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Visiting Israel, Congolese leader faces billboards accusing him of antisemitism

Placards over Jerusalem road used by Felix Tshisekedi’s motorcade call out president over bill his party is promoting aimed at preventing Jewish opponent from running against him

Cars travel under a bridge criticizing Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in Jerusalem on October 26, 2021. (Courtesy of organizers via JTA)
Cars travel under a bridge criticizing Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in Jerusalem on October 26, 2021. (Courtesy of organizers via JTA)

JTA — Protests against Israeli leaders have long been a concern during state visits to Africa by top officials of the Jewish state.

In addition to the solidarity that many Africans feel with the Palestinian cause, Israel has been implicated as an exporter of guns and importer of controversial goods that have been at the center of multiple and deadly conflicts in Africa.

But this week, it’s a major African leader who is facing protests against his policies during a landmark visit to Israel.

Several giant billboards criticizing Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have gone up this week along roads in Jerusalem, where Tshisekedi’s motorcade was expected to travel. His three-day visit was scheduled to end Thursday.

The billboards accuse him of promoting antisemitism. “Felix, Stop the Corrupt Anti-Semitic Discrimination,” they read, without offering any more details.

Tshisekedi’s main political rival is Moise Katumbi, a politician of mixed Jewish-Congolese heritage, and lawmakers loyal to him are trying to disqualify Katumbi because of his background.

President Isaac Herzog (right) meets with Democratic Republic of Congo President Félix Tshisekedi at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, October 27, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)

A bill that they introduced to the Congolese parliament would restrict the presidency to those with two Congo-born parents. If passed, the bill would bar Katumbi from running against Tshisekedi, who has ruled the second-largest and most minerally rich country in Africa since January 2019.

Katumbi, one of Congo’s most popular politicians, was born to a Greek Jew who fled the Holocaust in Europe and settled in Congo, where he married a local woman, Katumbi’s mother. Katumbi does not identify as a Jew.

Tshisekedi’s party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, defended the bill as a move to “safeguard national sovereignty and prevent foreign meddling.”

But his critics have characterized it as a thinly veiled attempt to thwart Katumbi from leveraging his credentials as a governor in a campaign based on an anti-corruption message.

Representatives for Katumbi, who is currently living in Brussels because of legal action against him in Congo, declined to comment to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the billboard campaign in Israel.

The Congolese embassy in Brussels, the African country’s main presence in Europe, also did not immediately reply to requests for comment by JTA on the campaign.

Congolese opposition leader, Moise Katumbi, during a three-day forum at a resort hotel near Johannesburg, South Africa on March 12, 2018. (AP/Themba Hadebe)

And the organizers behind the billboard, who include an Israeli, also declined to speak, other than to say that they believed Israel is making a mistake in building a relationship with Tshisekedi.

Israel’s leadership has strengthened relations with Congo in recent years, even as Tshisekedi’s critics accuse him of being an ideological successor of his predecessor Joseph Kabila, whom many in Congo accuse of stoking ethnic tensions and stealing money. (Kabila stepped down in 2018 without seeking reelection amid huge protests. He also kept Katumbi, a critic and rival, under house arrest briefly.)

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in 2020, Tshisekedi announced he would appoint the country’s first ambassador to Israel in 20 years, and open a commercial interests office in Jerusalem.

This week in Jerusalem, Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with Tshisekedi, communicating in no uncertain terms that the billboards did not reflect the position of the Israeli government.

“The State of Israel,” Herzog told Tshisekedi, “supports unconditionally your firm leadership.”

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