Welcome to Ashkelon!

Celebrating South African Jewry’s contribution to the gem on Israel’s southern coast.

Welcome to Ashkelon! (photo credit: Courtesy)
Welcome to Ashkelon!
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I’m a great believer that nothing happens by chance.
In 2006, shortly before I was due to write my final exams to attain my tour guide license, I was finishing a stint of army reserve service in Tarkumiya. On my base was a young soldier from Ashkelon being released for the weekend who was hitchhiking home. Although Ashkelon was in exactly the opposite direction of my home in Jerusalem, I picked him up, thinking that seeing Ashkelon before my exams just might be helpful.
Driving into the town gave me a strange sense of déjà vu. I felt completely at home in surroundings that so resembled Emmarentia, a suburb of Johannesburg where I had spent my formative years before coming on aliyah in 1966. To my astonishment, I discovered an area called Afridar (a housing project for new immigrants from South Africa), a main street called South Africa Blvd., and roads named Johannesburg and Kaapstad (Cape Town) nearby! The locals told me that many years ago there were South African immigrants but they had all left. I was intrigued. Who were they, and why did they leave?
As a student writing my BA during the last three years, I was given permission to submit a paper on this subject, and I delved into all the archives I could access, both in South Africa and Israel. What I discovered was so astonishing that I felt it had to be conveyed to both South Africans and Israelis.
Few are the instances of an entire city planned, financed and constructed by a community of a different nationality, located in another country across the globe.
The miracle of the State of Israel is itself unprecedented – a flourishing country that has become a world leader and model for emulation after only 70 years of existence. Built – a mere three years after the Holocaust decimated the Jewish people – in its ancient land among a sea of hostile states with very few resources to speak of, Israel’s survival, let alone its great success, is quite remarkable.
Israel’s first years were marked by an immediate and unrelenting need to build itself up from the ground, all the while providing for its existing residents, and simultaneously absorbing any and every immigrant desiring to join the fledgling state. This necessitated great strength of spirit alongside the harnessing of all its resources, including those located outside its borders.
Among these resources were the Jews and their communities across the globe that stood shoulder to shoulder with their Israeli brethren in fighting for life itself. The residents of Israel were immediately faced with a daily battle for survival, and the state was faced with overcoming its challenges and building itself for the future. The significant aid extended to the State of Israel by Jews the world over was critical in these early formative years.
The South African Jewish community, as did many other communities, joined Israel in facing those challenges by extending support in various forms. Uniquely however, this Jewish community undertook a project that was innovative, original, and extensive: to finance, design, construct and direct a neighborhood that would form the basis for a new city.
The annals of Ashkelon and its Afridar neighborhood reveal the temerity and forethought of South Africa’s Jews, and their devotion to Israel and the Zionist ideal.
SEVENTY YEARS ago, in September 1949, the South African Jewish community raised one million British pounds that they donated to the newly established State of Israel to help refugees.
Golda Meyerson (who later became Prime Minister Golda Meir) explained that the problem facing our newly established state was where to house all the new immigrants, with refugees pouring into the country. She challenged the South African community with the task of using this money to design, build and manage a new city to be located in a desolate area known then as Majdal, the historical biblical city of Ashkelon.
South African Jews rose to the challenge and built a most attractive garden community they named Afridar. It included Barzilai Hospital, the central Ashkenazi Synagogue, the Bet Ha’am community center and various shopping centers. Afridar eventually expanded and became known as a suburb of Ashkelon.
In return for building the city, the Israeli government undertook four obligations in the original agreement: to link Afridar to the water carrier; to link it to the main road system; to develop the beautiful beach as a tourist attraction; and most importantly, to provide jobs for the new residents.
Unfortunately, this last clause was not fulfilled, and the South African Joint and Zionist Federation became despondent at the amount of money they were pouring into Ashkelon, over and above their initial commitment.
In 1959 they decided to try to force the hand of the Israeli government, and organized a large ceremony where the keys to the city were handed over to the government.
The South African Zionist Federation, now known as Telfed, played a huge role in the early days of Afridar in recruiting South Africans to work, manage and live in the village. The original management committee was headed by South African Max Spitz, who was succeeded by Louis Pincus, also South African born, while Selwyn Lurie served as the managing director of Afridar until 1958.
The first mayor, town clerk and town treasurer, Dr. Henry Sonnabend, Philip Gillon and Sam Wulfson respectively, were all South Africans. Following the merger of Afridar and Migdal Ashkelon, South African Leo Tager was elected as the second mayor, while compatriot Jack Schneider was appointed as the city engineer. Another South African, Max Decktor, was elected deputy mayor of the city, serving in that capacity for a number of years.
Today, neither Israelis nor South Africans are aware of the huge contribution South African Jewry made toward the successful establishment of Ashkelon in particular and the State of Israel in general.
TEL ASHKELON, the artificial mound formed over thousands of years from the accumulated material of generations of people living on the same site, is testimony to the rich history of Ashkelon. Located adjacent to current Ashkelon, it is incorporated in the Ashkelon National Park which contains archaeological remains of the different ancient civilizations that ruled the area, including Canaanites, Philistines, Persians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.
The Copper Age site of Ashkelon is located 1.5km to the north of the tel. Large quantities of animal bones and flints dating to circa 6000 BCE were uncovered, together with fireplaces, hearths and pits. No major architectural structures were revealed, and it is understood that this site was used on a seasonal basis by pastoral nomads of the time.
Ashkelon’s real entry into the annals of history as a city and residential settlement began thereafter, in the early Bronze Age, when it was constructed and settled by the Canaanites between 2000 BCE and 1550 BCE.
In 644 CE the Arabs under the leadership of Caliph Umar completed the conquest of the Land of Israel, having conquered Ashkelon in 637 CE.
The city continued under Muslim rule until the Crusades, surviving as a Muslim city through the First Crusade (1099-1150).
A shrine structure called Mash’had Nabi Hussein (Shrine of the Prophet Hussein) was constructed circa 1080 by the Fatimid vizier Badr al-Jamali aside the sea at Ashkelon, after the burial place of the head of Hussein ibn Ali, Muhammad’s grandson, had been traced to this location. Owing to the Crusaders and the hostilities, the head was moved in 1153 to Fustat, then capital of Egypt (currently within modern Cairo), where it was buried, and the Al-Hussein Mosque was constructed on the burial location.
Today Ashkelon is a flourishing coastal city in the Southern District of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, 50 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, and 13 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip border.
Located adjacent to the Negev and the Judean desert to the east and south, Ashkelon’s climate is influenced by the drier desert winds that balance the humidity of the coast. Thus, unlike the northern coastal cities, Ashkelon excels in dry climates and lower humidity – even in the height of summer – and limited rainfall in the winter.
Modern Ashkelon stretches across 48,000 dunams (almost 12,000 acres), making it one of the largest municipal jurisdictions in Israel. It is the sixth most populous city in Israel, currently home to some 140,000 residents. Ashkelon’s average annual population growth is 3%, despite its location in a region suffering recurring sporadic security difficulties from the south.
Its location on the Mediterranean coast and comfortable climate make Ashkelon a prime location for visitors and tourists – it has seven official beaches, numerous hotels, five large commercial complexes and a multitude of restaurants.
The Ashkelon Marina, established in 1995, serves as a port for vessels up to 500 feet in length, and provides berthing for 650 boats. The port offers a shipyard and repair services, and also an Israel Border Control office for those entering Israel from abroad. The marina is a Mediterranean center for flotillas and various sporting events, and the complex includes a lighthouse, vacation apartments, restaurants, cafés, sports activities, a marine education center and a diving club.
Ashkelon National Park is located on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea on the southwest outskirts the city. It is surrounded by a wall built in the mid-12th century by the Fatimid Caliphate, and encompasses ancient Ashkelon and the mound of ancient Ashkelon – Tel Ashkelon – which extends over more than 2,000 dunams.
Tel Ashkelon contains remains of the ancient port city established at the site during the Bronze Age, over 4,500 years ago. The tel is home to the world’s oldest arched gateway dating to the mid-Canaanite period in 1850 BCE. Constructed of mud bricks, the gateway stands almost four meters high, 2.4 meters wide and comprises a passageway of approximately 15 meters.
Israel Beer Breweries Ltd. (IBBL) was founded in 1992 as the importer of Carlsberg and Tuborg beers to Israel. In 1995 it established its brewing plant in Ashkelon, where it manufactures Carlsberg, Tuborg and Holsten beers, Tuborg Malt Beer, Fuze Tea iced teas and other fruit juices, alongside the direct import of a number of foreign beers.
In 2001, the Israel Beer Breweries Ltd. Visitors’ Center opened its doors, offering visitors the opportunity to tour the brewery and accompany the production process from start to finish. The IBBL holds almost one-third of Israel’s beer market.
The Rutenberg Power Station is Israel’s newest thermal power station in Israel, and the second-largest in terms of generation capacity, producing approximately a quarter of the Israel Electric Corporation’s capacity. Named after Pinhas Rutenberg, founder of the Israel Electric Corporation, and his brother, Avraham Rutenberg, who directed the company following Pinhas’s death, the power station is located adjacent to Ashkelon.
The station utilizes steam technology generated by non-salinated water heated in furnaces driven by coal, which is unloaded from cargo ships at the power station’s own platform. The water fueling this process is cooled by means of ocean water that the plant draws from the sea.
The Ashkelon Oil Port is an open sea port located south of Ashkelon, serving as a transit plant for crude oil and its products between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and beyond – from oil producing sources in the Arabian Gulf through Israel and to consumers in Europe. The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company Ltd. (EAPC) currently manages the transit and storage of Israel’s prime energy source, maintaining three pipelines for crude oil and one separate line for oil products through the Ashkelon Oil Port linking Ashkelon to Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat.
The Ashkelon Desalination Plant is a seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant at the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company premises. When constructed in 2005 it was the largest seawater reverse osmosis plant in the world, and today it continues to be among the largest, producing drinking water for more than a million people. Owing to its advanced technology, it provides 13% of the country’s domestic consumer demand – equivalent to 5%-6% of Israel’s total water needs – at one of the world’s lowest prices for desalinated water.
The education network of Ashkelon comprises more than 19 elementary schools, and nine junior high and high schools. The Ashkelon Academic College opened in 1998, and now hosts thousands of students. Harvard University operates an archaeological summer school program in the city.
Ashkelon is now a thriving city with a population expected to grow to 350,000 over the next 10 years. On December 14, a big event will be held in Ashkelon celebrating 70 years of this amazing South African achievement. The threefold aim is to encourage aliyah from South Africa to Ashkelon, to promote the city of Ashkelon itself, and to make both South Africans and Israelis aware of this amazing achievement.
Special terms have been negotiated with the Leonardo Hotel for the celebratory weekend. South African-born Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, will be attending the Shabbat service to be held in the central Ashkenazi Synagogue built by South Africans. A kiddush will be held in his honor, attended by Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam and other dignitaries including Avraham Infeld, former head of Hillel. A few prominent South Africans and their children who played a major role in the planning and running of the city will be attending, in order to be feted for their personal contributions. Local Israelis, South African and British residents are invited as well.
The City of Ashkelon will provide transportation and tour guides to show off the local sites on Friday, December 13, such as the archaeological park, the desalination plant, the beer factory and a security briefing at the Iron Dome base.
Entertainment and an event in memory of the amazing Sylvia Raphael, a former South African-born Mossad agent, will be held on Saturday night. Newly-appointed Deputy Defense Minister Avi Dichter has been invited to address the audience.
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