Secret airlift for Zimbabawe

By Shelly Paz, June 13, 2008
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An emergency mission to airlift the few remaining Zimbabwean Jews to Israel has been launched by the Jewish Agency.

Staff have spoken individually to every member of the 350-strong community and are believed to be making arrangements for their removal at short notice.

Details are a closely guarded secret. There is no Israeli embassy in Harare and there are no direct flights to Tel Aviv, but the countries do have diplomatic ties.

This weekend a rabbi will fly to Britain from South-Africa to raise funds to support the operation, the cost of which could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of African communities outside South Africa, said some of the older members of the Zimbabwe community were reluctant to leave, even though conditions continue to deteriorate.

“It is important to understand that this is the remnant of a once very strong community that numbered 7,500 people in its prime. Those who chose to stay feel loyal to their staff who depend on them, afraid of the struggle to adjust in a new place and really don’t want to leave.”

Claire Schultz, the director of communications for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said the JDC was “watching the situation closely”, adding: “We are providing welfare to the community as needed in partnership with the African Jewish Congress. The welfare assistance we are providing is in the form of cash for emergency needs via the African Jewish Congress.”


President Mugabe: facing a second round of elections this month

Zimbabweans have been facing an ongoing campaign of violence by the governing party, ZANU-PF, led by President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since the country was given independence 28 years ago.

Mr Mugabe is to face a second round of elections on June 27 after he failed conclusively to win power at the end of March. Reports suggest that he is running a powerful and violent intimidation campaign against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in order to ensure the continued rule of ZANU-PF.

The country’s spiralling economic problems have forced many young Jews to flee over the past eight years. So far, only six of the older ones have begun making plans to leave.

Between 1949 and 1950, an estimated 49,000 Yemeni Jews were brought to Israel in the so-called Operation Magic Carpet. Two later missions in 1984 and 1991, Operations Moses and Solomon, brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in covert military operations.

Ofer Dahan, the Jewish Agency’s senior envoy to southern Africa, said they were scheduled to “leave Zimbabwe soon” but he refused to elaborate. 

Arnold Kransdorff, a former Zimbabwean who lives in the UK, visited the country regularly until his mother died two years ago in Bulawayo.

“My mother, just like the majority of the population there, was afraid of not being able to adjust somewhere else. She was very patriotic and she was happy till the end, regardless of the political reality”, he said.

“Today, the main problem is that people don’t want to leave, but nor can they stay unless they have relatives outside the country who can support them, because all their resources are eaten up by inflation.”

One prominent member of the community there, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that despite the food shortage, people “feel safe”.

“People become accustomed to eating very little, so they get used to hunger. In terms of personal security, they feel protected. So I can understand why they are not in a rush to leave.”

But he noted that the economy “had not been at such a low point before”.

An organised Jewish community began in the then Rhodesia in 1894, growing to a peak of 7,500 in the 60s.

Jews such as Sir Roy Welensky, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, have played their part. Sir Anthony Gubbay was Chief Justice until he was forced out of office by Robert Mugabe in 2001.

The country has three synagogues:two in Harare and one in Bulawayo. Harare also has one remaining Jewish school. Of its 200 pupils, just five are Jewish — the children of Israeli emissaries working in the country.

    Last updated: 2:18pm, June 17 2008