Unharmed by violence but suffering economically, Zimbabwe Jews hold out

It's a community that has dwindled to 320 from a high of about 7,500 in the 1970s.

African jews 224 (photo credit: African Jewish Congress)
African jews 224
(photo credit: African Jewish Congress)
With Zimbabwe in the throes of an economic and political crisis, the country's tiny Jewish community is holding steady. The president of a synagogue in the city of Bulawayo says Zimbabwe's approximately 320 Jews have been left largely unharmed by the violence surrounding last week's presidential election that drove opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai from the race. Observers outside the country have called the vote, in which President Robert Mugabe was re-elected, a sham. Hylton Solomon, the 52-year-old president of the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation, says the Jews of Zimbabwe have become accustomed to the grim situation in their country. "Over the years, everybody has been so disappointed," he told JTA. "It's just another day. They just accept" it. "The Jews, certainly in Bulawayo, I don't believe feel threatened, and I don't think they ever have." Though they have been spared the violence, Zimbabwe's Jews have been hit hard by the economic crisis. The country has been beset by electricity, food, water and fuel shortages. Jewish aid officials assisting the community say, however, that few Zimbabwe Jews intend to leave. It's a community that has dwindled to 320 from a high of about 7,500 in the 1970s, when the country was called Rhodesia and ruled by a white minority. The Jews are split between the capital of Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. Two Jewish day schools, one in each city, have mostly non-Jewish students. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues in Harare have combined their services, and there is one rabbi in the country, David Alima of Bulawayo. Mervyn Smith, the president of the African Jewish Congress - an initiative of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to attend to the needs of far-flung Jewish communities in sub-Saharan Africa - says he sensed a mood of resignation among Zimbabwe's Jews on a recent visit. "There isn't a fear of physical danger, but there's almost despair that the economy and the whole situation can ever right itself," Smith said. The country is suffering from skyrocketing inflation estimated at 20 to 30 percent per week. Last week, it took 40 billion Zimbabwe dollars to equal $1. Many Jews have seen their savings totally eroded. "People are depressed, but what is really having an impact on everyone is the collapse of the economy," said one community member who asked to remain anonymous. "Our money is worthless." Most Zimbabwe Jews of Zimbabwe are elderly; just six Jewish children live in the country. Of the 110 Jews in Bulawayo, 26 live in Zimbabwe's only Jewish old-age home, the Savyon Lodge. The economic crisis has hit them particularly hard. "Many were dependent on their savings and pensions; they thought that they could live with dignity and be independent to the end of their days," said one community member. "That is not possible. Things are either unavailable or unaffordable." The executive director of the African Jewish Congress, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, says he spends 90 percent of his time on issues relating to the Zimbabwean Jewish community. "We provide everything from medication to rent to basic foodstuffs," Silberhaft said. "Nothing is affordable, nothing is available. We send water purification tablets because the water is no longer safe to drink. "The reality is that there's almost nothing on the ground -- there's no toilet paper, cotton, wool, medication," he said. Silberhaft visited Zimbabwe in late May and said the Jews in the country were prepared to carry on. At his monthly distribution of essentials, the rabbi said he "watched proud Jewish people that used to be in the category of 'haves' queuing for salt, toilet paper and jam." Silberhaft recently went to London to raise awareness of the crisis and raise money for the African Jewish Congress' Zimbabwe fund. Though a June 13 report in the London Jewish Chronicle said the Jewish Agency for Israel was planning a secret emergency airlift of the country's remaining Jews, Silberhaft insists there are no such plans. "I met with Zeev Bielski," the agency's chairman, "and there's absolutely no evacuation plan whatsoever," Silberhaft said. "What the Jewish Agency and we say is, if you want to leave, as long as there are commercial airlines, why wait for an evacuation? Leave now and we will take care of you." One community member said that despite constant calls for them to leave by panicked family members abroad, most Jews in Zimbabwe do not feel the need to run. "As a community we carry on without any interference and celebrate all the festivals," she said. "I don't feel any urgency to leave." "The situation is dire, not unsafe," said another Zimbabwe Jew who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity. "No one that I know has been harmed in any way." She added, "I feel safer here than in Johannesburg." Many of Zimbabwe's non-elderly Jews regularly commute to neighboring South Africa. "The younger people like me have homes in South Africa," said Solomon, the synagogue president. "I often question why I'm not more positive in making a plan to move, but I don't know whether South Africa is the place to move to, quite honestly. I'm still making a bit of a living here and I have the best of both worlds." Solomon says he visits Cape Town every four to six weeks for about 10 days to see family and go to movies and restaurants. "It's just a bit of a bittersweet sort of life," he said. Last July, Solomon was jailed for a night for violating Zimbabwe's price controls by overcharging on a box of spaghetti. With everything that has happened, however, Solomon sounds a note of optimism. "Something positive is going to come out of all this," he said. "The economic situation just cannot carry on like this anymore."