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African Jews Unite for First Time in Forming African Jewish Congress

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Jewish communities throughout Africa became united this week at the founding meeting of the African Jewish Congress in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The idea for the AJC, which is the brainchild of Mervyn Smith, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and Seymour Kopelowitz, national director of the board, was first raised at the 1992 plenary of the World Jewish Congress.

“We were initially affiliated to the European Jewish Congress, which is not really our natural home,” Smith told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The African Jews “decided at the time that with South Africa coming out of isolation and with the need for strengthening Israel’s links with African countries there was room for our own region of the World Jewish Congress on the African continent,” he said.

A resolution passed at the national conference of the South African Board of Deputies gave rise to the formation of the AJC. The new grouping will probably entitle the Jewish community to observer status at the Organization of African Unity.

“The WJC has given informal approval to the AJC and, when this approval is formalized, we will be entitled to seats on the governing body of the WJC,” said Smith.

The AJC’s first meeting, held May 29-30, was attended by 150 delegates and observers from Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe and was addressed by Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.

Smith was elected chairman of the new group, which will be headquartered in Johannesburg, and Stanley Harris, chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies of Zimbabwe, was elected vice chairman of the AJC.

ATMOSPHERE WAS ‘CELEBRATORY’

Steinberg said the new congress is “an extraordinary affirmation of Jewish presence in every part of the world. It is a symbol of the Jewish people’s vitality.”

He described the atmosphere at the gathering as “celebratory, as well as one of intense mutual curiosity. This was a rare occasion, even for the Jews within the African continent, to get to personally know one another.”

He said the African Jewish Congress made an agreement to link the communities together through electronic mail.

Although the sizes of the Jewish communities in Africa differ greatly — there are, for example, 100,000 Jews in South Africa and 600 in Kenya — each country is entitled to two representatives in the new congress, Smith explained.

Smith said the functions of the AJC will be to represent the Jews in sub-Saharan Africa and promote cultural, religious and social activities among small and dispersed communities.

“Through the small-communities committee of the AJC, we will be able to tackle localized problems, such as the lack of rabbis and teachers,” said Smith.

At the gathering, the AJC expressed its grave concern for the people of Rwanda and “the suffering and human tragedy being inflicted on them.”

It further called on the international community and the OAU to use every means at its disposal, including military force, to establish peace in Rwanda, which has been torn apart by a bloody civil war that has left countless numbers of people slaughtered.

Another resolution made by the new congress called on the OAU and its member states to normalize relations with the State of Israel.

The resolution stated that the AJC fully backed the current peace efforts in the Middle East and was disappointed that a number of African states had not reviewed their relations with Israel. Many of those relationships had soured during the 1973 war in the Middle East.

The new AJC does not include Jews in the Arab countries of North Africa, “simply because their history and their politics, and because of the problematic nature of Jewish communities in Arab countries distinguished them from the Jewish communities in black Africa,” said Steinberg.

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