In my last column, I wrote about the noble effort to bring the remaining Jews (and descendants of Jews) from Ethiopia to Israel. This week, I would like to talk about another African community – albeit a far different one – that I also believe we must do all in our power to bring home: the Jews of South Africa.
Jews began to arrive to South Africa in significant numbers in the early 19th century, shortly after the British invaded and occupied what was a Dutch colony. The first synagogue, the “Gardens Shul,” was founded in 1841 in Cape Town. The community began to grow exponentially after the South African Gold Rush of 1886, reaching 40,000 by the time of the First World War. Many of the Jewish immigrants came from Lithuania – though others arrived from Germany and Rhodes – and made their home primarily in Johannesburg. Although a quota was put on Jewish immigration in 1930, following World War II a steady stream of Jews began to arrive, and the Jewish population eventually reached a high of 120,000 by 1970, with numerous vibrant communities outside of Johannesburg and Cape Town, such as Durban, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria. Approximately 50,000 Jews remain in South Africa today.
There is something truly unique about South African Jewry. I have had the privilege of visiting South Africa numerous times, serving as scholar-in-residence in Joburg’s Glenhazel, Sandton and Killarney communities as well as in Cape Town, and rarely have I encountered a people anywhere in the world with such warmth, grace and civility. The country itself is one of boundless beauty and stunning scenery, matched only by the manners of its genteel population.
I am also fortunate to live in Ra’anana – often referred to as “Ra’anana Fontein” – and have many wonderful South African friends and neighbors who have contributed mightily to Israel in virtually every field. Abba Eban is arguably South Africa’s most famous ex-pat, but other stellar South Africans include Morris Kahn, founder of Amdocs and Eilat’s underwater observatory; Ian Froman, who organized Israel Tennis & Education Centers; the creators of the Bat-Dor Dance Company and Beit Issie Shapiro for special-needs children and adults; the 800 Machal volunteer soldiers and pilots who helped us in the War of Independence; and even the Burger Ranch chain.
While we are thankful that 25,000 South African Jews have already made aliyah – including 500 this year – we must step up our efforts to rescue the others. I say “rescue” because the situation in South Africa is tenuous and far from ideal. It can be succinctly summed up by the title my friend Jay Shapiro – sent to South Africa some years ago by the World Zionist Organization to observe what was happening there – gave to his report: “Past Perfect, Present Tense.”
The South African government, once one of Israel’s closest friends, has today become anti-Zionist in the extreme, with a perfect 100% anti-Israel voting record in the United Nations. Members of the government who visit Israel are censured and condemned; the South African media demonize the Jewish state on a regular basis, and Jewish students on campuses are routinely harassed and attacked.
Nobel Prize winner and South African national hero Desmond Tutu regularly presses world leaders to isolate Israel and acts as the spiritual head of the BDS movement, which gained its start in the infamous Durban Conference that resurrected the “Zionism is Racism” canard. Even Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane had to resist intense pressure on her not to participate in the upcoming Miss Universe pageant in Eilat.
While Jews for the moment are physically safe – in a society where rampant violence was recently labeled by President Cyril Ramaphosa as “the country’s second pandemic”– there is no guarantee that they will not become targets of the hate being generated around them.
Some of this anti-Israel antagonism is leftover from the years when Israel cooperated with the apartheid government, more out of necessity than desire. Jews were always disproportionately overrepresented in the fight against racial discrimination; in fact, many Jews were vocal leaders in the anti-apartheid movement. Nelson Mandela himself had a very positive relationship with the Jewish community, noting in his 1994 biography that he was indebted to a Johannesburg Jewish lawyer who hired him as a law clerk in the ’40s, something, he wrote, “that was almost unheard of in those days.” Mandela endorsed the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism movement, even as he voiced support for the Palestinian cause.
But times – and leaders – change. Mandela, and his generous spirit of reconciliation, is long gone. The remaining Jews of South Africa have “circled the wagons” in Joburg as countless outlying communities have closed their doors. And with the exception of several Zionist youth movements and schools like Yeshiva College, Herzlia and King David, Zionist institutions have virtually disappeared from the public scene. On my last trip to South Africa, two of the synagogues in which I prayed adamantly refused to recite the Prayer for the State of Israel. Outright Zionism is rarely displayed in public, perhaps due to the fact that there are 8 million Muslims, far outnumbering the Jewish population.
Those South Africans who have come to Israel cherish the life they left behind but consider themselves blessed to have come here. “Growing up in South Africa was a paradise,” more than one has told me, “but that was then, and this is now. Without a doubt, we made the right move in coming here.”
Geopolitical reality, like real estate, is always about three things: location, location, location, and the arrow of Jewish history now points straight to Jerusalem. It is here and only here that our destiny will be realized.
The Israeli government must take serious action to encourage and assist aliyah from South Africa. One step is to recognize the community as one in distress, such as was done for Argentinian Jewry, thus making their olim eligible for increased financial incentives. No doubt the South African-Jewish establishment may resent and resist this declaration – it does involve swallowing a great deal of pride and smacks of condescension – but it is necessary nonetheless.
It will certainly help the less-fortunate people who can’t afford to come here due to South Africa’s economic woes; the rand, which once was worth a third more than the dollar, has sunk to a woeful 16-1 ratio. And for the more affluent, I can only suggest that the worst galut (exile) is the one you don’t even know you’re in. The past few years have shown us that events can change drastically in the blink of an eye, and we have to anticipate them.
I would also encourage Nefesh B’Nefesh to create a South African desk to facilitate aliyah, and present real-time housing and employment options. Working with the fine people of Telfed – South African Zionist Federation, Israel, a network can be established that can open doors to a new reality. The local South African populace – along with all Israelis – should be encouraged to create a special fund to bring South Africans on pilot trips to focus on the nuts and bolts of moving and living here.
South Africa has made dramatic, albeit tragic headlines over the past two weeks. One of South Africa’s finest, Eli Kay, was murdered near the Kotel by terrorists on November 21. Eli, a modern Maccabee, was truly a role model for all Jews; he fought in the Paratroopers Brigade as a lone soldier, he sang Israel’s praises as a tour guide at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and he brought his parents to live here as well.
His death should inspire every South African Jew to cast his or her lot with those of us already in our one and only homeland. That – rather than sympathetic words from afar – is the real act of courage that would truly honor Eli’s life and self-sacrifice for his people and country.
And now the South African variant has shaken up the entire world. Among its repercussions is Israel’s decision to close its borders to non-citizens. Though hopefully this draconian measure will soon pass, it should be a warning sign to our fellow Jews abroad that the window of opportunity to come here, to join in the miraculous rebirth of our rich and rewarding nation, may not always be open, and should not be taken for granted.
The most meaningful and praiseworthy aliyah is the one we are running to, rather than running from. This is a moment in time for South African Jews to gather up their courage, their vast talents and their families and join us in our historic, divinely inspired march to Redemption.
To them I say, we love you, we need you, Bo Habayta, Kom Huis Toe, Come Home.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]