Around the Jewish World Zimbabwe’s Jews Tense, Watchful After Disputed Presidential Election

Zimbabwe’s Jews are facing an uncertain future in the wake of the recent presidential elections.

With food shortages, the threat of strikes and selected sanctions being imposed added to the country’s myriad problems, the mood among the country’s 700-strong Jewish community is one of bewilderment.

Many people were “fairly stunned” that President Robert Mugabe was re-elected in the disputed vote “because they expected an outcome that would lead to better days,” said Peter Sternberg, acting head of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the March 9-March 11 election, in which Mugabe won 56 percent of the vote to challenger Morgan Tsvangirai’s 42 percent, was marked by “numerous, profound irregularities” that thwarted the will of the people.

After being sworn in for another six-year term Sunday, Mugabe called on his coutrymen — as well as his African neighbors — to join his fight against Western imperialism.

Mugabe has supported an effort to turn over white-owned farms to black squatters, a redistribution of wealth that has been accompanied by widescale violence.

On Monday, a white farmer whose farm was besieged by black militants was dragged from his car and executed. He was the 10th white farmer killed since the Mugabe-backed offensive against white landowners began two years ago.

Sternberg described the violence that has followed the elections as “revenge taking.”

“The winners now feel that they’ve got the government behind them and can do what they want — this is not a good trend for any country,” he said.

The Jewish community, which at its height in the mid-1960s numbered some 7,500, is a small minority within the country’s white minority and has never felt threatened as such.

Most community members are older than 70. While a fair number of families are making plans to leave the country, Sternberg said the majority that would remain have lived in Zimbabwe for most of their lives and can’t imagine settling elsewhere.

“They feel they would be a burden on their children. In addition, we have the problem in this country that when one leaves one cannot take one’s money, plus the fact that it has been devalued to such an extent that it’s pretty laughable,” Sternberg said.

“Those that have lived here so long might feel, ‘Let’s carry on as long as we’ve got something to eat and the sun is shining,’ but if the crunch comes they’ll have no choice but to leave,” he said. “We hope it won’t happen.”

Mervyn Smith, chairman of the African Jewish Congress, said that there had been some incidents against Jews in the past, though the Jewish community had never felt targeted as Jews per se.

“It was good to observe that there were no anti-Semitic statements made in the election campaign,” Smith said. “We continue to be in constant touch with our brethren in Zimbabwe and very vigilant and ready to help in case things should get out of hand. This has been the position for some while.”

David Joffe, a regional director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, was one of the board’s representatives on South Africa’s observer mission to the elections.

“It was an opportunity to touch base with the Jewish community there,” he said. “They feel very comfortable there — they may not always like the politics but most of them are committed to the country, otherwise they would have left a long time ago.”

The Jewish community still maintains three synagogues — two in the capital city of Harare and one in Bulawayo.

Ivor Davis, president of the Harare Hebrew Congregation, said Jewish life is continuing, though there was general concern for the country’s future.

“We keep the Jewish flag flying. Our shul has daily services and we are getting ready for Pesach,” he said. “The matzah has arrived and is being distributed tomorrow. Life goes on.”

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