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Holocaust refugee’s son a powerful politician in Congo

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(JTA) Like many powerful politicians in Africa, Moise Katumbi goes by multiple titles. He is widely seen as the leader of the opposition of his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the president of its TP Mazembe soccer team, which is one of Africa’s finest.

Now, Katumbi is also closer than he’s ever been to becoming the first African ruler descended from a Holocaust refugee.

Katumbi’s father, Nissim Soriano, was a Greek Jew who fled the island of Rhodes from the Nazis and settled in Congo in the 1930s when it was still a Belgian colony. Soriano built a fishing empire, and married the daughter of a local chief, Mwata Kazembe XIV Chinyanta Nakula, with whom he had two children.

Katumbi, who has said several times that he wants to become president, forged a crucial political union last month with former rival Jean-Pierre Bemba. The union helped Katumbi, a former regional governor, become the second-strongest politician behind only president, Felix Tshisekedi.

Katumbi doesn’t define himself as Jewish, “but he has a warm connection to Judaism and Israel”, said Menachem Margolin, a Brussels-based rabbi who has been a close confidant of Katumbi since 2018.

In public addresses, the African politician refers frequently to his Jewish roots, even calling himself “the Moses of Katanga, back to lead his people”. (Moise is the French spelling for the name Moses.) Katumbi was the governor of Katanga, one of the country’s 21 provinces and by far its richest in minerals.

Margolin, the Israel-born director of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, said his relationship with Katumbi started “because I’m a rabbi”, but he declined to elaborate, citing his need to preserve the privacy of those who approach him in his rabbinical capacity.

Last week, Katumbi was asked to become prime minister or appoint one of his allies to the post, according to the African Report. He has not yet responded to the offer. Katumbi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, spent three years in exile in Brussels, where he met Margolin, before his return to Congo in 2019.

Katumbi had to flee because prosecutors in the capital, Kinshasa, issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged corruption. Katumbi, who enjoys considerable popularity in Katanga, has argued the claim was bogus to prevent him from running for president. The warrant was finally lifted in 2019, allowing his return.

Congo has lived through decades of anti-democratic political dysfunction that has essentially bankrupted the war-torn Central African nation three times the size of Texas with an unparalleled wealth in natural resources.

Katumbi’s own family lost everything, including their name, in one of the Congo’s best-known upheavals: the rise to power of its kleptocratic former despot, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1965. Under Mobutu, his loyalists nationalised and divided among themselves businesses and possessions across the country, including the Soriano family’s fishery business. The family was also forced to change their Western-sounding name to something more African. They selected Katumbi, a name that appears in the lineage of the chief’s family.

Mobutu, who had seized power in a coup d’état, renamed the Republic of the Congo as Zaire. Following his ouster, the name was changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Greece, Soriano’s family, including his parents, had all perished in the Holocaust. Soriano’s sisters, however, came with him to the Congo and survived.

Katumbi, who is married and has six children, preaches reform and change in his speeches, a focus reflected in the very name of his party, Together for Change. His credentials go beyond rhetoric.

As governor of Katanga, Katumbi pulled off one of the most remarkable economic rehabilitation programmes in Africa in recent history.

Annual revenue in his region – the size of Spain which has 55% of the world’s cobalt production and 5% of copper – was about $100m (R1.5bn) in 2007 when he was elected governor at the age of 43. By 2013, two years before the end of Katumbi’s term, revenue had soared to $1.2bn (R17.7bn).

Katumbi achieved this partly by halting the export of raw materials and investing heavily in local processing and refinement. It was a bold gambit in a country where a culture of corruption and theft has stunted industrial growth for decades.

Yet that move, coupled with Katumbi’s political appointments and vigilance, paid off massively. Under his leadership, the production of copper cathodes in Katanga rose from 18 000 tons in 2007 to more than a million tons six years later, according to African Business.

Just less than a third of the province’s collapsing roads have been rebuilt in that period and access to water rose from less than 5% to 67% of the population. School attendance in Katanga, where about five million people live, rose from 400 000 children in 2007 to 1.2 million in 2013. The share of girls at schools tripled, from 15% to 45%.

It’s not anywhere near good enough, Katumbi told African Business.

“We not only have minerals in abundance, we have good rains, good soil. We should be as economically strong as South Africa,” he said.

Those who know Katumbi, an athletically built tennis and soccer player, speak of his laid-back demeanour, wry sense of humour, and excellent people skills in at least three languages, including English and French.

Africa, and Congo specifically – where about 70% of the population live in extreme poverty on less than $2 (R29.48) a day – have experienced many promising politicians who declare their intention to improve the lives of their constituents but end up doing the opposite.

Margolin believes Katumbi’s story will be different.

“He has what he takes,” the rabbi said. “He has the warmth needed to be loved by his people and the vision necessary to lead them and command the respect of international partners. I think something very special is about to happen in Congo.”

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Shabbos Project

Shabbos Project in 1 500 cities

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The Shabbos Project is once again happening this weekend in more than 1 500 cities and 100 countries around the world.

Following last year’s pivot to home-based Shabbos experiences and Zoom challah bakes – necessitated by the pandemic – this year, the Shabbos Project is close to returning to pre-COVID-19 levels of involvement.

In South Africa, events centre on the Big Shabbos Walk, with shuls arranging a whole host of Shabbos afternoon programmes, many of them outdoors to take advantage of the weather, which also makes it safer from a COVID-19 point of view.

All across the world, things are back in full swing.

Among the new initiatives: a student from Cornell University in New York is leading a campaign among fellow students to switch off their phones for Shabbos. International youth movement EnerJew is co-ordinating the “Gift Shabbos” campaign in which Jewish teenagers in 20 cities in the former Soviet Union will bake challah and deliver it along with greeting cards and candles to elder community members. And Olami France is co-ordinating a full Shabbos experience for students on college campuses in Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, and for French-speaking students in Jerusalem, Madrid, and Porto.

The Global Jewish Pen Pal Program is organising a challah bake for its community of Jewish pen pals of all ages living around the world. Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s pioneering leader and innovator in the field of disabilities, has launched an accessible Shabbos-themed digital platform to help children around the world learn about Shabbos in an engaging and exciting way.

And Zehud, which provides online Jewish education to children in isolated Jewish communities across Europe, is hosting a Zoom challah bake for families from all 57 regions where it’s active.

In Prague, Czech Republic, a community Shabbaton will include Shabbos dinner at a local kosher restaurant, a children’s prayer workshop, and a havdalah concert at the Lauder Jewish day school. Cali, Colombia has an all-week programme, including a flower workshop for women, cocktail class for men, and a Thursday night pizza bake, followed by a central Shabbaton for the community. And in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, four very different organisations – Aish UK, Chabad, Jsoc, and the University of Birmingham Chaplaincy – are joining forces for a special student challah bake.

In Israel, where the Shabbos Project has been a real unifying force in society, a group of women in Kochav Yair have organised a street kiddush for the entire yishuv for people of all levels of observance to get to know each other better. In Eilat, open-invitation Shabbos dinners are happening at four central locations across the city. In Karnei Shomron, members of the religious Bnei Akiva and secular Tzofim youth groups have joined forces to arrange a Shabbos gala dinner for soldiers from the local battalion. And, the residents of Raanana will be providing hot, homemade Shabbos meals to Magen David Adom first responders. Finally, a group of Israel-based influencers on Instagram, from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of observance, are publishing a series of posts to bring awareness of the Shabbos Project to a younger audience.

Meanwhile, a woman in Park Potomac in the United States is going door to door in her neighbourhood, inviting anyone with a mezuzah for Shabbos. Organisers of a challah bake in Lisbon, Portugal are using the proceeds to distribute Shabbos meals to Jewish families in need. And in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, four families new to the Shabbos experience are hosting Shabbos dinner – they’ve invited all their neighbours and have received a special Shabbos kit to assist them with the preparations.

Other highlights include a glow-in-the-dark challah bake in Toronto, Canada; Guatemala reopening its shul for special Shabbos services after a two-year hiatus; a Shabbos dinner run by and for university students in Nice, France; and a Shabbaton for high school learners in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online

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(JTA) During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says still haunts him almost 20 years later.

“I was horrified to see children playing atop the ruins of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, scampering about debris littered with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya many years ago for Italy, told the Behdrei Haredim news site in Israel last week.

The experience turned Gerbi into an advocate for what are known as heritage sites in his old community. But over the years, his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews remain, came to naught.

So Gerbi began to consider alternatives. And now, the psychologist who lives in Rome has announced a new effort to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish ones that have been devastated in his country of birth.

“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were obliterated,” he told the news site. “So I decided to make a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”

The virtual cemeteries will have sections for prominent rabbis and commemorative pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps operated by Nazi-allied Italy – as well as other pages recalling the victims of three waves of pogroms, in 1945, 1948, and 1967, he said.

Users of the website will be able to light memorial candles virtually and dedicate Kaddish mourning prayers through the website interface. “It will be a way to remember the dead of a community gone extinct,” Gerbi said.

The initiative is a collaboration with ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which seeks to document the experiences of Jews around the globe and over time. Together, they’re asking people with information about Jews buried in Libya to reach out.

Their effort is in line with other initiatives that aim to rebuild extinct Jewish communities online because their former homes are so inhospitable to restoration efforts, such as Diarna, a massive website that allows users to explore the cities in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews used to live.

Gerbi’s effort is narrower, focusing exclusively on the cemeteries of Libya, where, during World War II, 40 000 Jews lived in communities with a centuries-long history.

The Holocaust and the antisemitic policies of the independent Libyan government that followed, as well as hostility toward Jews by the local population, drove all of them out. By 2004, Libya didn’t have a single Jew residing in it, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

Gerbi’s family was part of that migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them among the last Jews to leave the country. By 1969, the country had only 100 Jews.

The decades that followed, under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, offered few opportunities for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the last decade has been marked by intermittent fighting among clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.

While those conditions have been harsh for Libyans, Gerbi said he hopes the shake-up could eventually give rise to a government that would be willing to address the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalise relations with Israel, as other Arab nations in the region have done in the past year. But he knows that could take many years, and he has essentially given up hope of having officials facilitate physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.

The situation of those sites was poor even before Libya erupted into civil war, he said.

It’s been 19 years since his visit to Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery, but “the gruesome sights and chilling images I saw won’t let go of me”, he said. In 2007, Gerbi visited the site again, “and I was shocked to discover that even the debris had been cleared out. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and high-rise buildings. There’s isn’t a shred left.”

In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes with human remains stuffed into them haphazardly. They had been collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.

Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organisation of the Jews of Libya, which promotes the interests of people whose families have roots in Libya.

Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Tripoli is being turned into an Islamic religious centre without permission.

“The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities [read: militias] since there is now no Jew living in Tripoli,” he told Moked, the Italian Jewish news site.

“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan clearly is to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”

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Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders

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(JTA) In an interview that aired on HBO, both of the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand reiterated that they stood behind the company’s decision to stop selling their products in the West Bank.

But for Jerry Greenfield, being accused of antisemitism is “painful”. For Ben Cohen, it’s “absurd”.

“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are being characterised as boycotting Israel, which isn’t the case at all. It’s not boycotting Israel in any way,” Greenfield said in an interview with Axios that aired on its HBO show on 10 October.

The Jewish duo, who founded the company in 1978, are no longer its owners, but they remain the most recognisable public faces of the company. They had previously defended the West Bank decision in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the move took place in July, but the Axios interview gave them a chance to expound on the human side of the aftermath.

“It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people and I totally understand it. It’s a painful issue for a lot of people,” Greenfield said.

They were also asked how it felt to be “wrapped up in accusations of antisemitism”.

“Totally fine,” Cohen said, laughing. “It’s absurd. What, I’m anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew! All my family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”

Ben & Jerry’s had long been engaged in social issues when it decided to pull its product from the West Bank after months of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of Israel’s latest armed conflict with Gaza. The decision prompted calls to boycott Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, along with accusations of antisemitism from some pro-Israel activists. The state of Arizona divested nearly $200 million (R2.9 billion) from Unilever in September, and several other states have since reviewed their investments in the conglomerate.

Unilever has also said in public statements that it doesn’t believe Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the state of Israel, and that it plans to keep selling within the borders Israel established after the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Israeli law outlaws business that boycotts the West Bank, so it remains to be seen whether the company will be allowed to follow through with its plan.

When asked why Ben & Jerry’s continued to sell its ice cream in states with policies that aren’t in line with Cohen and Greenfield’s values – such as Texas, where access to abortion is now limited, and Georgia, where voting rights have been curtailed. Cohen didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know. I mean it’s an interesting question, I don’t know what that would accomplish, we’re working on those issues of voting rights and … I don’t know. I think you ask a really good question, and I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Cohen said.

Greenfield suggested that the answer had to do with international law.

“One thing that’s different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law, so I think that’s a consideration,” Greenfield said.

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