‘Wait for the Uzi’s’ — Israeli relations in 60s with MLK and African leaders were hardly idealistic, despite nostalgia

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There is a popular misconception of the State of Israel, built in the imagination of the liberal Jewish-American public, and in the minds of journalists, historians, and writers who became celebrities in the United States because of the easy-to-digest version of the Israeli reality they offer: That before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s terms, the State of Israel was a utopia, and it was only Netanyahu and the prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967 that have succeeded in destroying it. According to this misconception, Israel is a paranormal state that until Netanyahu’s period always acted out of purely values-based motives and its mistakes were innocent. When this perception conflicts with reality, its believers are forced to overhaul or ignoring historical facts, or use the anti-Semitic card to silence criticism.

One of the latest examples of this misconception is an article that was published on June 16, by the journalist Chemi Shalev, who serves as the US editor and correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper. Shalev wrote that 60 years ago, the State and the citizens of Israel empathized with the struggle of blacks worldwide. 

Shalev claimed that when the struggle for equality for blacks in the United States culminated, “socialist Israel saw itself as a champion of awakening Africa and its sympathies extended to the continent’s descendants in the U.S. The government repeatedly tried – but failed – to invite Martin Luther King on an official visit, despite fears that it would upset successive U.S. administrations.”

Shalev listed the reasons for the breaking down of the idyll:

“Fifty-three years of occupation since the Six Day War have fundamentally changed Israel. After more than 40 years of right-wing rule, Israelis identify and are identified more with ruling whites than with oppressed Blacks.  Ethnocentrism, Jewish fundamentalism and hostility towards Palestinians, it seems, have spawned blatant racism towards minorities in general, as Israel’s own black minority of Ethiopian Jews can attest. Sympathy for Africa and Third World liberation movements have been supplanted by increasing admiration for strong, authoritarian and often racist leaders, led by President Trump.”

The illusion is not unique to Shalev. It is a widely held belief. In his article, Shalev tried to solve a mystery – why the Israeli government and most of the Israeli public are exceptionally silent about the Black Lives Matter protests, despite the fact that many from the Jewish-American community and leadership are supporting and participating in the protests. Shalev decided to point fingers at the regular bogeymen – the long occupation and the right-wing rule in Israel.

This conception does not correspond with historical documents in the Israeli State National Archives.

On the matter of Israel’s relations with Martin Luther King Jr., the few documents that have been made available in the archives contradict Shalev’s version of events. The Israeli government actually opposed inviting King in 1962, because he was a “militant” and the invitation would upset Southern leaders. The government did reverse itself later, but it was only after King had won the Nobel Prize, and even then Israel spoke of promoting tourism by inviting King.

King was invited in 1962 to Israel by the Israeli General Workers Union (Histadrut). The government was not keen on the visit. According to a cable from August 14, 1962, that was sent to Israeli Foreign Affairs offices in New York and Israel, by Zeev Dover, the Israeli Consul in Atlanta, King was a “militant” and a “rising star in the Negro leadership.” But in the wake of his arrests in Albany, Georgia, during a wide-scale protest of segregation in the city, the consul said,”The rage of those who oppose de-segregation was directed at him.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Dover warned that  “King’s visit to Israeli would instantly damage our image and work in the southern United States “. Therefore, according to the Dover, there was some doubt to the benefits of King’s visit to Israel and he opposed it, writing, “our inviting King for a visit to a foreign country – no matter which body does the inviting – can be interpreted as an expression of support for or sympathy with him and will generate strong negative reactions.  In any case, we should not be the first country to grant King an international standing, as it were.” 

King accepted the union’s invitation, but the visit never took place. Then he gained international standing, receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in October 1964. And the Israeli government changed its stance. The following month, Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban offered him an official visit. A year and a half later, the Israeli Consul in New York City, Michael Arnon, said the Foreign Ministry had offered to King that he lead a delegation of pilgrims to Israel. Arnon framed the offer in the effort of Ministry of Tourism to encourage “Negro pilgrimages in serious dimensions.” 

King never did visit Israel. But these documents suggest that the State of Israel acted from opportunistic motivations and not from a values-based identification with King’s struggle and with the struggle of the Blacks in the United States or anywhere else.

Equally incorrect is Shalev’s description of the State of Israel’s sympathy with African liberation movements. This misconception is common to many in the U.S., and in particular the liberal Jewish-American public.

An examination of tens of thousands of pages of documents in the Foreign Ministry files in the Israeli State Archives shows that long before the 1967 war, the State of Israel was befriending undemocratic regimes.  Apart from the economic interests of developing and exporting Israeli industry, Israeli diplomatic efforts focused on persuading various states to support the position of the State of Israel on the issue of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, that is, supporting Israel’s prevention of their return to the land and to recover stolen properties, as well as convincing them to object to the efforts of the Arab countries, headed by the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, to challenge Israel’s legitimacy.

To that end, starting from the early 1960s, the State of Israel provided military aid to almost all sub-Saharan African countries, from Liberia to Madagascar. The military aid included training and weapons, but also the construction from scratch of entire military and police units.  In particular, the Israeli Mossad (Israeli institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) assisted in the establishment and training of internal security and intelligence services. In some countries, the security forces that Israel helped to train and establish in the 1960’s were key elements of repression and efforts to prevent a transition to a democratic regime for decades.

Three examples:

–In the early 1960’s, the State of Israel trained entire military units for the Congolese dictator Mobuto Sese Seko and provided military aid that was essential for establishing his dictatorship in Zaire. 

–At the same time, the State of Israel supported with arms and training Uganda, gave personal advice to Idi Amin, and, in fact, helped him build the infrastructure for the military coup that brought him to power later, in January 1971.

Ugandan President Idi Amin meets Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1971 in Israel.

–In Rwanda, the State of Israel aided dictator Grégoire Kayibanda by training his officers and establishing an internal security service by the Mossad.

Israel expected that in return for the military aid Rwanda would support its position on the issue of the Palestinian refugees among other things. According to a telegram from October 21, 1966, sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Aryeh Levin, Israel’s representative in Kigali, Levin met with dictator Kayibanda and explained to him Israel’s position on the refugees issue: “We may expect from our friends, especially those for whom this subject is not unfamiliar –  better understanding and cooperation.”

The Rwandan dictator was compliant. Kayibanda expressed support for Israel’s position on the Palestinian refugees’ issue, saying that granting them international support in perpetuity should be avoided as “this is an opening for intervention in your internal affairs.”  Kayibanda asked Levin to hand over to the Rwandan Foreign Ministry a letter detailing Israel’s demands regarding how the country should vote on various resolutions and promising that they would endeavor to comply with Israel’s requests.

One of the countries where the Israeli involvement is less known to the public is the Central African Republic (CAR).  Recently, a number of Foreign Ministry files were disclosed to the public in the State Archives of Israel regarding links between the two countries in the 1960s. Most files and documents are still confidential.

The relationship between Israel and the Central African Republic began immediately after it received independence from France in August 1960. Israel took steps to “occupy it” by offering to award 15 advanced studies scholarships to young Africans. Israel’s ambassador to Paris, Walter Eytan, met with the President David Dacko, who very fast became a dictator, in the capital Bangui and wrote to the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in a cable of December 5, 1960, that the Israeli initiative to give scholarships aroused great excitement. He added:

“I recommend that you appoint a representative in Bangui, whatever his title would be.  It is a country that we can easily “occupy,” and to a certain extent we have already occupied it. “

The racial attitude of the State of Israel to the Central African Republic as a weak state that can be exploited to advance its own interests, was reflected in another cable sent by Ambassador Eytan two days later about his visit to the country.  Ambassador Eytan, who had immigrated to Israel from Britain, wrote that there is no printed newspaper in the country, that there may be 10 people with a college education, and described how “there are many natural resources, but they are undeveloped. Terrible diseases prevail and it is just scary walking around the city and seeing all the poor sick people, including the lepers and people crawling on the ground like animals. ”   

Ambassador Eytan did not blame the French colonialist regime for the regression of the state and its residents’ poverty, but merely, and racially,  the character of the inhabitants: “The people do not make an effort to work, although the climate is not that bad, and in any case can not be an excuse not to work. I think the people are definitely capable of working, if they had a purpose and a goal, and it will be one of the first roles of the new government (maybe with our help?).”

In another telegram of March 29, 1961, Ambassador Eytan stated that Dacko, a former primary school teacher, “is a typical product of his country and his people” and characterized the Central African Republic as a “primitive (but attractive) state.”

In April 1961, a first delegation from the CAR arrived in the State of Israel, in a visit that was characterized by racial incidents on both sides that hardly suggest shared values. For example, according to a report from April 30, 1961, about this visit, written by Yosef Krieger of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, after members of the CAR delegation met with the Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres and visited the GADNA (Israeli pre-military program) headquarters, the Foreign Ministry first brought the African delegation to a hotel without showers or bathroom accessories in the rooms. One person from the CAR delegation, who had attended the Eichmann trial, which had just begun in Jerusalem, repeatedly asked the Israeli Foreign Ministry representatives if the persecution of Jews worldwide was not the result of them killing Jesus.  The head of the delegation, Minister of State Marcel Dozima, repeatedly asked the Israeli hosts to provide women for the men in the delegation. 

This disgraceful visit to Israel and the fact that David Dacko was rapidly becoming a dictator and eliminating all opposition to his regime, did not interfere with the strengthening of the relations between the two countries.

According to a December 6, 1961, cable, the new Israeli Ambassador in Bangui, Ephraim Ben-Haim, said that in a meeting with Dacko, the president expressed support for Israel’s position on the Palestinian refugees, promised to persuade other rulers in Africa on this matter, affirmed the establishment of an embassy in Jerusalem, and asked Israel to cooperate in the diamond industry.  Dacko said, “In Israel there are the best factories in the world and we have (so I am told) the best diamonds in the world.” 

In a cable 11 days later, Ambassador Ben-Haim wrote that he had come to an agreement with Dacko to send the head of the country’s internal security unit for training in Israel, and that he (Ben-Haim) would like to send the Mossad’s representative for West Africa to the CAR.  Dacko also announced that he would like to send military officers for training in Israel.  

The Mossad meeting took place. In a cable of February 6, 1962, Ben-Haim summarized the meeting he attended between Dacko and the Mossad’s representative for West Africa, David Kimche (whose cover name was “David Sharon”).  Kimche agreed with Dacko that the CAR would send three or four people to a course in Israel that would last 3-4 months, so that after their return they would establish a whole new security service for the country.  Kimche even interviewed the candidates for the training in Israel.  It was also noted that Dacko requested Israel to arrange a special course for ten high-ranking military officers who would later become the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Central African Republic.

According to a cable, dated February 6, 1962, sent by Ambassador Ben-Haim, Dacko requested that an Israeli army (IDF) officer be the head of his personal staff and that Israeli IDF officers be present at the army headquarters. Ben-Haim informed him of Israel’s refusal to allow Israeli officers to serve under French command, but agreed that they would be under the command of Central African Chief of Staff, Jean-Bédel Bokassa.  In a cable from March 14, 1962, Ambassador Ben-Haim wrote that Dacko requested that an Israeli military attaché be sent to the Bangui Embassy ​​to be his (Dacko’s) personal, but secret, adviser: “he would come incognito to my house”.

In addition, Dacko requested that Israel prepare him a special secret communication code because “everything that he has is well known to the French and he doesn’t care if we knew his code”. Ambassador Ben-Haim replied to Dacko that sending an Israeli military attaché to Bangui, who would also serve as his personal advisor, could create problems with the French, but regarding the code, he would write to the Mossad and would positively recommend it.

According to a cable dated February 14, 1962, sent by the Department of Africa in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, it was agreed with Dacko that an Israeli officer would run the Army Commander’s School and Israel would be solely responsible for carrying out a training program (including sending the trainers) for soldiers that would last about a year and a half.  Dacko asked again for a special course to be held for ten high-ranking officers who would form his Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a cable, David Kimche wrote that he had agreed with Dacko on these matters. While in another cable Ambassador Ben-Haim announced that Israel would be prepared to share the training cost of the Central African soldiers.

State visits followed. On June 6, 1962, Dacko made a state visit of 11 days to the State of Israel and met with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.  During the visit, the two leaders signed various cooperation agreements, which included secret appendices.  On August 5, 1962, Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi visited the CAR, and afterward prepared a lecture outline about his visit there, which also included racist remarks: He described the inhabitants as “poor, but it seems they do not suffer from their poverty, dancing and singing.”   He also remarked that “the wealth of nature was their undoing because it caused laziness” and that “it is not evident in the people that they suffered from slavery.”

A delegation of officers from the IDF travelled to the CAR in April 1963, provided military exercises, and trained commanders and officers.  Applying the Israel NAHAL[1] model, in addition to military exercises and training, they also provided training in agriculture and establishing settlements.  Among other things, they set up a training center in the name of the dictator (“David Dacko Village”).   The person in charge of the NAHAL program for youth was Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Ben-Or, who received the title “High Commissioner for Youth” from Dacko.  In a cable that Ben-Or sent on March 5, 1963, he described the enthusiasm of the people of Bangui from the display put on by young people who received training by the Israelis.  As he put it, the people were particularly amazed by the demonstration of judo and stick combat. 

In a cable from May 1963, Ambassador Ben-Haim wrote that at another event, observed by the President of the parliament, members of the government, and the Chief of Staff, Dacko praised the Israeli trainers and said that he wanted to give them medals of honor but the Israeli government did not approve of this.  In a cable from April 16, 1963, Ambassador Ben-Haim requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send an advisor on information and propaganda to the CAR.  In 1963, Moshe Dayan, the former IDF Chief of Staff and the Ministry of Agriculture, also visited the CAR.

The training led to more. In a cable from May 1963 from the Israeli embassy in Bangui, it was written that the representative of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Israel Ben-Heschel, requested and received authorization to send 20 Uzi machine guns, and he also requested and received authorization from Isar Harel, Director of the Mossad, to train a security unit there.  According to this telegram, the unit’s training by the Mossad took place, but the shipment of Uzi machine guns was held up for technical reasons because of the holidays, and it was promised that they would be sent shortly.  The Foreign Ministry asked the embassy in Bangui to clarify whether the Uzis were to be sent directly to the dictator’s palace or to the embassy as a diplomatic package.  In another telegram on the same matter that was sent by Ambassador Ben-Haim, he wrote that Dacko was away on a visit in Ethiopia but had instructed one of his compatriots in Bangui to “wait for the Uzis”.

Eytan, the Israeli ambassador in Paris, met with Dacko in Ethiopia and reported that Dacko told him that the Israeli ambassador in Bangui “being holy, always understand the political value of material matters and the need for them,” and demanded that the State of Israel set up in the capital a center for the associations of the ruling party (MESAN). Israeli diplomats divided on this scheme, some seeing it as creating a corruption issue. Ultimately, Shlomo Hillel, the Director of the Africa Department in the Foreign Ministry, declared his opposition to Dacko’s request on the ground that it would create a precedent for similar demands from other nations. 

Despite the Israeli refusal to set up a center for the ruling party, Israelis helped the party. Since Dacko’s seizing of power, the party was mostly fictitious and had no active institutions.  Dacko wanted to make it look as if the CAR was a democratic state with lively political activity, but, in fact, only political activity by the ruling party was legal. According to a telegram from October 20, 1963, an official namef Yitzhak Tsarfaty travelled to the CAR in order to help Dacko set up actual institutions for the ruling party and to train branch managers for them. 

Despite the country’s rich natural treasures, Dacko did not succeed in in improving the economic situation because of the high level of corruption and lack of investment in infrastructure.  In a telegram from November 14, 1963, Eytan, the Israeli Ambassador in Paris, wrote that Dacko told him that he had decided that the coming Independence Day celebrations would be the last ones until 1966, and in the next three years, all holidays and celebrations would be canceled so that the people could devote themselves to work. 

Israelis took an active role in pillaging those resources. According to a telegram dated February 12, 1962, Ambassador Ben-Haim submitted a draft of agreements to Dacko for starting up a diamond company and a development company, to be jointly owned by the two countries.  And two months later the two countries established a joint diamond processing and marketing company called ICAD.  The company gave Israel a monopoly on the legal marketing of diamonds from the state.  To that end, Israelis working in the diamonds industry went to the CAR and stayed there regularly.  In a cable of unknown date in 1962, it was stated that Dacko even agreed to have an Israeli as the head of the mines in the country. 

The diamond monopoly given to Israel aroused anger both in France and within the CAR itself. Therefore, at some point it was decided with Dacko that ICAD would start paying income tax.  According to a cable sent on September 30, 1963, France demanded that ICAD be dismantled and that a new company be set up with 50% being owned by the CAR, 25% owned by the State of Israel and 25% owned by France.

Dacko seriously considered cancelling the monopoly he gave to Israel in the diamond business.  In a telegram, from November 21, 1963, Eytan, the ambassador in Paris, wrote that Dacko complained to him that one of the Israelis who was in charge of the diamond trade threatened him: if he did not continue to grant the State of Israel a monopoly on diamonds, Israel would cease providing assistance to local industry.  Despite Israeli opposition, the economic situation and French pressure led Dacko to decide to dismantle ICAD at the end of 1963. Even so, after the dismantling of the joint company, the Central African Republic continued to be an important source of diamonds for the State of Israel.

Israeli investment in the CAR paid off diplomatically. The Director of the Africa Department of the Foreign Ministry cabled Ambassador Ben-Haim on July 4, 1963, and wrote, “I do not dismiss the political and moral benefits that arose from activities in the CAR.  I know and value the unlimited loyalty of the CAR in all matters regarding us and in all of the international political tests.  From that standpoint, the investment in the CAR justified itself without reservation.”

Dacko continued to concentrate power in his hands and to persecute the opposition. Therefore it isn’t surprising, that in a telegram from January 6, 1964, that was sent from the Israeli embassy in Bangui, it was reported that the Dacko was elected by 98% of the electorate.   

Nor is it surprising that such rule created instability. On December 31, 1965, the Chief of Staff of the CAR, Jean-Bédel Bokassa led a military coup and set up another tyrannical regime that replaced that of Dacko.  Despite the intimate economic and military relations between Israel and the former regime of Dacko, Bokassa did not hold a grudge against Israel since he too wanted Israel’s military support. The Israeli side also wanted to continue business as usual, especially since its relationship with Bokassa had been well established during his appointment as Dacko’s chief of staff of the Armed Forces, and since Bokassa was a staunch admirer of the State of Israel.

In a cable sent by the second Israeli ambassador in Bangui, Aharon Ofri,  on June 12, 1967, just after the 1967 War, he wrote that the new dictator Bokassa “was actually in tears, asking to relate his best wishes to the IDF, to the ministers Eshkol and Dayan and even gave a monetary contribution of 100,000 Francs – in the presence of Banza [Bokassa’s partner in the military coup against Dacko] who did not stop praising and glorifying the Israel Defense Forces and the righteousness of our war.”  In another cable from July 3, 1967, Ambassador Ofri wrote that Bokassa put out “a declaration to his people to act like Israel,” and in front of religious novitiates spoke “about the need to preserve the internal peace of the CAR just as Israel knew how to activate the means to preserve peace in the region.”

In a summary prepared by the Israel Foreign Ministry on the matter of reactions from African states to the 1967 War, it was written that Bokassa was prepared to send his armed forces to help Israel:  “The President expressed his full support for Israel and enthusiasm at the victories.  He was ready to volunteer and come to fight with us. However, he preferred to act secretly and ensure his help in international organizations together with the rest of the African nations.”

The Israelis rarely reflected on the exploitative nature of the relationship. And when they did it was in the context of Israel’s global interests.

After the military overthrow of Dacko that brought Bokassa to power, an unusual telegram by A. Sofer from the Israeli Embassy in Bangui (dated February 11, 1966) relayed his personal reservations about military aid to the dictatorship of the CAR  and other similar “unstable” regimes:

 By request of the then President of the CAR – David Dacko – a security unit was established, with our assistance, for the purpose of defending the regime when necessary… the latest military overthrows, and especially that which took place in the CAR, proved that the majority of these regimes were built on unstable foundations and there can be no talk of stability or a strong standing of any of these rulers.  In this situation the question arises of the desirability of our activities in the field of “security services,” which for the most part are connected personally to the president.  I bring as an example the developments in the CAR, after the overthrow, in which elements hostile to us exploited Israeli arms that were found in order to identify us with the “tyrannical” regime that fell.  I note that the French Embassy did take part in this… In this regard, it is desirable, in my opinion, to distinguish between security assistance of a purely sovereign nature, such as training the paratroopers of the Congolese army, and personal security assistance to the President, which connects and identifies us with unstable presidents.

Sofer did not think that military assistance should be terminated, but rather there should be a consideration of the criteria for granting it:

Despite what I said above, I do not negate our security activities in all cases.  There is no doubt that this activity has proven itself in most of the countries in which we have been involved.  It has strengthened our position, helped the on-going flow of information on changes taking place and contributed more than a little to limiting the activities and attempts to undermine us on the part of those hostile to us.  Nevertheless, in light of the changes that have recently occurred, I believe that it is necessary to reconsider this issue and to determine our entrance into this sensitive area in light of criteria that determine when called for by our general security needs and the general deployment of our forces in the continent.”

As these historical documents show, the idea that the State of Israel and its citizens are uniquely idealistic, and that before the occupation and aside from Netanyahu and his supporters, always acted out of purely values-based motives, does not correspond with the historical facts. 

Rather, the historical documents reveal that the State of Israel was no better nor worse than many other nations. 

The State of Israel has always acted according to realpolitik, from economic, security, and political considerations, and was always prepared to exploit other countries to further its own interests, even at the price of aiding violations of the human rights of their citizens.  In the case of the Central African Republic, the State of Israel joined France in sharing the spoils, and neither of them showed concern about the suffering of the local population from chronic corruption and violence of the regime. Indeed, they were concerned mainly with furthering their own interests.

The conception, according to which Israel is not a “normal” state that acts from the same motivations as other states, means that Israel and its governments’ policies as well as its citizens’ problems of racism and xenophobia cannot be criticized like other countries.

Since, until now, the State of Israel, has been a central weapons and military training supplier to non-democratic regimes around the world, defending Israel’s immunity from criticism means abandoning citizens of those nations whose rights have been violated with Israeli help.  We saw an example of that in the 1980’s, when Israel and its supporters in the United States argued that the international criticism of Israel for its ongoing arming of the apartheid regime in South Africa, is not fair and stems from anti-Semitism.

If the supporters of this misconception really are concerned about the future of the State of Israel and its moral character, they should take an interest in the historical facts, prevent the silencing of fair criticism of Israel, and be frank about its errors and crimes.  Only in this way, will the State of Israel improve and, possibly, become the state that they imagine.

[1]  NAHAL is a an acronym for “Pioneering, Fighting Youth”.  It refers to a division in the Israel Defense Forces that was created to combine military service with establishing and/or working on agricultural settlements. 

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