Ayoob Kara, former Knesset member and current Israeli Minister of Communications, in 2016. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
by Avi Kumar
(JNS) — Ayoob Kara’s Dubai office contains framed photos of him talking with former President Donald Trump and with Pope Francis, and in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These days, Kara, 68, is as focused on Africa as he is on Washington, Rome or Jerusalem.
The Abraham Accords, which debuted in 2020, have “opened new doors for Israel on the continent via the Gulf Arab world,” he told JNS.
In an hour-long conversation on Feb. 14, the former Israeli Knesset member and former communications minister, who has set up the center UAE-Israel for Africa, told JNS that he expected Israeli-African ties to grow. “Our goal is to forge economic and diplomatic ties between Israel, the UAE and Africa,” he said.
Chad, for example, opened an embassy in Israel in February. “Eventually, we will witness more African countries setting up embassies in Israel and vice versa,” Kara predicted. “It’s good for their business. It’s good for agriculture. The citizens benefit. It is a very positive trend overall.”
In early 2016, Chad’s then-President Idriss Déby first reached out to Israel through Kara, the latter said. Déby sent Kara an email stating that Chad wanted to renew ties with Israel. As a Druze, he suggested that his native tongue being Arabic “was a major asset” in facilitating contact for the Netanyahu government. (He declined to provide JNS a copy of the email from the Chad president.)
During the 1950s and 1960s, Israel forged diplomatic ties with several sub-Saharan African nations. One might have assumed a nascent Israel would have much in common with many African countries — having also got their independence recently. Israel was part of the British mandate of Palestine and many African states were also colonies of Britain or other European powers. They were all building new economic frameworks as their statehood evolved.
By the late 1960s, however, ties deteriorated as the Arab-Israeli conflict escalated. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, signified a souring of relations.
Bending to pressure from both the Arab world and the Soviet Union, which sought to exert global influence in the Cold War, many nations began shifting to more pro-Palestinian stances. Chad followed suit, cutting ties with Israel in 1972.
Three years after the email that Kara said was the seed of renewed ties between Chad and Israel, Netanyahu arrived in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, in 2019 to meet with Déby. Chad opened an embassy in February in Ramat Gan, with Mahamat Déby, son of the then-late president.
‘Always greeted with respect’
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila and his wife Myriam — who passed away at 52 in 2021 — were the first emissaries sent to Africa to build Jewish life in an area increasingly visited by Jews, especially Israelis, coming on business to Africa since 1992. At the time, Bentolila, who is now based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was Chabad’s representative for all of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa.
The most recent African country to gain a Chabad presence is Zambia after Chabad Rabbi Mendy and Rivky Hertzel moved there in November. In 2018, Zanzibar saw its first emissary couple when Israeli-born Rabbi Shneor and Mushka Shmulevitz set up a Chabad center on the island off the Swahili coast.
In three decades as a Chabad representative in Central, East and West Africa, including experiencing upheaval and “rough times” in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, Bentolila told JNS that he has never experienced any kind of antisemitism in the 23 African countries he has visited.
“On the contrary, I was always greeted by the populations as the People of the Book with lots of respect,” he said.
Once, at the airport in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, his flight was delayed for an extended period, and a flight agent came over to inquire if he was a rabbi. When he confirmed that he was, Bentolila was invited to stay in a private lounge until the flight was ready to board.
On another trip, Bentolila tried to bring a Torah through security to fly to Tanzania. He was told it had to go under the plane with the luggage. “Obviously, we couldn’t agree to that,” he told JNS.
A Kenyan officer was going to remove Bentolila and his party from the flight but saw a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Bentolila’s tallis bag. The man asked if this was the “Holy Rabbi mzungu,” using a Swahili word for “white/foreign traveler.” Bentolila, who isn’t sure if the officer recognized the rebbe, said it was, and soon he was allowed to bring the Torah scroll on the plane and place it in the overhead compartment.
“In general, the African nation loves and respects Israel very much,” he told JNS. “It is evident that ties with the Jewish world and Israel are improving.”
‘We can assist each other in several aspects’
Not all African countries have Chabad centers or Israeli embassies. Israel’s embassy in Senegal and the Chabad in Congo facilitate Jewish activity in Chad, which has neither an official Israeli nor Jewish institution. Both entities also cover neighboring nations for Jews and Israelis in need.
In addition to the Ethiopian Jewish community, much of which moved to Israel in spurts of emigration over the years, there are “emerging Jewish communities” across the continent, Mordreck Maersara, president of the Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance, composed of emergent Jewish community members, told JNS.
Israel, however, does not recognize those emerging communities as halachically Jewish. These communities vary in their origin stories from being converts, crypto-Jews and those claiming descent from the “lost tribes.”
“We yearn for a good relationship with other Jews in Israel, as well as the state and government in the future,” said Maersara.
The Abraham Accords have strengthened ties between Israel and several Arab nations that previously didn’t recognize it, according to Kara. “Many African countries have pre-existing relations with the UAE, one of the signatories of the accords,” he said.
Kara hopes the Gulf nation can build on the success of the accords, and that as one of the region’s top trade hubs, it can serve as a springboard to bolster further diplomatic ventures on the continent.
Historically, Turkey served as a link between Israel, and many Arab and Muslim nations that didn’t recognize Israel. That was particularly the case with trading goods and travel stopovers. “The UAE is now filling more gaps in this regard,” said Kara.
Somaliland, which most countries consider part of Somalia, is also actively pursuing ties with Israel. Neither Somalia nor Somaliland’s Horn of Africa neighbor Djibouti recognizes Israel, so ties between the unrecognized nation of Somaliland and Israel could provide the latter with more access to Africa’s coastlines. And they all have ties with the UAE, where Kara is now based. Somaliland authorities have reached out to Kara regarding this possibility, he told JNS.
“Our country hopes to build ties with Israel. When people think of the Horn of Africa region, the first thing that comes to mind is war and piracy, but Somaliland is in contrast, an emerging, stable region,” Ahmed Muse, director of public relations for the Somaliland finance ministry, told JNS. “We can assist each other in several aspects.”
Kara added that as bilateral ties improve, new opportunities in multiple sectors across the African continent could emerge. He predicted that “one can expect to see more embassies, trade and other exchanges blossoming in the next few years.”