History of the Jews in Zimbabwe

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The location of Zimbabwe in Africa
Zimbabwean Jews
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History of Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Bird
Ancient history
Leopard's Kopje c.900–1075
Mapungubwe Kingdom c.1075–1220
Zimbabwe Kingdom c.1220–1450
Butua Kingdom c.1450–1683
Mutapa Kingdom c.1450–1760
White settlement pre-1923
Rozvi Empire c.1684–1834
Mthwakazi 1838–1894
Rudd Concession 1888
BSA Company rule 1890–1923
First Matabele War 1893–1894
Second Matabele War 1896–1897
World War I involvement 1914–1918
Colony of Southern Rhodesia 1923–1980
World War II involvement 1939–1945
Malayan Emergency
Federation with Northern
Rhodesia and Nyasaland
Rhodesian Bush War 1964–1979
Rhodesia under UDI 1965–1979
Zimbabwe-Rhodesia June–Dec 1979
Dec 1979
British Dependency 1979–1980
Zimbabwe 1980–present
Gukurahundi 1982–1987
Second Congo War 1998–2003
Coup d'état 2017

The history of the Jews in Zimbabwe reaches back over one century. Present-day Zimbabwe was formerly known as Southern Rhodesia and later as Rhodesia.


During the 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews from Russia and Lithuania settled in Rhodesia after the area had been colonized by the British, and became active in the trading industry. In 1894, the first synagogue was established in a tent in Bulawayo. The second community developed in Salisbury (later renamed Harare) in 1895. A third congregation was established in Gwelo in 1901. By 1900, approximately 400 Jews lived in Rhodesia.

In the 1930s a number of Sephardic Jews arrived in Rhodesia from Rhodes and mainly settled in Salisbury. This was followed by another wave in the 1960s when Jews fled the Belgian Congo . A Sephardic Jewish Community Synagogue was established in Salisbury in the 1950s.[1]

In the late 1930s, German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution settled in the colony. In 1943, the Rhodesian Zionist Council and the Rhodesian Jewish Board of Deputies were established, later being renamed the Central African Zionist Council and Central African Board of Jewish Deputies in 1946.[2] After World War II, Jewish immigrants arrived from South Africa and the United Kingdom. By 1961, the Jewish population peaked at 7,060.[3]

In the first half of the 20th century there was a high level of assimilation by Rhodesian Jews into Rhodesian society, and intermarriage rates were high. Roy Welensky, the second and last Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, was the son of a Lithuanian Jewish father and an Afrikaner mother.[4] By 1957, one out of every seven marriages in Rhodesia were between a Jew and a Gentile.[5]

In addition to the Rhodesian Zionist Council and the Rhodesian Jewish Board of Deputies the Jewish Community developed institutions to serve and strengthen the community including two Jewish Day Schools (one in Harare called Sharon School and one in Bulawayo called Carmel School), community centers, Jewish Cemeteries, Zionist youth movements, Jewish owned sports clubs, Savyon Old Age Home in Bulawayo and several women's organisations. A number of Jews from Zionist youth movements emigrated to Israel.[6]

In 1965, the white minority government of Southern Rhodesia, under Prime Minister Ian Smith, unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia, in response to British demands that the colony be handed over to black majority rule. Rhodesia was then subject to international sanctions, and black nationalist organizations began an insurgency, known as the Rhodesian Bush War, which lasted until 1979, when the Rhodesian government agreed to settle with the black nationalists. By the time the Rhodesian Bush War ended in 1979, most of the country's Jewish population had emigrated,[3] along with many other whites.

Some Jews chose to stay behind when the country was transferred to black majority rule and renamed Zimbabwe in 1980. However, emigration continued, and by 1987, only 1,200 Jews out of an original population of some 7,000 remained. Most Rhodesian Jews emigrated to Israel or South Africa, seeking better economic conditions and Jewish marriage prospects. Until the late 1990s, rabbis resided in Harare and Bulawayo, but left as the economy and community began to decline. Today there is no resident Rabbi.[3]

In 1992, President Robert Mugabe caused upset to the Jewish community in Zimbabwe when he remarked that "[white] commercial farmers are hard-hearted people, you would think they were Jews".[7]

In 2002, after the Jewish community's survival was threatened by a food shortage and poverty in the country, the mayor of Ashkelon, a city in southern Israel, invited Zimbabwean Jews to immigrate to Israel and offered assistance in settling in Ashkelon. Several Zimbabwean Jews accepted his offer.[3]

In 2003 the Bulawayo Synagogue burned down and the small community did not restore the building. Prayers are generally held at the Sinai Hall or Savyon Lodge in Bulawayo. In Harare the Sephardic Community have their own synagogue and the Ashkenazi Community have a separate synagogue. Today because of small numbers of congregants the prayers alternate between the two synagogues.[6]

Today, about 120 Jews live in Zimbabwe, chiefly in Harare and Bulawayo. There are no Jews remaining in Kwekwe, Gweru, and Kadoma. Two-thirds of Zimbabwean Jews are over 65 years of age, and very few are children. The last bar mitzvah took place in 2006.[8]

Lemba people[edit]

The Lemba people speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam,[9] which they claim were transmitted by oral tradition.[10] They have a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line.[11][12] Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population.[13][14] More recent research argues that DNA studies do not support claims for a specifically Jewish genetic heritage.[15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Zimbabwe
  2. ^ Jewish Communities of the World, Anthony Lerman, Springer, 1989, page 195
  3. ^ a b c d Jews of Zimbabwe, Jewish Virtual Library
  4. ^ Sir Roy Welensky, 84, Premier of African Federation, Is Dead, New York Times, December 7, 1991
  5. ^ Intermarriage Among Jews in Rhodesia Viewed As "Alarming", Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 16, 1957
  6. ^ a b Zimbabwe Jewish Community
  7. ^ Jews upset by Mugabe comment, The Independent, 20 July 1992
  8. ^ Berg, Elaine. "Our Month With the Lemba, Zimbabwe's Jewish Tribe". The Jewish Daily Forward. The Forward Association. Retrieved 19 February 2016.
  9. ^ le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba – A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 174, 293.
  10. ^ le Roux, Magdel (2003). The Lemba – A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa?. Pretoria: University of South Africa. pp. 209–224, 24, 37.
  11. ^ Le Roux, Magdel (1999). "'Lost Tribes1 of Israel' in Africa? Some Observations on Judaising Movements in Africa, with Specific Reference to the Lemba in Southern Africa2". Religion and Theology. 6 (2): 111–139. doi:10.1163/157430199X00100.
  12. ^ van Warmelo, N.J. (1966). "Zur Sprache und Herkunft der Lemba". Hamburger Beiträge zur Afrika-Kunde. Deutsches Institut für Afrika-Forschung. 5: 273, 278, 281–282.
  13. ^ Spurdle, AB; Jenkins, T (November 1996), "The origins of the Lemba "Black Jews" of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers.", Am. J. Hum. Genet., 59 (5): 1126–33, PMC 1914832, PMID 8900243
  14. ^ Kleiman, Yaakov (2004). DNA and Tradition – Hc: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews. Devora Publishing. p. 81. ISBN 1-930143-89-3.
  15. ^ Tofanelli Sergio, Taglioli Luca, Bertoncini Stefania, Francalacci Paolo, Klyosov Anatole, Pagani Luca, "Mitochondrial and Y chromosome haplotype motifs as diagnostic markers of Jewish ancestry: a reconsideration", Frontiers in Genetics Volume 5, 2014, [1] DOI=10.3389/fgene.2014.00384
  16. ^ Himla Soodyall; Jennifer G. R Kromberg (29 October 2015). "Human Genetics and Genomics and Sociocultural Beliefs and Practices in South Africa". In Kumar, Dhavendra; Chadwick, Ruth (eds.). Genomics and Society: Ethical, Legal, Cultural and Socioeconomic Implications. Academic Press/Elsevier. p. 316. ISBN 978-0-12-420195-8.

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