Israel was one of the first nations to recognize and welcome as a new nation the Republic of South Sudan on July 9, 2011. It was not surprising then, that South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayaardit recently chose Israel for one of his first presidential visits.
The Jerusalem Post described the December 20, 2011 trip as a “low-key, one-day, under-the-radar visit.” Both parties are aware that their relationship angers the northern Sudan regime and much of the Arab world. Still, Kiir packed a great deal into a less than 24 hour trip.
“Your visit is very important in the establishment of cooperation in many fields, including economic relations, agriculture, water, energy, and more,” enthused Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who welcomed Kiir and his entourage at the airport. But such cooperation is not the strongest connection between South Sudan and Israel.
Kiir was received by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. While meeting with Peres, Kiir declared his excitement “to set foot in the Promised Land,” representing all South Sudanese people. He expressed his appreciation for Israel's support of the South Sudanese people. "Without you, we would have not arisen,” he said.
Kiir said that the two countries “shared values” and had “overcome similar struggles.” He promised,“We will work with Israel in the future to bolster the strategic ties between our countries." Peres replied that South Sudan had “courageously and wisely struggled against all odds” to establish their country, and that the birth of South Sudan was “a milestone” in “advancing the values of equality, freedom, and striving for peace and good neighborly relations.”
After touring Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, Kiir met with Netanyahu, who offered to send a government delegation to South Sudan to explore how Israel could aid South Sudan’s development. Media reported that Kiir and Netanyahu also discussed the repatriation of thousands of Sudanese refugees in Israel. In recent years, Sudanese refugees targeted by racism and religious discrimination in Egypt, have risked being shot by Egyptian border guards to flee to Israel. Currently about half of the approximately 8,000 Sudanese living in Israel are from South Sudan. The flags of both countries were proudly displayed at the celebrations of the birth of South Sudan in Israel last July.
Possibly the most visceral connection between Israel and South Sudan is the experience of slavery. Rabbi Joseph Polak, director of the Hillel House at Boston University, participated in Christian Solidarity International’s (CSI) emancipation of enslaved Sudanese in April 2011. In the past two decades CSI has liberated over 100,000 black African Sudanese enslaved by northern soldiers and allied Arab militias as war “booty.” CSI estimates that another 35,000 Sudanese are still enslaved in north Sudan and the Middle East.