• Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Remembering Yoni (2)


According to the Vedas of ancient India, men are playthings in the hands of fate. It would seem that destiny had prepared Yoni for leadership and greatness. Soldier, philosopher, poet and mathematician, he was the one destined to be prime minister. His younger brother Benjamin (Bibi), born in 1949, was the one who was expected to be the colourless businessman. Iddo, the youngest, born in 1952, became a radiologist and playwright. All three siblings, as fate would have it, took their turns among the select band of Sayeret’s elite officer corps.


In the inimitable language of the Psalms of King David, Professor Benzion Netanyahu and his wife Zila had given birth to a quiver filled with three powerful arrows. They have paid their dues to the Jewish to its fullest.


Bibi had studied engineering at MIT and was beginning a career as a consultant at the time of Yoni’s death. The groundswell of national feeling for Yoni no doubt rubbed off positively on Netanyahu’s political career. He became a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and subsequently foreign minister and prime minister. There is no doubt that like the biblical David and Jonathan, Bibi loved his brother unto death. The only times he has been known to shed a tear in public was when he spoke about Yoni. He himself frankly acknowledges that the death of Yoni had a profound impact on his life and career. Indeed, it changed the course of his life: “I will be inspired until the end of my days, just as I was inspired in my youth, by the strength and courage of my brother,” he proclaimed at the Knesset, his face drenched in tears.


It was my good fortune to have met Benjamin Netanyahu at an Oxford Union debate in the mid-nineties. He was at the time the youngest prime minister in Israel’s history. If truth be told, as first impressions go, we did not hit it off at all. It might have been his witheringly cold blue eyes. Somehow, I had this feeling that he was not particularly fond of Africans. It was only much later that I realised it had all to do with Yoni having fallen on the soil of our resplendent continent.


In an infamous July 2014 speech in the Knesset – a speech that went viral on the blogosphere — prime minister Netanyahu declared: “We are not obliged even the least to try to prove to anybody and to the blacks and Arabs that we are superior people….The fact that blacks and Arabs look like human beings and act like human beings do (sic) not necessarily make them sensible human beings. Hedgehogs are not porcupines and lizards are not crocodiles because they look alike. If God had wanted us to be equal to the blacks and Arabs, he would have created us all of a uniform colour and intellect. But he created us differently: Whites, Blacks, Yellow, Rulers and the ruled….And here is a creature (Black man) that lacks foresight…. The average Black does not plan his life beyond a year”.


Bibi Netanyahu has been a highly influential, if divisive, figure in Israel’s political history. His anti-African sentiments may have played a large part in Israel’s disengagement from our continent during the past two decades. It was not always like that. In the 1960s Israel showed a lot of interest in Africa. A significant amount of trade, investments and diplomatic cooperation did occur. The 1973 war and the subsequent campaign by the Arabs in OPEC to isolate Israel had its part in the decline of Africa-Israel cooperation. Today, Israel has barely 6 embassies in the whole of our continent of 54 nations.


Last week’s visit by the Israeli prime minister will no doubt help to heal the wounds of the past. There are some parallels between Africa and the Jewish people. The Jews were in slavery in Egypt for four centuries before returning to their homeland. They also became wanderers, rejected and persecuted wherever they went. We Africans too have suffered slavery, colonialism, racism and persecution. Global Apartheid is still the grim reality of a world; a world in which the African people have been consigned to the margins of civilisation. The black and Jewish Diasporas are the largest in the world. We have a lot to learn from the Jews, who, through the darkest nights of persecution across the centuries, have kept alight the candle of hope. The late political scientist Ali Mazrui termed it “the Talmudic tradition”; a culture of discipline, learning and reverence for ethical values.


I myself have drunk deep from the fountain of Jewish philosophy and mysticism. Despite what Bibi said about my people, I could never bring myself to hate him or to dislike the Jewish people. Besides, I have two Jewish godsons whom I love dearly. In my midnight reveries and dawn watches, I, too, have prayed for the peace of Jerusalem as the Old Book enjoins us.


At the same time, we can’t ignore the fact that the harrowing tragedy of Palestinian dispossession sears the conscience of civilised Humanity. I hope Israel’s rulers will one day marshal the political wisdom in seeing the virtue of a two-state solution that guarantees peace and security between independent Palestine and the Jewish state. But I reject the growing global anti-Semitism of our age. Unless we want to engage in self-deceit, I would make bold as to say that nobody in the Jewish world has ever committed the kinds of atrocities that Boko Haram has perpetrated against our people in Nigeria in the name of religion.


I lived for some years in the Arab world. I found that Arab racism against Africans to be pernicious and deeply rooted. Listen to the medieval Arab philosopher and jurist, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī, popularly known as Ibn Khaldun: “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and proximity to the animal stage….to the south there is no civilization in the proper sense. There are only humans who are closer to dumb animals than to rational beings. They live in thickets and caves, and eat herbs and unprepared grain. They frequently eat each other. They cannot be considered human beings.”


If it serves as any comfort to prime minister Netanyahu, he may wish to know that many among my generation took the side of Israel rather than that of the murderous Idi Amin; a tyrant that was imposed on the good people of Uganda through imperialist complot and chicanery, if only to propagate the stereotype of the African as an ape-like creature with no mind and no humanity. Once described by Winston Churchill as ‘the pearl of Africa’, Uganda was to descend into a long night of captivity. The man who insisted on being addressed as “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, killed thousands of his own people, plunging the country into a long night of captivity. It took the resolve and enlightened statesmanship of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania for Amin to be driven finally out of Uganda in April 1979.


In his speech at Entebbe last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared: “Forty years ago they landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists. Today we landed in broad daylight in a friendly country led by a president who fights terrorists…. Today, in this place, where free people delivered a devastating blow to the forces of terror, we and all the civilized nations must rededicate ourselves to the spirit of Entebbe, a spirit of daring and resolve, a spirit of courage and fortitude, a spirit that is determined as ever to defeat terror and to secure our common future.”


It became a rather anti-climacteric when President Yoweri Museveni, remarked that “the sad event, 40 years ago, turned into another bond linking Palestine to Africa.”  These were not the remarks of a senile old man. It was his way of dampening the sails of Israeli triumphalism on Ugandan soil. Museveni also made oblique reference to the historical fact that, in 1903, Theodore Herzl, founder of ideological Zionism, had pleaded for a portion of East Africa to be carved out as a homeland for the Jewish people. It was the banker and financier Walter Rothschild and the British statesman Arthur James Balfour who settled the debate in favour of Palestine as enshrined in the Balfour Declaration 1917.


Some Ugandan commentators were also chagrined by the fact that the Israelis were in their country to celebrate the forcible invasion of their territorial sovereignty. The Israeli prime minister seemingly added insult to injury when he made no reference whatsoever to the 45 Ugandan soldiers who were killed in the night of that raid; men who were only doing their duty as soldiers.


Israel and Africa have a lot to benefit by working together. Israel is the only viable democracy in the Middle East. With little or no natural resources, they have succeeded in turning the desert into a blooming garden. Thiers is one of the most competitive economies in the world. With only 6 million people, Israel has the second largest number of companies on the New York Stock Exchange; a world leader in agronomy, high tech, ICT and environmental management. Israel’s Technion, founded with the help of Albert Einstein, is one of the world’s leading universities in science, engineering and research.


With Africa’s vast, untapped natural resources and its huge infrastructure deficit, we have opportunity for a mutually beneficial engagement with Israel. Looking at the Arab world today, with its turmoil and strife – a benighted region bristling with terrorism, lawlessness and extremist, nihilistic, millenarian ideologies, I see no iota of redeeming grace. And contrary to what some believe, we do not face a zero-sum choice between Israel and the Arabs. America, for example, engages with both, to its own national advantage. In these matters, what counts is realism, not sentiments; wisdom, not political delusions.


 Obadiah Mailafia