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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Fifty years of MASHAV activity

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

In 2008 MASHAV (the Hebrew acronym for the Center for International Cooperation) marked 50 years of activity as a division of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since its establishment in 1958 it has provided professional guidance for 230,000 course participants from 140 developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where it has sent thousands of experts to launch projects. This article will deal with its activity in Africa, and will also touch on a question discussed in official circles and by the public: should MASHAV’s activities be mainly altruistic and humanitarian, or should they be made conditional on achieving political, economic, or other objectives? The founders of the State of Israel felt that the vision of renewing Israel’s independence would not be complete without achieving its other mission of being “a light unto nations.”


Africa has a special and unique place in Israel’s foreign relations due to both the background to and motives for these relations, as well as the changes which have occurred in them:

Israel is a donor state in Africa, and was one of the first countries to aid the African nations immediately after they gained independence. This did not necessarily take the form of monetary aid grants but often consisted mainly of manpower training. The long-term impact of this assistance has been especially important.

In its activity in Africa, Israel’s considerations have transcended the political and economic and branched into the ideological and the humanitarian.

The relations between Israel and Africa have undergone many drastic changes, from great friendship to the rupture of diplomatic ties. The fall, when it came, was swift and precipitous, a phenomenon which Israel had not experienced on any other continent.

Three main periods can be distinguished in Israel’s relations with Africa:

1. The “Golden Age” of the 1960s when Israel had diplomatic relations with the overwhelming majority of the independent African nations.

2. The 1970s, chiefly after the Yom Kippur War (1973), when almost all the African countries cut off their diplomatic relations with Israel.

3. The 1980s and 1990s, when Israel returned to Africa.

The “Golden Age” of the 1960s

Israel began its activities in Africa at the end of the 1950s in Ghana, which gained independence in 1957. During the 1960s Israel instituted diplomatic relations with 33 newly independent African nations, with the exception of Mauritania and Somalia – both of which are 100% Muslim and under Arab influence, and which joined the Arab League in 1974.

During the 1960s Israel’s activities in Africa were famous and publicized throughout the world. Hundreds of Israeli experts were sent to Africa to teach and thousands of Africans came to Israel to learn.

What motivated Israel to become active in Africa, what were its objectives and how were they manifested?

Political goals

During this period, an important objective was to break through the Arab embargo by acquiring the understanding of the African nations regarding the Middle East conflict and their political support in international forums. Africa was important because of its large number of states, each of which had a vote in the UN. They formed about one quarter of UN membership and their number was greater than those of the Latin America or Asian states. Today there are 54 African sates, 45 of them sub-Saharan, which do not belong to the Arab League. As part of Israel’s efforts to foil the Arab plan to isolate Israel politically and delegitimize it, it was important to have friendly relations with, and a presence in, dozens of African countries. Those relations gave Israel’s international relations an important additional dimension. In 1980 Ehud Avriel, Israel’s first ambassador to Ghana and one of the architects of Israeli activity in Africa, referred to what David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, had said in the 1950s about Israel’s objectives in Africa. He said that “we have to break the boycott placed on us by the hostile Arab states and build bridges to the nations being liberated on the black continent. We cannot permit the development of a situation similar to the one we had with most of the Asian nations. We were not invited to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in 1955. Our only friend was Burma, but almost all the other countries, were not. We have a lot more to offer the Africans than diplomatic gestures. We are prepared to assist them with social and material development.“[1]

The decision not to invite Israel to the Bandung Conference and the support given by the Conference to “the Arab nation of Palestine” was considered by Israeli leaders a humiliating defeat for Israeli diplomacy. Policy makers realized that they must pay much more attention to third world countries and develop ties with the emerging African countries.

Economic goals

Africa provides the world with a considerable percentage of its coffee, cocoa, wood, diamonds, gold, and other minerals. In some countries, such as Gabon and Nigeria, significant quantities of oil have been discovered. Israel wanted to purchase raw materials, especially diamonds and wood, from Africa and sell industrial goods made in Israel to African countries. Beyond that, the African countries could serve as a broad base for the activities of Israeli companies.

Strategic interests

Israel had strategic interests in the countries of the Horn of Africa such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, which are geographically close to Israel and lie on the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb. Good relations with Ethiopia were important for securing the sea lanes to the Far East and South Africa. The port cities of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania were also important stations on those routes. Flights of Israel’s carrier, El-Al, to Kenya and South Africa depended on the good will of African countries to allow Israel to use their air space. In addition, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda are located in the Arab countries’ “back yard,” and it was important for Israel to have a presence there.

However, all the routine, prosaic interests noted above cannot explain the great enthusiasm of Israel’s leaders to form ties with the African countries and the abundance of good will felt by broad sectors of the population toward Africa, unless another important aspect is taken into consideration: Israel’s ideological-humanitarian sense of identification and solidarity with the fate of the Africans. The Jewish people, who had suffered racial discrimination, humiliation, and persecution, felt a closeness to the African peoples who for many years had suffered racial discrimination and had been humiliated and tortured by the slave trade. Israel, a new and developing country, was ready to share its experience in nation-building with the new countries in Africa, although at the time it itself was beset by severe security and immigrant absorption problems.

It is interesting to note that long before David Ben-Gurion’s noted interest in Africa, Theodore Herzel, the founder of modern political Zionism, wrote inAlteneuland that when the Jewish state had been established he would then devote his time and energy to helping the oppressed of Africa

Golda Meir also dedicated time and effort to fostering relations with African countries, as both Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. She visited Africa a number of times and worked to establish institutions to train young people from developing countries, especially in Africa, such as the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center for Community Development in Haifa. In her autobiography, My Life, she devoted considerable attention to discussing Israeli-African relations, writing that “I am more proud of the international cooperation program and the assistance we give to the nations of Africa than any other project we took on ourselves to carry out.” She also wrote that “what we have done in Africa was not based on purely egoistical interests but rather was the continuation of one of our most important traditions.”[2] However, despite all of Israel’s good will and desire to promote relations with Africa, these could never have succeeded if there had not been reciprocal good will on the African side. Many African leaders received the Israeli initiatives with open arms because they appreciated Israel’s pioneering spirit, its efforts in development, and its ability to overcome the threats to its existence. They were especially interested in Israel’s experiments in agricultural development because their own economies were based on agriculture. At the same time, they were not afraid that a small country like Israel would try to dominate their policies and economies as the colonial powers had in the past.

At the turn of the twentieth century, nationalist African groups active in promoting the reawakening and liberation of the people of Africa regarded Zionism and the national Jewish awakening as an inspiration for a black national revival and the liberation of “Black Africa.” The aspiration of the Jews to return to their land and roots seemed identical to the aspiration of the African Diaspora in the U.S. and the Caribbean to return to Africa, to their roots, and place of origin. They even called their movement “Black Zionism.” One black pro-Zionist thinker was Edward Blyden, who in 1898 wrote a booklet called The Jewish Question in which he stated that Zionism was similar in many ways to what fired the imagination of thousands of blacks in America who wanted to return to the land of their fathers. The history of the Africans, he said, the slavery, persecution, discrimination, and suffering was similar to the history of the Jews. Another black thinker, W.E.B. Du Bois, told the Second Pan-African Congress in 1919 that the pan-African movement was as significant to blacks as the Zionist movement was to the Jews. Many historical parallels can be found between Jews and blacks in the writings of African thinkers.

Later, many of the founding fathers of independent African countries such as Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Ivory Coast), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), William Tubman (Liberia), and Philbert Tsiranana (Madagascar) were influenced by these intellectuals in their sympathetic attitude toward Israel.

Tom Mboya, one of the greatest leaders of independent Kenya, visited Israel in the 1960s. In 1963 he wrote in his book, Freedom and After, that every African who visited Israel could not help but be impressed by the achievements it had made in such a short time, despite its difficult topographical conditions and few natural resources. He added that everyone who returned was enthusiastic and had a great desire to learn from Israel’s experience.[3]

In the 1960s, Tanzania’s leader Julius Nyerere said, regarding cooperation with Israel, that while it was a small country it could contribute a great deal to his country since Tanzania faced similar problems to the Jewish state. The two main issues facing both countries, he said, were (1) to build a nation and (2) change the landscape, both physically and economically.[4]

Above are only a few examples to illustrate that Israel’s success in initiating contacts with Africa was not only due to the initiative of the Israeli leadership. It also resulted from the support for Jews and Israel expressed by African thinkers at the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as by the heads of African countries who led their people to independence and who believed that they could profit from Israel’s experience.

Israeli activity in Africa in the 1960s included the establishment of a vast network of embassies and missions in almost all of the 33 independent African nations of the time. There were reciprocal visits of presidents and public figures. It can be said that between 1957 and 1973 preference was given to Africa over all the diplomatic relations Israel conducted with the third world. In 1960-1961 alone, seven African presidents visited Israel, relations were good, and Israel’s interests in the continent grew.

Early in 1958 Golda Meir, then Foreign Minister, went to Africa for the first time, visiting Liberia, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. During the following five years she made four more visits. In 1962 Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi visited five countries in West Africa and in 1966 Prime Minister Levi Eshkol went to Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Zaire, Uganda, and Liberia. Israeli leaders participated in independence day celebrations in African countries: Golda Meir was at the celebrations in Cameroon and Nigeria in October 1960 and in Zambia in October 1964. The participation of Israel’s political upper echelons was favorably received as a mark of Israel’s interest in the continent. In fact, the bonds of friendship and cooperation created between Israel and the African leaders in the 1960s aided Israel in repelling Arab attacks in the UN and other international forums, including the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Israel’s activity in Africa was a source of annoyance to the Arabs, especially Gamal Abdel Nasser, who publicly stated his determination to get Israel out of Africa.

MASHAV – Activities and Contribution to Israeli-African Relations

In order to strengthen its presence in Africa, Israel used two main methods: on the one hand political and diplomatic strategies, and on the other, MASHAV. MASHAV’s activity was one of the most effective in influencing and even fashioning Israel’s relations with the developing countries, especially in Africa.

The Beginning

One of the fathers of technical cooperation programs was David Hacohen, who went to Burma in 1953 as Israel’s first envoy. Israeli experts were then sent to Burma and the Burmese began visiting Israel for training in various fields. Hacohen’s work became a model for Israeli aid. As early as 1958 suggestions were made in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to establish a body to coordinate aid activities. Elyashiv Ben-Horin, head of the Asia and Africa division, sent a letter proposing the establishment of “a fund to provide technical assistance to Asian and African countries,” noting that “professionally speaking, our…experience can easily compete with [that of] other countries.” He added that “basing [our presence] in the [African] continent by [sending] experts gives Israel commercial and economic advantages and adds to our stature in a sensitive, important part of the world….”[5]

Teddy Kollek, who headed the Prime Minister’s Office, was also active at the time, in promoting aid programs for developing countries.[6] In 1958 Golda Meir, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, established a section for technical cooperation in her Ministry headed by Hanan Aynor, who was responsible for its structure and activities. In 1960 the section became an independent department called the Department for International Assistance and Cooperation, whose name was later changed to the Center for International Cooperation (MASHAV).

Goals: Egoism or Altruism – A Practical Approach vs. a Moral-Humanitarian Approach

From the very outset of MASHAV’s activity questions were asked concerning its motives and goals. Was it first and foremost a tool for political, economic and diplomatic goals, and therefore conditional on the country in question taking political positions with which Israel could be comfortable? Or was it a matter of moral-humanitarian aid came without strings attached? The second position was usually adopted by heads of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. There was also a middle position, according to which MASHAV’s motives and goals had to be both practical and humanitarian.

Ben-Gurion customarily stressed the humanitarian motives behind cooperation with African states and refrained from mentioning practical benefits. In the 1960s he followed Israel’s relations with Africa closely, sent congratulatory telegrams to the heads of newly-independent countries, and encouraged African leaders to visit Israel. During their visits he made sure to meet with them and signed cooperation agreements, for instance during Liberian President Tubman’s visit to Jerusalem in June 1962. Ben-Gurion sent a long telegram to Ghanian President Nkrumah, who invited him to participate in Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations. In this telegram he told Nkrumah that Ghana’s independence was an event of global human importance, a dramatic step forward in human freedom and that it would offer encouragement to the people who had suffered and discrimination in Africa, as the Jews had done until they received independence. He conveyed his happiness at the cooperation between Israel and Ghana. He also expressed his hope that Ghana would serve as an example to the African countries to be liberated and that independence would bring with it development, justice, social equality, and personal pride. He ended the telegram with his hope to attend Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations.[7]7In the end he was unable to do so and Golda Meir went in his stead.

When Uganda received independence, Ben-Gurion sent Minister of Labor Yigal Alon to the festivities as his representative, along with a congratulatory telegram and a gift of 150 scholarships for study in Israel. He noted that the gift was an expression of the sentiments of the Israeli nation, still developing itself, toward a nation which had just won its independence.[8] Golda Meir also stressed the moral aspect of providing aid, although she admitted that it had the side effect of helping Israel both politically and economically.

Moral and altruistic aspects were reiterated by the heads of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs even when their disappointment grew with the positions of the OAU and the African block in the UN over issues involving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several Israeli ambassadors to Africa, members of the Knesset, and the Israeli media demanded that aid be conditioned on a position sympathetic toward Israel. This demand was rejected by policy makers, among them Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who said that foreign aid and the act of giving, had value in their own right, and that they could not be conditioned on the recipients’ position toward Israel.

Even after the African nations terminated diplomatic relations with Israel and MASHAV restricted its activities in Africa, it did not completely end technical cooperation, and continued its operations in some of the countries with which Israel did not have diplomatic relations (see below). This occasionally angered Knesset members, as reflected in Menachem Begin’s speech after the harsh decision against Israel accepted by the OAU Conference in Rabat, 1972. Begin expressed opposition to the attitude that “we should not be offended when we get spit on, but rather call it rain…. If we keep silent, where will it lead?” He demanded that the advisability of Israel’s aid to African countries be examined. “We cannot continue as we have been, a sovereign country must defend its honor.”[9] He was answered by the head of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs that “we aren’t certain that we can use aid as a weapon, but it is clear that when we discuss renewing aid or expanding it, we take the circumstances of our relations with the particular country into consideration.”[10]

Likewise, in deliberations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the African countries supported the Arabs against Israel in the OAU in Rabat and the UN General Assembly, a suggestion was made by some participants that priority should be given to countries where there was a chance of some political profit from Israel’s activities. This suggestion was rejected. When more countries terminated diplomatic relations, discourse became inflamed both in the Israeli public and official circles. It was claimed that MASHAV had failed to achieve its goals and had not prevented Israel from being thrown out of most of the African countries. Foreign Minister Abba Eban stated that:

“the aid provided by MASHAV is not a tool for political activity but should be considered in its human context. We will try to respond positively to every request we receive even if our resources are very modest…. We will be happy if our cooperation leads to the creation of an atmosphere of friendship, because our activities are motivated by considerations of human brotherhood.[11]”

Golda Meir held a similar position which reflected the “moral approach” to the question of foreign aid. MASHAV’s annual reports stressed the fact that “Israel does not link its cooperation with MASHAV to making political capital and does not expect anything in return.” The goals of “giving,” realizing the vision of being “a light unto nations,” and helping one’s fellow man are reiterated to this day.[12]

The Practical Approach

However, there was also a school of thought which stressed the practical political, public, diplomatic, and economic aspects of MASHAV’s activities. Elyashiv Ben-Horin, head of the Asia and Africa division and one of the initiators of the aid program for developing countries in the 1960s, said that by means of foreign aid Israel could strengthen its position with the U.S. and motivate it to help Israel in financing MASHAV. He wrote to the Israeli ambassador in Washington that the African leaders felt that “Israel presented the only alternative to danger of a rush to following the Soviet example,” and that courses and “training in Israel are an important contribution to obviating the danger of looking for Marxist solutions.”[13] Strong opinions were voiced more than once in the Knesset, including by Menahem Begin, who was then in opposition, stating that aid to African countries had to be conditional on political positions favorable to Israel. The same opinions were voiced by several Israeli ambassadors to Africa and by the Israeli media.

The Middle Position

The middle position incorporates aspects of both sides. It combines the humanitarian aspect with the addendum of political and economic advantage.

This approach was conspicuous in remarks made by the representative of the Ministry for Foreign affairs at a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee when he said that “there is, of course, a mixture of altruistic motivation and Israel’s egoistical interests. But the altruistic element cannot be ignored: Israel does not operate only in countries where it has a particularly important interest but also where our help is needed and without a doubt, we receive satisfaction from the pleasure of doing good.”[14] Hanan Aynor, who served in several African countries, while he occasionally mentioned humanitarian-moral motives, also mentioned the practical value.[15] In a lecture given at the Africa-Israel Friendship Association, after African countries terminated their diplomatic relations with Israel and the question of the practical value of MASHAV’s activities became more urgent, Aynor said:

“Let’s be honest. MASHAV was not completely altruistic. Countries and the relations between them are never altruistic. As a country we were politically isolated and we needed friends. The Arab noose was around our throats and we loosened it with our friendship with the Africans.[16]”

In the experience of this author, MASHAV’s activities in Africa were important as political and diplomatic tools, and had a central place in the embassies’ activities. In particular, during the period when the African countries cut off their diplomatic relations with Israel, this author was “Israel Interest Officer” in Kenya. MASHAV’s activities were almost the only way to continue the political and economic ties with the Kenyan administration.

However, without doubt the activities in Africa also had humanitarian-moral motives. One prominent example was the aid given to tiny Rwanda, which received its independence from Belgium on 1 July 1962. Belgium, which was probably the worst and cruelest colonial power in Africa, left behind a poor, divided country with no infrastructure, doctors, nurses, or other professionals. Belgian policy had also worsened the hatred between the Tutsi minority (18% of the population) and the Hutu majority, resulting in the massacre of the Tutsis in 1994. Immediately after Rwanda received independence, Israel responded to its urgent request for medical assistance, and in this case the considerations were primarily humanitarian, because poor, far-off, tiny Rwanda was economically and strategically unimportant to Israel. At the time, in 1963, this author served in the embassy in Uganda, which also dealt with Rwanda. He accompanied Professor Yitzhak Michaelson, director of the department of ophthalmology at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, during a survey of ophthalmologic conditions in Rwanda. The result of this visit was that Israel sent an ophthalmologist to Rwanda, the only one in the country at the time. Professor Michaelson also selected Rwandan nurses to be sent to Israel for further training.

In summing up MASHAV’s activities, it can be said unequivocally that their considerations were mixed. It is true that these activities did not prevent the African nations from cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel but, as will be seen MASHAV activities were not for naught and were indeed one of the factors aiding Israel’s to return to Africa.

Africa as a Goal for MASHAV Activity

MASHAV’s Principles

Over the years MASHAV established a number of general principles to guide its activities:

  • Not to concentrate on specific countries, regardless of how important they may be, but to operate in every country which appeals to Israel for aid.
  • To examine whether the country really needs the aid and if Israel has a reasonable capability of providing it.
  • To concentrate on areas in which Israel has acquired experience and knowledge, such as agriculture, the development of water sources, and medicine.
  • Not to condition aid on political considerations but to expect recipient countries to appreciate the aid, be more understanding of Israel’s situation, and to promote friendly relations.
  • To avoid large, showcase projects but rather to start with small and medium-sized ones which can be expanded at a later date.
  • To act according to the motto “To serve, to teach, to leave.” Once the local inhabitants would be able to continue the project themselves the Israeli experts would leave.
  • To train instructors who would in turn be able to teach others.
  • To suit the courses and expert activities to local needs and conditions and not to follow blindly the Israeli model: “To adapt, not adopt.”
  • To cooperate with government and public factors in Israel in order to enlist experts and organize courses. At the same time to cooperate with donor countries and international institutions, including UN agencies.

MASHAV Affiliates and Study Centers

In its African and global activities MASHAV collaborated with a significant number of Israeli institutions and organizations in addition to the centers it established. It also collaborated with other donor nations and with international organizations, of which the most important are discussed in the following paragraphs.

The Afro-Asian Institute for Labor and Cooperative Studies, established in 1958 by the Histadrut – the General Federation of Workers in Israel. Its objective was to train Africans and Asians in economics, trade unionism, cooperative studies, and the developmental problems of emerging nations. By 1971 the Afro-Asian Institute had held 62 courses in Israel and 24 on-the-spot courses in which 3,700 participants from 87 countries took part, the majority from Africa. By 1988, the 30th anniversary of the Histadrut’s instructional activity, a total of 15,000 students had studied in the Institute.[17]

At first the courses were given in English and French, and later in Spanish and Arabic as well. During the 1990s the name of the institute was changed to the Histadrut’s International Institute, because of the large role the Histadrut had played in founding and directing it.

The Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center is of particular importance to MASHAV. Encouraged by Golda Meir, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, following her visits to Africa, the Center was established in 1961 to train women from developing countries, promote their involvement in community services, and increase their contribution to the development of their countries. The overwhelming majority of course participants were women. Courses were given in community development, pre-school education, gardening, nutrition, adult education, home industries, the organization and management of profitable businesses, and the organizing of cooperatives. The courses lasted from three to six months.  During its first 30 years more than 10,000 participants from 147 countries attended the Center’s courses, both in Israel and abroad. Today, courses are given in Israel and abroad in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

The Center cooperates with national institutions and women’s organizations around the world, including the UN. Its activities have included the establishment of a school for social work in Machakos, 64 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. This was the first school of its kind in East Africa and hundreds of local women have attend its courses. Since the 1970s the school has been under local direction and deals with improving family conditions, especially in the villages. To this day the local inhabitants identify the school with Israel.

The Center also supported the establishment of the Kenyan women’s umbrella organization “Maendeleo ya Wanawake,” Swahili for Women’s Advancement. The Center trained a Kenyan activist who became, upon her return home, the organization’s director.

Similar projects were initiated in other developing countries. Upon Uganda receiving independence in 1962, one of the Center’s instructors was sent to train local secretaries to replace the British secretaries in government offices. The Center continued its cooperation with Africa even when diplomatic relations were cut off, and once Israel returned to Africa its activities were among MASHAV’s most important. There are thousands of Center graduates in many developing countries, and some of them have important positions in the government.

Another example of MASHAV’s international connections was the 24th International Conference at the Carmel Center held in September 2005. The main topic on the agenda was women and migration in the twenty-first century, as part of the UN migrant program. One of the participants was the UN Secretary General’s special assistant for women’s advancement. More than 50 female leaders from 40 countries attended, among them dozens of government ministers and representatives of international organizations. The conference’s recommendations were issued as “The Haifa Declaration.” Similar international conferences on development subjects are organized biannually by the Carmel Center.

In her autobiographical book, My Life, Golda Meir wrote that the Carmel Center had “a very special place” in her heart, not only because she had been one of the founders, but because of her admiration for the women who left their homes and traveled great distances to study so that they could contribute to their countries. She visited the Center occasionally to attend graduation ceremonies, and to dance and sing with the students. Elsewhere in the book she mentioned the school for social work founded in Machakos, Kenya, by the Carmel Center, which she visited, saying that it was “one of the high points” of her African tour in 1963.[18]

The Aharon Ofri International Training Center was founded in 1989 at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, near Jerusalem, as a MASHAV extension in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Its aim is to train school directors, inspectors, and decision-makers in the fields of scientific and technological education. The Center also holds courses for the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse among youth.

The CINATCO Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture is MASHAV’s main professional and operational institution concerned with international agricultural rural development cooperation. In 2007, 672 people from all over the world participated in its courses in Israel, as well as 2,800 who participated in on-the-spot courses.

Among the other main institutions MASHAV cooperates with are The Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development; The Society for Transfer of Technology; The Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University; The medical schools at the universities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa; The Vulcani Center for agricultural research at Beit Dagan; and the Yitzhak Michaelson Ophthalmology Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which began its cooperation with MASHAV in the 1960s.

Another example of MASHAV’s success in Africa in the 1960s was Zambia. Zambia is a country with fertile soil and good water sources. Immediately after it received independence from the British in 1964 its inhabitants began streaming from the villages to the city, causing widespread unemployment. President Kaunda wanted to return Zambians to the land and to develop cooperative farms. In 1966 he asked Israel to send experts who could conduct a survey and prepare a regional plan for settling the Copperbelt – the copper mining area of Zambia. The Israelis remained in Zambia until 1969, formed a group of settlers, and trained instructors to help run the agricultural settlement.

A second team was sent in 1969 and remained until 1970, during which time it founded two settlements, one at Kafulafuta and the other at Kafubu, each including several villages with about 500 family units. The settlers built chicken coops and raised corn and vegetables, while a regional center supplied them with general services. The third Israeli team arrived in 1970 and directed agricultural production and marketing, and also dealt with matters of education, health, and culture. The project made it possible for the farmers in the region to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and was supposed to serve as an example for other projects in the country. The work also had political implications within Zambia. When the President visited the project in 1971 he declared that it was an achievement that every country would be proud of, and that Zambia was close to finding the solution it had been searching for since its independence.[19]

The agricultural project was a showcase for the government’s agrarian policies and a source of pride which it displayed to foreign visitors. When Zambia cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, Israel brought home the eight-man team of experts running the project. However, following this there were occasional calls for them to return in the Zambian Parliament and media: a 1976 headline in one of the popular newspapers read “Bring Back the Israeli Experts,” and an article on a discussion in Parliament quoted one of the representatives as saying that they wanted the Israelis to come back because “ten of them” had done more than the thousands of foreign advisors currently at work in Zambia.[20] In 1991, when Frederick Chiluba won the presidential elections, he immediately reinstated diplomatic relations with Israel. When this author presented his credentials as ambassador, Chiluba said that one of the factors motivating him to reinstate relations was his desire to renew MASHAV’s activities.

MASHAV’s activities in the field of ophthalmology are another success story. In cooperation with Professor Michaelson’s department at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, eye clinics were established in countries such as Liberia, Kenya, and Swaziland. “Eye camps” have been held in many African countries where Israeli doctors treat hundreds of locals for vision problems and African doctors undergo advanced training so that they can man their own clinics after the Israeli experts leave. Until relations were terminated in 1973, 34 ophthalmologists were sent to Africa and remained for an average of two years each. Professor Michaelson estimated that a million patients were treated in the clinics and that 30,000 operations were performed. During the same period Israeli physicians conducted sixty studies on African eye diseases. Activity in the field of ophthalmology is ongoing today.

Courses and Experts until the Rupture of Relations.

During MASHAV’s first year of operations, 1958-9, 137 course participants came to Israel: 52% from Asia and 43% from Africa. Eighty Israeli experts were sent abroad, including 13 sent by the Department of Technical Aid of the Prime Minister’s Office. Most of the aid went to Burma and Ghana: Twenty five experts were sent to Burma and twenty to Ghana. A further three went to Liberia, two to Nigeria, one to Ethiopia and the rest to Asia and Latin America.

In 1963 the number of course participants had risen to 1263, from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. On-the-spot courses were held in ten countries and attended by 393 trainees. Between 1958 and 1971, 4341 experts served MASHAV, 2763 of whom were sent to Africa. Globally there were 15,258 course participants, 6,797 of them from Africa. Most of the courses were given in various agricultural subjects.[21]

MASHAV’s Activity after the Rupture of Diplomatic Relations

The decade from 1957 until the Six Day War in 1967 was the “golden era” in Israeli-African relations. Yet in the early 1970s, in what was to Israel unexpected and severely disappointing, African countries began to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel. This process peaked in 1973 with the Yom Kippur war. Thirty African countries – all except for Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland – terminated their relations with Israel for reasons that cannot be elaborated on here, the most salient of which, however, was the intensive anti-Israeli activity of the Arab countries and the OAU’s hostile attitude toward Israel.

However, even at that time Israel had extensive practical, unofficial contacts with some of the important African countries, because there were no bilateral conflicts between Israel and any African state. During this period, Israel maintained “interest officers,” under the auspices of foreign embassies, in Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire and continued to develop diverse economic relations. In general, Israel suspended MASHAV’s activities in the countries which had terminated diplomatic relations and recalled its experts. MASHAV continued its activities in countries which did not sever their diplomatic relations or continued their practical relations with Israel. In August 1979, for example, Israel signed an agreement with the president’s office of Kenya to send two experts to the National Youth Service in order to help develop the movement’s farms. When it came to training Africans, Israel’s position was flexible, and people from countries which had terminated relations were also accepted, although their numbers dwindled to a considerable extent after 1973.

MASHAV after Israel’s Return to Africa

Since the early1980s, Israel has managed gradually to restore its relations with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. At present (2009), Israel has diplomatic relations with 40 countries in Africa. It is not the place here to elaborate on the reasons for the restoration of relations. However, it should be mentioned that one of the main reasons was the favorable vestiges of the MASHAV programs and assistance from the1960s. African countries that had become disillusioned with Arab financial aid wished to resume their cooperation with Israel and reinstate its assistance through MASHAV.

The termination of diplomatic relations by the overwhelming majority of African countries spurred Israel’s policy makers to take a good long look at the situation of Israeli-African relations and also to draw conclusions in regard to MASHAV’s activities. As a result, significant changes were made:

  • A drastic reduction in the number of experts sent to Africa.
  • Concentration on manpower training activities both in Israel and Africa.
  • Greater integration into the development programs of donor countries and of international organizations, including those of the UN and its agencies.
  • To pay more attention to integrating MASHAV’s activities into and achieving economic and political output.
  • An increase in humanitarian assistance in emergency situations.

Regarding the experts, after Israel returned to Africa, the number of Israelis sent on long-term missions gradually decreased, and in 2007 only 4 Israelis were working in three African countries in such frameworks. The number of short-term missions decreased to 24 missions in ten countries, as opposed to the hundreds sent out in the 1960s.

The numbers involved in manpower training increased and the training itself was made more diverse. In 2007, for example, 2,465 trainees from105 countries participated in 119 courses in Israel, out of them 505 from Africa. In the same year 4,765 trainees participated in on-the-spot courses in 29 countries, out of them 668 from seven African countries.[22]  The courses are more suited to social and technological developments than in the past: they deal with computerization, new technologies and energy preservation, new methods for treating trauma, medical management in emergency situations and natural disasters, preventing drug abuse among youth, and supporting the settlement of demobilized soldiers in countries such as Angola, Eritrea, and Mozambique.[23]

One of MASHAV’s main goals after the return to Africa was for Israel to become an international training center for fields in which Israel had acquired experience, while at the same time cooperating with donor countries and international organizations who would share the costs. Indeed this intention has been realized. Particular attention has been given to eradication of poverty by teaching agricultural development in arid zones and improving food production. In the realm of social development, the courses deal with ways and methods to advance the status of women. In medicine, aid has been given to fight diseases prevalent in Africa such as AIDS, malaria, TB, and various ophthalmic diseases. Special efforts have been dedicated to making the courses compatible with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. For example, in 2005 the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine celebrated the 50th anniversary of its international medical training program, in which doctors from around the world spend three months working in Israeli hospitals. Since the program was instituted, more than one thousand doctors from 95 countries have participated.[24]

Nahal (Hebrew acronym for Pioneering Fighting Youth) is an organization for 18-20 year-olds which combines pre-military service with agricultural pioneering and social welfare services. Gadna (the Hebrew acronym for Youth Groups) organizes programs of after-school activities and vocational training mainly for urban youth. In the 1960s both Israel and the developing African countries believed that these types of youth movements would instill in the young generation a sense of social responsibility and play a vital role in national development. Dozens of Israelis worked within the frameworks of these movements in about twenty African countries. Israel’s activity in this field was gradually suspended after the return to Africa. Although tens of thousands of African youth participated in the programs and received elementary and professional education, in some countries the youth movements became tools in the hands of the regimes to suppress opponents, and Israel was criticized in international circles. In the end, the results did not meet expectations and nor did they justify the efforts. The idea of instilling the youth of the emerging African countries with the spirit of volunteering to help develop their countries did not succeed.

Cooperation with International Institutions

By the 1960s MASHAV was cooperating with donor countries and international organizations which participated in funding courses and in-service training programs, a trend which gained momentum after Israel’s return to Africa. Israel signed cooperation agreements with UN agencies such as UNICEF, WHO, UNCTAD, UNESCO, and FAO, and with donor countries such as the U.S., Holland, Germany, and Denmark, to mention only a few. The cooperation agreement with USAID was particularly important. In the 1980s USAID supplied about $5 million annually for various projects. In 2004 MASHAV signed an agreement with USAID for a program to impart knowledge in the fields of agriculture, irrigation, and technology to Ethiopia at a cost of $1.2 million, of which Israel provided $180,000. Another agreement was signed to establish a Hadassah medical project in Ethiopia to fight AIDS, including courses in Israel for Ethiopian trainees. In 2005 an agreement was signed with HABITAT, the UN Human Settlements Program, for cooperation in instruction in building and ecology. In 1997 Israel began cooperation with Denmark for instruction and agricultural research which included Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

Joint Research

MASHAV has also carried out joint research programs with Germany and Holland on social, economic, and cultural development. The German-Israeli Agricultural Research Programs (GIARA) began in 1986 and ended in 1999. In 1997, 11 studies were carried out, two of them in Africa. The Netherlands-Israel Research Program (NIRA) began in 1992, and in 1997 35 joint studies were carried out with NIRA, 25 in Africa and the rest elsewhere, including two in the Palestinian Authority. In 2003, 19 studies were carried out, nine of them in Africa.

Humanitarian Assistance

After Israel returned to Africa, MASHAV’s humanitarian assistance activities increased, both in Africa and globally. MASHAV established a unit to coordinate humanitarian assistance with Magen David Adom, the IDF, and Israeli volunteer organizations. For example, in 1994 humanitarian aid costing millions of dollars was given to Rwanda following the slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus, which led to the deaths of more than half a million people. The IDF organized an airlift for food and medicine to Rwanda and a field hospital was set up and run for several months by Israeli doctors and nurses. In 1998, after Al-Qa’ida blew up the American embassy in Nairobi, the IDF sent an emergency rescue unit to Kenya. Dozens of people were killed in the blast and 5,000 were wounded. In 2005, following the tsunami which hit parts of Thailand and Indonesia, MASHAV organized emergency aid in cooperation with the IDF, Magen David Adom, and Israeli volunteer organizations, including food, medicines, ambulances, and medical teams (this was done despite the fact that Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Indonesia).

Medicines and other forms of emergency aid have been given to many countries struck by drought, floods, epidemics, and other natural catastrophes, as well as by terrorist attacks. In 2005 alone MASHAV provided emergency aid to the Central African Republic, Kenya, Senegal, and Eritrea, and to a number of countries in Asia and Latin America. After diplomatic relations were instituted with Angola, in May 1992, and broad economic relations developed, Israel provided considerable humanitarian aid to that country. Between 1996 and 1999 a number of Israeli volunteers were sent as part of a UNICEF program to raise the awareness of the local population concerning the dangers of land mines. During the Angolan civil war millions of anti-personnel mines were sown in various locations and wounded tens of thousands of civilians, most of them children. In 1996 Israel donated $70,000 to the program, and received thanks from both Angola and the UN for its activities. Angola received other forms of aid from Israel. In 1996 a medical delegation was sent by MASHAV to help fight malaria. In 1998 emergency aid was sent for refugees and an “eye camp” was set up, staffed by Israeli doctors.

In 2007 MASHAV sent two ophthalmologists to a refugee camp in northwest Kenya in which there were tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur, Somalia, and other countries, where they performed dozens of operations. In short, Israel has given aid to almost to all African nations requesting it, whether it is a question of natural or man-made problems.


In summary, with Israel’s return to Africa, MASHAV drew lessons from the results of its activities in the past, both positive and negative. Indeed, not all of MASHAV’s projects in the 1960s and early 1970s were successful. There were also mistakes in planning, great enthusiasm to start projects without sufficiently examining the local physical conditions, and misunderstanding of the African mindset and behavioral codes. However, mistakes were also made by the Africans, and on occasion, after the Israelis finished their work and left, the project collapsed. Many of the factors in the collapse of African-Israeli relations were also considered. Today MASHAV’s activities are far more careful, controlled, and selective, and its programs are based more on practical considerations, economic output, and political rewards. MASHAV makes sure to integrate into international projects. Some of the areas of its activities have been reduced or canceled, either because there was no need for them, or because they were dealt with by other aid organizations. As mentioned, Israel no longer continues Nahal and Gadna activities in Africa, and officially Israelis are not directly involved in military issues.

The Africans also apparently learned from their experience and are more aware of Israel’s limitations, especially its financial limitations, and their expectations are more realistic. Thus, whatever their limitations, MASHAV’s activities in the 1960s were not in vain.

As to whether MASHAV’s motives today are egotistical or altruistic, even those who still continue to stress the moral aspect admit that “side effects” of MASHAV aid are political and economic gains. Furthermore, through MASHAV activity, Israel earns a worldwide reputation as a country that assists developing nations in many vital spheres. A genuine, correct summary of the subject was given in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs survey, which determined that

“although Israel does not link cooperation with MASHAV to political achievements and does not expect anything in return, in actual fact MASHAV’s activities serve as an important tool for the Israeli embassies in their bilateral relations. MASHAV’s activities contribute to promoting Israel’s image as a country with something to give and that there is a desire to receive aid from it.[25]”

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[1]  Ehud Avriel, “Some Minute Circumstances,” Jerusalem Quarterly (Winter 1980): 28.

[2]  Golda Meir, My Life (Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London, 1975), 265.

[3]  Tom Mboya, Freedom and After (London: Andre Deutsch, 1963), 173-174.

[4] Quoted in Bernard Reich, “Israeli Policy in Africa,” Middle East Journal 18/1 (1964):14-26.

[5] Ben-Horin to Director-General of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 3 February 1958, Israel State Archives( ISA) 5364/8 [Hebrew]  All translations are by Elizabeth Yuval.

[6]  Kollek to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion no date [February 1958?], Ibid [Hebrew].

[7] Ben-Gurion to Nkrumah, 11 January 1957 in Thirty Years of Israel’s International Technical Assistance & Cooperation, Hanan Aynor and Shimon Avimor, eds (Haigud Society for Transfer of Technology: Jerusalem, 1990), 21.

[8] Haaretz, 10 October 1962 [Hebrew].

[9]  Begin in the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset, 16 June 1972, ISA 5309/15 [Hebrew].

[10] Ibid.

[11]  Eban’s circular to Israel’s embassies, 26 September 1973, ISA 6737/25 [Hebrew].

[12] MASHAV Report 1998 in Thirty Years of Israel’s International Technical Assistance & Cooperation, 75.

[13] Ben-Horin to Israel’s Embassy in Washington, 3 November 1958, in Thirty Years of Israel’s International Technical Assistance & Cooperation, 121.

[14]  ISA, 16 June 1972, 6737\25 [Hebrew].

[15]  Aynor to Embassy of Israel Washington, 26 February 1970, ISA 4559/10 [Hebrew].

[16]  Israel-Africa Friendly Assosiation’s Bulletin, 5 March 1978.

[17]  Shimeon Amir, Israel‘s Development Cooperation with Africa, Asia, and Latin-America (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), 46-48.

[18].  Meir, My Life, 277.

[19]  Zambia Farmer, 18 August 1971.

[20]  Times of Zambia, 6 May 1976.

[21]  Amir, Israel‘s Development Cooperation, 94, 97, 98.

[22]. MASHAV Annual report, 2007.

[23]. MASHAV Courses in Israel, 2000-2007

[24] Ministry for Foreign Affairs Archives, “A Summary of MASHAV’s Activity in Medicine,” 20 April 1999, File103.55 [Hebrew].

[25]  Amir, Thirty Years of Israel’s International Cooperation, 76.

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DR. ARYE ODED joined the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 1958 and served in several countries including Uganda and Malawi and as ambassador to Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius, Swaziland, Lesotho and the Seychelles. He was Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Asian and African Studies and is currently senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published many articles on Islam, the Middle East, Africa and Israeli-African relations and books on Kenya, Uganda, Islam in Africa and Judaism in Africa.