A second exodus?

Hundreds are headed for Israel following recent surge of violence against the Jews of South Africa.

shul sa 88 224 (photo credit: Moira Schneider)
shul sa 88 224
(photo credit: Moira Schneider)
The South African Jewish community has been depleted by waves of emigration over the years, which has seen its numbers plummet from 120,000 at its height in the early 1970s to about 75,000 today. Though there is anecdotal evidence that the tide is turning with individuals returning to this country, recent developments here have sparked fears of yet another exodus. The election of the controversial Jacob Zuma as president of the ruling African National Congress - and therefore the party's presidential candidate in 2009 - at its conference in mid-December, the surge in violent crime, power cuts and the proposed disbanding of the elite crime-fighting unit, the Scorpions - perceived by the public as having been "too successful" in securing corruption charges against leading ANC members - have all combined to create feelings of uncertainty about the country's future. The communal leadership has been going all out to allay the fears and counter the negativity that abounds. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, for instance, went on national radio a few weeks ago urging the public not to panic. "South Africa is really the quintessential comeback kid," he said. As an example of the Jewish community's "proud track record of finding solutions to problems," he mentioned its counter-crime initiative that has brought down contact crime by more than 80 percent in its areas of operation. In an open letter to the community, Zev Krengel, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the community's umbrella body, acknowledges "a great deal of negativity and uncertainty." Appealing for "a sense of perspective," he says that the country has come through "far more difficult" periods in its recent past. He regards a wave of emigration as "inevitable" but is adamant that there is a future for the Jewish community here. "Our rights are protected as a minority and we have the lowest anti-Semitism in the world." SAJBD President Michael Bagraim says the community is the most anxious he's seen in his eight years in leadership positions, and he has been busy addressing various groupings across the Cape who are desperate for answers. He says he was recently telephoned by a prominent member of the community who said that the board, as good leaders, should have the "guts" to advise people to leave the country. But Bagraim does not believe things are "anywhere near that stage." In this regard, the board's attitude to emigration has always been "go home [to Israel] or stay home," he adds. OFER DAHAN, from Kfar Vradim in Western Galilee, has been the director of the Johannesburg-based Israel Center for almost two years. The center, an arm of the Jewish Agency in South Africa, focuses on assisting those who wish to make aliya and strengthening Jewish identity among the youth. He says the center has experienced a definite spike in inquiries since the middle of December, with this interview having to be squeezed in between "back-to-back" appointments with interested parties. The reasons for going differ from person to person, with some going from the standpoint of ideology, while others, particularly young people, go because they are eligible for "a lot" of benefits there or have been connected to Israel through youth movement programs. As far as push factors go, Dahan has found that the high crime rate here is one of the "major issues" in the decision to leave. "When we ask them if they went through a trauma, the majority indeed have" experienced violent crime, he says. "Two months after we arrived in South Africa, our house [in the suburb of Victory Park] was cleaned out," he adds. In addition, the parents of an aliya worker at the center were attacked in their home, as a result of which the mother died. Other important factors playing a part in the decision to leave are the power cuts and the state of the South African economy, he says. "People see that Israel is very stable from the point of view of the economy, particularly the last 10 years." Figures from the center indicate that the number of olim from South Africa has doubled from 2006 (108) to 2007 (240), while in the first two months of 2008, there have been more applicants than in the whole of 2006 and 131 olim between December 2007 and mid-February 2008. Olim come from across the spectrum: families, students, haredi, secular, businessmen and pensioners. In response to a perceived change in the Jewish community, the center held its first Aliya Expo in November with the purpose of providing potential olim with information on employment, housing, education and health in Israel. "We were expecting something like 50, 60 people to come," Dahan recalls. "We had 300 people in Johannesburg - 50 of them couldn't get in because the venue was packed - and another 100 in Cape Town, which is a huge success. Then we understood that something was happening - we didn't know exactly what, but then in the second half of December when we started getting all those calls and people coming into our offices," it was clear something was afoot. A large percentage of Expo attendees have made formal application to go on aliya, he says. A further Expo is planned for May, and there have already been close to 65 requests for personal interviews with Israeli specialists who will be in attendance. In addition, the center has organized two pilot tours to Israel in the past year and plans three more this year. "There is a massive and revitalized aliya to Israel and emigration to other countries, including Australia and the UK," he states. Dahan scoffs at the suggestion that only Jews lacking financial means go to Israel. "At the last Aliya Fair, a construction company sold apartments for cash - an apartment in Israel costs on average $200,000 - if a poor person has $200,000 in South Africa, well, this is a rich community," he laughs. AMY COHEN, 19, plans to make aliya next month. She graduated as head girl from the King David Linksfield Jewish Day School in 2006 and spent last year on Tafnit, a Bnei Akiva program in Israel. "For me personally, it's a lot more about being in Israel than leaving South Africa," she says. But, she says that violent crime makes that decision easier. During the first week she was back, her cellphone was stolen. In January, her second cousin, Sheldon Cohen, was shot dead while waiting for his son to finish soccer practice at Balfour Park, shaking the community to its core. Though she acknowledges that the "luxurious" way of life here, with servants and big properties, could induce people to stay, the restrictions imposed by crime are "not the quality of life I want for my kids." "I'm very paranoid," she adds. "My mom doesn't let me drive alone at night, I don't feel at ease ever, especially after being in Israel where it's a lot safer to walk around the streets at night - it's a very big adjustment to come back." Friends have not been able to enroll for degrees and courses because of affirmative action policies that favor blacks. Despite the fact that she was awarded a scholarship to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Cohen decided that was "not actually what I want." She hopes to study law at Hebrew University. "I don't think it's easy to leave the country that you've grown up in, but I think there's a very, very, very good future for young Jewish people in Israel and that's really the reason why I'm going." She says that "in general" her peers do not want to stay here after they have completed their degrees because of negative factors in the society. Keshia Codron, 22, is also making the move next month after "falling in love" with Israel while attending a birthright program in 2006. An honors graduate in marketing, she says her move was motivated by a combination of pull and the "strong" push factor of crime, to which she has fallen victim "numerous times." Together with her mother, she was hijacked in the driveway of her home in Sandringham, Johannesburg, which has also been broken into several times. Fortunately she was not injured during these incidents "other than [having] a gun [held] to my head," she says casually. On one occasion when her Israeli boyfriend was visiting, a neighbor was shot dead in his driveway, one of 50 reported murders a day. Because Codron had witnessed the event, she found herself giving statements to the police. "My boyfriend asked: 'Are we going to be on the news tonight?' It was quite funny - if something like that happened in his country, it would be all over the news, but here it's just another number." She says the police couldn't even finish taking her statement as they had to go and attend to another call. While she agrees that there is "generally" a feeling of negativity among her peers, she says that as young people, they are "a bit more optimistic than our parents would be. My parents keep saying, 'You must get out of this country, there's no future.' At the same time, we are realistic - my friends and I have all been victims of crime." LIANNE SHLOMO-TZABARI says that crime was the only factor in her decision to relocate to Israel last March with her family, Israeli husband Uri and sons Adam and Noam, then four and two. "I love South Africa and I loved my life, but the constant fear eventually beat me," she says in an e-mail interview. "Every single person has been either directly or indirectly affected by crime," she says, reeling off a list of incidents. "Our travel agent, an Israeli woman living in South Africa, was shot point blank in her head at work and her cellphone was stolen. One of my best friends, who is married to an Israeli, was robbed by men at 10 p.m. in her home while she was alone with her three children asleep in nearby rooms. She was tied up and dragged through her house in search of the safe. "Another friend's father-in-law [Israeli-born] was attacked at work, then tied to a chair and strangled to death with a wire hanger, then his business was robbed. A close family friend [Israeli-born] was attacked outside his home, taken inside his house, pistol-whipped, tied up and robbed. "The Jewish manager of the Kosher Nandos chain near Norwood was robbed and murdered at work. Another Israeli friend was attacked in his home with his family and tortured with a stun-gun for hours while his wife and children looked on." Tzabari left the country with her children, at the insistence of her husband, 16 days after the family endured an armed robbery in their plush home in the up-market Johannesburg suburb of Sandton - in spite of having three dogs, an electric fence, electric gates, an armed response company and a burglar alarm, and living in a patrolled neighborhood. "If it were not for my son's fourth birthday party which was two days before we left, we would have left sooner. My children were traumatized, especially my four-year-old," she says, having witnessed the incident in which their father was tied up. They now live on the "very quiet and beautifully green" Moshav Bnei Atarot. "I can walk my children to school. I am never scared and I never look over my shoulder. My children's bikes and toys are in our front garden for everyone to see - the difference is, no one will kill me here for their want for what I have." London-born Ivor Davis has spent 50 years in Africa and also lives in Sandton. The 78-year-old, who lives alone, has a guard inside his house at night and his property is secured with palisades and razor wire. "It's a shame that our homes have to be turned into fortresses," he says with resignation. "One has to realize that one is living in Africa - obviously there are some pleasures and benefits, and then from time to time, we have our problems." A retired journalist, Davis has been conducting a letter-writing campaign in the press for the reinstatement of the death penalty - abolished here in 1995 - and claims there is a groundswell of support for the move. "It gives me no pleasure to have to go along this road," he says, "but I think in South Africa it's becoming pretty obvious that the police are fighting crime with their hands tied behind their backs without having a meaningful deterrent." Two years ago, information technology specialist Hayley Pogrund was robbed of her jewelry while visiting a friend in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia. "Her husband was outside fixing drains and I was chatting at the front door and the next thing there was a guy with a gun," she recalls. "Being the person that I am, I said, 'Listen, hang on, take it easy, I'll give you my rings' and I took the baby away from my friend. He took a whole lot of stuff from her and ran off." Yet she says she is "emotionally" not ready to leave the country. "There is an underlying tension that we all live with, but at the moment we've chosen to be here where there are three living grandparents [of her seven- and 11-year-old sons] and beautiful surroundings," she says.