to international peace,” he said.

Last month, Sudanese officials blamed an Israeli air strike for a blast at an arms factory in Khartoum that killed four people. Israel has not commented on the accusations, but Israeli officials have accused Sudan of funneling weapons from Iran to Hamas in Gaza.

Meshaal, who spoke just before Bashir, was greeted with chants of “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas” as he climbed onto the stage, flanked by two bearded, thickset bodyguards. Hamas has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

“Our enemy is your enemy,” Meshaal said, interrupted several times by cheering and chanting. “Our hands are with you.”

Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Matthew Tostevin