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Final chapter under way for Jews of Zimbabwe

Hylton Solomon remains a patriotic Zimbabwean, despite his experience of being jailed for “over-pricing” spaghetti in his Bulawayo grocery store. He also remains committed to helping keep Bulawayo’s 114-year-old Jewish community going, although today it is less than one-20th the size it was at its height.

Solomon is an exception. Most Zimbabwean Jews have left now, with barely 300 souls remaining from an estimated high of 7 500 in the mid-1960s. Once, there was a substantial Jewish presence not just in Harare and Bulawayo, but also in smaller rural towns such as KweKwe, Gwelo and Kadoma. None is to be found now outside the two main urban centres. One of the remaining duties of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies is to maintain the Jewish cemeteries in those far-off areas.

The median age of the community is over 70. That, as much as anything, explains why its members are still there. Until recently, Zimbabwe was home to the world’s oldest living Jew, Leizer Abrahamson. He passed away last year shortly after his 108th birthday, having lived more than three-quarters of his life in Bulawayo.

The situation in which Zimbabwe’s remaining Jews find themselves is reflective of the general economic and political meltdown of Zimbabwean society. For some, it means buying a kosher chicken for the Rosh Hashanah festival and then paying it off over the next six months. For others, it is about attending a “Jewish day school”, where fewer than 2% of the pupils are Jewish. It is a country where most remaining Jews still wish to continue living, but where they ask journalists who quote them not to do so by name. Once wealthy community members now queue up to receive rolls of toilet paper, tins of jam and other basic necessities donated by Jewish organisations in South Africa and elsewhere.

Of course, even at its height Zimbabwe Jewry numbered no more than 8 000 souls, a fraction of the country’s population. Still, by Diaspora standards it was a significant community, and its members were prominently represented in all echelons of the country’s political, civic and economic life. Even today, its remaining members cling with remarkable tenacity to those communal institutions that remain: two synagogues in Harare and one in Bulawayo, a Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, a Jewish old-age home in Bulawayo and even its “Jewish” day school.

In 2003, the remaining members of Bulawayo’s Jewish community were shocked to learn that their synagogue had been destroyed in a freak blaze. For a community already reduced to a fraction of what it had been at its height and facing further decline, it was a cruel blow. The Japanese have a proverb for such perversely compounded misfortune: “When crying, stung by bee in the face.” Somehow, it all seemed symbolic of everything else that was going on.

And always, when contemplating the Zimbabwe catastrophe, there is that nagging question at the back of my mind: Is this to be our destiny as well? And if so, where will my children be able to go? Accusations of unwarranted Afro-pessimism may have some substance, but they will not make those fears go away.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.