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.
Polak described to the newly-freed Sudanese their similarity to the children of Israel. "We were slaves thousands of years ago right up the Nile from here, in Egypt,” he said. “God heard our cries and saw our tears and redeemed us.” He told the Sudanese that they were “very special people” and that “through Christian Solidarity International, God is redeeming you today.” A CSI news release said that Polak “shared with the slaves some of the Pesach practices and encouraged them to commemorate the day of their liberation.”
Comparisons between the Israelites and the South Sudanese extend beyond the experience of slavery. Both the Sudanese Church and the military resistance to the Islamist imperialist government of Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the earlier rebel movement, Anyanya One, (1955-1972) have identified with ancient Israel as well as the modern state. Part of the reason for this is because the South Sudanese have endured struggles and experienced victories of biblical proportions in the past five decades. One example, from Lui, in Western Equatoria, shows how the experiences of the South Sudanese could have been ripped out of the pages of the Old Testament describing the battles of the Israelites.
In the late 1990's, Lui, a frequent bombing target of Khartoum because of its cathedral and hospital, was captured by Khartoum forces and made a garrison town. Missionary to Sudan, Fran Boyle, was told by those who participated how the surviving people of Lui, who had scattered to the bush, recaptured their town.
SPLA Chaplain "Peter" who led the charge on Lui told Boyle that first Christians from all denominations prayed together, repented of their sins, and were reconciled to each other. Then they asked God to give them their town back. Not only that, but they prayed that no one, neither the people of Lui, nor even the Islamist soldiers of Khartoum, would be killed. Finally they marched into Lui, led by Chaplain Peter carrying a rifle, a Christian flag, and a Bible. At the first rifle shot, the Sudanese troops fled all the way back to the front lines of the war. The retaking of Lui took only 30 minutes. Aerial bombardment continued throughout the war, but Khartoum never took the town again.
The South Sudanese also looked to modern Israel as an inspiration. Jimmy Mulla, the president of Sudan advocacy group Voices for Sudan, told The Jerusalem Post that Israel had provided “invaluable training to the rebels.” Sudanese columnist, PaanLuel Wel, said that the head of Anyanya, General Joseph Lagu, “was among the first world leaders” to congratulate Prime Minister Levi Eshkol after the Six Day War. “To the Southern rebels,” said Wel, “Israel was fighting the very enemy that was discriminating against and oppressing them.”
South Sudan's attitude is the same today. Many South Sudanese commented in The Sudan Tribune on their President’s visit to Israel. One commenter said that although "Bashir will run to Iran soon and brief them about Kiir’s visit to Israel," South Sudan would "continue friendship with Israel for generations to come" because of Israel's contribution during their struggle.
“What a big blow to the North Sudan Arabs who do not want South Sudanese to be open to the outside world,” another commenter exclaimed. “They always want South Sudanese to be like mosquitoes under mosquito net.”
Arab leaders had much to say about their “mosquitoes” when Salva Kiir announced full diplomatic relations with Israel and desire to build South Sudan’s future embassy in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv. Kiir told Israeli Knesset Member Danny Danon during his visit to South Sudan in August that Hamas leaders Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh told him “that as an Arab state, his country should cut ties with Israel.” (italics added) Kiir informed them that South Sudan was not an Arab state. And following Kiir’s visit, Sudan’s former prime minister, leader of the National Umma Party, and friend of the U.S. State Department, Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, declared Kiir’s visit “wrong and whoever thought about it is a devilish and a traitor and let us down [us] who are keen on close relations between the states of north and south.” Al-Mahdi really has no say over what the sovereign nation of South Sudan does, but as he believes that The Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, is to spring from his progeny, he does tend to have an exaggerated opinion of himself.
Whether or not it was deliberate, Kiir had visited Israel on the first day of Hanukkah. Upon his departure that night, Peres presented him with an antique menorah. Perhaps the South Sudanese see their own resistance to Islamist imperialists in the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ prohibition of worship and the forced imposition of another religion. Miraculous victory over a brutal, well-equipped army is just one more shared experience that connects Juba and Jerusalem, across almost 1900 miles.
Faith J. H. McDonnell is Director of the Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan at The Institute on Religion and Democracy.