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Around the Jewish World: Last Remnants of Jewish Community Guard Heritage in Beleaguered Eritrea

The synagogue on Haile Mariam Mammo Street, with its tall white plaster walls and blue iron gate featuring a large Magen David, has welcomed few Jews or tourists since Eritrea’s bloody war of liberation from Ethiopia began more than 25 years ago. Once a thriving center of local Jewish activity, the synagogue now sits deserted, its gates locked, only one block from Asmara’s central mosque and three blocks from its enormous Orthodox Christian cathedral.

Women in colorfully embroidered linen shawls and lounging shoeshine boys rarely take note of the old building, which has been there longer than any of their elders can remember. Its upkeep falls essentially to one man, Samuel Cohen, who at 53 is the youngest member of Eritrea’s last Jewish family.

“The last wedding celebrated in the synagogue was in the ’60s, and our last rabbi was evacuated along with the great majority of the expat community in 1975,” says Cohen, a thin man with silver hair and a serious demeanor.

Decades ago, the 60-seat synagogue resonated with the sounds of grown men bickering over seats in Turkish, Italian, Hebrew and Arabic, but these days the Cohens pray alone, rocking to and fro in silence.

Since they rarely can muster a minyan, the Torah is taken out of its beautifully fashioned wooden cabinet just once a year.

At its height in the 1950s, Asmara’s Jewish community numbered some 500. Jews even used to come from as far away as Khartoum, Sudan, to celebrate the High holidays, according to Samuel Cohen’s uncle, David Cohen.

As the last remnants of that community, the four Cohens epitomize the plight of the wandering Jew. Samuel Cohen has lived in Eritrea most of his life and is a permanent resident — but not a citizen. He carries a British passport.

“We are locals, but then again we’re not local,” he says. “I suppose this is the plight of Jews everywhere in the Diaspora. We have strong feelings for this country and we feel that it is our country; otherwise, we would have left it long ago. But we are also anchored here by financial constraints: all of our family assets are here and we cannot simply sell our house and office and leave.”

Having resided in Aden — then a British colony and now part of Yemen — for more generations than Cohen’s father, Menahem, can remember, Cohen’s grandparents immigrated to the Eritrean port city of Massawa at the turn of the 20th century. They lived there for several years until an earthquake destroyed most of the city in 1923 and forced them to move again, this time to Asmara.

The family has since scattered to Israel, England and Italy, and Cohen’s parents, both in their 80s, spend much of their time visiting far-flung relatives.

Asmara, the capital, is a charming city, towering 8,000 feet above Eritrea’s sultry lowlands and blessed with almost perpetual sunshine and cool breezes. Beneath the facade of neatly kept streets, multicolored art-deco buildings and bustling cafe life, however, is a country suffering from almost 40 years of war and famine that have undermined its economic stability and driven it into desperate poverty.

In many ways, the government has achieved remarkable civil stability in a country whose populace is evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

In the eight years since Eritrea became independent, the government has significantly lessened corruption and crime and has spearheaded a massive education drive. Most importantly, it has avoided the Christian-Muslim conflict that sucked neighboring Sudan into 17 years of civil war.

The economy, however, has continued to languish. Despite its rhetorical embrace of Western-style free markets, Eritrea’s government has not relinquished Marxist tenets; it still controls many industries and imports goods and food duty free, forcing private competitors out the market.

“This nationalization scheme is killing us,” sighs David Cohen, 72, leaning wearily against the counter of the family’s import-export shop, where goods covered with years of dust line the shelves. “We are dying here.”

In the dimly lit synagogue, meanwhile, Samuel Cohen winces and lowers his voice when asked about the government, which uses spies and listening devices to stifle dissent.

A self-proclaimed optimist — with a doctorate in economics from the University of Bologna — Cohen acknowledges the government’s successes, but believes only full liberalization of the economy will lift Eritrea out of the economic doldrums.

More important is the military confrontation with Ethiopia, which began in May 1998 and officially ended only last month. Yet tension between the two African Horn countries still runs high and neither has fully demobilized troops, a state of alert which hampers Eritrea’s economic recovery.

Nevertheless, Cohen says, “the relatively great amount of freedom we have is very important after so many years of suffering. Now you can walk anywhere at anytime.

“And,” he paused, his eyes opening wide, “you can travel” — something the Cohens have done regularly since Eritrean independence in 1993.

Nevertheless, real freedom remains elusive.

“There really is no wavering from the government stance that we see printed in the papers, and while most things are better than before, there is still a long way to go,” says David Cohen, absent-mindedly fingering a stack of Israeli newspapers that he calls “real news.”

“But you also have to remember that most people here have lived under the reign of occupier after occupier and never had a truly democratic government. So they really don’t know better.”

Indeed, the list of Eritrea’s colonizers reads like a who’s who of 19th- and 20th-century imperialists: The Ottomans were replaced by the Egyptians in 1865, who in turn were replaced by the Italians in 1890 and the British in 1947. They were followed by the Ethiopians in 1952 under Emperor Haile Selassie, who were succeeded in 1974 by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The political turmoil took its toll on Eritrea’s Jewish community.

After Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1952, a movement began in 1962 to expel Ethiopians from what the United Nations had decided would be an autonomous Eritrea, and many Jews took their cue to exit. After fits and starts, the anti-Ethiopian revolution gained momentum in the early 1970s, and fully half the Jewish community left in the ensuing violence.

Only the hardy — and those whose assets were less liquid — stayed on.

“From the mid-’70s until 1991, we had a pretty rough time,” Samuel Cohen says with some understatement.

A rough time it was indeed. As Ethiopia’s major garrison in Eritrea, Asmara was under constant siege by Eritrean rebel forces and a reign of terror by its Ethiopian occupiers.

Eritreans often don’t know what to make of the lonely synagogue and the dedicated Jewish family that maintains the site.

“We’ve had people throw coins over the gate, women light candles and people sit vigil all night. Apparently the Christians here think it is some kind of shrine,” Cohen says.

Despite active proselytizing in the area by anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli clerics from Iran, Cohen insists that his family has had no serious problems with the Muslim community.

While David Cohen worries about the upkeep of the synagogue when the family leaves or dies, Samuel Cohen remains optimistic — if a little quixotic.

“Perhaps the scattered Eritrean Jews will be attracted enough by future investment opportunities to return,” he says. “Stranger things have happened.”

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