In 1966 I was sitting in yeshiva in Jerusalem studying hard and all but oblivious to the outside world, when I was summoned to see Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, former Chief Rabbi of South Africa, then retired to Jerusalem. He was a contemporary and friend of my late father and a mentor to me. He told me I should get a taste of the real world and go out to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, where the rabbi had just died tragically and the community needed some spiritual comfort and religious support. He urged me, no he actually ordered me (that was his style) to go out there for a month and stay over the High Holy Days. It would give me an experience that would either confirm my commitment to go into the rabbinate or disabuse me of the idea. I consulted the head of my yeshiva, and he thought it was a good idea.
Southern Rhodesia, then one of the last outposts of the British Empire, had just declared unilateral independence from the British government. Ian Smith refused to allow Rhodesia to become a full democracy, which would mean handing over the reigns of government to a black majority. One of my major challenges would be the stand I took either in support of Smith or against him. I asked the head of my yeshiva whether he had any advice. His response was that he knew nothing about such matters and that I should decide for myself what to do, so long as it was “Tsedek” (just).
When I got there I found a small community. It was vibrant, very hospitable, and warm, an absolute gem. I had a wonderful time. I threw myself enthusiastically into teaching and preaching, and it all confirmed beyond doubt that I wanted to devote my life to Jewish education and the rabbinate.
Most Jews were traditional rather than Orthodox, which was the norm then throughout the British Empire. And they were fiercely Zionist. Both the Zionist youth movements, Habonim and Betar had strong followings. There was a Jewish school, called Carmel School, with a significant minority of black and Indian pupils.
Salisbury (now Harare) was the capital city. Bulawayo was the second city. Salisbury and its hinterland were dominated by the Shona tribe and Bulawayo the Ndebele. Life was very good. Some Jews lived in town. Others were in the lovely suburb of Kumalo, which was known both enviously and derisively by the English as “Jewmalo”. After a game of tennis and a swim in the pool, the fortunate were served drinks relaxing in the verdant African vegetation, listening to the sounds of the wild as the sun set. This was the Imperial custom of the sundowner.
What struck me most forcefully was that most of the white population lived such a privileged life on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Even so, there was a very clear divide. For all those yahoos who would have been considered peasants back in Britain, but who supported white supremacy, there were enough thinking, sensitive whites who realized the situation was morally untenable and that things had to change.
The Jewish community straddled the divide. Most of its members were liberal in the good sense and wanted to see a more egalitarian and fair society. So I took a stance against segregation and against Smith.
Amongst the leaders of the black “resistance” that I admired then was Robert Mugabe. A graduate of the London School of Economics, inclined to the left, but he sounded sensible, moderate, and honest.
I returned to yeshiva and my studies. My career took me to Scotland, but I kept in touch with many of the friends I had made in Bulawayo. Southern Rhodesia eventually became Zimbabwe. Mugabe gained power, and everything I had hoped and prayed for fell apart. His tribe had more votes than the others. So he squashed them. Instead of working together with Joshua Nkomo of the Ndebele, he attacked him and his people. He empowered his own tribe at the expense of everyone else. His moderation turned into bloody murderous oppression, starving, beating, and killing anyone he did not like. The academic saint turned into a despicable, barbaric murderer.
Had he succeeded in establishing a fair egalitarian society, one might, as Marxists loved to, defend his tactics by saying the end justified the means. It didn’t work with Stalin or with Mao. It didn’t work with Mugabe.
He confiscated industries and farmland and handed then over to his goons, who promptly looted and ruined them. He pushed even supportive whites out. He ruined a thriving economy and established a kleptocracy of his cronies. He has survived thanks to another morally dubious state, China. Moderate voices like that of Abe Abrahamson were stifled, and over time the Jewish community dwindled to the point of extinction.
If there were justice in this world, Mugabe would suffer a painful and agonizing death. But there isn’t. Although he is persona non grata in many countries, there are still enough morally compromised gangsters willing to welcome him. I noticed that Putin invited Mugabe to Moscow for the celebrations to mark the end of World War II. They deserve each other.
But what Mugabe illustrates is the enduring and strong grip that tribalism still has on Africa and the Middle East. The Imperial powers had the arrogance and stupidity to think that if you drew lines on maps and cobbled countries together from rival tribes, you could form stable societies. Just as America thought that if you removed tyrants in Iraq and Afghanistan you would be able to replace them with democracies. It is now clear you cannot. Why even “Great” Britain, the mother of parliaments, liberal democracy, and utilitarianism can’t keep its tribes together any more.
You cannot force tribes or religions or even families together if they do not want it. I always wondered why it was that Biblical Israel that made so much of tribes in its early history, then all but scrapped the idea by the end of the first commonwealth two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Perhaps it always was the intention. The census the Torah commanded this past week talks about families and households, even if they did end up in tribal units. I suspect this was a hint at things to come.
Our societies today are riddled with corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and protecting dynastic interests. They may claim the contrary, but it is all approximation and relative; you choose which poison is less noxious or more tolerable. We live in a world of pragmatism, not idealism. Any attempt to force tribes to live with each other, whether it is in Zimbabwe, Burundi, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or indeed Palestine, will simply not work. But that won’t stop idiots or malignant interests from pretending it will work. You can sometimes get different people to live together and get to respect each other. But where tribal rivalries are fierce, they exacerbate difference and get in the way of integration. Then all you can do is limit the damage until they decide the time is right. Strong fences make good neighbors.