Zambian Presidential Candidate Sees Country's Fate Tied to Israel

After Saviour Chishimba, a candidate in Zambia's 2011 presidential elections, debarked from the plane after arriving in Tel Aviv airport last month, the devout Christian took out his cross and his Jewish prayer shawl. "When the security people saw me coming from the plane, they asked me to step aside and interrogated me," the 35-year-old politician told Anglo File, a big smile on his bearded face. "They asked me to explain that conflict: you're putting on this cross and also have the talit in your hands. Then I told them that for me, I am a Jew. I am a Jew back home, we observe every Jewish festival."

The Christian majority in Zambia is quickly "reconnecting" with the faith's Jewish roots, according to Chishimba, who this summer relinquished his seat in parliament to concentrate on his presidential campaign. "Jewish culture and tradition is a growing trend in Zambia," he said during an interview last week in Jerusalem. "So I told the security guys: I'm with you. I explained to them I am a grafted Jew."

Part of Chishimba's platform - which seems permeated by an intense love for Jews and Israel - includes teaching Hebrew and legislating two new national holidays: one to remember the victims of genocide and xenophobia and one dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. The logo of the new party he founded is an Israeli flag with three doves and a sun inside the blue Star of David. But while Chishimba is convinced he will win the 2010 elections, people with an intimate knowledge of African politics told Anglo File his chances seem minute.

Chishimba, who completed his second visit to Israel yesterday, is not Zambia's first staunchly pro-Israel politician. Former President Frederick Chiluba - who eight years ago restored diplomatic relations between the two countries after they had been cut in 1973 - said this summer that "Israel is a blessed nation and this is why we should be closer to it so the blessings that God pours out on Israel will be spilling to us."

Chiluba endorses Chishimba's opponent, current Zambian president Rupiah Banda, in the current campaign. Chishimba claims that Banda "is not standing with Israel, not at all," pointing to Zambia's endorsement of the Goldstone report. "Instead of Israel, Banda has decided to align himself with Iran and Libya... and when the missiles hailed down on Israel [leading to Operation Cast Lead], he came out with a statement condemning Israel."

Zambia does not have an embassy in Israel. According to diplomatic sources bilateral relations are not very close but stable.

"The history of our nations goes back to 1900, when a couple of Jewish people immigrated to Zambia," Chishimba said. "In 1921, there were 10 Jews in the country. By the year 1950, we had about 1,200 Jews in the country.... When we fought for independence, Jews fought side by side with Zambians," he added. Once independence was achieved in 1964, Israel assisted the young state, building its biggest university and the only hospital where medical doctors are trained, he explained. "Unfortunately our country under the leadership of President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda became anti-Israel in 1973 and severed relations; Jewish properties were confiscated and all contracts [between Jews and Zambians] were terminated. I consider that the worst kind of an atrocity."

Chishimba seems to believe in some kind of magic connection between his country's diplomatic ties to Israel and its well being. "After what happened in 1973, our economy just crumbled and has never fully recovered," he said. "It was not until 1991, until the new president [Chiluba] renewed the relationship with Israel, that we saw our economy begin to improve." Indeed, Zambia's GDP has steadily grown since the 1990's, and oil and gas reserves were discovered there in 2006.

In contrast, every anti-Israel move of the current government is immediately followed by a Divine punishment, asserts Chishimba. "To me this is kind of a mystery: When Zambia voted for the Goldstone report - it must have been a Friday, I think - the very next day, Saturday, there was a crisis in the country, there was no fuel," Chishimba said. "People began to demonstrate, they were criticizing the president and calling for ministers to resign. It was complete chaos in the country."