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‘Schtum is best’ – Zimbabwe’s Jews keep their heads low

Amid reports of Robert Mugabe's downfall, the country's Jewish community plays it safe

    Tanks on the streets of Harare this week
    Tanks on the streets of Harare this week AP

    For the tiny Jewish community in Zimbabwe, the events of this week, in which President Robert Mugabe was placed under house arrest in an apparent military intervention, were a reason for caution, not celebration.

    Zimbabweans were generally guarded when asked by foreign news outlets about the events of Wednesday morning, which seemed to see the man who has been in charge since their country’s independence in 1980 stripped of his power.

    “What is good is that this has happened at the top and it is not affecting us on the ground. People could be killing each other,” 65-year-old housewife Keresenzia Moyo told AFP in Harare.

    Major General Sibusiso Moyo insisted on state-run television that this was not a military takeover of the government but an operation “targeting criminals around [Robert Mugabe] who are committing crimes”.

    He promised a swift return to “normalcy” but few observers believed the 93-year-old Mr Mugabe would be restored to the height of his powers.

    The Jewish community in the capital Harare, once flourishing, is now made up of about 80 people divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardi shuls, said Dave Bloom, who was raised in Zimbabwe.

    Such small numbers mean that keeping Jewish life going is a struggle — many, like Mr Bloom, have since relocated to Israel — and forming a minyan can be difficult, even when the two Harare communities combine.

    It also means Jews are unwilling to talk openly about the most significant change in their country this century.

    The reality is that Zimbabwe has effectively been a police state for many years. Few foreign journalists are based in the country, there is extensive government control news and information and social media is closely monitored.

    Only last week Martha O’Donovan, a 25-year-old US citizen, was released from prison for allegedly insulting Mr Mugabe on Twitter – after posting $1000 bail. She faces 20 years in prison for subversion after referring to him as a “sick man” with an image of the president attached to a catheter. 

    She denies the charges.

    Such is the restrictive environment that no member of the Jewish community in Zimbabwe contacted by the JC this week was willing to speak on the record about the situation.

    People on the small, password-protected Zimbabwe Jewish group on one social media website were warning fellow members against loose talk.

    “Don’t speculate and gossip,” one message said. “You will only hear what they want you to. 

    “For those who have family members there, discretion is the understatement of the day. 

    “Schtum is best.”

    Most members complained of not knowing what was going on: they saw a visible army presence, particularly in government districts of the capital, but elsewhere it was business as usual.

    One member wrote that the situation in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, was “really a storm in a teacup”.

    “Zimbabwe is, in some ways, the African equivalent of North Korea,” Mr Bloom told me.

    He said the remnants of the once very active Jewish community can be found in Harare and Bulawayo’s top private primary schools — called Sharon and Carmel respectively.

    “Each school has about 120 students and they still have some Jewish traditions like Kiddush on Friday mornings,” he said.

    “There are, however, almost no Jewish kids in those schools.”

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