Shakeup gets some S. African Jews thinking about aliyah

johannesburg, south africa | The euphoria that permeated all sectors of the South African population with its first democratic election in 1994 has degenerated into widespread pessimism with the forced resignation of President Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki, who enjoyed a good relationship with the Jewish community and presided over a once-flourishing economy, was pushed out by his own party in late September after prolonged infighting.

The election of the controversial Jacob Zuma as president of the African National Congress at the party’s national congress in December 2007, has prompted some young Jews to consider emigrating.

“I remained relatively optimistic about this country after 1994,” said Evan Cohen, the marketing manager for a financial services company. “Former president [Nelson] Mandela brought about the most amazing reconciliation and, under Mbeki, the economy has boomed.”

Deriding what he called “a bunch of undisciplined, left-leaning populists” now leading the ANC, Cohen said, “I am concerned about the future, but as far as emigration goes, I have a wait-and-see attitude.”

After leveling off for several years, Jewish emigration from South Africa again is on the rise.

While no exact statistics figures are available — émigrés generally do not make their permanent departure official — the Israel Center at the South African Zionist Federation is seeing a 300 percent increase in aliyah over last year’s 178 emigrants.

Ofer Dahan, the center’s director and the aliyah emissary, said the wave of emigration comprised both “pull” factors — Zionist ideology and strong opportunities — and “push” factors.

“The ‘push’ is brought about by South Africans who fear for the future of this country,” Dahan said. “There are some olim who have given this reason.”

Of the estimated total of 500 people expected to emigrate before the end of 2008, many who have not yet left will depart on flights specially organized to accommodate the high numbers.

Dahan called this year’s first flight a “historic event.” More than 100 mostly young people departed in July.

“We have another flight of 100 people — this time families — scheduled for December and a waiting list for a third flight next year,” he said, adding that “South African Jews constitute one of the best Zionist communities in the world today.”

Still, says David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the 2008 enrollment figures at Jewish day schools contradict perceptions of a new wave of emigration.

Johannesburg has seven Jewish high schools and Cape Town one, and there are even more primary schools. More than 80 percent of Jewish children have attended Jewish schools since the 1970s.

In February, Saks described the community as numerically stable, cohesive and extremely well-organized, although “the consequences of a net outflow of Jews from the country since the 1980s would be with us for many years.”

Despite increased emigration, Saks said the actual numbers of Jews in South Africa in recent years had changed little because of the increased birth rate, émigrés returning and the influx of Jews from Zimbabwe.

From a peak of 120,000 in the 1970s, the South African Jewish population has declined to approximately 75,000 today, with more than 50,000 in Johannesburg and 16,000 in Cape Town. Since 2000, nearly half of the Jewish émigrés have gone to Australia (44 percent), followed by the United States (18 percent), Israel (12 percent) and Canada (9 percent).

Saks said that South African Jewry was considerably better off than most of its diaspora counterparts with regard to assimilation and anti-Semitism, the two most serious problems facing Jewish communities outside Israel. The intermarriage rate is no more than 10 percent.

While there are “strong pockets of anti-Semitism,” he said, “these rarely translate into actual anti-Semitic actions.”