Zimbabwe's Jews: A shtetl in Africa

A Zimbabwean Jew, I grew up in a bubble within a bubble – a member of the tightly knit Jewish community within the larger white community.

The Shaare Shalom synagogue in Harare (photo credit: DAVE BLOOM)
The Shaare Shalom synagogue in Harare
(photo credit: DAVE BLOOM)
DANIEL MONTAGUE Kisch, a young mining prospector seeking his fortune, reached the northern parts of the Tati River in 1868 and is recorded as being the first Jew to reach lands under the control of the infamous Ndebele King Lobengula. This area was later to become part of the British colony of Rhodesia.
Many other Jews came to Southern Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seeking refuge from the harsh life and antisemitism of Eastern Europe. They were inspired by the rush to gold and diamond fields and other economic opportunities that had sprung up in these African territories.
Usually they had very little means at their disposal and typically set out to build businesses and farms in small towns and villages around South Africa. Some headed north to the new territories being developed by Cecil John Rhodes and his partner, a prominent Jew called Alfred Beit.
Like many such families, my grandparents came separately to South Africa from England and Lithuania in the early 1900s and met in Pretoria. After their marriage in 1907, they decided to seek their fortunes in the newly established town of Salisbury in Rhodesia where my late father was born in 1916. An active Jewish community with a synagogue had already existed since 1894.
Rhodesia went through several political entities, including a first run by the British South Africa Company by Rhodes, then as a self-governing colony in 1921, followed by the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the 1950s.
I left Rhodesia in 1973 at age 20 to make a new life for myself in Israel. At the time, it was ruled by a white-minority government under Ian Smith, who led a rebellious Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the British crown. Whites led privileged lives and were called “masters” and “baases” (bosses) by the disenfranchised blacks in deference to their lowly status.
By African standards, the country was prosperous, with an excellent infrastructure, strong agriculture, mining and industrial sectors, good education as well as health services. The country’s wealth and services were overwhelmingly in the hands of the 250,000 whites while its 5 million landless blacks barely scratched a living. Smith and his followers were determined to maintain the status quo.
I grew up in a bubble within a bubble – a member of the tightly knit Jewish community within the larger white community.
The number of Jews in Rhodesia swelled to around 7,500 souls in the early 1970s and had mostly prospered in many spheres.
There were three very active synagogues in Harare and one in Bulawayo along with Jewish community centers, sports clubs, primary schools, youth movements and many other organizations, including the Hevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society). Smaller communities existed in Gatooma, Gwelo and Que Que. These were like shtetls in Africa. Jews hardly experienced any overt antisemitism and life was good.
From a young age, I knew I did not belong in that cozy, comfortable but highly dysfunctional society and particularly did not want to be a part of the racist pillars on which it was based. My parents, like most white families, employed three “servants,” as they were commonly called, to do all the cooking, cleaning and gardening in our large two-story home. The staff worked from 7 am until about 8 pm six days a week, lived in small rooms at the back of our garden without their families and were paid an absolute pittance. Even as a youngster, they would call me “baas” and when I became politically and socially aware, I always felt uncomfortable with that unnatural role.
Hanukka at Shaare Shalom: (L- R) Dean Moody, Harare Hebrew Congregation President Arnold Joffe and Benny Leon watch Victor Alhadeff (credit: Dave Bloom)Hanukka at Shaare Shalom: (L- R) Dean Moody, Harare Hebrew Congregation President Arnold Joffe and Benny Leon watch Victor Alhadeff (credit: Dave Bloom)
Our cook, Miles Billiat, came from the poor neighboring country of Malawi and he sent back a small but valuable part of his salary to his family who lived near Blantyre.
He only saw them on visits once every few years for about two weeks. Many such migrant workers were prepared to suffer the blatant racism in Rhodesia to support their families back home.
The strains from this mild form of apartheid created a recipe for political dissent, and blacks under well-educated people, like Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, started in the 1960s to fight for equal rights – the motto being “one man – one vote.”
After each had served terms in prison by the white-led government, they chose to live in exile and developed armed guerrilla groups to pressure the white minority to relinquish power. I felt it was not my fight.
Most of my youth I was involved in the Socialist Zionist youth movement of Habonim, and Israel was the natural option where I believed my destiny lay. At the first opportunity, I left.
FATE WOULD have it that after working for Reuters in Israel for several years, they offered me the post of regional manager for the company to be based in no other place but the now independent Zimbabwe. We spent just over four years in the early 1990s living in Harare and the country at the time was doing well. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party ruled with a policy of reconciliation toward the whites and it seemed during those early post-independence days that this pragmatic approach could work.
Although the Jewish community had drastically reduced in numbers to around 1,000 souls following the political uncertainty with Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, there was a modest resurgence in numbers during our stay when some realized that they could return and resume their old lifestyles.
My wife and I came back to visit Zimbabwe in April 2017 to connect with work colleagues and friends. We were shocked at the changes we found. Mugabe had been in power for 37 years and we found a state on its knees economically, socially and politically.
Rampant corruption and mismanagement had sucked much of the wealth into the hands of a very few corrupt leaders.
Health and education services were barely surviving while unemployment was running at some 90%. Record inflation in 2008 had resulted in the complete collapse of the Zimbabwe currency and now everything was transacted in either US dollars or South African rand.
Everywhere we drove around the city of Harare, there were police roadblocks, and motorists were being stopped and hustled for fines of $10-$20 for innocuous offenses.
It was clear that the country’s leaders had turned to the police to act as tax collectors to continue financing their high lifestyles.
The degradation in infrastructure and services was shocking for us to see. Pot-holed streets, almost no street lighting and homes that had not had municipal water supply for over 10 years. Whole industrial areas were shuttered. I saw people standing for hours in line to try and withdraw their measly allowance of $30 per day from ATMs – that is, if they were lucky.
I was accosted several times and warned by either soldiers or men in gray suits when I tried to photograph some familiar sites from my childhood. “No pictures!” they warned me. While the average Zimbabweans were friendly and welcoming to us, it felt like an African version of what I imagined North Korea to be – repression and intimidation was the name of the game. Open criticism of Mugabe led to imprisonment or worse, with many cases of his opponents killed in unexplained car accidents. One white man joked cynically to me, “one man, one vote, once.”
Since the early 2000s, most white farms were confiscated by the government and handed over to blacks, mostly Mugabe’s inner circle, including his ambitious wife, Grace, as part of a so-called “indigenization program.” Agricultural output sank to all-time lows and Zimbabwe went from being a net exporter of produce to become dependent on imports to survive. An estimated three million Zimbabweans were forced to flee the country, mainly to South Africa, as economic refugees.
We met with the remnants of the Jewish community at the Rodis Community Hall next to the impeccably maintained Sephardi synagogue. We were told that in Harare the numbers in the community had shrunk to just 80 people. The average age was over 70. It was sad for me to see what had happened to a once proud and thriving community.
The Ashkenazi synagogue still barely operated and after many years of very little cooperation, the two communities were now combining minyanim on Fridays and Saturdays to survive. The successful community- owned Sharon Primary School had 130 students, but only two were Jewish.
Most were Hindu, Muslim and Christian but were still taught Jewish customs. In Bulawayo, with some 50 Jewish people, it was a similar story for the Carmel Primary School.
The Jewish founded and owned Wingate Park Golf Club outside Harare had only a small handful of Jewish members, including 92-year-old Beryl Thal, who still drives out to the club every week to tend to the gardens.
In reaching out to members of the community to get an update from them since the fall of Robert Mugabe in mid-November, not one was prepared to be quoted in name, and it became clear to me that a sense of fear and intimidation was still prevalent. People had been conditioned for years to keep their heads down and below the radar. For the Jewish community, “keeping shtum” was a question of survival.
I ASKED one Jewish professional how members of the Jewish community were coping, and he said, “I really don’t see any reaction of significance. As you know, it’s an aging community and they have seen it all over the last 40 years – the ups and mostly downs. People become desensitized to some extent.” He mentioned that a few key Jewish businessmen continued to prosper despite (and probably because of) the economic chaos.
When pressed about his perspective of the future in Zimbabwe, he said, “At this stage, I intend to stay. If my children eventually decide to live in Israel, I may reconsider that. We [still] have an exceptional lifestyle here. People are generally friendly, and the weather is great. With recent political developments, there is light at the end of the tunnel, which has never been the case in the past. We are also economic prisoners here.”
Talking to several contacts in Zimbabwe, it seemed clear that the initial euphoria following Mugabe’s forced removal from power by an alliance between the army and the former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa had waned. “The job is not yet done,” said one black commentator. “We need free and transparent elections to challenge ZANU-PF’s grip on power and introduce fundamental changes to our society.”
Others described with relief that the police were no longer hassling drivers on Zimbabwe’s roads and felt there was room for some optimism.
John Robertson, a well-known Zimbabwean economist, said that for the first time ever he felt there was a glimmer of hope with the $1.5 billion injection of external financing secured by the new government.
He emphasized that there “is a long, long way to go.”
The well-known author and human rights lawyer Peter Godwin articulated a more cynical analysis of the situation forecasting that newly appointed President Mnangagwa will “entice his own people and the world with a ‘reformist stance.’ He will try to rebrand the party, presenting it as Zanu-PF 2.0, Zanu-PF-lite, non-ideological, technocratic, managerial, open for business, safe once more for foreign investors. He has already mentioned a partial return of land to some white commercial farmers; he has embraced the rhetoric of anti-corruption, offering a three-month amnesty window to return ill-gotten gains. But these promises don’t stand up to scrutiny. Eight of the 22 new/old cabinet ministers are on US sanctions list, joined by bonds of massively corrupt self-enrichment and repressive political violence.”
For the tiny Jewish community and 16 million Zimbabwe citizens, the future remains fraught with uncertainty.  The writer divides his time between running a software company and as a personal historian.
He represents the Zimbabwe Jewish community in Israel through his website www.zjc.org.il and Facebook group
www. facebook.com/zimjewishcommunity