History of the Jews in Zimbabwe

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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 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. After World War II, Jewish immigrants arrived from South Africa and the United Kingdom. By 1961, the Jewish population peaked at 7,060.[1]

Rhodesian Jews were generally assimilated into Rhodesian society, and intermarriage rates were high. In 1957, one out of every seven marriages in Rhodesia were between a Jew and a Gentile.[2] However, a number of Jews from Zionist youth movements immigrated to Israel.

In 1965, the white minority government of Southern Rhodesia, under Prime Minister Ian Smith, 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,[1] along with many 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 immigrated to Israel or South Africa, seeking better economic conditions and Jewish marriage prospects. Until the late 1980s, rabbis resided in Harare and Bulawayo, but left as the economy began to decline. By the late 1990s, a few rabbis had returned to Zimbabwe.[1] Some Jews who faced political persecution under the regime of President Robert Mugabe were also evacuated by the Mossad (Israeli secret service) and moved to Israel.

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, and several Jews accepted his offer.[1]

Today, about 260 Jews live in Zimbabwe, chiefly in Harare and Bulawayo. A few Jews remain 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.

Lemba people[edit]

Main article: Lemba people

The Lemba people, a Black African people of about 50,000-80,000 people who live in central Zimbabwe and South Africa[3] in southern Africa claim a common descent belonging to the Jewish people.[4][5]

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