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Ancestry of Jewish refugee’s son at heart of major political crisis in Congo

Lawmakers introduce bill restricting presidency to those with 2 Congolese parents, in bid to disqualify popular opponent Moise Katumbi, son of a Greek Jew who fled Holocaust

In this Monday, March 12, 2018 file photo, Congolese opposition leader Moise Katumbi speaks to delegates at a three-day forum in a resort hotel near Johannesburg, South Africa. Katumbi returned to Congo on Monday May 20, 2019, one of a number of political exiles coming home after a new president took office this year. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe,)
In this Monday, March 12, 2018 file photo, Congolese opposition leader Moise Katumbi speaks to delegates at a three-day forum in a resort hotel near Johannesburg, South Africa. Katumbi returned to Congo on Monday May 20, 2019, one of a number of political exiles coming home after a new president took office this year. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe,)

JTA — The ancestry of the son of a Jewish refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo has emerged as a flashpoint for a political crisis that is threatening the integrity of the massive African country.

The crisis came to a head last week when lawmakers loyal to President Felix Tshiseked introduced a bill that would restrict the presidency to those with two Congolese parents.

It’s a thinly veiled move against Moise Katumbi, one of Congo’s most popular politicians, whose father was a Greek Sephardic Jew who fled the Holocaust in Europe and settled in Congo, where he married a local woman, Katumbi’s mother.

Katumbi’s father, Nissim Soriano, fled Rhodes and settled in Congo’s Katanga province, where he married the granddaughter of the local King Msiri. In his later years, Soriano emigrated to Israel, where he lived until his death. He is buried in Netanya.

Katumbi comes to Israel often and visits relatives. He met with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of a delegation of Congolese governors.

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 Tshisekedi.

A vote on Tshisekedi’s bill has not been scheduled, but the measure is already angering Katumbi’s large supporter base and raising fears of a return to political violence in Congo. Rivalries and interethnic hostility have triggered human tragedies on a massive scale in the land of 5.4 million people.

African Union President and President of Congo Democratic Republic Felix Tshisekedi speaks at the end of the Financing of African Economies Summit, in Paris on May, 18 May 2021. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the European Jewish Association and an ally of Katumbi, condemned the bill, saying it’s “an outrage that in 2021 a person can be disqualified for having a Jewish parent.”

Katumbi does not define himself as Jewish, “but he has a warm connection to Judaism and Israel,” said Menachem Margolin, a Brussels-based rabbi who has become a close confidant of Katumbi since 2018.

Congolese opposition leader, Moise Katumbi, during their three-day forum at a resort hotel near Johannesburg, South Africa on March 12, 2018. (AP/Themba Hadebe)

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.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Katumbi hails from the province of Katanga, a mineral-rich area in the country’s east with a history of secessionism that he served as governor. The attempt to block Katumbi’s path to the presidency is rekindling secessionist tendencies there.

On Monday, 10 great chiefs — community leaders wielding significant followings, influence and money — threatened to support secession if the bill is passed. The UN peacekeeping mission head in Congo, Bintou Keita, in connection with the crisis warned last week against the “dangerous consequences of a divisive debate about nationality,” Reuters reported.

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