A changing of the tide?

South African Jews are finally recognizing Israel as a step up from the current socio-political situation in that troubled country.

The biggest event on South Africa's calendar is the upcoming soccer World Cup in 2010. In the big cities, emerging new hotels and stadiums are remolding South Africa's urban skylines. The atmosphere is clearly that of a "countdown to kickoff." So why the skepticism that the tournament may be moved to Sydney? While all agree South Africa has the will, there is real uncertainty that the country can be ready in time. This sentiment is symptomatic of a dramatic loss of national confidence in recent months. It would seem that beneath the veneer of the "new South Africa" there is much concern over the direction the country is headed, and Jews there are taking heed. This July saw the first-ever major group aliya flight from South Africa, carrying some 96 new olim, with increasing speculation that 2008 will be a bumper year for aliya. In the days following the fanfare of a highly publicized reception for the new immigrants at the Western Wall, which Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo and Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski attended, Metro spoke to some of these new immigrants about their reasons for leaving South Africa and choosing to make Israel their new home. Experiences on the soccer field led 20-year-old Adam Wolov from Johannesburg to the Jewish Agency's absorption center in Kfar Saba. An aspiring professional soccer player, Adam says he was always changing clubs in South Africa, "because I was never given a chance to show my talent. I was often the only white player on the field. I know you'll find it hard to believe, but they were reluctant to pass me the ball. It's as if I was being penalized for being white!" Believing himself to be a casualty of "affirmative action," Wolov says people in South Africa are increasingly talking "about the country going the same way as Zimbabwe, and to a degree it is." All Wolov asks as he starts a number of trials at soccer clubs in Israel is the opportunity to prove himself. This perception that the country is veering off-track might explain a South African newspaper's recent revelation of an increased number of "fright flights" in the past few months. According to the report, a survey by the First National Bank (FNB) showed a dramatic jump in the number of homeowners who said that "emigrating" was the reason they were placing their homes on the market. This number had doubled between the last quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2008. Flight is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to the Jewish population. The report revealed that foreign embassies in South Africa have reported a dramatic jump in emigration applications from South Africans - white in the main - who cite as their main reasons for wanting to leave disillusionment about the country's high rate of violent crime and the populist behavior of the ruling African National Congress. A power crisis that has made electrical blackouts a regular feature of life, as well as a recent outbreak of xenophobic violence, has added momentum to the emigration trend. Some months back, a power outage caused a cable car on Table Mountain to stall for hours with some 60 tourists on board. The image broadcast by the media was one of a country's future hanging by a thread. New immigrant Jonathan Bloom, who works in computers, has rented an apartment in Ra'anana with his wife - an accountant - and three young children. The family plans to buy an apartment in the city. Bloom stresses the positive aspects of Israel rather than the negative aspects of life in South Africa as their motive for making aliya. "Things have really picked up here - the economy, [the] standard of living and low rate of unemployment." Bloom also remarks on "the social responsibility of a government to its people" and proudly proclaims that Israel "is a country whose future we want to be part of." Asked whether he believed many more South African Jews would follow, Bloom was pessimistic for two reasons. First, he explained, "we have to recognize that despite the negatives in South Africa, Jews [there] generally are financially very comfortable. This enables them to adjust to each and every crisis that arises. When there were the power outages, they bought generators. If there is a problem with the quality of the water, they'll buy purifiers." And as for crime, the response has been "high walls, electronic surveillance, security guards and patrols. There is no end to the ingenuity in dealing with the situation if money is no problem," he observed. But he asserts that "a far greater obstacle" to increased aliya from South Africa "is the Jewish leadership, particularly the rabbinate." While acknowledging that they are pro-Israel, "they are not 'pro-aliya' - far from it," he declared. "The rabbis are forever coming out with public statements and preaching that South Africa is a good country and that one can live a fulfilling life there as a Jew. There is a clear rabbinical policy to encourage their congregants to stay. I call this behavior 'anti-aliya.'" A former member of the Mizrahi Shul in the exclusively Jewish suburb of Johannesburg Glenhazel, Bloom refers to himself as a religious Zionist and says he has been planning his aliya for two years. "Here we were, performing a mitzva by making aliya and the event was virtually ignored by my shul," he says. What further irked Bloom was that at the time South Africa's first group aliya arrived, a group of some 40 rabbis from South Africa, led by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, were in Israel on a solidarity mission. "How many of these rabbis came to visit us when we were all together at the hotel? Apart from the chief rabbi, for a brief 10 minutes - not one!" he bellowed. "Not even Rabbi Peretz from my former shul in Joburg bothered to visit and wish us well." Metro has been informed that two years ago, when the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) in South Africa issued the "Proudly Jewish South African" advertising campaign, it vetoed a suggestion to add the words, "with Israel at our heart." "So much for the biblical directive 'Next year in Jerusalem,'" the source lamented. Despite Bloom's disappointment with South Africa's rabbinate, some rabbis were among the group making aliya. Gabi Shain, who came on aliya with his wife and three young daughters, was the rabbi of the JLC (Jewish Learning Center) in Milnerton, a coastal suburb of Cape Town. The Shains lived in Israel for fours years before he was posted as a rabbi in Cape Town and, they say, "we are happy to return home. Ironically, we feel far more secure in Israel." A far cry from the sentiments expressed by many of his former fellow rabbis in South Africa, Shain asserts that "As Jews, this is where our future lies." The Jewish Agency's chief emissary in South Africa, Ofer Dahan, identified the changing mood in South Africa and is said to be planning another aliya flight for next year. For now, with so many new immigrants having arrived at once, Metro spoke to Sidney Shapiro, the director of Telfed, the organization that represents and serves the Southern African community in Israel. "We are well prepared," says Shapiro. While he concedes that Telfed had a much larger staff during previous waves of aliya from South Africa, "today we are far more professional. We have a permanent social worker on our staff, an employment division, and have increased and upgraded our regional committees, who will be shouldering much of the workload. They will be mobilizing volunteers in the areas where the new olim have moved to." So who are these South African immigrants? According to Dorron Kline, Director of Project Development at Telfed, "they are a varied group, a mirror image of the composition of the community in South Africa. We have religious and secular, youngsters and seniors, singles and families. Whereas in the recent past, we have had mostly a religious aliya, this is different." Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz, himself a former South African, agrees with Kline's assessment. "This is the most varied group of olim we have had from South Africa in years. We may be seeing a resurgence there of secular Zionism." Also very encouraging, notes Jankelowitz, "is the high number of young adults, post-grad students. This bodes well for the future." Indeed, a sizable percentage of the 96 immigrants are young adults. That young South Africans are opting to make aliya comes as little surprise. Apart from crime, another major concern is the decline in standards of tertiary education. Stephen Mulholland, a veteran journalist in South Africa who visited Israel on the same flight as the new immigrants, wrote recently that the University of Cape Town (UCT) - "the only university in Africa ranked in the world's top 200" - has introduced a requirement that "applicants... of color will have lower standards to meet than are demanded of white undergraduates." The UCT administration, while acknowledging the danger in "the use of race as a criterion for admission to higher education," explains that the policy is designed "to redress past discrimination." However, what South African universities are losing, Israeli institutions stand to gain. One school that is benefitting from South Africa's declining educational standards is the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. While four years ago, only three foreign South Africans were studying at the the IDC, the center "will have 50 at the beginning of the next academic year," says Jonathan Davis, Vice President of the Raphael Recanati International School. Accompanying the new immigrants were members of the South African Zionist Federation Media Committee, which monitors South African media coverage on Israel, most of which is highly critical. "We meet with editors, correspondents, reporters and TV personalities pleading only for unbiased reporting and balance. It's an uphill battle," they told Metro. "Most of these people have preconceived positions on the Middle East - we do what we can, but it's not a war we can win." According to the committee members, who asked not to be identified, and even [spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] Mark Regev, the South African press is second only to the Arab media in the level and intensity of its anti-Israel coverage. The SAZF media committee's members revealed how they were being harassed in South Africa and the various methods of intimidation allegedly used against them. They spoke of unmarked cars without license plates that parked outside their residences "and then drive off when you approach them." The media committee members all agreed they will have their work cut out for them when they return home following this month's highly-publicized human rights delegation visit from South Africa to the "Palestinian occupied territories." Promoted as a fact-finding visit to promote dialogue and understanding, little time was wasted by the participants in lambasting Israel and describing its policies in the territories "as worse than apartheid." Metro has learned that this delegation - whose participants comprised noted media personalities, politicians, NGO representatives and lawyers - was partly sponsored by donors to South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils' anti-Israel movement Not In My Name. Kasrils, a Jew, is one of South Africa's most vociferous critics of Israel. After property developer Antony Perl and his law graduate wife Simone began to feel that Johannesburg was no longer "a place to bring up kids," they "only considered Israel" before moving to Zichron Ya'acov. Not difficult to understand, says Susan Sharon, an immigrant counselor at Telfed, who reported following her recent visit to South Africa as part of a Jewish Agency-sponsored delegation that "Johannesburg is a city without children. Coming from Israel, where you always see kids in the streets at any time of the day, in Johannesburg you just don't see it. Also, no mothers pushing [strollers]! Only in shopping malls did I see youngsters, and then mostly with their parents." Was July's historical flight from South Africa the start of a new wave of aliya? Only time will tell.