Originally from South Africa, Paul Hirschson returned to Africa as Israeli ambassador to Senegal and six other West African countries. Following his tenure, he reflects on the experience with Lay Of The Land.
By Rolene Marks and David E. Kaplan
Seated in a bustling coffee shop in Tel Aviv Ambassador Paul Hirschson was far removed from downtown Dakar. Nevertheless, like Tel Aviv, Hirschson will tell you “Dakar is a cosmopolitan city whose identity is based on its melting pot of peoples.” Looking around at the packed tables of animated Tel Avivians besides us, it was hard not to recognise a similarity of ethnic diversity.
Housing 25% of the country’s population and 80% of its economic activity, “Dakar is Senegal’s veritable engine room,’ he says.
So is Tel Aviv Israel’s engine room!
Culture, climate and a history of overcoming adversity – “there are a lot of similarities.”
Dakar is one of Africa’s great cultural and economic hubs. It is also home to a unique MASHAV-supported project helping Senegalese learn drip irrigation. Before returning to Israel at the end of his tenure as ambassador, Hirschson visited agricultural projects Israel was supporting, such as small farms east of Dakar in the plains of Senegal, nestled beneath the giant baobab trees.
“Agriculture is the anchor of what we are doing there,” says Hirschson.
“There is no country more perfectly poised to help Africa than the State of Israel,” says Hirschson, who was Israel’s man in Dakar from August 2015 to August 2018. It was an active period of diplomatic outreach as an increasing number of African countries warmed to the State of Israel. “Bilateral ties between Israel and countries on the continent that the Jewish state had previously no established relations are growing,” he says. This is born out by Israel recently opening its twelfth Embassy in Africa, this time in Kigali, Rwanda and rumours abound of the possible establishing of formal ties with Sudan.
“Such relations are of mutual benefit,” he says. For Israel it represents a strategic outreach but for West Africa “we are able to provide Israel’s groundbreaking technologies in agriculture, cyber security, counterterrorism, medicine, water management and other fields. We help provide much needed solutions to many of the challenges facing the continent today.”
The history of relations between Israel and the African continent is both heartwarming and complex.
It would seem almost natural that African countries would seek to build bridges with Israel. “Many of these countries have a historical and political trajectory that mirrors that of the Jewish State,” points out Hirschson noting that it was the legendary Golda Meir, Israel’s first female Prime Minister who recognized as Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1950s, the great potential for Israel to help Africa.
“Meir recognized that African countries and Israel share similar tragic pasts, having endured multiple wars and struggles for independence against foreign powers who ruled their ancestral homelands,” he says.
Listening to Hirschson, we were reminded of Theodore Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism also wrote about what he saw as two peoples whose mutual histories of slavery and colonisation mirrored each other.
“There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of 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 for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”
It is well over 100 years that Herzl wrote these empathetic words and “Israel is proud to be in Africa not to exploit but to enrich,” says Hirschson.
While today relations between Israel and the continent are strengthening, it seems that in West Africa “something quite extraordinary” is taking place reflected by the visits of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, over the last few years.
In 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Africa in nearly three decades, with a trip to Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. A year later he attended a meeting in Liberia of heads of state from the West African regional group, Ecowas. Regrettably, an Israel-Africa summit that was supposed to take place in Togo in October 2017 was cancelled but the mood is changing reflected in the statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when
Chad and Israel renewed diplomatic ties describing it as:
“a partnership… to forge a prosperous and secure future for our countries”.
Ambassador Hirschson has strong ties and a passion for the African continent. Born and raised in South Africa to a family that played an active part in the struggle against Apartheid, Hirschson has an affinity to the people of the continent.
He is most proud of his grandfather, Issy Wolfson who was an anti-Apartheid activist and a trade unionist and “the only union representative to stand in a parliamentary election.” Growing up in a family at the forefront of the anti-Apartheid movement, “has had a huge impact on me; it gets into the DNA.”
“Africa and Islam meet in a harmonious way in Senegal,” says Hirschson, a country which has had a turbulent and troubling history. “For 300 years, slaves were exported from a small island off its coast called Goree, where visitors can see the dank cells where people were imprisoned until shipped to the New World. The “Door Of No Return” still there, says it all! But from this tragic past has arisen a success story, a democracy in West Africa with a unique form of localised Islam and a colourful local culture.”
Hirschson says, he met with many in Africa “who identify Israelis with the West but are acutely aware that we are not European.” This impacts on their understanding and “although Muslims in Senegal and West Africa may have an affinity for the Islamic world and the Palestinian cause, they differentiate it from relations with Israel.”
Now, with Senegal last year joining the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the next two years – alongside Egypt, Japan, Ukraine and Uruguay – “it is potentially a very important ally for Israel.” The Embassy in Senegal is also responsible for six other countries in West Africa – Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde.
Hirschson explains that Israel is able “to have a unique conversation” with Africa. There is an explanation of ‘salvation’ why Africa became known for Jews as the “new exile from exile”.
“What few people are aware is that when Jews fled from the Spanish peninsular during the horrendous persecution of the Inquisition of the 15th century, it was to the African continent they first took refuge; this is why there were such large Jewish communities in north Africa from Morocco to Egypt.” When introducing himself in Africa, Hirschson would relate that “our first engagement with Africa was 3000 years ago when we were slaves in Egypt. The second was some 2500 years ago when the Iraqis (Babylonians) conquered our first state and a part of my people escaped south and were given refuge in Ethiopia. Our third engagement was 500 years ago when we were exiled from Europe during the Spanish Inquisition. And our fourth engagement with Africa is Israel’s outreach today as a nation state that is independent. Today, Israelis live all over Africa. Africans hear the same story as our story of being slaves, conquered, colonised, exiled, and regaining independence in modern times. It’s the same narrative.”
Situated in one of the most neglected regions in the world, Senegal as with many parts of West Africa are in dire need of both humanitarian and economic aid. During the 2014 Ebola crisis that placed thousands at risk, the tiny state of Israel was according to a statement by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York, the world’s largest per-capita contributor to halting the spread of Ebola in West Africa.
“We have the ability to win hearts and minds in places like Senegal,” says Hirschson. “Unfortunately, it sometime takes outbreaks of diseases or natural catastrophes like floods, landslides and earthquakes for the world to notice the scope of our contributions.”
In Guinea, with whom “Israel renewed diplomatic relations in 2016, we built in 2017 an Intensive Care Unit in an economically depressed neighborhood and ran an agricultural training course for Guinean agronomists in Israel.”
During the same period, “We established the only Dialysis Center in Sierra Leone and was the first country in the world to deliver humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone following the devastating mudslides which killed over 1000 people in 2017.” In 2015, “Twenty-five children from The Gambia and in 2018 the same number from Senegal were sent to Israel for life-saving heart treatment.”
Good relations with Africa can be mutually beneficial and “there is little doubt of an increasing appreciation of Israel by Africans. It is appreciated that Israel was the fourth country in the world to recognize Senegal’s independence.”
Ambassador Hirschson asserts that Israel is “a perfect match” for Africa with agricultural, water, security and smart phone technology.
“Our farming conditions are almost an exact mirror image of the Senegalese farms. It is almost ‘copy & paste’,” says Hirschson.
“We built hundreds of smallhold-family farms in Senegal and trained 1500 family farmers in modern agricultural technologies and systems.”
In recent years, Israel’s expertise in security technology is increasing sought. With the defeat of ISIS, “many of its members are returning home to Africa and pose a threat to fledgling democracies and the stability of fragile states,” says Hirschson. “This provides a fertile ground for terror, and Israel has the proven experience, expertise and technology to help. African countries are aware of the threat of fundamentalism, and poverty creates perfect conditions for extremism to flourish.”
An encouraging development, “is that some countries have come to understand that they can have friendly ties with both Israel and Palestinians; that it is no more a case of one or the other. This is a valuable lesson that more developed countries around the world can heed.”
Looking at Israel “through the lens of self-improvement and not only politics is mutually beneficial, and the next big challenge will be getting farming done right and hopefully convert farmers into entrepreneurs,” says the ambassador.
“Netanyahu’s warm embrace of Africa,” asserts Hirschson, “coupled with the growing needs of African countries is starting to bear real fruit.
With shared narratives and a growing affinity for each other, it makes total sense that the next great love affair with Israel is born in Africa.