Sudanese Jewish History
At its most populous, the Jewish community in Sudan numbered no more than 1,000 individuals, far fewer than the 260,000 Moroccan Jews or 135,000 Algerian Jews who lived in Africa at the same time. The Jewish community in Sudan dissolved after the country gained independence and joined the Arab league in 1956, with about 500 individuals making aliyah to Israel and the rest dispersing around the world.
Relations With Israel
Sudan and Israel have a complicated history. Haim Koren noted, “Prior to gaining independence in 1956, British-ruled Sudan had good relations with the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine and later with the State of Israel.”
The Sudanese opposition, the Umma party, feared that Sudanese nationalists allied with Nasser would try to prevent Sudan from becoming independent and support unification with Egypt. According to Yossi Melman, “Umma’s representatives, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi – who, 30 years later would become Sudan’s prime minister – met secretly in London with Israeli diplomats, among them Mordechai Gazit, then the first secretary of the London embassy. The Sudanese emissaries sought the diplomatic and, if possible, economic assistance of Israel, a sworn enemy of Egypt.”
Sudan did become independent in January 1956 and the Mossad was assigned to continue secret interactions with the Sudanese. After a coup, Sudan became hostile and sided with the pan-Arab policy of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sudan declared war on Israel during the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967, and although Sudanese forces did not participate in active combat during the conflict they supported Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon in their fight against Israel. After the war, the Arab League held a summit in Khartoum where the participants declared there would be no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. Though still hostile, the Sudanese government expressed support a decade later for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
When he was elected in 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin was determined to rescue the Ethiopian Jews who had fled Ethiopia and were living in refugee camps in Sudan. In 1981, agents were sent to mount a covert operation – Operation Brothers – in which the Mossad established a Red Sea diving resort as a cover for smuggling Ethiopian Jews out of the country. After information about the mission leaked in 1984, U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush arranged to rescue the agents, shipping them out of Sudan in large boxes labeled “U.S. Diplomatic Mail.”
Jews remained in the squalid refugee camps so, in 1984, Israel paid $30 million – donated by the American Joint Distribution Committee – to bribe Sudanese President General Jaafar al-Numeiri and his head of security, Omar Abu Taib, to allow the Mossad to arrange the rescue of the remaining Jews in what became known as Operation Moses.
Sudan became increasingly radical, as Islamists seized power in 1989 under the leadership of General Omar al-Bashir. Sudan subsequently allowed al-Qaeda to operate from its borders and supported Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, the country was mired in internal conflict which erupted into a civil war that was not settled until South Sudan gained independence in July 2011. The following day, the State of Israel officially recognized South Sudan and three days later Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with South Sudan President Salva Kiir and said that Israel would happy to help the fledgling country in “any way.”
Less than two weeks after their declaration of independence, South Sudan and Israel formalized their diplomatic relations. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced the establishment of ties between the two countries, issuing a statement saying “the cooperation between the two countries will be based on solid foundations, relations of equality and mutual respect.” A parallel announcement was made in Juba, South Sudan’s new capital, where President Kiir met with Jacques Revach, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Africa division, and Dan Shacham, Israel’s nonresident ambassador to a number of African countries.
In August 2011, President Kiir announced that he would maintain South Sudan’s relations with Israel despite pressure from Arab countries. That same month, Danny Danon, a Likud Party Knesset member, visited South Sudan and expressed hope for the future of trade between the nations. “Israel’s technological wealth and South Sudan’s wealth of natural resources are a sure recipe for prosperity in both states,” Danon said.
Israeli President Peres with South Sudanese President Kiir (Dec 2011)
In December 2011, President Kiir made his first official visit to Israel during a whirlwind 24-hour trip in which he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Lieberman.
“I am very moved to come to Israel and to walk on the soil of the promised land,” President Kiir said. “As a nation that rose from dust, and as the few who fought the many, you have established a flourishing country that offers a future and economic prosperity to its children, I have come to see your success.”
“This is a moving and historic moment for me and for the State of Israel,” President Peres noted. “Israel’s link with Sudan began when Prime Minister Levy Eshkol and I, as Deputy Defense Minister, met in the 1960’s, in Paris, with local leaders from southern Sudan. We provided them with extensive assistance in agriculture and infrastructures. Israel has supported, and will continue to support, your country in all areas in order to strengthen and develop it. We know that you courageously and wisely struggled against all odds to establish your country and for us, the birth of South Sudan is a milestone in the history of the Middle East and in advancing the values of equality, freedom and striving for peace and good neighborly relations.”
Netanyahu announced that an Israeli delegation would go to South Sudan in the beginning of 2012 to investigate how to assist the South Sudanese in developing their new country.
Meanwhile, the north remained hostile and did not allow Israeli citizens to travel there. Sudan continued to support terrorist groups and ally with Iran. Koren said that on October 2012, “Israeli fighter jets attacked a weapons factory near Khartoum that belonged to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—a factory that produced long-range Shihab missiles and other weapons to be smuggled into Gaza and Lebanon.” Speaking about the attack, President Omar Bashir referred to Israel as the “Zionist enemy that will remain the enemy.”
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for his role in the mass murder of civilians in Darfur. Some Sudanese refugees fleeing the country made their way to Israel.
As Sudan moved away from Iran and joined the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states, the idea of normalization of relations with Israel was broached in January 2016 by Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandor in the context of an end to U.S. sanctions that had been imposed because of Sudan’s involvement in terror attacks against the United States. This was the first time that any Sudanese official voiced the idea of improving ties to Israel. At one point, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen reportedly met with his Sudanese counterpart General Salah Goshfor to discuss improving relations ties, but no change in relations occurred.
In 2019, a research center opened in Bern, Switzerland, staffed by scientists in a variety of fields, including oceanography, biology, genetics, ecology and geology, from all the countries bordering the Red Sea. The center studies the effects of climate change, agriculture, urbanization, illegal fishing and industrial waste on Red Sea corals. Sudan, joined Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan in this unprecedented cooperative endeavor with Israel.
A coup in 2019, brought an end to Islamist rule and what is supposed to be an interim government headed by two army generals – President Abdel Fatah Burhan and his deputy Muhammad Hamdan Deklo. They both favored normalizing ties with Israel to get off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror; however, the country’s prime minister, Abdullah Hamduk feared doing so would enrage the public. Despite the internal divisions, Burhan met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in February 2020, which opened the door to the breakthrough that occurred in October.
On October 23, 2020, a joint statement by President Donald Trump, Sudanese Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel and to end the state of belligerence between their nations. In addition, the leaders agreed to begin economic and trade relations, with an initial focus on agriculture. The leaders also agreed that delegations will meet to negotiate agreements of cooperation in a variety of other areas.
Sudan was under pressure from the United States to normalize relations with Israel as part of a deal to be taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror. Sudan also was forced to pay $335 million for compensation to U.S. victims of the terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
In an initial act of friendship following the agreement, Israel announced it will send $5 million worth of wheat to Sudan. The country consumes two million tons of wheat annually and relies heavily on imports. For its part, Sudan agreed to allow Israeli planes to over fly over its airspace which will shorten flights to Latin America.
On January 6, 2021, Sudan officially joined the Abraham Accords previously signed by the UAE and Bahrain. The agreement was signed in Khartoum with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin representing the United States.
Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen visited Sudan on January 25, 2021, becoming the first Israeli minister to visit the country following the establishment of relations. He led a delegation from his ministry and from the National Security Council that held talks with senior Sudanese officials, including Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the ruling sovereign council, and Defense Minister Yassin Ibrahim with whom Cohen signed a memorandum of understanding on security-related issues.
In April 2021, Sudan’s Cabinet votedto repeal a 1958 law that forbade diplomatic and business relations with Israel.
Sources: “South Sudan Leader Makes First Visit to Israel,” Yahoo News, (December 20, 2011).
“President Peres and PM Netanyahu Meet with South Sudan President Kiir,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (December 20, 2011).
“Government Vows to Establish Embassy in Jerusalem and Not Tel Aviv,” Sudan Tribune, (August 29, 2011).
“The World Factbook: South Sudan,” CIA, (November 10, 2011).
“Sudan’s Bashir: We Will Never Normalize Relations With Israel,” Haaretz, (November 10, 2012).
Sue Surkes, “Sudan said willing to consider normalizing ties with Israel,” Haaretz, (January 21, 2016).
Zafrir Rinat, “Israeli Scientists Join Colleagues From Sudan, Saudi Arabia to Save Red Sea Corals,” Haaretz, (June 6, 2019).
“South Sudan,” Wikipedia.
Gabriele Steinhauser and Nicholas Bariyo, “Israel-Sudan Deal: What Does the Pact Mean, and Why Now?” Wall Street Journal, (October 23, 2020).
Yossi Melman, “Bribes, Bombs and Saudi Billionaires: The Secret History of Israel’s Explosive Relations With Sudan,” Haaretz, (October 24, 2020).
“After agreeing to normalize ties, Israel to send $5 million of wheat to Sudan,” Al Arabiya, (October 26, 2020).
Haim Koren, “Sudan and Israel: An Era of Change,” BESA, (October 26, 2020).
Ehud Yaari, “The Sudan Agreement: Implications Of Another Arab-Israel Milestone,” Washington Institute, (October 26, 2020).
“At ceremony in Khartoum, Sudan officially signs on to Abraham Accords,” JNS, (January 6, 2021).
“First Israeli minister makes Sudan visit after normalization,” Times of Israel, (January 26, 2021).
“Sudanese Cabinet votes to repeal Israel boycott law,” Reuters, (April 5, 2021).
Photo of Presidents Peres and Kiir courtesy of the Israeli GPO.