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.
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 Liberia’s, dated July 16, 1847, notes that “the American Colonization Society has virtually withdrawn from all direct and active part in the administration of the government.”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.