The Jews of the Congo
A new book tells the story of the tiny Jewish community in the Belgian Congo. Dan Colwell meets author Moïse Rahmani and discovers an extraordinary tale
The Congo was Belgium's great colonial adventure, but there were many other non-African communities apart from the Belgians buzzing around the honey pot: Portuguese, Greeks, Indians, British, Americans. The least known and yet probably the most influential was a group of around 2,500 Jewish businessmen and their families.
They arrived in the Congo in the early 20th century, mainly from Rhodes. Many of them – like the family of top fashion designer Olivier Strelli – ended up in Belgium after Congolese independence.
Moïse Rahmani, who moved to Brussels from Kinsangali in 1969, is the author of Shalom Bwana, a fascinating book in French on the subject. I asked him what lay behind this exodus to the Congo. "It started with the arrival there of a remarkable man called Solomon Benatar," he says. In 1910, Benatar, a businessman in Rhodesia at the time, was invited by the governor of Katanga to star a business in the city of Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi). He asked for a pot of land near the railway station was to be built and opened a general store. Eventually this became Solbena, one of the country's largest forms. Other Jewish businessmen came in his wake, often because of family connections. This was dramatically boosted by the increasingly dangerous political situation in Europe in the 1930s. In Rahmani's own case, his father had left the Congo for Cairo, but returned in 1956 after being exiled from the Egypt of President Gamal Nasser.
I wondered what was it like arriving in such a radically different place. "The Congo was a paradise for us – a new promised Land", says Rahmani. "There was no anti-Semitism. And the sense of space was marvellous. We'd drive 400 kilometres to a market just because it had the fruits we liked. Distance meant nothing. The skies were always blue, the air was pure… It was a fantastic life".
While not exactly traditional European empire-builders, the Jewish community nonetheless had a significant role in developing the nation. This included not only big players like Benatar, but the pioneering Jewish traders who opened up the whole Kasai region. "They'd go out with merchandise – they were mainly involved in general trade, textiles and the like – and give credit to small African traders. That hadn't been done before. They trusted them, you see; it was something very important."
Rahmani talks in his book of the ability of the Jews to assimilate into whichever society they found themselves in. Given their historical experience of persecution, though, was there any irony in their assimilating into the colonial ruling class in the Congo?
"We were always minority within the colonial minority. And Jewish employers had a particularly good relationship with their African workers. They have a tradition of treating their staff well, so the African employees were treated fairly. It's a fact that African wanted to work for Jewish employers and when there were riots in the late 1950s, many African workers wrote on the walls, "Jewish house', which meant, "Don't touch them". We were protected by them".
It's a stark contrast to how Jewish property had once been marked out for violence in cities in Europe. Significantly, the Jewish business community remained an influential force in the Congo in the Years immediately following independence. Rahmani refers in his book to the former Congolese prime prime_minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo, who says that he only came to know the Jewish community after 1960, when Belgian rule had ended. "Economically their participation was central at this tie, "Kengo commented. Even more intriguing is the fact that Kengo is himself half-Jewish.
For Rahmani, a vital part of his experience of the Congo is that the Jewish community didn't leave through expulsion.
They mainly left because of the worsening economy in the late 1960s. Rahmani himself stayed in business in Kisangali until his first child was born, when he decided it was best in the long run to have her educated in Europe. "Belgium was the natural place for us to go. We were used to the Belgian way of thinking – and we thought that maybe, from Belgium, it would be easier to return one day to the Congo". When I ask whether he's ever been back, he suddenly looks melancholy. "That hasn't happened. No, I've tried to forget it – but it's in our blood…"
Many of Rahmani's friends in Brussels are also from the Congo-Jewish community. What do they think of the country now, I wonder. "To see the troubles there hurts us. There's a sense of loss about a place we put our work and our hopes into. But we know from experience that the Congolese are extraordinary people". As were their Jewish neighbours, I can't help but think.
Shalom Bwana, la saga des Juifs du Congo (Romillat) cost 22.-€ and is available at Filigranes, Shoresh, Tropismes, Librairie de Rome, Why Not and Télé Livres.