Liberia Reminds Me of Israel

African Nation Shares Similar Back Story of Freedom

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Published August 07, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Perverse as it sounds, during the eight days I spent in Liberia on a study trip with American Jewish World Service a few weeks ago, I thought a lot about Israel. And not just because of the seismic role that Liberia played in Jewish history when, in May 1948, it cast the tie-breaking vote in the United Nations General Assembly that created the Jewish state.

courtesy of ajws

Today, Israel and Liberia are worlds apart economically and demographically. Liberia has 3.9 million people, $1.2 billion gross domestic product, 52% literacy and an infant mortality rate of 74.5 per 1,000 births. Israel has double the population, a GDP of $243 billion, 97% literacy and an infant mortality rate of 3.5 per 1,000 births. Yet I kept noticing parallels, good and bad, illuminating and cautionary.

First of all, the founders of both countries shared the experience of bondage or fled discrimination and oppression. Israel’s long backstory is familiar — slavery in Egypt, exile, persecution, attempted annihilation — culminating in waves of Jewish immigration from all over the globe. Less well known is the fact that the Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847, also by formerly subjugated expatriates — freed black slaves who sailed to West Africa from the United States in search of self-determination and safety.

Neither land was empty of people when these pioneers arrived. The territory that became Liberia already had an indigenous African population, tribes whose rights and roles were denied or circumscribed by the former slaves who quickly imposed and consolidated their power. And in the place now called Israel but once known as Palestine, described by some Jews as “a land without a people for a people without a land,” it happens there were also indigenous people.

The founding documents of Liberia and Israel, though written 101 years apart, also have much in common. Each country’s Declaration of Independence recapitulates the sorrowful conditions endured by its people prior to the establishment of its sovereign state. Both texts explicitly mention the exit of their old rulers. Liberia’s, dated July 16, 1847, notes that “the American Colonization Society has virtually withdrawn from all direct and active part in the administration of the government.” The Israeli Declaration, signed on May 14, 1948, cites “the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel.”

Both nations likewise proclaim their commitment to American-style equality and democracy. Liberia’s Declaration, borrowing the language of Thomas Jefferson, recognizes “certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the right to acquire, possess, enjoy, and defend property.”

Liberia’s constitution, modeled on America’s, denied suffrage to its indigenous people by requiring voters to own property, a clause that remained in effect until 1985. Today, Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, make up less than 5% of the population but dominate the political and financial elites, having replicated the exclusionary power dynamics that their forbears purposefully left behind.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.