Fifty years had passed since the first Zionist Congress when my parents, Eliyahu and Janet Taib, fulfilled their Zionist dream and immigrated to Israel from Tunisia.
Neither my father, nor my mother, had any agricultural background, yet agriculture was what the nascent State of Israel needed and so that was what they did, working the land and raising sheep on a small farm. The situation in those early days was such that there was no room for idle hands, and all nine of us in the family worked hard to put food on the table and to make the Zionist vision a success.
Like so many Israelis, after my military service I travelled abroad. I found myself in Africa, a continent mistreated, exploited and ransacked over the course of centuries. It felt like a world apart from life back home, but despite that, there were also parallels that to me were self-evident, and I was not the only one to see them. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, spoke of the “profound tragedy” of the continent that “only a Jew can comprehend”. He wrote eloquently about slavery, barbaric racism taken to horrific extremes, and expressed a profound desire to serve Africa and its people in the same way as he was his own.
Our ideological founding father, yet to fulfil his life’s ambition and the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, lifted his gaze beyond that horizon and expanded his definition beyond only the Jewish people, to include those who shared our injustice and oppression. He spoke of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish belief in repairing the world, in being and doing good.
At the time Herzl was writing, expulsions and pogroms had been chasing us from one land to another for centuries. Now, a century later, we have built the sturdy and secure foundations of a state that will stand the test of time. While our political environment continues to command constant vigilance and caution, and Jewish history remains an eternal warning against complacency, it is also true that “the redemption of the Jews” of which Herzl spoke has never been stronger or more evident than it is today. In the fields, we became pioneers in doing more with less: less water, less fertile land, a less sympathetic climate. Our hastily constructed ma’abarot (absorption camps) became tenement blocks which became towering skyscrapers. We have shrugged off regional instability and global upheaval that would have felled lesser countries. And as our redemption story has grown, so too has our understanding and our confidence in our place in the world.
In this too, our story mirrors that of much of Africa. In recent decades, the continent that starts at our southern doorstep has emerged from the ruinous consequences of colonialism to claim its rightful place in the world; a place of unrivalled natural beauty and biodiversity, extraordinary culture and remarkable human potential. Israel’s renewed diplomatic pivot to Africa in recent years, and the willingness of many countries in Africa to reciprocate it, has reignited the historical passion and mutual curiosity that each once held toward the other. From the huge and prominent Jewish communities in Morocco and Egypt – not to mention my own parents’ birthplace in Tunisia – at the top, through Ethiopia and all the way down to South Africa at the bottom, Africa has a special place in the story of the Jewish people.
We once understood Zionism purely in the context of the Jewish homeland, as a zero-sum game, urging Jews from around the world to leave their countries of origin and flock to Israel to defend it against its many enemies and to build a new collective story in our history. That was right and necessary for its time. Building a new home takes many hands. We distrusted the intentions of those who would counsel us from afar, and repeated and internalized the message of Rabbi Hillel that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”. History justified our caution, and through the sweat of our own brows, we built a state unlike any other.
Our two-millennia-long yearning for Zion was always our source of strength, a fire that burned within us all and bound us together. It was universal to Jewish people everywhere – but only to the Jewish people. We spent decades as a people and as a nation keeping our neighbors away from us and keeping ourselves away from them. The State of Israel, and its Zionism with it, could not have survived any other way. Events in recent years across Africa, however, have proven that doors and hearts there are open to Israel, and a new relationship is within our reach. A new relationship with the world, underpinned by a new and truly universal relationship with Zionism.
- Haim Taib is President and Founder of Mitrelli Group and Menomadin Foundation and an expert in developing and strengthening countries
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