It’s not every day that the leader of a brand-new country makes his maiden foreign voyage to Jerusalem, capital of the most besieged country in the world, but Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, accompanied by his foreign and defense ministers, did just that in late December. Israel’s President Shimon Peres hailed his visit as a “moving and historic moment.” The visit spurred talk of South Sudan locating its embassy in Jerusalem, making it the only government anywhere in the world to do so.
This unusual development results from an unusual story.
Today’s Sudan took shape in the nineteenth century when the Ottoman Empire controlled its northern regions and tried to conquer the southern ones. The British, ruling out of Cairo, established the outlines of the modern state in 1898 and for the next fifty years ruled separately the Muslim north and Christian-animist south. In 1948, however, succumbing to northern pressure, the British merged the two administrations in Khartoum under northern control, making Muslims dominant in Sudan and Arabic its official language.
Accordingly, independence in 1956 brought civil war, as southerners battled to fend off Muslim hegemony. Fortunately for them, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s “periphery strategy” translated into Israeli support for non-Arabs in the Middle East, including the southern Sudanese. The government of Israel served through the first Sudanese civil war, lasting until 1972, as their primary source of moral backing, diplomatic help, and armaments.
Mr. Kiir acknowledged this contribution in Jerusalem, noting that “Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan.” In reply, Mr. Peres recalled his presence in the early 1960s in Paris, when then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and he initiated Israel’s first-ever link with southern Sudanese leaders.
Sudan’s civil war continued intermittently from 1956 until 2005. Over time, Muslim northerners became increasingly vicious toward their southern co-nationals, culminating in the 1980-90s with massacres, chattel slavery, and genocide. Given Africa’s many tragedies, such problems might not have made an impression on compassion-weary Westerners except for an extraordinary effort led by two modern-day American abolitionists.