Somalo-Jewshi relations: blasphemy or real politic
July 14, 2016 – These are some of the questions that I pondered while on a family vacation in West Palm Beach, Florida. Is Somalia finally joining the campaign to end the sub-Saharan diplomatic “embargo” of the Jewish state? If so, does this mean Mogadishu under President Hassan and Prime minister Omer has abandoned the Somali National philosophy founded by the SYL that gave primacy social justice and fairness over diplomacy? Is Somalia in the throes of following real politic as opposed to justice, self-determination of oppressed people, and the philosophy of its founding fathers? Is post-civil war Somali State more comfortable to be in bed with the Jewish state as long as rent money can be realized?
On July 4, 2016, The Times of Israeli spiced the feverishly awaited Eidul Adxa holiday (July 5th, 2016) with a surprisingly groundbreaking feature article and reported that Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud secretly met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The article also referenced a senior official close to Mahmoud who confirmed to The Times of Israel that “the meeting took place in Tel Aviv” following several low level meetings.
The news scoop reverse a 60-year-old diplomatic policy of Somalia, while it coincides with a historic visit by Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu to four East African countries that provide security to Somalia. Although President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud did not attend the Entebbe, Kampala, meeting for optical reasons, many in Mogadishu speculate that election-weary Somali President has spoken with him.
In an effort to do damage control, the Somali Federal Government, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SFGMOA), issued an after-thought lukewarm denial of any meeting between Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud and Netanyahu. Despite such a categorical denial, it is plausible that the information carried by the Israeli newspaper is credible and equally believable on several accounts.
First, Israeli media, which is free from their government’s control, has nothing to gain by fabricating such news on Somalia. Second, it is also an established national passion by the Jewish state, its intellectual circles, and its well-established media to monitor diplomatic relations that the Israeli government scores with the outside world, and more so with the Islamic nations. Lastly, for about four decades, Israel has maintained secretive relationship with many Arab and Islamic countries and has expertise in how to manage, leak and share, when necessary, diplomatic messages such as this one concerning the bilateral meeting between Somalia and Israel. To that end, Mr. Netanyahu never denied the contents of article, but affirmed that Israel deals all the time with countries that may not have diplomatic offices in the open.
It is therefore believable that The Times of Israelis giving both its citizens and to the rest of the world that, after many secretive meetings at lower levels, the top leaders of Mogadishu and Tel Aviv have officially met, and Israel must be happy about this development. Given the current geopolitical reality in the region that is so fluid and so globalized, where the West, India and China are all actively posturing, Israel is serious not to be left out.
The Jewish State
The creation of a Jewish state was pioneered by Zionists whose struggle to find a permanent home for Jewish émigrés in Europe began in earnest in the 19th century. Consequently, the state of Israel was established in 1947 by a UN action, which was supported and pushed by the administration of Truman who at the time badly needed the support of the pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington.
The champion of the Jewish cause at the UN was none other than an Afro-American diplomat, Ralph bunch, who served as the US Mission at the UN during that period. Ralph Bunch’s passionate support for the Jewish cause later on served as one of the bases for the Afro-American and Jewish American coalition during the Civil Rights era. In his memory, the largest building at UCLA, a university closely affiliated with the Jewish community in Los Angeles, is the Ralph Bunch building which also houses the African Studies Center. Founded by an American Jew, the late James S. Colman, the Center is the oldest African Studies Center and it trained the largest post graduate Somali students, including this writer.
israelThe creation of Israel, one of the poster children of the UN’s post war projects, has since then negatively impacted the political and social aspirations of millions of Palestinians that have been rendered landless and stateless. Today, the Israel government is responsible for the pushing out of “Christian and Muslim inhabitants who made up over 95 percent of its population” when Israel was created. It is also responsible for crimes against humanity that took place in Sabra and Shatile in the 1980s.
The very diplomatic relationship that Israel sought with the rest of the world had always been, therefore, defined by the morel aspect embedded in the creation and maintenance of the Jewish state at the expense of Palestinians. Those communities that have been pained by the injustice carried against Palestine refused to establish any diplomatic relation with the state of Israel. Most Arab, Muslim and African nations, Somalia included, and once loosely known as the non-aligned countries, did not have any relations with Israel for many decades. Exception to this has always been Turkey and Iran. Although both of these countries are Muslims and part of the non-aligned coalitions, owing to their unique fear of domination by the Arab world, they always maintained covert relationship with Israel, mainly in the area of security. This type of covert relation, dating back to the 1950s and 1960, spread to Some Arab world in the 1970s. The King of Morocco, for example, always maintained a covert relationship with the Jewish state.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there was what was known as the African “embargo” on Israel diplomacy. Israel was considered by many post-colonial African leaders a “figment” of Western powers in the midst of Middle East. Also, the political and military cooperation between the Jewish state and Apartheid South Africa, whose arms trade in the 1990s amounted at its heights between US$400 and US$800 millions complicated matters more.
However, the so-called African “embargo” of Israel started to teeter after the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the subsequent establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. As a result, many sub-Saharan African countries, namely Zaire, which established the first relationship (1982), followed in earnest by Liberia (1983), the Cameroon (1986), Côte d’Ivoire 1986), and Togo (1987), began to establish full blown diplomatic relations with Israel.
When asked why the change in diplomacy, the former Zairian dictator, Maputo Sese Seeko, said the following: that Africa only had one problem with Israel in that Egypt which was a member of the Organization for African Unity, was in war with Israel. The end of that war, he said, also ended the African diplomatic “embargo” on Israel, thus triggering a chain of change in hearts by many sab-Saharan leaders. This in effect ushered a new era for Afro-Jewish diplomacy.
Ethiopia, with its historical ties with Jews never adopted any “embargo” on Israel. From the kingdom of Haile Selassie, the dictatorship of Mengistu regime to the current government, the Ethio-Jewish relationship, mainly in the area of military training, never slowed down.
It is not often cited or even remembered where, if any, intersection exists between Somali and Jewish history. However, there are vignettes of historical references between the two. Like the Falasha in Ethiopia, there is the Yibir tribe in Somalia whose origins are often placed in the Bête Israel (house of Israel). No research beyond tidbits of oral history is available as of yet to place the Yibir tribe in the Bête Israel. One attribute that the Falashas in Ethiopia share with their Yibir counterparts is that both of them are despised minorities in a Christian and/or Muslim majorities.
There is also the oral history that some of the hairstyles Somali women carry (such one that is called “dhoor” or tracing the hair in two circles around the head of unmarried young women) have roots in ancient Hebrew culture. Braiding young female hair in small multiple lines is another trait only practiced by Somalis, Ethiopians and Jewish.
Another more recent connection between the two sides is the remote phenomenon that most of the earlier scholars on Somali studies were Jewish Americans or European, including I. M. Lewis, Andrzejewski, John Johnson, at el. A case of a particular interest is Saadia Touval, an Israeli scholar, whose fascinating account on Somali Nationalism: International Politics and the Derive for Unity in the Horn of Africa, written in 1963 for a Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. This book serves as the basis for understanding the formation of the Somali state and its search for the unification of the Somali speaking regions. The chair for the completion of Mr. Touval’s dissertation was none other than Hennery Kissinger, one of America’s most influential diplomat and a Jewish-American heavyweight.
But there were also dividing walls and major differences between Somalis and the Jewish state. First, Somali nationalism was an offshoot of post-world war nationalism. As such, it was guided by the Pan-Somali Youth League (SYL) whose philosophy was rooted in both modern Arab nationalism and in Islam. A second factor which entrenched the divide between the two was the commitment of Somalis to support worldwide progressive movements, including Palestinian as well as South African causes pioneered by PLO and ANC, respectively. Such a political stance of Somalis on global issues was always consistent with the founding vision of SYL that believed in the right of self-determination of nations and nationalities including that of the Somali people in the greater region of the Horn of Africa.
With the failure of the modern Somali state, the unilateral secession of Somaliland, the mushrooming of clan based movements in the 1980s (SNM, SSDF, USC, et el), the reformation of the clan-based post-civil war Somali state that is bereft of any pan-Somali philosophy is turning Somalia into a “rent-seeking” state.
Yet even with such anomalies, most Somalis I have talked don’t approve their country joining the choir of Africa in ending the so-called diplomatic “embargo” on the Jewish state. Most of them told me “not now,” because of the timing this issue is coming, and the dearth of legitimacy associated with the government.
In the words of Alex De Waal, whose book (The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power) I am reviewing for the Publisher, Somalia is a state whose services are available in exchange for rent money. In that sense, if the Gulf States until now paid rent cash and military cache in exchange for service, what prevents, a lot of Somalis say, the Jewish state from following a similar course and pay rent money to Villa Somalia in exchange for ending diplomatic “embargo?”
In September of this year, Somalis will decide whether the current occupier of Vila Somalia vacates or stays for a second term. It is only then that we can seriously evaluate the Somalo-Jewish diplomatic relationship, and whether the country is ready to embark on this uncharted waters. At this time, most Somalis would reject that proposal flat out right.