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’s locating its embassy in Jerusalem, which would make 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 19th 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 50 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, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s “periphery strategy” translated into support for non-Arabs in the Middle East, including the southern Sudanese. Through the first Sudanese civil war, which lasted until 1972, the Israeli government served as the south’s primary source of moral backing, diplomatic help, and armaments.
President 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, Peres recalled his presence in the early 1960s in Paris, when the then–prime minister and he established Israel’s first-ever link with southern Sudanese leaders.
Sectarian fighting in Sudan continued intermittently until 2005. Over time, Muslim northerners became increasingly vicious toward their southern co-nationals, culminating in the 1980s and ’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 to sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which 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 Israel’s Peres as “a milestone in the history of the Middle East.”