Israel's Ashkelon honors its founders

City pays tribute to South African Jewish community that helped build, design and run it 70 years ago

Welcome to Ashkelon! (photo credit: Courtesy)
Welcome to Ashkelon!
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They filed off buses and headed into the nearby Academic College in the coastal city of Ashkelon to shed light on a long-forgotten chapter of Israeli history.
Dozens of people came from near and far, some flying in from South Africa or the UK, and others driving in from neighboring towns. They were gathering to mark the 70th anniversary of Ashkelon’s founding and pay tribute to the South African Jewish community that played a pivotal role in the development of the modern city.
The day’s events, which included a tour of the city and a visit to Barzilai Medical Center, were the brainchild of researcher and businessman David Zwebner, who rediscovered this little-known piece of Ashkelon’s history and recently published his findings in a new book titled The Founding of Modern Ashkelon: South African Jewry and the Afridar Neighborhood.
During a visit to Ashkelon years ago, Zwebner noticed that Afridar, in the center of city, resembled a suburb of Johannesburg. He also saw that several streets had been named after South African cities, among them Kaapstad (Cape Town in Afrikaans) and Johannesburg.
It was only after researching the matter in depth by delving into Israeli and South African archives that Zwebner could piece together the modern city’s early history.
“I was astonished to find that in 1949, the South African [Jewish Appeal] collected £1 million, which was a fortune of money then,” Zwebner told The Media Line.
“They wanted to help the [Jewish] refugees,” he explained, referring to the town’s early immigrants, who hailed mainly from North Africa, Yemen and Europe.
“[Ashkelon] is the fifth largest area in the country and is a gateway to the Negev and the South,” Zwebner continued. “You have a beer factory here, a desalination plant, the electricity corporation, main railroads and the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline. It’s a major, major place.”
Located on the Mediterranean coast some 30 miles south of Tel Aviv, Ashkelon’s history goes back thousands of years, to the Neolithic Age. During the Bronze Age, in about 2000 BCE, the Canaanites transformed it into a major seaport and city, building impressive fortifications, a moat and an arched gate whose ruins are visible to this day.
Over the centuries, the city was ruled by the ancient Egyptians, Philistines, Babylonians and Hasmoneans, among many others.
While Ashkelon’s connection to these ancient civilizations is generally well-documented, this cannot be said of its links to South Africa’s Jewish community, which banded together in 1949 to build and run the modern city. 
“[Members of South Africa’s Jewish community] came to Israel to give the money to Golda, who was then the minister of housing,” Zwebner explained, referring to the woman who would become Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir. “She said: ‘Our problem is not to bring the immigrants; our problem is where to put them. So we’ll give you land in a place called Majdal, which is the historic Ashkelon, and we’d like you to please design, build, finance and run a city for new immigrants.’”
The South African Jewish community continued to manage the city for a decade, after which it decided to hand Ashkelon back to the Israeli government. In addition to providing housing, the community also contributed to the founding of one of Israel’s most important hospitals: Barzilai University Medical Center, situated only eight miles from the Gaza Strip.
“The South African community was part of the founders of Ashkelon and this hospital,” Prof. Hezi Levy, Barzilai CEO, told The Media Line. “This hospital was established in 1961 when there were only pioneers in this area, and they were the first who donated and helped establish this hospital, which included only two wards [back] then.”
Because of its proximity to Gaza, Barzilai is on the frontlines whenever a conflict erupts. As a result, the hospital recently finished constructing a new underground wing with a 300-bed-capacity that can withstand not only rockets and chemical weapons, but also a nuclear attack, according to hospital officials.
“We are the place where casualties are evacuated when we are operating this hospital under fire,” Levy explained, adding that the facility serves roughly 500,000 people in the area.
Despite periodic flare-ups in the Israel-Gaza conflict, Ashkelon is one of Israel’s fastest growing cities. Its population – which now stands at over 150,000 – is expected to rise to 350,000 in the coming decade thanks to a flourishing economy. Earlier this month, Israeli officials announced that 12 new factories in a variety of sectors would be built in the city’s industrial zone.
“Despite all the security issues, we’re here and building tens of thousands new housing units – and this is true Zionism,” Tomer Glam, the mayor of Ashkelon, said at the anniversary celebrations. “That’s real Zionism: to come and build our city and enlarge it in a meaningful way.”
Several Ashkelon pioneers were honored during the ceremony, including Ruth Stern, a 93-year-old English teacher who lived in the city from 1952-1973.
Born in Boksburg, South Africa, Stern immigrated to Israel in 1948 during the War of Independence. Though she first lived in the northern city of Haifa, Stern and her late husband, Teddy Ben-Amar, moved to Ashkelon, where the latter worked as the burgeoning town’s first engineer.
Stern meanwhile taught English in the Afridar neighborhood, which she describes as an “island” located in the midst of poverty.
“The life in Afridar was a life of young people near the sea, free,” Stern recounted to The Media Line. “Afridar had lanes between houses. And there were no cars.”
At its height in the 1970s, the Jewish population of South Africa numbered 120,000 people. However, a recent survey conducted by the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Center estimates that the number has dipped to 50,000, mainly due to economic and political factors.
South Africa was also recently ranked by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world.
“A millionaire in South Africa is worth $70,000 here. That says a lot,” Zwebner asserted. “The [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement] really started off in Durban in South Africa, and antisemitism is rampant there. The Jews basically live in a ghetto.”
Many of those leaving South Africa are choosing to immigrate to Israel, a trend that has become significantly more pronounced in recent years, according to the Telfed South African Zionist Federation.
“In the last four years there’s been between a 20-25-percent increase in [immigration to Israel] every year,” Dorron Kline, CEO of Telfed, revealed to The Media Line. “You’re talking about a 90% increase in [immigrants] in the last four years from South Africa, so that’s very significant.”
As Sunday’s events came to a close, Kline expressed hope that the tour would encourage more South Africans to move to Ashkelon and thus reinforce the historic connection with that country’s Jewish community.
“I think it must be a unique occurrence that a Jewish community got together and raised funds post-World War II, post-Holocaust, to set up a new city in the land of Israel,” Kline said. “People kind of forgot the amazing history of the city, and the time has come to set the record straight.”
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