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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.

11 Comments

  1. Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos 8 September 2008

    “…being jailed for “over-pricing” spaghetti in his Bulawayo grocery store…”
    Poor man, being jailed for sticking price tags on food products…Eish! Such a Coconut Republic.

    Hmmm!
    Mad Bob still acts like a man carrying a hammer ready to knock anything looking like a nail. Ag shame! Mad Bob, it’s so tough to be aging, it’s definitely maddening.

  2. Geri Geri 9 September 2008

    Then leave.

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that you’ve written an entire blog about the crisis in Zimbabwe… and how it negatively affects jewish people (FTW) !!!

  3. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 September 2008

    I don’t know if you realise that proportionate to their share of the population, there were more Jews in “the struggle” than any other population group.

    The prosecutor at the Rivonia trial was so upset at this that they “turned” one of the Jews to use as a witness, because Percy wanted to prove that Jews were not unpatriotic. Luckily he got bail and escaped the country.

  4. Belle Belle 9 September 2008

    Leizer Abrahamson lived to 108!!!! Remarkable!

    Now that he has died Zimbabwe’s Life Expectancy rates will probably halve to around 18 years.

  5. kan-wil-sal kan-wil-sal 9 September 2008

    Mr. Saks, Where to go is blatantly obvious. Your people have created a Volkstaat with great difficulty and made it strong and powerful. If you have never heard of it, it is called Israel. It is those nations without a state that should be asking those questions.

  6. Chuma Chuma 9 September 2008

    Lyndall you could go on to point that the Freedom enjoyed in South Africa is for all its worth surprisingly regarded by staunch rightwingers as a Jewish conspiracy. That the Communist party and the present day ANC to an extent are regarded by the rightwingers as Jewish creations.

    It is the tragedy of Zimbabwe, the loss of diversity, skills,talent and the attendant disruption of family and community life. The contribution of Jewish industrialists will always invoke mixed reactions but it is a contribution that cannot be ignored. What about their involvement in sports administration from amateur to the biggest sporting institution and symbol in Bulawayo, the oldest soccer club founded in 1926 by Lobengula’s grandsons the community owned Highlanders Football club.

    As a Friend of the National Gallery in Bulawayo and a past regular at the no more Bulawayo Music Festival their contribution and support for the arts is also missed. The contribution of the Jewish industrialists in Bulawayo, from retail to manufacturing will invoke always a mixed reaction but is a contribution that created many jobs for our people until before the collapse went into full gear some were taken over by some people’s nephews.

    At Camel Primary School where my cousin brother went it was always a wonderful opportunity to appreciate this addition of diversity to the Bulawayo school environment. Having a sister who went to two Adventist schools and I having been to a Presbyterian school.

    On the way to the market, or at a Funeral Palour along Jason Moyo Street, the burnt out shell of the Jewish Community centre which an associate on a recent visit from the States says it is a symbol of abandonment of the country by the his people.

    Others like Dr Bloch have remained steadfast voices of reason in the chaos.

  7. Inja YaseZim Inja YaseZim 9 September 2008

    I sympathize with the author and South Africans as a whole, i feel his pain, i left my home in ’98. Siphiwo and Belle the liks of you need to either come up with a good opposition or start praying realy hard that JZ don’t take over your country and do a Mugabe on it. We used to laugh at Zambians and their Kwacha. Be warned

  8. Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos Siphiwo Qangani with kangaroos 9 September 2008

    Inja ka Mad Bob

    You’ve got (too much) chips on your shoulders, I’d advice you to sell some.
    You & ilks assisted your aging tyrant by casting some votes for him in the March elections, and now we’re sitting with an unmovable object willing to do anything to cling on power…killing (with impunity) his own people.

    I still say Zims, themselves invited this anarchy.Mad Bob was suppose to get no more than 100 votes, if the country was honestly behind the idea for change.
    Sorry to say this, Zim (your country) has been reduced to a Coconut republic, with absolutely no currency and a murky vacuum in the leadership. And by looking at things, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

    Even if we were to call, national elections tomorrow; you’ll get numbers voting for this power drunk creature.

  9. BLACKLISTED DICTATOR/GORILLAMOVEMENT BLACKLISTED DICTATOR/GORILLAMOVEMENT 9 September 2008

    David,

    I, like kan-wil-sal, am surprised that you ask the question… “Where will my children go? ”

    You are a loyal supporter of Israel. Do you not think that it is a suitable destination for your childern?

  10. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 10 September 2008

    Siphiwo

    It is not the people of Zim who vote for Mugabe. They have voted against him since 2000.

    It is SADC who are behind him and cheer for him all the time – many of them are ex-“liberation” movements clinging to power and suppressing opposition. It is ONLY SADC who cheer him. AND it is SADC who Mbeki has been working for!

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