Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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3 Elul 5765 - September 7, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Delegates to African Jewish Congress Discuss Jewish Life

by D. Saks, South Africa

Delegates from seven Sub-Saharan African countries gathered in Johannesburg at the end of August to attend the 11th annual meeting of the African Jewish Congress.

Representatives from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, as well as the hosts, South Africa, took part in the deliberations, reporting on developments in their respective countries. Reports on behalf of Mauritius, Mozambique and Madagascar were given by AJC Spiritual Leader Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, while AJC President Mervyn Smith reported briefly on behalf of Zambia.

The ongoing political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe was one of the main items of discussion. Peter Sternberg, President of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, said that Zimbabwe's aged Jewish community now numbered only about 300 and was destined to decline still further. Somehow, the community is still able to maintain its main communal organizations, including three shuls and the Jewish aged home, Savyon Lodge, in Bulawayo. Since daily services in Bulawayo took place at Savyon Lodge, it was possible to obtain a daily minyan, but in Harare, the capital, daily services had fallen away as fuel shortages made it impossible for enough men to get to shul.

Much discussion took place on whether the South African Jewish community should openly condemn human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Many delegates were strongly of the opinion that Jews had a moral duty to do so, although Sternberg expressed scepticism as to the efficacy of such statements.

Also discussed was Mugabe's statement earlier this year on SATV that Zimbabwe's economic decline was in part due to the Jews leaving. Sternberg said that his Board had decided not to register any protest against this since this would not have achieved anything and in any case hardly anyone in Zimbabwe had heard of the broadcast. So far as the future went, Sternberg said that despite the stalking famine and deep anti-Mugabe feeling in the cities, he did not anticipate any violent popular uprising. The attitude of the population was one of cowed resignation, epitomized by the attitude: "Without food we will die. Tell us where we must lie down and die."

In contrast to the gloomy reports from Zimbabwe, both Richard Lyons (Botswana) and Harold Pukewitz (Namibia) spoke positively about their respective countries, emphasizing that their government and judiciary was established on a sound democratic basis.

The main focus of the reports by the various delegates was how their small Jewish communities are coping in the face of diminishing numbers and geographical isolation and the role of the AJC in facilitating the maintenance of Jewish life in those localities. Most of the African Jewish communities represented are continuing to shrink. Namibia now has only ten Jewish families, down from a high of 120 in the 1960s, and only about fifty Jews remain in Zambia, whose Jewish population at around 1200 in the immediate post-war era. However, while scaled down, organized Jewish life continues in both countries, with assistance from the African Jewish Congress and Lubavitch emissaries.

The once active community of Maputo (Mozambique) is now reduced to about a score of individuals. The city's synagogue, which was opened by Chief Rabbi Landau from Johannesburg in 1926, was formally returned to the tiny Jewish community in 1989 after years of being used as a warehouse. However, it is seldom used and is today seriously in need of renovation.

Two communities bucking the trend are Botswana and Mauritius, which have shown modest growth from almost no Jews at all ten years ago to a few score today. Earlier this year, Mauritian Jewry celebrated the opening of the first shul and Jewish communal center on the island.

The third-largest Sub-Saharan African Jewish community after South Africa and Zimbabwe is Kenya's, a community described by its President Dr. Vera Somen as "a small community with a very big heart." About 180 Jews today live in Kenya, mainly in the capital Nairobi. Only a minority of these are permanent residents, the majority being Israelis temporarily based in the country. The centenary of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was celebrated in style in 2004.

Antisemitism rarely, if ever, surfaces in the AJC countries and even attitudes towards Israel were reported as being generally fairly positive. In part, this is due to the fact that a number of their citizens have received training in agriculture, hydrology and other essential skills as part of Israel's outreach and upliftment programs on behalf of developing nations. Active Israel Friendship organizations today exist in both Mauritius and Madagascar.


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