An Israeli in an African parliament? It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. Malawi, a small landlocked country in southeast Africa (population: 17 million), counts exactly two whites in its 193-member parliament. One of them is 50-year-old David Yakov Bisnowaty, a former IDF soldier and the son of a Holocaust survivor.
While here in New York last week for the opening of the UN General Assembly’s 71st session, Bisnowaty, who is married with three children, spoke to The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
Bisnowaty: My father worked as a mechanical engineer for a big multinational company, which sent him to Africa. So I was born in Israel but grew up in Kenya. And when you grow up in Africa, you have a bond with Africa.
Eventually I went back to Israel and served in the Israeli army. But later I returned to Africa and lived in South Africa. Then, in 1993, I found myself on a business strip to Malawi and fell in love with the place. So I decided to move there, and since then I’ve probably been the single largest investor in Malawi. I have a pharmaceutical factory which manufactures generic drugs – it’s the biggest pharmaceutical factory in Malawi – and I also distribute medical equipment to hospitals.
How did you wind up in Malawi’s parliament?
I entered politics in 2014 because I felt something had to be done. What triggered me was nearly running over a young boy with my car. He was licking the road because he had spilled the food he was carrying, and my heart broke. I couldn’t believe poverty was so bad that people had to lick the road just to get a little bit of food. So I told my family, “I’m going to enter politics to help the poor Malawians.”
Everybody said, “You’re crazy. A white man, a Jew, a non-indigenous person, is going to be elected a member of parliament? You’ll never make it.”
But I ran against 11 other contestants and won by an overwhelming majority. I became the first Jewish member of parliament in Malawi for the biggest constituency, which is Lilongwe, the capital of the country. I serve close to a million people.
Are you the only Jew serving in a parliament on the continent of Africa (excluding South Africa)?
According to the information I have, yes.
As a member of Malawi’s parliament, what causes do you try to advance?
I have many projects. We just passed a marriage bill that a young girl cannot marry before the age of 18. That was a big success. I also was able to get running water for 23 villages in my area. The women in these villages used to go to the stream to collect water, which they then brought home on their heads. Now they have tap water next to their homes. So that for me is a big success story.
I’m also advocating for democracy. We have democracy obviously, but Africa got it quite late [so it needs improvement]. I also fight corruption. It’s not easy and it will take time, but that is one of my struggles as well. Finally, I focus heavily on education. I believe that if we educate the people, Malawi will change.
What do people in Malawi think of Jews in general and Israel specifically?
Israel was one of the countries that assisted Malawi from the time it got its independence [in the late 1960s]. It sent doctors and others to help Malawi, so the ties between the two countries have been very strong since then.
Regarding Jews: I don’t see any anti-Semitism in Malawi. People actually love that I’m a Jew. They see me as a businessman who didn’t go into politics because of money but because of ideology, because of love for the country. I think they have more trust in me for that reason; they believe that I’m genuinely coming to help them.
In general, they believe the Jewish people are blessed and are here for a purpose by G-d. People in Malawian villages actually say [about me], “G-d has sent us the Jew from Judah to help us.” And that might be why I ended up in Malawi. If you believe in God – and I do believe in Him – then [surely] I didn’t end up in Malawi for nothing.
Are there any Jews in Malawi besides you and your family?
No, unfortunately we’re the only ones.
If you wanted to observe Judaism in Malawi, are there any resources at all to do so?
We keep a kosher home in Malawi; we get our meat from South Africa. I’m not very religious but I keep the tradition, so this Rosh Hashanah, for example, I will be spending in South Africa where I have a house that is close to a shul.
Why do you have a house there?
It’s for my daughter, who is more frum and teaching in a Jewish school in South Africa. So she uses the house, and then when I come down to South Africa, I use it as well.
What’s the official language of Malawi?
English. They have a local language – Chichewa – but the official language is English.
What’s next for you?
I plan to run for at least another term when this one concludes in 2019. After that, God knows.Elliot Resnick