Businessman with SA Jewish roots running for US Congress
Abel was born in South Africa and immigrated with his family to the US when he was a teenager. He is now running for Congress as a Democrat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
He maintains that the experience of being welcomed, settling in a new land and achieving the American Dream has profoundly influenced his political choices today.
Members of Congress represent the people of their district in the US Congress by holding hearings, as well as developing and voting on legislation. All bills must pass both houses of Congress before they can go to the president to be signed into law.
The US Congress is similar to South Africa’s Parliament, but it is separated between the House and the Senate. Seats in the House are distributed according to the population in each state, and if Abel is chosen as the Democrat to represent his congressional district (similar to a ward in South Africa), he will be able to make a real impact in one of the 570 seats in the House.
However, this ex-South African would never be able to be president, as he was not born in the US. Despite this, he has heady ambitions and a campaign that is steeped in Jewish values.
“Like many other South African Jews, my family arrived in South Africa as a result of their fleeing persecution in Europe,” says Abel in an interview with the SA Jewish Report. “My paternal great-grandparents fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and my maternal grandfather fled Nazi Germany. He boarded a ship leaving Europe and was told that the final destination would be South Africa, without knowing a soul in the country.
“Our family lived in Cape Town and that’s where I grew up for the first 14 years of my life. We moved to Dallas, Texas and eventually, most of my family followed and made their way over to the US. My dad and stepmom still live in Cape Town.”
Abel feels that his South African Jewish background has deeply influenced his life and his outlook on the world.
“One of the ideas that resonated with me most strongly growing up in the Jewish Diaspora was this idea of Tikkun Olam – to repair the world. This has been the guiding principle which my wife and I have used to raise our three children. Who are we as people if we are not doing everything we can to make the world a better place?
“Far too often we bemoan the cruelties and imperfections of the world without taking an active role in making things better.”
This approach, steeped in Jewish values, can be seen when Abel recently spoke on Facebook about how, over Pesach, he helped his shul become a sponsor of a refugee family coming to America, and he personally welcomed the young parents and their baby daughter, of the persecuted Rohingya minority group in Myanmar, to Atlanta.
The shul will be the family’s first port of call and assist them with everything from doctors’ appointments to becoming accustomed to public transport and learning English. He also explained that refugee immigrants go through a two-year vetting process to ensure that they are not a security threat.
He explains to the SA Jewish Report: “I talk about being an immigrant and immigration a lot while campaigning, but I talk about it as a value-based issue more than a policy one. America welcomed me with open arms, as it has millions of people. The US is a nation of immigrants who came here from foreign lands, and I think my politics is driven by an attempt to continue our policy of welcoming and inclusiveness.
“My Judaism has also played a large role in shaping my politics. Specifically, I am a passionate advocate for Israel as the home of the Jewish people, and I am really excited for the opportunity to work on this issue in Congress as it’s one of the few issues where true bipartisan support is possible.”
Abel is not afraid to stand up to what he sees as the current erosion of freedom, human rights and protection of minorities in the US. “I think some of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is aimed at the darkest parts of the human soul – those parts that desperately fear change and have a tendency to demonise ‘the other’,” he says.
“There are many people espousing anti-Semitic and racist views who have probably held those views for a long time, but only now feel comfortable advertising them in public. By not speaking out against this hatred, I think Trump has implicitly given people permission to freely share this type of hateful rhetoric.
“America has never been perfect, but it has always continuously strived to improve, and here I feel we may be moving backward. Decent people of all political persuasions need to speak out against this type of hate at every possible opportunity.”
He feels that he has been privileged to live the American Dream, and he hopes to give that opportunity to others: “Since I came to the US I’ve had a great public education, started a business, raised a family, and have been deeply involved in my community here in Atlanta. But that American Dream is unavailable to so many, and if we continue down the path that Trump is taking us, it will be available for even fewer people a couple of decades from now.
“My hope is that we can cut through the partisan rancour that divides Washington, and work together so that we can protect the American Dream for future generations.”
He concludes: “I would not be where I am in life without the South African Jewish community. The community taught me the values that shaped my childhood, welcomed my family when we arrived in Dallas, and now they have been incredibly supportive of my campaign for Congress here in Atlanta.”