South African immigrants arrive as their former country holds elections

Immigrants to experience first-of-its-kind ceremony in which they will receive their Israeli ID cards at Western Wall.

tutu votes 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
tutu votes 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Seventy immigrants from South Africa and Zimbabwe arrived in Israel on Wednesday night as, that same day, elections were held in the country, where some Jewish residents have been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with government policies. On Thursday, the immigrants will experience a first-of-its-kind ceremony, in which they will receive their Israeli identity cards at the Western Wall. What's happening in South Africa is what is pushing people to immigrate to Israel, according to Noga Maliniak, head of the Jewish Agency's aliya division, who cited "the economic, social, and political tension in South Africa." In particular, she said that many Jews were dissatisfied with South Africa's politics and the strong affirmative action program which has hurt them. In South Africa's elections, the African National Congress (ANC) is widely expected to win by a significant margin, though not with the 70 percent support it received in the 2004 elections. The party, which is now led by Jacob Zuma, has been in power since apartheid ended in 1994. "The fact that aliya is increasing shows people are uncertain about their future," said Michael Jankelowitz, the Jewish Agency's spokesman to foreign press, specifically citing problems relating to South Africa's crime situation. According to the Jewish Agency's statistics, 339 South African Jews made aliya in 2008, a 90 percent increase over 2007. On their first full day in Israel, the immigrants will work out the final details of their immigration and then receive their ID cards at the Western Wall ceremony. "We think it's very symbolic, very moving," Maliniak said. "I think the Kotel is the place that really symbolizes the meaning of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. It's a story that these olim will tell to their children and their grandchildren 50 years from now," she added. At the ceremony, the group will be addressed by Mendel Kaplan, a leader and philanthropist in the Israeli and South African Jewish communities and a former chairman of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors. As the sole immigrants from Zimbabwe, Amanda Cohen will be given the honor of speaking on behalf of the olim, most of whom come from Johannesburg and Cape Town. The group consists of young singles, families with children, and older people, according to Maliniak. Prior to the ceremony at the Kotel, the immigrants will be able to go to a hall in the hotel where they will be staying where Jewish Agency officials and other service providers will help with everything from phone plans to health insurance. "We have really improved the services that we give the olim from South Africa," Maliniak said. The few things the olim have to take care of in the hotel are minor details compared to what their counterparts in previous years would have had to deal with upon arriving here. The major hurdles, including eligibility forms and approving the aliya, are all taken care of in South Africa. "We are bringing all the services to them so that they won't have to face bureaucracy and lines," Maliniak said. An estimated 65,000 Jews remain in South Africa, which once had a Jewish population of over 120,000. Looking forward, Maliniak sees even more emigration in the country's future. "We think that in 2009, we might even get 50 percent more than 2008. This is what's amazing. There is definitely increasing interest in aliya in South Africa," Maliniak said.