Kenya, Jews, and Zionism—through the Eyes of the Late Kenyan President’s Jewish Personal Physician

March 5, 2020 | David Silverstein
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Last month, the former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi—who governed his country from 1978 to 2002—died in Nairobi. Among the many speakers at the funeral was an American Jew named David Silverstein, who was Moi’s personal physician for over four decades. Kenya and Zionism have a long history: the so-called “Uganda plan,” presented to Theodor Herzl by the British colonial secretary in 1903, would have created a Jewish homeland in what is now Kenya; since Israel’s creation, Kenya has had better relations with the Jewish state than have most African countries, and Moi visited it several times. Interviewed by Geoffrey Clarfield, Silverstein elaborates:

The first Jews [in Kenya] were largely of East European origin, some of whom came through South Africa. Most became businessmen and middlemen of various sorts, like hoteliers, but some were also ranchers and farmers, and there were a few doctors and lawyers. Although they were never fully accepted by the British and were excluded from their private golf and social clubs until 1954, they married among each other, worked hard, abided by the law, fought for the British in two world wars, and built three synagogues. They also fought very hard to help bring to Kenya 1,000 German Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis during the late 1930s.

Kenya had good relations with Israel until the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when Nairobi severed ties with Jerusalem in the hope of getting cheaper oil.

Moi managed to restore official diplomatic relations with the state of Israel before the Oslo Accords and before Israel established embassies once again in the non-Arab League Muslim [countries]. Moi was particularly wary of the money, the radical preachers, and the mosques that the Libyans and Iranians were pouring into Kenya. He feared that would give a reason for local Muslims to engage in acts of terror. He was right.

In 1998, local members of al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassy in downtown Nairobi, killing 213 people, with an estimated 4,000 wounded. Moi called in the Israelis, who brought in search and rescue teams and a portable field hospital to help the victims.

I find that most Kenyans are more pro-Israel than the average European. Even many among the various Kenyan Muslim communities are sympathetic to Israel in a way that cannot be imagined anywhere else. Many Kenyan Muslims have gone to Israel for agricultural training.

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