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Around the Jewish World in Botswana, African Jews Ask Leader to Be Vigilant Against Terror

December 11, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It’s not clear if his country’s Jews will ever need the favor, but at least Festus Mogae will have a shofar to lend for High Holiday services.

The African Jewish Congress, which was in Botswana to meet with constituents, also met with Mogae, Botswana’s president, and presented him with the ram’s horn.

The AJC, which is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress, was founded by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in 1992 to look after the interests of the small and far-flung Jewish communities of sub-Saharan Africa.

The makeup of Botswana’s 70-person Jewish community — the youngest organized Jewish community in Africa, and the only growing one — has changed considerably over the years.

At one time it consisted largely of transient Israelis. Today, the majority are former South Africans who have made their homes in the capital city of Gaborone, largely due to financial incentives provided by the government and its “zero tolerance” attitude to crime.

At the “very cordial” Dec. 1 meeting, AJC President Mervyn Smith told Mogae that the group felt it was important to ask African leaders to stand solidly against terrorism and to be vigilant against attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions.

“The president assured us that combating terrorism was a priority of his country, that the Jewish community had always been held in high regard in Botswana and that his government would not tolerate any form of anti-Semitism,” Smith told JTA upon his return to South Africa.

Botswana’s government enjoys good relations with Israel, partly because many of its members have attended various training courses in the Jewish state. In addition, an agreement was reached with Israel in 1995 under which Israeli agricultural experts are helping to develop Botswana’s largely barren desert land.

Also attending the meeting were Botswana businessman Michael Goldberg and Richard Lyons, the only Jew who is currently a “Motswana,” or full citizen of the country.

A prominent lawyer who recently was appointed honorary consul for Israel, Lyons maintains close relations with Mogae and his government, as well as with the parliamentary opposition.

Botswana Jews hold religious services in a specially designated room in Gaborone’s only fully kosher home, but the community is keen to build a synagogue. At the meeting, Goldberg and Lyons asked that land be given to the community for this purpose, and Mogae said the government would consider the request.

As the visit to the president took place on World AIDS Day, much of the discussion centered on the country’s policies on the disease. Botswana has the world’s highest known rate of HIV-AIDS infection, with around 33 percent of the population affected.

“I congratulated the president on their very progressive program to combat AIDS,” Smith said.

Mogae went into detail on the country’s policies, the difficulties they have with AIDS orphans and mother-to-child transmission of the infection and other issues, Smith said.

Smith said the community did not appear to be concerned about the future of Jewish life in Botswana, and “in fact went out of their way to say that the relations between them and the local Muslim community were very good.”

The community doesn’t have its own rabbi, so Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the AJC’s South Africa-based spiritual leader, officiates at life cycle events. He performed a Bat Mitzvah the day before the AJC visit.

Silberhaft and Murray Simon, an American who was in Botswana to assist with educational projects, were responsible for getting organized Jewish life off the ground at the beginning of the 1990s.

Their advertisement in the Gaborone press asking “minyan makers” to contact them elicited an encouraging response. Before long, a community newsletter, regular services and social events were up and running.

Today, Botswana’s Jewish community is one of the few where he has been required to officiate only at celebratory life cycle events, Silberhaft noted.

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