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Behind the Headlines Unofficial ‘good Will’ Ambassadors from Black Africa in Israel

Unofficial “good will ambassadors” from Black African states have been visiting Israel for a unique learning experience every year since 1975, despite the cut-off of diplomatic relations by these states in 1973.

Although the presence here of these visitors is not directly related to Zaire’s recent resumption of diplomatic ties with Israel nor with Premier Menachem Begin’s pending trip to that country, the program in which the Africans are enrolled has been indirectly beneficial to the improvement of Israel-Black Africa relations.

Under the auspices of the Israel Interfaith Committee and the African Committee for an Ecumenical African Biblical Institute in Jerusalem, summer seminars in Israel have been held for seven years for African clerics and religious leaders and students. These participants return to their homelands to become teachers, clerics and leaders in Christian institutions, and they bring with them an affinity for the people and culture of Israel.

In addition to the 15 men and six women from Zaire, Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Madagascar, Togo, lle-Maurice, Senegal, and Rwanda who are attending the seminar this summer, a total of 116 students have attended in previous years.

The participants tour the country and also attend classes at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, studying such subjects as history, geography and archaeology at the Holy Land, Jewish prayer, Jewish-Christian relations, Jewish roots of Christianity, and Hebrew.

SEES ISRAEL IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT

Louis Fohssie of Cameroon, who is studying to be a Catholic priest, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he came to the seminar in Israel because he wanted to see the places where Bible history occurred.

“When a young student is going to become a priest, it is important to make concrete the relation between what you study in theology and what Israel is today,” he said. “Now that I have seen Israel, I have a different view of what I read in the Bible and what I interpret at the university.” The participants are affiliated with both Catholic and Protestant institutions, and seminar classes this summer are taught in French.

Observed during their third Hebrew lesson, taught by Mordechai Nahlieli, the students were not only learning the rudiments of Hebrew, but were also obviously enjoying the experience. Using the method he devised for his Tutor Tape (Israel) business, Nahlieli teaches beginning Hebrew pronunciation with Latin consonants and Hebrew vowels.

The African students had already mastered this form of pronunciation and were practicing simple dialogues and the conjugation of verbs. Encouraging their efforts, Nahlieli told them in French that he should shower them with candy, but instead offered them “bonbons spirituals.”

A sabra, born in Safed in 1916, Nahlieli was in the British and Israeli armies. He then worked in the Finance Ministry for six years after 1948, translating Israeli tax books from English to Hebrew. Trained and ordained as a rabbi in 1948, he established Tutor Tape in Israel five years ago. In addition to teaching Hebrew and teaching other languages to Hebrew-speaking Israelis, he strongly advocates that Israelis should learn Arabic.

One night a week, Nahlieli travels to Kiryat Arba, the Jewish suburb of Hebron, where he teaches Arabic to Orthodox Jewish housewives. Just as he believes that some knowledge of Hebrew will promote better understanding of Israel by the African students at the summer seminars, he is convinced that familiarity with Arabic will help the residents of Kiryat Arba to better live among their Arab neighbors. In both instances, his ultimate goal is the same: peace.

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