Eastern Africa News Network

What happened to the Jews who were living in Kenya and Tanzania?

There are at least 70 Jews living around Arusha, in Northern Tanzania at the moment as members of the Mayanot Yehudim (Mayahudim) community.

 Jews communities have been settling in various parts of East Africa, especially Kenya and Tanzania since the late 1880s.

At least, the history of the Jews in Tanzania dates back to the 1880s, when Yemenite, Ethiopian, and Omani Jews arrived in the country.

Afterwards, there was an influx of Polish and German Jews who settled in Tanzania between the 1930s and the 1950s.

They were fleeing from the Nazi driven persecutions in Europe.

The Jewish community of Arusha which was founded by Yemenite Jews, who had crossed the Gulf of Aden, existed in the city of Arusha for over a century.

They arrived in Northern Tanzania in the 1880s, passing through Ethiopia and Kenya before settling in Arusha.

Also settling in Arusha were the Moroccan, Omani, and Ethiopian Jews, many coming from the towns of Mawza and Sanaa.

There were some Yemenites who previously landed in Zanzibar but later moved to Arusha.

During the 1930s, over 5,000 Polish Jews who managed to escape Nazi persecution in Europe also moved to Tanzania and joined the Arusha Jewish community.

But they all kept a low profile because of anti-Semitism.

Except for one Harry Adam, who used to run the popular Jambo Café along Boma road in Arusha City (between 1998 and 2002 before he sold the business), who let people know that he was a Jew.

What later drove most Jews out of Northern Tanzania were anti-Semitic violence as well as aggressive missionary activities in the area.

For instance, the Jews synagogue in Arusha was attacked and destroyed while its Sefer Torah razed to ashes.

But officially the Jews community started to scatter in the 1960s.

Many would later say that the country’s political and economic instability were becoming a threat to foreigners, especially after Tanganyika independence in 1961.

So, most of the Tanzanian Jews left the country.

However there were a few Jews who remained in Arusha including the Beta Israel from Ethiopia.

Still, the majority of those who were left behind went undercover and practiced Judaism secretly.

Others adopted the Maasai culture, names and the language, and continued to practice Judaism in secret, within the Maasai communities.

Jews in Kenya

On the other hand, the first Kenyan Jews settled in Nairobi in 1903, it didn’t take long before they became a proper community, but they remained a small community of just a few dozen people for several decades.

All that changed when the Nazis took power in Germany and an exodus of German Jews found themselves seeking refuge in places they never would have expected.

Granted, the influx of Jews to Kenya was small, but that didn’t stop them from having to go through the British Colonial Office that was in charge of immigration to Kenya.

In order to gain immigration status in Kenya, one had to be registered as a farm manager- something that was hard to come by for the Jewish immigrants and which limited their ability to settle.

The local Jewish community worked hard to encourage Jewish immigration, but found much resistance from white European settlers and from the Indian community in East Africa that had backing from the British Colonial Office.

Obviously, the opinion of the indigenous black population was not considered.

While the Jews of Nairobi were working hard on the local immigration initiative, British Jewry in England started their own widespread settlement campaign for thousands of Jews to relocate from Europe to the Kenyan Farmlands.

They would settle in the White Highlands, which had already been designated for colonial farms.

In August 1938 the British initiative was registered as a private company limited by shares under the title Plough Settlements Association limited that had an initial capital of 25,000 pounds.

One of the partners for the British company was the JCA – Jewish Colonization Association.

The initiative was presented as a colonial and financial enterprise and the hidden idea of rescuing Jews from the European continent was kept under wraps.

The immigration activists met with established farmers in Kenya, the British Colonial Office officials, and other officials in order to study and ready the ground, and gain traction and support for the immigration initiative.

The Jewish immigrants were not able to purchase farms upon their arrival, nor could they find ways to work on the farmlands where they could train as farm hands in order to eventually become farm managers.

Many of the requests, and their rejections, were kept in the initiative’s archives.

What about Uganda?

It is reported that some local tribes in Uganda, including the Abayudaya converted to Judaism, during the twentieth century.

It was during the time when the country, under British control was offered to the Jews of the world as a “Jewish homeland” under what was known then as the ‘Uganda Plan,’ but which eventually culminated with the troubled relationship between Israel and the Ugandan leader, Idd Amin.

The strained relations peaked with the with Operation Entebbe also known as the “Entebbe Rescue” or “Entebbe Raid” of 1976.

Jews updates in Tanzania

The first Jewish Center known as Chabad-Lubavitch was established on the island of Zanzibar in 2018. It is the first Jewish center in the Muslim-majority precinct.

A year later, that is in 2019, Kehillat Beth Israel of Ottawa donated a Sefer Torah to the Jewish community of Arusha.