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.
Starting in the mid-1990s, John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International redeemed tens of thousands of slaves in Sudan while Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group led a “Sudan Campaign” in the United States that brought together a wide coalition of organizations. As all Americans abhor slavery, the abolitionists formed a unique alliance of Left and Right, including Barney Frank and Sam Brownback, the Congressional Black Caucus and Pat Robertson, black pastors and white Evangelicals. In contrast, Louis Farrakhan was exposed and embarrassed by his attempts to deny slavery’s existence in Sudan.
The abolitionist effort culminated in 2005 when the George W. Bush administration pressured Khartoum in 2005 to sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war and gave southerners a chance to vote for independence. They enthusiastically did so in January 2011, when 98 percent voted for secession from Sudan, leading to the formation of the Republic of South Sudan six months later, an event hailed by Mr. Peres as “a milestone in the history of the Middle East.”.
Israel’s long-term investment has paid off. South Sudan fits into a renewed periphery strategy that includes Cyprus, Kurds, Berbers, and, perhaps one day, a post-Islamist Iran. South Sudan offers access to natural resources, especially oil. Its role in Nile River water negotiations offers leverage vis-à-vis Egypt. Beyond practical benefits, the new republic represents an inspiring example of a non-Muslim population resisting Islamic imperialism through its integrity, persistence, and dedication. In this sense, the birth of South Sudan echoes that of Israel.
If Kiir’s Jerusalem visit is truly to mark a milestone, South Sudan must travel the long path from dirt-poor, international protectorate with feeble institutions to modernity and genuine independence. This path requires the leadership not to exploit the new state’s resources nor dream of creating a “New Sudan” by conquering Khartoum, but to lay the foundations for successful statehood.
For the Israelis and other Westerners, this means both helping with agriculture, health, and education and urging Juba to stay focused on defense and development while avoiding wars of choice. A successful South Sudan could eventually become a regional power and a stalwart ally not just of Israel but of the West.
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