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Aviad Sela heads home after mission accomplished

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“The next three years will determine the future of South Africa for the next three decades.” So says Aviad Sela, the outgoing Director of the Israel Centre, who bids farewell to the local Jewish community this week after four years here.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Aug 16, 2018

Sela believes that after three years, South Africans will better understand the direction that President Cyril Ramaphosa is taking the country, and will know where they see themselves. “There are boundaries to people’s expectations,” he said this week. “More and more people are exploring options in other countries.”

Shortly before returning to Israel this week, Sela told the SA Jewish Report how he had grown “accustomed to South Africa after the initial shock” that he got on his arrival.

Looking back on his first few months, he said he “experienced a kind of trauma”. It was nothing short of shocking for him to see people living behind high walls with electric fencing and barbed wire.

“I’m a military man, I come from Israel. It’s not exactly Switzerland, but still I was in a kind of trauma,” he admits. He was used to Israeli life, which “only starts at 9pm, with people out and about in the streets, at pavement cafés, drinking coffee”.

“No one prepared me for what I saw here. It’s abnormal,” he recalls.

But being a Lieutenant Colonel, he was not one to shrivel in the face of hardship, and embraced his new home and the “incredibly warm people” he found living here.

Sela is a retired Israel Defence Forces (IDF) career officer, who spent a number of years following his retirement working as a political analyst, even consulting to the Prime Minister’s office. He had no idea what lay in store when he was approached by the Jewish Agency a few years back.

Up until that point, Sela, a third-generation Israeli whose whole life had been dedicated to his country of birth, had never give thought to becoming active in the affairs of the diaspora.

However, the idea of expanding his horizons, and fleshing out the pieces of what he calls “the whole Israel story” seemed appealing. So, he signed up for the position of shaliah for the Jewish Agency in Israel. He was hoping for a posting in North America, but was earmarked for South Africa.

He never envisaged that South Africa, which he saw as in need of assistance, would end up changing him.

Among the tasks he faced was ensuring that the South African community’s security needs were met. The Jewish Agency assists in this regard to the ”tune of millions”, he says, and is intricately involved in efforts to fight anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in South Africa.

As head of the Israel Centre, which represents The Jewish Agency for Israel in South Africa, he was tasked with strengthening the connection between the local Jewish community and the State of Israel. His role further included cementing the connections between Israelis and South African Jewry.

It was important, Sela says, to expand the Israel Centre’s usual activities above and beyond things like the Israel Quiz, the annual Aliya Expo, and numerous group tours to Israel. There needed to be more partnerships.

He immediately set about “assessing the realities on the ground”. What he found was a cash-strapped, close-knit, minority community, living with high levels of crime, a falling rand, load-shedding, a corrupt government with Jacob Zuma as its President, a growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and numerous future uncertainties.

“The Jewish community was living on an island of normality while the entire country was dysfunctional,” he said. The exchange rate was of great concern to him, and sending a child to Israel was becoming unaffordable, he realised.

“Parents were paying three times more to send a child to Israel than they were ten years earlier,” he observed. “This was so unfair. It was not right.”

So, he made it his mission to highlight the effects of the weakening rand to his counterparts in Israel. “I broke tables in every office,” he recalled. He was determined to change the payment models for the Masa Israel Journey, which got young Jewish adults to study and travel in Israel.

After nearly two years of high-level meetings, submissions, detailed surveys, and negotiations, he got what he wanted. The Israeli government and Jewish Agency substantially raised the subsidy, making it possible for South African youth to visit Israel.

Since his tenure began, he has witnessed a marked increase in the number of people making aliya.

“For the first time, Israel has become the top destination, over places like America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada, for Jewish emigrants from South Africa,” he says, and the average age has dropped from about 60 to 38.

A trip to a township with South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) Head Ben Swartz in 2016 came as a huge shock to Sela.

“I had never seen such poverty before in my life. People living in shacks with no running water and no electricity. I saw a huge need to assist local communities.”

Together with the SAZF and the Jewish community of KwaZulu-Natal, he was instrumental in the creation of the Project TEN centre in the province. “It brings young Jewish people from Israel and around the world to volunteer with local children in the fields of informal education, sustainable agriculture, and public health.”

The Israel Centre is involved in many projects all aimed at strengthening ties with Israel.

Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said this week that Sela had “focused not just on aliya and promoting Israel, but also contributed to the development of our community. He has been a team player, and his concern for the welfare of our community was evident.

“When plane hijacker and PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] member, Leila Khaled, visited South Africa a few years ago, we were looking for a way of exposing the terror of her actions. Aviad connected us with a person that had been on the hijacked flight, and his story helped ensure that another narrative appeared in our media during her visit.”

Sela said he was going back to Israel “with a lot of love” for the community and the country.

“I have a huge family of 70 000 people here. I will be making myself the unofficial ambassador of the South African community living in Israel, and will keep the connections alive.”

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