MINUTES OF THE
AFRICAN JEWISH CONGRESS,
HELD ON MONDAY, 29TH
AUGUST 2005 AT BEYACHAD, 2 ELRAY STREET, RAEDENE
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
Lord Janner then brought
greetings on behalf of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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:
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
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