Uganda rabbi hopes to be first Jew in parliament

By Jennifer Lipman, November 26, 2010
Set to make history: Rabbi Gershom Sizomu

Set to make history: Rabbi Gershom Sizomu

A Ugandan Jew who grew up under Idi Amin is aiming to become the first member of his community to be elected to the country's parliament.

When Ugandans go to the polls in February Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, 41, hopes to be chosen to represent the mostly Muslim area of Bungonkho North, in the city of Mbale.

Rabbi Sizomu, whose brother served two terms in regional office, has already been endorsed by Uganda's main opposition party and has the support of several leading politicians.

A member of the Abayudaya Jewish community, if he is successful he will become the only rabbi outside Israel currently serving in national office and the highest-ranking Abayudaya Jew in history.

The 1,000-strong community was founded 91 years ago when a military chieftain instructed his tribe to adopt the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. During Amin's dictatorship the community was severely persecuted and some members forcibly converted to Islam.

Rabbi Sizomu, who was just a year old when the so-called "butcher of Uganda" seized power and suspended the constitution, remembers praying secretly in his bedroom as a child.

"We were not allowed to observe our faith or express our beliefs," he said. "It was very hard growing up as a Jew in that environment. Coming from a people who have experienced social and economic problems, I dream of being in government so I can help improve the rights of people."

Last June he helped to set up a health centre in Mbale, and his campaign is centred on raising medical standards by providing residents with mosquito nets and clean water. Yet more than three decades after the Amin, it can still be difficult for a politician from a minority community to win support.

"At first I experienced some difficulty because there is antisemitism," he said. "My opponent is Muslim and there are those who are using the religion factor and saying 'vote for a fellow Muslim'.

"Some fanatics are 'scaring' the Muslim population, using the Israel-Palestinian conflict and suggesting that a politically empowered Jewish leader could convert many Muslims to Judaism."

But Rabbi Sizomu, whose campaign manger is Muslim, said he has the backing of many young Ugandans who are comfortable with his ideas and aware of his "commitment to peace and development".

The Jewish community has also been very supportive of his campaign. "They are also hoping to produce the first Jewish candidate," he said. "The first of many."

He gained semicha in America with the help of Jewish development organisation Be'chol Lashon. Diane Tobin, its director, praised his "vision, determination and courage", adding: "His bid for parliament brings respect to the Jewish people of Uganda, Africa, and the entire Jewish world."

With three months to go before the election, Rabbi Sizomu knows he has his work cut out.

"I might win, I might not, but I can hope," he said. "Here, anything can happen."

Last updated: 10:51am, November 26 2010