Israeli Travelers Trek Sudan in Search of Dialogue, Jewish Past
The Jewish community of Sudan once was a melting pot of Jews from all over the Middle East, bringing traders from around the region, including Iraq and Egypt.
(Dubai) Two intrepid Israeli travelers are leading the charge to revive the Sudanese-Israeli relationship by being among the first to visit the country since the Abraham Accords heralded normalization of relations between the two countries. During their visit, they also paid tribute to past Jewish life in Sudan.
Avi Goldstein, 28, and Benny Wexler, 33, traveled to Sudan in October, just days after the normalization announcement, eager to explore the new and intriguing destination.
Goldstein has traveled to some 91 countries including Iraq, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, long before the recent Abraham Accords began to break down the stigma of Israel in the region. The young man who publicly sports sidelocks and a skullcap, wants to enter a dialogue with those who do not have the opportunity to meet Jews in their own communities.
It doesn’t matter what passport you have in your pocket, it doesn’t matter to who you pray, your gender, your color, your size your age, your body – nothing matters. We’re all humans and we could all be friends
Some say it was a dangerous trip to undertake, since there were still no diplomatic relations between the two nations at the time of the trip, but Goldstein says he has never met such warm and welcoming people.
“Before I went to Sudan I was really scared, but I thought how careful I would be and took precautions, preparing from the second I landed until the second I left,” he told The Media Line. Goldstein arranged for a driver and security guard to accompany him on the trip, and expected to not leave the hotel in the evenings. In spite of his trepidation, he soon realized he did not need to conceal his Israeli identity.
“We went to parties, concerts,” Goldstein said, adding that when he left, his new friends “all took me to the airport, and they were literally crying and hugging me saying ‘please don’t go, we had such a good time.’ It was honestly one of the best trips of my life.” Goldstein added that he wished he had been able to spend more than one week in Sudan.
In addition to getting involved in the day-to-day life of the Sudanese, the two young Israelis explored the Jewish past of Sudan. The visited a local Jewish cemetery and prayed at the graves of the Jewish dead, and helped to clean up the area, which has been treated like a garbage dump.
It is no surprise that there was concern from loved ones.
The website of the National Security Council of Israel still calls travel to Sudan a “very high concrete threat” to Israelis, and states: “Given the hostility of the Sudani regime and population toward Israel, and given the ongoing potential danger posed by terrorism, there is a tangible threat to the safety of Israeli citizens visiting/staying in Sudan.”
On Monday, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen reportedly visited Sudan with a delegation of officials from the Intelligence Ministry and the National Security Council. Cohen and Sudan’s Defense Minister Yassin Ibrahim Yassin signed a memorandum of understanding on issues involving diplomacy, security and economics, according to Cohen’s office.
From walking around the local markets, to going out to more remote villages where the two young Israeli men were welcomed into people’s homes, they became a welcome spectacle in the country. “Everybody was staring – many people didn’t even know what the skullcap was, but whoever knew what it was like ‘wow, welcome,’ and I even met somebody on the street who told me, ‘come look at my phone’ to show me that he has a Hebrew keyboard because he’s studying Hebrew online,” Goldstein said.
Wexler, Goldstein’s travel partner, admits he has received little support for his choice of alternative travel destinations. His family and friends have never understood his hunger to travel to places deemed hostile to the Jewish state. He calls Sudan “intriguing.”
“I will not forget that even when I returned from Dubai five years ago everyone thought I was tired of life, that I’m crazy. And my family asked me to leave a will,” he said.
But the two men have a mission: creating dialogue, with young and old. Goldstein says there is much mistrust and misconceptions on both sides, and the only way to bridge that and see the peace accords realized is with human interaction.
“This is really a way of people connecting,” Goldstein said, adding that anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, what he calls “blind hate,” can be overcome through education and personal connection.
“I have a message I want to spread. And my message is very simple. It doesn’t matter what passport you have in your pocket, it doesn’t matter to who you pray, your gender, your color, your size your age, your body – nothing matters. We’re all humans and we could all be friends,” he said.
Deemed a terrorist country until its removal from the US state-sponsored terrorism list in December, Sudan has little to offer tourists with its poor infrastructure and lack of global brands to lure travelers after years of boycotts. But when it comes to business, it could be different. “There are secret gems in Sudan, like an area similar to Sinai. For potential business between the two, I think there is more hope,” Goldstein said. “Sudan has good fields for rice, coffee, cows.”
Much of the foundational work for the relationship between Israel and Sudan has been done behind the scenes via Israel-Arabic social media channels, a branch of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that uses digital diplomacy to engage with countries around the region. Begun in 2011, the numbers of people engaging on the platforms have grown to now hundreds of thousands in Sudan alone. Messages of support from Israel to the Sudanese people in the wake of devastating floods, have helped develop relations with average citizens curious about the Jewish state.
“The number of followers from Sudan has increased significantly since the announcement of the normalization of relations between Israel and Sudan,” Yonatan Gonen, head of Arabic-language New Media at the MFA, told The Media Line. The reactions of the Sudanese on the ministry’s pages, which aim to cultivate dialogue in a language accessible to all, have also become more positive since then, he said.
Daisy Abboudi, creator of the Tales of Jewish Sudan website, has been chronicling the community’s past in recent years, and now it could not be more pertinent. The Jewish community of Sudan once was a melting pot of Jewish people from all over the Middle East, bringing traders from around the region, including Iraq and Egypt.
Blending the cultures of the Middle East and Africa, Sudan became a vibrant cultural center for its small community of approximately 250 families, which was mostly active between 1900 and 1970. None of the families are still there, and there are few remnants of the community, such as a Jewish cemetery which in recent years had become a garbage dump, but is now undergoing renovation with help from Jews in the Diaspora.
Abboudi – who shares her findings publicly on her website – says that poor conditions for the Jewish community reached a peak in 1967 at the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Israel and its three neighboring Arab states, which included Sudan’s closest ally, Egypt. Shortly after Israel’s victory, the Arab League met in Khartoum, and a surge in anti-Semitism ensued after newspapers called for the torture and even murder of Jews. Several Jews in Sudan were imprisoned and tortured, triggering an urgent escape for those still in the country.
It is believed that the last Jews finally left Sudan in 1973, when the synagogue was sold off and later demolished, and almost all traces of Jewish life were erased. Abboudi says that, in 1977, the remains of about 17 Jews buried in Sudan were airlifted to Jerusalem for reburial, and though many graves remain today, just 14 still have headstones.
Though it may be far from a tourist destination, signs show that there is a renewed push to both revive the memories of Sudan’s Jewish past, and to connect its people with those in Israel in the future.
“Many of the followers we have from Sudan are interested in using Israeli technology, including in the fields of agriculture, water and energy, while many others express a desire to visit Israel and support the normalization agreement, which they say will bear fruit for both parties,” said Gonen.