MINUTES OF THE AFRICAN JEWISH CONGRESS, HELD ON MONDAY, 29TH AUGUST 2005 AT BEYACHAD, 2 ELRAY STREET, RAEDENE 

 

1.      WELCOME AND GREETINGS

Mervyn Smith, Chairman African Jewish Congress, welcomed all delegates, as well as Lord Greville Janner, President, and members of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.

Mr Ilan Fluss, Israeli Deputy Ambassador, brought greetings from Israel.  He emphasised that Israel was prepared to go to great lengths to achieve peace, but as the recent terrorist attack in Beer Sheba had shown there were still many extremists who wanted to disrupt the process.  South Africa had sent a very positive message to Israel through President Mbeki since the Gaza disengagement, which showed a very definite change of direction by South Africa from being very pro-Palestinian to a more balanced approach.  This was based on support for the Road Map and a two state solution to the conflict, which South Africa wanted to help bring about.

Mr Fluss said that the incoming Ambassador for South Africa, Mr Ilan Baruch, would be responsible for Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. He hoped that when the Ambassador arrived he personally would have more opportunity to visit the other African countries.  He had already been to Zimbabwe.  Mr Fluss stressed that the input of the Jewish communities of those countries was very important because they were in a position to help Israel improve their relationships with other countries. All Jewish communities, whether big or small, were important and he welcomed the opportunity of hearing from their representatives what was happening in their respective countries.
 

Lord Janner then brought greetings on behalf of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.
 

2.      CONSTITUENT REPORTS

 

a) Botswana
Mr Richard Lyons said that Botswana was a genuine democracy with an independent judiciary and was completely non-racial. It was difficult to say how many Jews were in the country. Three Jews actually had full citizenship.  There was usually a minyan on Friday nights, but there were some who did not identify as Jews or come to shul (although they would generally do so if asked to come and make a minyan). The community was almost entirely based in Gaborone. Botswana was a good country for Jews to live in. There was no anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activity and while there was a certain amount of crime, there was not nearly as much as existed in South Africa.
 

b) Kenya
Dr Vera Sonen described Kenyan Jewry as ďa small community with a very big heartĒ.  Numbers fluctuated but it was possible to hold regular Friday evening and Shabbat morning services.  The congregational magazine Shelanu was published on a regular basis. In 2004, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation celebrated its centennial.  A large contingent of overseas guests attended, and included was a sizeable delegation from South Africa led by Rabbi Silberhaft and Mr Mervyn Smith. This had helped solidify the ties between the Kenyan and South African Jewry that went back to the early 1900s. Because of the uncertain financial situation, the congregation did not have a resident rabbi. There was no kosher meat available, only chicken, but in any case only a handful of families kept kosher. Pesach products were imported from Israel.
 

c) Lesotho
Mr Yehuda Danziger recounted how he had come to be the only identified Jew living in Lesotho. He had come to the country in 1972 and remained there, eventually acquiring citizenship. Jews had come and gone over the years, many having been associated with the US Embassy. There were three Jews living in the country at present.  Recently, Mr Danziger, together with Rabbi Silberhaft, paid an official visit to His Majesty King Letsie III at the Royal Palace.
 

d) Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique
Rabbi Silberhaft reported on Madagascar, Namibia and Mozambique.  He had yet to visit to Madagascar.  The most important Jewish related institution was the Shalom Club Madagascar, founded by locals who had studied or trained in Israel. 

The Jewish connection with Mauritius went back to World War II, when 1570 Jews fleeing Nazi Europe and seeking to gain entry into Palestine were detained there by the British. 127 detainees had died during this period. The SAJBD hold the title deeds to the St Martinís Jewish Cemetery where they were buried. In May 2005, the official opening of a shul and community centre in Curepipe took place. Funds were raised for this in Mauritius and South Africa. There were approximately 65 Jews living on the island. Rabbi Silberhaft urged all Jews going to Mauritius to make an effort to visit the cemetery and say Tehillim in remembrance of those who fled Hitler and never made it to the Promised Land.

Moving on to Mozambique, Rabbi Silberhaft sketched the history of Jewish life in Maputo. In 1926, the shul had been opened in the presence of Chief Rabbi Landau of Johannesburg. The community had dwindled significantly by 1970. The last remaining Jewish resident sent the 2 Sifrei Torah to Johannesburg and the shul was abandoned, eventually being used as, amongst other things, a warehouse.  In 1989, through the efforts of a local non-Jew, it was returned to the Jewish community by the government. Unfortunately, the building was now in serious need of repair. There were about 25 identified Jews living in Maputo. Mr Rogerio Levy Fonseca (who was not Jewish, but had had a Jewish grandfather) helps fund the maintenance of the synagogue and Jewish cemetery.  Rabbi Silberhaft officiated at the 70th anniversary of the shul in 1996.

e) Namibia
Mr Harold Pupkewitz began by telling how he had come to Namibia from Vilna in 1924. He said that Namibia was a democracy with an independent judiciary and despite the fact that had no fewer than 48 Cabinet ministers, was one of the best governed of the southern African countries. The environment was peaceful and relatively free of crime. Windhoek, the capital, had a population of 300 000 and was modernising rapidly. Israel and Namibia had had their ups and downs over the years because of the close relationship enjoyed by the SWAPO liberation movement and the Palestinians.  However, useful assistance had been provided in health, agriculture and hydrology, which had been appreciated.

At its height in the 1960s, Namibian Jewry comprised 120 families.  While most had since moved to South Africa, those who remained were committed to maintaining a Jewish life. The Jewish population was today small, comprising 10 families in Windhoek, and some individuals, in all about 60 souls. The Windhoek Hebrew Congregation is affiliated to the UOS in  Johannesburg and regular Friday night services were still held. The community was almost entirely based in Windhoek. In 2003 Richard Newman had been commissioned to write a history of the community and this was expected to appear in the first half of 2006.
 

f) Swaziland
Mr Geoff Ramagkodi spoke of his long connection with the Jewish community of Swaziland and his own involvement with the view to being converted to Judaism.  Swaziland Jewry was a small community and a dwindling one with much intermarriage. There was no synagogue, services being held at the home of the Torgeman family.  It had been a blow to the community when the Israel Embassy closed several years previously. Mr Ramagkodi said that Israelís assistance in providing scholarships for Swazi students was much needed.  He had asked the Israeli Ambassador to take up his request with Israel to provide an eye specialist since there wasnít one in the country.
 

g) Zambia
Mr Smith spoke briefly about the Jewish community in Zambia. The synagogue, although well maintained, was located in a run-down part of Lusaka. Nevertheless 60 people had attended the last communal seder.
 

Questions and Answers followed:

Dr Somen was asked whether the Kenyan community sought to build relationships with the local Muslim community, which included a large militant faction.  She said that the community had not gone out of its way to create a relationship and preferred to keep a low profile. There was a fair amount of anti-Zionist correspondence in the press, but no railing against Jews per se. Amongst Black Africans there was not much support for the anti-Zionist point of view.

It was suggested that the Ronald Lauder Foundation be approached to assist in restoring the Maputo synagogue.

Mr Pupkewitz said there were Jewish farmers in Namibia until very recently.  However the karakul industry had been hard hit in the 1980ís.

Mr Fluss commented that Israel had not ceased taking in students on scholarships from African countries.  However, the reality was it was considered not politically correct for certain NGOs to send people to Israel in the current climate. Hopefully, this was now changing.

Mr Smith stressed the importance of sending Black Africans to study in Israel, something reflected by the work of Friends of Israel organisations in Madagascar and Mauritius. Mr Fluss said the Embassy was working on setting up the Shalom Club equivalent in South Africa and hopefully this would be up and running by the end of the year.
 

3) ZIMBABWE
Mr Peter Sternberg, President of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, began by referring to the last combined Board of Deputies Central African Zionist Organisation Conference, held in Harare earlier in the year. He noted with appreciation the fact that there had been a large South African delegation at the conference. The conference itself had seen a great deal of doom and gloom generated. Mr Sternberg denied that he was a pessimist when it came to Zimbabwe and its future since the very fact that he was still there showed the contrary to be true.  However, he was also a realist since the country and its Jewish community faced many serious problems.

On Israel-Zimbabwe relations, Mr Sternberg commented that when the Israeli Embassy in Harare closed down two years ago after being in the country for seven years, the community had felt abandoned. It was noteworthy that the first embassy to open in the newly independent Zimbabwe was a PLO Embassy. The visit of Mr Ilan Fluss and Ambassador Tova Herzl, shortly before her departure, had been much appreciated.

Among the highlights of the past two years had been the participation of the Zimbabwe Board Anniversary of the end of World War II commemoration. Veterans of the war had spoken of their experiences and the Board arranged for an Auschwitz survivor to speak. The event was very successful.

Moving on to the state of the country, Mr Sternberg said that famine threatened, with unemployment at 70%, inflation rampant and the local currency next to worthless. Frequent power and water cuts were a part of daily life. Freedom of speech and the press had been severely eroded. The rapidly ageing Jewish community now comprised approximately 100 in Bulawayo and 200 in Harare.  Despite the difficulties it faced, the community was well able to maintain two junior day schools, a Jewish aged home, three synagogues, the UJW and welfare organisations.

Following the destruction by fire of the Bulawayo shul in 2003, the congregation had relocated to what had been the Reform synagogue (which had closed many years before).  Shabbat services were held here and daily services were held at Savyon Lodge, the aged home. In Harare, combined Shabbat services were held alternately in the Sephardi and Ashkenazi shuls. Because of the fuel shortages daily services were no longer possible.

Part of the ongoing work of the Zimbabwe Board was to renovate and protect Jewish cemeteries in the outlying towns where Jews no longer lived. Anti-Semitism was not a problem, perhaps because Zimbabwe society had too many other problems to deal with without creating new ones.

Mr Sternberg foresaw that the Jewish community would inevitably shrink further.  It would in the meantime continue to function to the best of its ability, even though there were fewer and fewer people left willing or able to fill the various communal posts.

 

Questions were then put to Mr Sternberg:

Mr Smith pointed out that Robert Mugabe had been openly anti-Semitic in the past.  Several months previously, he had said on SABC that the economic problems in Zimbabwe were in part caused by the fact that the Jews were leaving. The Zimbabwe Board had decided not to take the matter up. He asked how this decision was arrived at.

 

Mr Sternberg replied that Mugabe seemed to have leanings on either side when it came to the Jewish question. At the time of the 100th anniversary of the Jewish community he had sent a message praising Jews for their contribution to building up the country. With regard to the SABC broadcast, practically no one in Zimbabwe had heard it and no complaint had been received.  A meeting was held by the Board to discuss the matter and it was decided that there was no point in lodging a complaint.  To complain was unlikely to influence Mugabe and might possibly provoke even more negative attitudes. It should be noted, moreover, that in the same broadcast he attacked President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and the West in general.

 

Mr Smith commented that since the broadcast took place in South Africa its impact was wider than that of only Zimbabwe.  Nevertheless the decision of the Zimbabwe Board was obviously respected.

 

Mr Richard Lyons asked whether there were any Jewish students remaining in Zimbabwe and whether Jewish farmers had lost their land. Mr Sternberg said that students went to university overseas or to South Africa, and the chances were extremely small that they would ever come back. Those who left school without going on to university generally went into their parents business and then emigrated. There was virtually no age group between the years 18 to 30. Regarding farmers, he confirmed that a handful of Jews had indeed had their farms taken away.

 

In reply to Mrs Castle, Mr Sternberg said that Jews were in no special danger from a physical point of view than the rest of the population. The ruling group did not differentiate between Jews and other whites. In general, so long as one was not politically active on behalf of the opposition, one was left alone.

 

Mr Lyons pointed out that the influx of Zimbabwean refugees into Botswana was resulting both in xenophobia and a fair amount of anti-white feeling as well in that country. He asked whether the AJC did not therefore have a moral duty to condemn Mugabe. Ms Claudia Braude suggested that the SA Jewish community should be part of a civil society initiative condemning Zimbabwe.  Dr Hellig warned of a moral credibility gap resulting if Jews did not speak out. Mr Smith agreed with these positions but stressed that Jews could not do anything that might harm the Jewish community in Zimbabwe.

 

Mr Sternberg responded that what was going on in Zimbabwe was not rational.  Mugabe had alienated his own followers. The cities were violently against him and he was currently bulldozing shacks, targeting small business and conducting forced removals. These were the actions of someone who did not have the good of his country at heart. Jews were so minute a group, which raised the question just what good it would do for them to raise their voices. Mr Sternberg further pointed out that the world at large was not taking action against Zimbabwe, and Mugabe himself was flying in the face of world opinion. There were no signs of the Zimbabwe population rising in revolt against the regime. The great majority of the people were passive and intimidated.

 

Lord Janner noted that during the time when Soviet Jewry was oppressed, Jews were at least expected to protest about it. In the Zimbabwe case, Jews were expected to be silent and this was probably the right decision. He commended Mr Sternberg and his committee for their courage in operating under such difficult circumstances.

 

Mr Gaddin said he felt that Jews were obligated to speak out against human rights violations in Zimbabwe and asked whether there would be repercussion if they did so. Mr Sternberg said that probably there would be; there was not a rational set up in Zimbabwe, and it had to be remembered that no one was keeping Jews in the country against their will.

 

Concluding Business

Rabbi Silberhaft thanked everyone for their on-the-ground co-operation during his pastoral visits to the various African countries.

 

Rabbi Silberhaft then announced the launch of a new AJC website: www.africanjewishcongress.com

 

Mr Smith said that upcoming events would be the launch of the new book on Namibian Jewry, to take place some time in the following year, and the rededication of the Lusaka shul, hopefully to be held in late January. The latter might include a stay at Victoria Falls. 

 

Election of Office Bearers

 

Mr Mervyn Smith, Mr Harold Pupkewitz, Mr Richard Lyons and Mr Peter Sternberg we unanimously re-elected as chairman and vice chairmen of the AJC. 

 

Dr Vera Somen, Mr Abe Barron, Mrs Moonyeen Castle, Mrs Irene Zuckerman and Mrs Nilly Baruch were elected to the committee. 

 

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein of South Africa delivered an address during lunch.