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Zambia Virtual Jewish History Tour

The Jewish community in Zambia has had a significant influence on the country’s development, particularly in the realms of commerce, politics, and intellectual life. This influence is particularly evident in the contributions of early Jewish immigrants, whose enterprises and initiatives laid the groundwork for Zambia’s modern economy. The Jewish population in Zambia reached its peak after World War II, but today, there are almost no Jews living in Zambia, a nation of about 20 million people. Despite their dwindling numbers, the historical presence of the Jewish community continues to shape the developing nation, particularly in the construction of its medical infrastructure. The Jewish community faced social antisemitism at times, such as exclusion from tennis or golf clubs. However, they generally maintained open and equitable relations with Africans, setting them apart from other white Zambians or those in neighboring South Africa. Their legacy continues to resonate in Zambia’s societal fabric.

European Jews first arrived in Zambia (then known as Northern Rhodesia) in the late 19th century seeking economic prosperity, primarily from Eastern Europe’s “Pale of Settlement,” with many early Jewish immigrants coming from Lithuania and Latvia. The earliest Jewish settlements in then-Rhodesia were located in Livingstone and Broken Hill. They began as peddlers, traders, and shopkeepers, later diversifying into farming, cattle ranching, timber, and mining. Jewish settlers were among the first Europeans to come to the country and were prominent in developing cattle production and copper mining. 

In 1905, a permanent Jewish congregation had been established in Livingstone. The congregation of 38 members celebrated its first wedding in 1910.

Brother Elie and Harry Susman, who arrived in 1900, became major figures in transportation, retail and mining industries. They were the first to develop large-scale wagon and river transport. They also pegged the Nkana copper mine, which they later sold and is now the largest copper mine in Zambia. Sir Edmund Davis, Solly Joe, and Sir Ernest Oppenheimer were prominent in developing copper mining, while Abe Galaun, who arrived in Zambia just before the outbreak of World War II, became a dominant force in the country's meat and dairy business. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda once dubbed him "the man who feeds the nation."

Over time, much of the Jewish community became very successful in the ranching industry and iron foundries. By 1921, 110 Jews lived in Rhodesia: 48l in Livingstone, 11 in Broken Hill, and 25 in Lusaka. Several more Jewish refugees arrived in the country following the Holocaust. The population peaked at 1,200 in the mid-1950s. By this time, the center of Jewish life had shifted to Lusaka, the copperbelt center of the country. 

During the 1960s, much of the Jewish population immigrated abroad; by 1968, the Jewish community had declined to 600 people.

Simon Zukas, a notable figure in the Zambian Jewish community, played a key role in Zambia’s struggle for independence in the 1950s. Prior to Zambia’s independence in 1964, Jews were active in local government. Jews served as mayors in Livingstone, Broken Hill, Kitwe, and Luanshya. In the 1930s, Sir Roy Welensky was the leading political figure in Northern Rhodesian. From 1959 to 1962, M. G. Rabb was elected to the national legislative assembly. From 1962 to 1968, S. W. Magnus was a prominent member of the Zambian parliament. After 1968, Magnus was appointed a high court judge.

In 1978, the Council of Zambian Jewry was founded in Lusaka to oversee Jewish communal activities. The council provides assistance to political refugees and the poverty-stricken with medical and financial aid. The two synagogues were located in Lusaka and Ndola (closed due to a lack of congregants), but neither had a rabbi. The council accumulated $2 million from the sale of community properties and investments, half of which was donated in 2014 to establish a medical school at the Copperbelt University in Ndola.

By the 1980s, there was no longer a rabbi or a shochet, and kosher food had to be imported. 

About 50 Jews remained in Zambia by 2004, most of them living in Lusaka. By 2013, less than 35 Jews remained. nevertheless, in 2022, Chabad announced it was opening a center in Lusaka.

The Gateway Jewish Museum in Livingstone showcases the 130-year history of Zambian Jews. The museum was established with donations from David Sussman, a descendant of the Jewish pioneers, and others from the community.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft of the African Jewish Congress oversees the heritage and needs of Zambia’s Jews, as well as those in eight other southern African countries. His mission is to respect and record the contributions of once-proud, vibrant Jewish communities in southern Africa. He visits Zambia, bringing kosher products and matzah during Passover, officiating at lifecycle events, and ensuring Jewish gravestones and cemeteries are maintained.

Relations With Israel

Israel and Zambia maintain full diplomatic relations. The Israeli ambassador in Harare, Zimbabwe, represents Zambia.

It was announced in early September 2015 that Zambia would be opening its first official embassy in Israel, further strengthening ties between the countries. A dedication ceremony for the opening of the embassy was attended by Zambian Foreign Minister Harry Kalaba and the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold. During his visit, Kalaba held meetings with many high-ranking Israeli officials and heads of companies interested in doing business with Zambia.

In December 2018, Zambia became the 39th country in the world with a pro-Israel parliamentary caucus. The chairman of the caucus, MP Maxas B Ng’onga explained, “The establishment of the Caucus demonstrates Zambian Parliament’s support for Israel and the importance it places on its relationship with the Jewish state.”

On August 1, 2023, Israeli President Isaac Herzog hosted his Zambian counterpart Hakainde Hichilema in Jerusalem. 

“Economic success is anchored in trade and investments,” Hichilema said. “That is why I want to explore the opportunities within the relationship between us, in light of the tremendous experience that Israel has in the field of technology in agriculture, health and water and more.”

Recalling that he completed his undergraduate studies at a school in Zambia built by Israel, Hichilema said, “This is just one example of our ongoing relationship over the years.”

 Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with his Zambian counterpart Stanley Kakubo and signed several cooperation agreements.

“Africa is blossoming and so is the potential for relations between Israel and countries on the continent,” said Cohen, adding: “Zambia is an important nation for Israel in Africa, which is interested in strengthening relations with us.”

Hichilema also met with Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss increasing bilateral cooperation in the fields of agriculture and food security, expanding Israeli investment in Zambia, and improving its access to Israeli innovation.

“We’re discussing so many ways that we can further improve our relations for the benefit of both our peoples, and also for Israel’s return to Africa. Israel is coming back to Africa; Africa is coming back to Israel. And I think it’s for the betterment of everyone,” said Netanyahu.

Sources: Jews of Southern African Sub-continent.
World Jewish Congress.
Hugh Macmillan and Frank Shapiro, Zion in Africa: The Jews of Zambia, (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999).
Michael Zaidner,  Jewish Travel Guide 2000, (Intl Specialized Book Service, 2000).
Encyclopedia Judaica.
“Zambia to open embassy in Israel,” Zambia Herald, (September 9, 2015).
Gil Hoffman, “Pro-Israel Caucus Formed In Zambian Parliament,” Jerusalem Post, (December 12, 2018).
Bruria Efune, “Rich in Jewish Tradition, Zambia Welcomes First Rabbi in Over 75 Years,”, (November 20, 2022).
“President Herzog hosts Zambian counterpart in Jerusalem,” Cleveland Jewish News, (August 1, 2023).
“Netanyahu hosts Zambian president, hails ‘tremendous’ ties,” Cleveland Jewish News, (August 2, 2023).
Harry D. Wall, “A railway museum in Zambia offers a clue to the African country’s rich Jewish history,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (June 13, 2024).