The Jews of Nairobi and the Religious Roots of Kenya-Israel Relations

September 12, 2022 | Robert Carle
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In 1905, the Seventh Zionist Congress fiercely debated—and eventually rejected—an offer by the British government to create a Jewish homeland in its East Africa colony. Although this offer is remembered by posterity as the Uganda plan, the territory in question was in fact located in what is now Kenya. Jews had by that time already come to Nairobi, today the Kenyan capital, to do business, and in 1912 they established the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. In recent years, Kenyan converts to Judaism have helped to revive the community, which now numbers about 600. Robert Carle writes:

For most Kenyans, Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity leads to a more direct engagement with Jews and Judaism. Israel’s new ambassador to Kenya, Michael Lotem, sees religious ties as central to the success of Israeli-Kenyan relations. “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel,” he said. “Israel is the holy land, and they feel close to Israelis.” One of Ambassador Lotem’s goals is to increase religious exchanges between Israel and Kenya.

Kenyans’ religious engagement with Judaism often leads to political support for the state of Israel. President Daniel arap Moi established diplomatic relations with the state in 1988, and every Kenyan president since has maintained friendly bilateral relationships with Israel. Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, visited Israel in February 2016, and in July 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Kenya to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Operation Entebbe. In 1976, the Israeli Defense Forces, with the support of the Kenyan government, rescued 102 hostages who were being held captive in Entebbe, Uganda. Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, died in the Entebbe raid.

Moi’s tribe, the Kalenjin, have dietary rules and rites of passage that mirror some of the laws in the Hebrew Bible. The Kalenjin, for example, don’t mix meat and milk. At times, Moi speculated that the Kalenjin might be one of the lost tribes of Israel.

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