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South African community readies for immigration surge

פברואר 22, 2008. Haaretz: Daphna Berman

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
 

The local South African community is preparing for a "wave" of immigrants this year, following what officials describe as a dramatic spike in interest in aliyah among Jews, mostly in the Johannesburg area. The "wave" - which could double last year's immigration numbers - is set to include the arrival later this summer of the largest single group ever of South African immigrants in a single day. A recent crime spate that hit the Jewish community hard, combined with continuous power outages and political uncertainty are said to be the factors fueling the interest in aliyah.

Jewish Agency emissary in Johannesburg, Ofer Dahan, has conservatively predicted at least 300 immigrants from South Africa in 2008, compared to 178 last year and 157 the year before that. But, he believes the numbers could become spike even more. "This isn't just a wave - it's an enormous wave," he said from his Johannesburg office. "This has surprised all of us, but people are feeling tremendous pressure and want to leave South Africa."

Dahan, who says he is now inundated with work, said that while just 40 people attended an aliyah fair he organized in February 2007, the number of serious applicants jumped to 300 by year's end. "In the past two months, I've had more than 130 people open an aliyah file with me," he said. "During the same period last year, only 10 people opened an aliyah file." The Jewish Agency, as a result, announced that it will send "reinforcements" to South Africa next month to help Dahan process the overload of aliyah files. In response to the demand, the Israel Center in Johannesburg has also arranged a group flight of South Africans to Israel, set to land July 6th. The group flight, a first for South Africa, will include about 100 immigrants and another 200 members of youth groups on their way here for vacation. It is expected to be the largest single arrival of South African immigrants to Israel in a single day.

In the meantime, potential arrivals are sending their CVs to Telfed staff here, so they can begin networking and start the job search even before arrival. Telfed committees in Jerusalem, Modiin, Beit Shemesh and the Sharon region are also expected to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the anticipated influx of South Africans to their neighborhoods. "We've already had staff meetings to prepare, as a group, for the larger wave of aliyah," Kline said. Telfed is also working with the Jewish Agency to try and coordinate ahead of time a place to house the 100 immigrants on the group flight - possibly a guest house in the center of the country - for their first two weeks here.

"The idea is to bring the bureaucracy to them, so that they won't have to run around to the various government offices and wait on line for those first two weeks," said Anat Carmel-Kagan, head of the Jewish Agency's Europe and Australia/Oceania desk. "We don't have an extra budget to deal with the influx, but we are trying to improve our services ahead of their arrival. We're seeing an awakening of interest in aliyah and we're now responding to it."

Push factors

The recent crime wave said to contribute the community's anxiety includes three murders. One victim was Sheldon Cohen, a prominent businessman and community leader. Regular power shortages and corruption scandals, together with the political uncertainty since African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma ascended to power are also fueling the feelings of insecurity, aliyah officials say.

"The major electric outages are wreaking havoc in the business world and in people's private lives," said Dorron Kline, director of project development at Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation in Raanana. "If you put dinner in the oven, you are not sure if and when it will be ready," said Kline, who flew last night to Johannesburg to help deal with the flood of interest. "It makes people uncertain and the lack of electricity is seen as a symptom that things are unraveling." Thus, according to Kline, the push factors are increasing the numbers, since the pull factors to Israel haven't.

In recent weeks, the uncertainly has fueled panic in the South African community and Jewish leadership has responded in turn, assuaging fears and urging calm. The Jewish community of Sydney has begun assisting Jews interesting in immigrating to Australia and will be establishing an office in Johannesburg in the coming months to assist the effort - a move that has raised the ire of the South African Jewish establishment. Officially, the community still urges Jews to "go home or stay home" - a motto first used by former chief rabbi Cyril Harris that, in other words, encourages community members to move to Israel or stay in South Africa, but not consider moving elsewhere. "While we are experiencing troubled times, we must always bear in mind that South Africa has successfully come through far more difficult periods in its recent past," Zev Krengel, national chairman of the South African Jewish Board Of Deputies wrote in an open letter to the community.

"The 1976 Soweto Uprising, the 1980s States of Emergency and the violence and uncertainty in the years leading up to the country's first democratic elections in 1994 all posed far more serious question-marks over South Africa's future, yet our society not only survived but ultimately emerged the stronger for it. South Africans have shown in the past that they have the necessary resilience, creativity, flexibility and general good sense to overcome even the most daunting obstacles. Why doubt our ability to display those same qualities today?"

In another message, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said the community needed to "acknowledge our problems in a rational and balanced way, not in a way that generates frenzy or panic." In a four page letter that interwove current events with Biblical lessons, Goldstein said he met recently with Zuma, "who made it clear to me that he regards fighting crime as a top priority in the future and believes it can be beaten." Jewish communal leaders are expected to meet with Zuma again next week. In what could be seen as a reference to feared emigration trends, Goldstein made a plea to keep the community sustainable, writing, "It is our task to continue to build and nurture our precious and unique Jewish community in South Africa with loyalty and dedication."

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