‘This is our dilemma,” the principal of the King David School in Johannesburg tells us with both pride and pain. Pride due to the large number of King David graduates who make aliya to Israel, and pain since every student that leaves the community weakens the already small Jewish community of South Africa.
In a nutshell, this is the reality of the 70,000-strong South African Jewry – less than half of what it once was – who live in one of the most fascinating countries in the world, but are watching time slip away like the sand in an hourglass.
Recently I led a delegation to South Africa that included five MKs from two parties: the Likud (Nurit Koren and Amir Ohana) and the Zionist Union (Michal Biran, Zuhair Bahlul and yours truly). This was the first visit by an official Israeli government delegation to South Africa. This might seem strange, but it’s true.
The Knesset engages in parliamentary diplomacy and holds discussions with many countries around the world. We hold meetings with colleagues at international forums, but also make an effort to visit them in their home countries, where we can hear about their lives and also tell them about ours.
Parliamentary diplomacy is vital, not only as a path that leads to further dialogue between peoples and governments, but also as a way to nurture and influence future leadership, which tends to grow from within parliaments.
The situation in South Africa is different. Its policies – especially since the 1990s when the African National Congress became the first ruling party in post-apartheid South Africa – clearly support the Arab world, and especially the Palestinian community.
In international forums, and of course at the UN, South Africa has consistently voted against Israel.
Whenever Israeli politicians, even ministers, have reached out to their South African counterparts to set up meetings, they’ve been refused.
A number of senior officials have initiated contacts, but nothing ever came of them.
A joint decision was made by the Knesset speaker and the Jewish Agency to make a concerted effort to persist until a relationship has been forged and dialogue has begun between ourselves and our South African counterparts. In addition, making contact with the South African Jewish community was high on our list of priorities. This small, vibrant community is staunchly Zionist and has a strong connection with Israel.
This was the right decision for two reasons. Although the South African ruling party announced that it would not meet with the Israeli delegation, two senior politicians did meet with us: Kgalema Motlanthe, who served as the stand-in president of South Africa, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ex-wife of the current president and one of the two candidates running for president in the upcoming elections.
In addition, the Israeli delegation met with Mmusi Maimane, the leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance political party, the mayor of Johannesburg, and a long list of parliamentarians from various political parties. This was a joint effort between Lior Kenan, the new Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mauritius, and Jewish community leaders from Johannesburg and Cape Town.
We also held a wonderful and moving meeting with about a hundred Christian leaders, whose serious love for Israel is very important to us. The evangelical Christian community in South Africa is a phenomenal source of support for Israel.
Our current relationship is based on the similarities of the two countries’ histories. On the one hand, in the past, the Israeli government has carried out strategic cooperation on security matters with the South African government at an extremely high level.
On the other hand, this did not mean that Israel in any form supported apartheid or racial segregation and discrimination. It was, however, difficult then to clarify this point and still is even today. In fact, many Jewish men and women from within the South African Jewish community stood at the forefront of the struggle to abolish apartheid and establish a new South Africa.
These facts should not be forgotten and they were alluded to in almost every discussion we held during our visit. Moreover, Jewish community leaders are still actively involved in trying to improve society in South Africa.
There’s an organization called Afrika Tikkun that is based on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Cape Town resident Helen Lieberman, for example, runs a $3 million project in a nearby black township and has been an active leader in the anti-apartheid movement since its inception. “It’s my responsibility as a Jew,” she says simply.
We need to keep in mind that in the distant past ANC leaders underwent indoctrination and preparation for carrying out terrorist attacks in training camps together with Palestinians.
As a result, well-known terrorist activists such as Leila Khaled and Ahmed Meshal are welcome guests in South Africa.
In addition, the 2001 Durban Conference was the starting point for the BDS movement and the international campaign to delegitimize Israel. Still today, South Africa is a convenient incubator for BDS activity and the creation of rumors claiming that Israel is a modern-day apartheid state. There is no place more conducive for such activity than South Africa.
The wonderful Jewish community of South Africa has a long history with deep roots in Lithuania. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Jews immigrated to South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century, quickly put down roots and became active players in the local economy, in trade and in the public arena.
With the political upheaval in the 1990s, tens of thousands – about half of the country’s Jews – emigrated to other English-speaking countries and to Israel.
Nonetheless, a Zionist-Jewish core remains in the country and Jewish Agency emissaries living there are the model of fruitful cooperation between Israel and distant Diaspora communities.
The Jewish Agency-run Israeli Center in Johannesburg is an excellent base for local Jews to receive information, participate in Zionist activities, and use as a springboard for making aliya. In fact, 320 people made aliya from South Africa this past year.
Everything starts with education, and the Jewish community of South Africa can be very proud of the educational network it has built. Out of the 10,000 Jewish youth living today in the country, more than 9,000 of them learn in Jewish schools.
Education is costly and the Jewish community has tremendously high expenses. It is not as wealthy as it was in the past, but it’s clear to everyone that providing a strong Jewish Zionist education is a fundamental necessity, and that without it the community would not survive.
From heartwarming discussions we held with local youth at the country’s Herzlia and King David schools, it’s clear to us that not only has the Jewish educational system in South Africa been a complete success, but that Israel is still a strong magnet for its young people.
Israel needs to do more, much more, in South Africa on both a parliamentary/ political level, as well as in the Jewish/Zionist sphere. South Africa is suffering from severe financial troubles, its economy is deteriorating, and social gaps between black and white citizens are far from being tightened despite affirmative action programs instituted by the ANC.
Israel has much to offer South Africa, from water and agriculture technological solutions to cyber security and other hi-tech advancements.
However, today the amount of cooperation between the two countries is minimal to none. However, I believe all is not lost. We may soon be witness to political changes that will open up South Africa to us and we need to be prepared for such a scenario.
We also need to learn from the South African Jewish community, which is so valuable and special.
Over the years, we’ve received so much from this community, and now we need to understand that it’s time to give back a little.
The existence of a strong Jewish community in South Africa is of great strategic importance for the State of Israel, which was created so that every Jew around the world would feel that Israel is home and will always be open to them.The writer is a Zionist Union MK. He serves as chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish World.