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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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Israel

Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’

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All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.

The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.

However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.

“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”

But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”

He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.

He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.

He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”

Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.

Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.

Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”

Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.

“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.

“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”

“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.

“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”

He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.

A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.

“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”

The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”

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Icy response to Ben & Jerry’s decision to exit settlements

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Kosher supermarkets are rethinking their inventory. Politicians are emptying their freezers. And the foreign minister of Israel is vowing to get involved in local American politics.

The reactions were all part of the firestorm that quirky ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s set off on Monday morning, 19 July, with its announcement that it would no longer sell ice cream in “occupied Palestinian territory”.

The Vermont-based company, founded by two Jews and long known for its left-leaning politics, had gone dark on social media for two months since the recent outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. The announcement broke that silence, simultaneously infuriating Israel advocates who said the decision was an unfair attack on Israel, and disappointing pro-Palestinian advocates who said the company should have gone further.

Israeli politicians, supermarkets in the United States, various pundits, and even Ben & Jerry’s current Israeli licensee went after the ice cream maker and its corporate parent, British multinational Unilever, for its statement. (The company’s Jewish founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, no longer manage the brand, but have often used their frozen treats to push social-justice causes.)

Reactions from Israel’s leaders were harsh. In spite of the distinctions Ben & Jerry’s made in its statement between Israel and the “occupied Palestinian territory”, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a long-time supporter of the settlements, called the decision a “boycott of Israel” and said Ben & Jerry’s “decided to brand itself as an anti-Israel ice cream”. His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted, “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the architect of the current ruling coalition, who is generally to Bennett’s left regarding the Palestinians, went even further, calling the decision a “shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement], and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse”. He called on US states to take domestic action against Ben & Jerry’s based on state laws that prohibit the government from contracting with entities that boycott Israel.

Israeli cabinet minister Orna Barbivay posted a TikTok video of her throwing a pint in the trash; the flavour she tossed couldn’t be determined at press time.

Other Israeli public figures appeared to compare the ice cream company’s settlement boycott to terrorism. Eran Cicurel, an editor at Israel’s public broadcaster, tweeted that the colour scheme on Ben & Jerry’s statement was similar to that of the flag of the terror group Hamas.

Amichai Chikli, a right-wing legislator in Israel’s Knesset, tweeted, “Ben & Jerry’s you picked the wrong side”, and posted an infamous photo from 2000 of a Palestinian who had just killed two Israeli soldiers displaying his hands through a window, covered in the soldiers’ blood.

American Jewish groups offered varied responses to the company’s scoop that mapped to their political orientation.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, said that Ben & Jerry’s was drawing “a principled and rational distinction between commercial transactions in the state of Israel and those in the territory it occupies”, and said the term “antisemitism” didn’t apply to the company’s actions.

Daniel Sokatch, chief executive of the left-wing New Israel Fund, said that Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t being antisemitic in exiting “occupied Palestinian territory” because “these lands aren’t sovereign Israel”.

“Attacking people who try and distinguish between sovereign and non-sovereign Israel by calling them antisemitic is to evade a matter of fact, abuse the meaning of ‘antisemitism’, and ultimately gaslight those who would try and work towards a future of equality and justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Sokatch said in a statement.

The Anti-Defamation League, a centrist group, said it was “disappointed” by the move. “You can disagree with policies without feeding into dangerous campaigns that seek to undermine Israel,” it said, but refrained from calling for specific action.

And the right-wing Zionist Organization of America called for a boycott of the ice cream, proclaiming that Ben & Jerry’s is “bad for your moral and physical health”. The call was echoed by others such as Jewish conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who said he would stop eating the brand.

Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, an activist group based in Ben & Jerry’s home state that has been leading a years-long campaign against the ice cream maker for doing business in Israel at all, said the move didn’t go far enough.

“By maintaining a presence in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be complicit in the killing, imprisonment, and dispossession of Palestinian people and the flaunting of international law,” the group’s president, Kathy Shapiro, said in a statement. A related group, Occupy Burlington, had been a driving force behind the most recent social-media push against Ben & Jerry’s.

Meanwhile, CodePink, an international left-wing women’s group, praised the decision for showing that pressure works. But the group also said the company should do more.

“Ben & Jerry’s included in the statement that they will be remaining in Israel,” said Danaka Katovich, a Middle East campaign coordinator for CodePink. “I hope Ben & Jerry’s continues to listen to Palestinians and their demands moving forward, and will recognise that Israel’s system of apartheid exists not only in the occupied territories but from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea.”

The Israeli licensee of Ben & Jerry’s, which operates a factory in the town of Be’er Tuvia, took to social media hours after the announcement to denounce the American corporation and its parent company. It called on Israeli consumers to continue purchasing the ice cream brand because hundreds of local workers needed their support.

In a recorded video, Chief Executive Avi Zinger said he had been notified earlier on Monday morning that the company wouldn’t renew his license when it expires at the end of 2022.

“They did this because we wouldn’t agree to stop selling ice cream in all parts of Israel,” Zinger said. “The reason they did that is because of BDS pressure. We aren’t surrendering, and it’s important that you support us.”

In happier times for Ben & Jerry’s Israel relations, the company made a concentrated outreach to its customer base with original, Israel-exclusive flavours, including charoset and matzah crunch – both certified kosher for Passover.

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World News in Brief

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(JTA) Orthodox player second to hit the big league

The Washington Nationals selected Elie Kligman in its final and 20th round pick on 13 July, making him the second Orthodox Jewish player ever drafted into the league and the second in two days. The Arizona Diamondbacks picked 17-year-old Long Island, New York, native, Jacob Steinmetz, 77th overall on 12 July.

According to MLB.com, Kligman, 18, has moved towards becoming a catcher, but has also played shortstop and thrown the ball 90 miles an hour (144km per hour) as a pitcher. (The pitcher, Steinmetz, has reportedly touched as high as 97 miles per hour.) Kligman switch-hits as well, meaning that he can bat righty or lefty, a skill that boosts his future value.

The Las Vegas native is also more observant than Steinmetz. While Steinmetz plays on the Jewish Sabbath, albeit in walking distance of his hotels, Kligman doesn’t.

“That day of Shabbos is for G-d. I’m not going to change that,” he told The New York Times in March.

Trump’s in-laws tout Haley for president

Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner and the father-in-law of Ivanka Trump, hosted a fundraising event for Nikki Haley and speculated about the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador becoming president.

If Haley declares, and Donald Trump, Jared Kushner’s father-in-law, says he wants another shot at the White House, things could get interesting at the Kushner family seder.

Haley has said she will announce her decision about whether to run in 2024 early in 2023. She is among the more popular potential Republican candidates among pro-Israel Jews.

Fired Oregon professor sues for $4 million

A professor who was fired from an Oregon university after publicly criticising its president for antisemitism and for neglecting sexual-harassment allegations has sued the university for $4 million (R58 million).

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a tenured English professor at the Baptist-affiliated Linfield University, accused President Miles Davis of making multiple antisemitic remarks to him in recent years. The antisemitism, Pollack-Pelzner said, was partly a backlash to his demands that the school do more to address allegations of sexual assault against university trustees including Davis.

Davis denied some of the allegations during an independent investigation, though later admitted to making a remark about Jewish noses.

In April, Linfield fired Pollack-Pelzner, citing “serious breaches of the individual’s duty to the institution”. The termination didn’t appear to follow the process for firing tenured faculty.

British Jews welcome 800-year-old apology

British Jewish leaders say an anticipated apology from the Church of England for antisemitic laws enacted in 1222 is “better late than never”.

The church is planning a formal “act of repentance” for next year, the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford, a set of laws that restricted Jews’ rights to engage with Christians in England, according to a report in the Telegraph.

The laws ultimately led to the expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290. They weren’t officially readmitted until 1656.

“The historic trauma of medieval English antisemitism can never be erased, and its legacy survives today. For example, through the persistence of the ‘blood libel’ allegation that was invented in this country,” Dave Rich, the policy director of a British antisemitism watchdog group, told the Telegraph. “But at a time of rising antisemitism, the support of the Church of England for our Jewish community is most welcome as a reminder that the Britain of today is a very different place.”

Israel first to offer COVID-19 vaccine booster shot

Israel has begun inviting immunocompromised adults to receive a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as case rates in the country have risen again due to the spread of the Delta variant.

Israel led the world in vaccinating most of its population early this year, and the country fully reopened as COVID-19 cases plummeted to a low of single digits during a few days in late May and early June. But cases have since spiked back up to more than 400 a day.

In response, Israel is the first country in the world to approve a third dose of the vaccine as a booster shot, according to The Times of Israel. It has also brought back an indoor-mask mandate.

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