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Out of Africa: Zimbabwean Jewry Faces Extinction

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Political turmoil in neighboring Zimbabwe is threatening southern Africa’s second-largest Jewish community with extinction.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of sub-Saharan Africa, has rapidly become a basket case in recent years, as the regime of President Robert Mugabe has resorted to ever more extreme measures to remain in power. Political repression is rampant, the economy is in tatters and hunger is widespread.

The Jewish community, once a thriving presence in Zimbabwe, is under threat as the country’s political crisis hits closer to home. The republic had a Jewish population estimated at 8,000 in the 1960s; thanks to mass emigration during Mugabe’s reign, only about 650 remain. While still relatively better off than the majority of the population, the Jewish community is likewise struggling to maintain itself and faces a bleak and uncertain future.

The past five years in Zimbabwe have seen the forcible seizure of white-owned farmland for redistribution to government loyalists, regular beatings and arrests of opposition supporters and, most recently, the imprisonment of parliamentary opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. In the process, the tentative democratic fabric that originally underpinned the legal and political culture of the country has been all but destroyed.

Zimbabwe, previously a food exporter, now faces mass starvation. Even those with money are affected by shortages, particularly of gasoline, milk and bread, and by the hyperinflation that is playing havoc with the local currency. Five years ago, for example, a loaf of bread cost 70 cents in local currency; today, the going rate is around 700 Zimbabwe dollars — 1,000 times higher.

According to Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, who pays regular pastoral visits to Zimbabwe in his capacity as spiritual leader to the African Jewish Congress, even among the wealthy, bread and milk are now regarded as luxuries. To illustrate this, he observed that when people went to friends’ houses for meals, they would take as a gift a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk rather than the usual bottle of wine or box of chocolates.

The surreal impact of the currency collapse was neatly summed up by former Zimbabwean Joey Hasson in the South African Jewish Report in June: “Going to the supermarket is quite unreal. Where one used to go with money in your wallet and groceries in your trolley, now your money is in the trolley and the groceries in your wallet.”

In addition to enduring the general hardships and uncertainties of living in a society in crisis, Zimbabwe Jews are also exposed to periodic bouts of overtly antisemitic propaganda as the embattled regime seeks to identify scapegoats for the country’s economic ills. In September 2001, for example, Mugabe declared in a public address: “Jews in South Africa, working in cahoots with their colleagues here, want our textile and clothing factories to close down. They want Zimbabwe… to remain with warehouses to create business for South African firms.”

Later that year, the Bulawayo Chronicle, a pro-government daily, published a 3000-word “exposé” that accused “prominent members of the Jewish community” of being behind the closure of most industrial companies in Bulawayo — the nation’s second-largest city — with the aim of crippling the Zimbabwean economy and forcing the government out. While focusing mainly on the alleged dealings of one particular Jewish family, the article clearly intimated that “the racketeers” were part of a wider Jewish conspiracy.

In general, while anti-Jewish conspiracy theories surface occasionally, Great Britain, the much-hated colonial power that seized control of the country in the 1890s, is a more frequent target of such vitriol. However, even here Jews are sometimes brought into the equation. Another pro-government paper wrote that Cecil John Rhodes, the financial magnate responsible for the colonization of Zimbabwe — then called Rhodesia — had not been a Briton of Anglo-Saxon extraction but a Jew whose surname was derived from the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. The writer added, “Like other Jews in Israel, America, South Africa and even Zimbabwe itself, Rhodes also became a shameless oppressor in his search for wealth and absolute power.”

Leaders of the community, fearful that their phones are tapped, are reluctant to discuss the situation openly.

Despite the escalating problems, the Jewish community — focused in Harare (345 Jews) and Bulawayo (225) — has thus far been able to keep most of its institutions running. There are two synagogues in Harare and one in Bulawayo, all of them Orthodox, which maintain daily services. One of the two Harare synagogues is Sephardic, the legacy of a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Rhodes that took place during the 1930s, which supplemented the then-predominantly Ashkenazic community. Communal and welfare bodies such as the Board of Deputies, Central African Zionist Organization and Union of Jewish Women continue to function. The community has also defied the odds by keeping Jewish day schools open in both Harare and Bulawayo for the few dozen remaining Jewish children, some from mixed-marriage homes. Although Jewish pupils are by now a small minority at both schools, kashrut is maintained, Hebrew is compulsory and all the Jewish holidays are observed.

But while the community continues to function, its future looks bleak. The average age is over 70, with only four weddings having taken place in the last decade. Peter Sternberg, president of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, acknowledged that while many within the dwindling community were preparing to leave, selling their homes and businesses, others were sitting tight in the hope that things would improve — particularly the elderly, who would lose their pension funds if they left.

After visiting Zimbabwe in late 2002, Leon Reich, vice chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, bluntly described the remnant of Zimbabwe Jewry as a community in denial. “It used to be paradise there, and they’re hanging on to what was,” he said. “They can’t get their minds ’round to leaving that paradise and are not facing up to the fact that it’s not going to be any better next year, or the year after that.”

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