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Around the Jewish World Zimbabwe Jews Weighing Options As an Israeli Mayor Offers Them Aid

November 11, 2002
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Zimbabwe’s shrinking and mostly elderly Jewish community has been heartened by an offer from the mayor of Ashkelon to assist those who settle in the Israeli coastal city.

Michael Mensky, who heads South Africa’s Israel Center associated with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization — conveyed the offer, as well as other aliyah options, at community gatherings last week in the Zimbabwean cities of Harare and Bulawayo.

Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin learned of the plight of the Zimbabwe community while attending an aliyah fair in South Africa over Passover.

“He said he would take their plight as his own and work as a mayor to enhance their coming to Ashkelon,” Mensky told JTA.

Mensky told community leaders that Israel historically has demonstrated its concern for threatened Jewish communities such as those in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Ethiopia and that Zimbabwe’s 600 Jews would be similarly helped.

Over the past several years, black “war veterans” have invaded white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and turned out their owners. Hundreds of thousands of black farm workers and their families also have been thrown out of their homes.

The country’s economy has deteriorated into massive unemployment and runaway inflation, and over 80 percent of the black population now lives below the poverty line. A long-standing drought has exacerbated the risk of hunger.

Zimbabwean Jews who move to Israel will receive an “absorption basket” of financial benefits, Mensky said. He is lobbying for special recognition for them so that housing allowances, particularly for retired people, may be granted.

“The situation in Zimbabwe seems to be deteriorating, and we suggested to the community that if and when it’s time, Israel will be there for them,” Mensky said.

It’s not clear how many will take Vaknin up on his offer. Some Zimbabwe Jews do not see Israel as a viable option, others are looking at other destinations and some believe the situation at home will improve, Mensky said.

While most are taking a wait-and-see approach, “in light of what’s happening in the country, I think many are taking this offer very seriously,” Mensky said. “They feel comforted to know that there is some sort of a back-up plan lined up.”

An elderly member of the community, who did not wish to be identified, said Jews in Zimbabwe indeed were considering their options.

“We don’t know what’s happening. We’re in an awkward position — after all, we’ve been here all our lives and it’s not something that we enjoy,” he said.

Community members “certainly showed more interest than usual” in the Israeli offer, the man noted. “And although the elderly are the last to want to move, it will be taken up if necessary.”

Ivor Davis, past president of the Harare Hebrew Congregation, said Vaknin’s offer “went down extremely well.”

“For many of us this country has been” a great place “with its splendid climate, friendly people and its opportunities,” he said. “For those of us who will leave the country, we shall miss it desperately.”

But, he noted, “what has happened to the white farmers and, indeed, to the million of their black farm workers is perhaps the proverbial writing on the wall.”

Mervyn Smith, chairman of the African Jewish Congress, said the offer was “very generous and very helpful. There’s no doubt that the economy and infrastructure has collapsed in Zimbabwe and if we can help Jews settle in Israel, where they will live in safety and comfort, certainly it’s to be encouraged in all respects.”

Mensky said he had been shocked to see long lines for bread and gasoline in Zimbabwe.

“Jewish homes I went to had no milk or bread,” he said. “Basic ingredients” are “very hard to come by.”

The many elderly members of the community seem particularly likely candidates for aliyah, Mensky said.

“Those who are of pension age and know that their prospects of growing old in Zimbabwe are very dim would look very seriously at relocating to Israel,” he said. “A lot of those I met have children in Israel, and for them to go and spend time near their families is very appealing.”

But he acknowledged the difficulties.

“These people come from very large homes, and it basically means giving up everything,” he said.

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