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Ex-SA man Levitt among Nobel winners

SA-expat & now-Israeli citizen Michael Levitt, together with fellow Israeli and former student & Austrian-American take 2013 Jewish Nobel laureates to six

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DAVID SAKS
 

Former South African Michael Levitt, together with fellow Israeli citizen and his former student Arieh Warshel and Austrian-American Martin Karpus, took the number of this year’s Jewish Nobel laureates to six when they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry last week.

They received the prize “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems”. Pretoria-born Levitt thereby joined Aaron Klug (chemistry), Sydney Brenner (medicine) and Nadine Gordimer (literature) among those Jews of South African origin who have now received the prize.

Levitt and Warshal are also the sixth Israeli citizens to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in under a decade and the 11th and 12th Israeli recipients in total.

Levitt studied at Kings College, London, and Cambridge University, where he obtained his PhD in computational biology in 1972. Prior to this, he had done post-doctoral work at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and from 1980 – 1987 he was professor of chemical physics at the Institute. Since then, he has been professor of structural biology at Stanford University, but spends around six months a year in Israel, where his wife and children live.

The other Jewish recipients of this year’s Nobel Prizes are François Baron Englert (physics) and James E Rothman and Randy W Schekman (medicine).

Born in Belgium, Englert survived the Holocaust by concealing his Jewish identity and living in various children’s homes during the Nazi occupation. He shared the prize with Peter Higgs for “the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of the mass of subatomic particles”, which had since been confirmed by subsequent discoveries. 

Americans Rothman (Yale) and Schekman (Berkeley) shared the prize for medicine with German-born Thomas C Südhof for their “discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”. In doing so, they beat out two strong Israeli contenders, Hebrew University professors Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin, who many had tipped to win for their discoveries regarding DNA methylation and gene expression related to cancer.

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Young and old on record-breaking aliyah flight

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Families, yeshiva bochurs (students), lone soldiers, and a nonagenarian will be among the 87 new arrivals at Ben Gurion in Israel this week in the largest group of South African olim on one flight since 1994.

“I feel incredibly proud to be a part of this record-breaking aliyah flight. It’s comforting to make aliyah surrounded by so many South African olim who have different expectations and aspirations, but who all share the dream of beginning a new life in Israel,” Eliana Lewus told the SA Jewish Report ahead of the flight on Tuesday, 27 July.

When Jared Glass was three years old, he almost drowned. Thirty-six years later, he will be among this group of new olim. “I feel like I’m being dragged out of the deep and taken to safety again,” says Glass from Johannesburg.

Aliyah is also for the young-at-heart, as Dr Hymie Ehrlich proves. At 91, he’s ready for more adventure (he celebrated his 90th birthday by hang-gliding in his home city of Cape Town). He will join his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His daughter and son-in-law were among the last to land in Israel in January 2021, when the Israeli government closed the airport due to COVID-19.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Ehrlich says, “Everything in life is a step, and this is another step onwards.” He’s sad to be leaving a “beautiful community. I wish everyone b’hatzlacha [good luck] and lehitraot [until we meet again]. See you in Israel!”

His son-in-law, Philip Stodel, says that when planning his own aliyah, “we asked him whether he would consider coming with us, but he was happy to stay. But following the onset of COVID-19, Hymie, who was still active as a medical doctor, was advised to stop working. He also found himself alone at his Shabbat table every week. He started his aliyah process in October 2020. At 91, Hymie’s mind is sharp, but he lacks technical skills. I’ve always been his ‘IT support system’, so I continued to do this remotely [to help him make aliyah].

“One of his biggest tasks was clearing his apartment of just about everything. We know this was very emotional at times. I feel like I’ve done aliyah twice, and I can honestly say that it was far easier the first time! As I sit here on a Friday afternoon, approaching what will be Hymie’s last Shabbat in South Africa, my immediate concern is for the last-minute pressure that I know await us. I will heave a huge sigh of relief once he is on the plane, and a bigger sigh when we see him on Wednesday!”

“The significance of Israel, aliyah, and a home for the Jewish people remains as relevant today as ever,” says recently-appointed Telfed (South African Zionist Federation in Israel) Chairperson Robby Hilkowitz.

“Telfed plays a vital role in facilitating the absorption of new olim,” says Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline. “Our role is to help new olim prepare for life in Israel. Our services centre on this and include guidance in dealing with the first bureaucratic steps; employment counselling; an in-house social worker; rental apartments in Tel Aviv/Ra’anana [depending on availability] at below-market rates; and a volunteer-based scholarship programme. Our regional volunteers welcome new olim to their communities, and are an important source of information for those considering aliyah as they decide where to settle.”

Hilkowitz says all new olim are required to go into quarantine. “For the first time, we will invite new olim to join our daily virtual Tea at Ten with Telfed, which details the important steps for the early stages of their aliyah journey. These webinars don’t just provide practical guidance, they make sure our new arrivals feel connected. We see the positive influence that a strong, connected community plays in a successful absorption. Our ultimate objective is for olim to integrate fully, to contribute to the country, but not forget their roots because being a part of a connected and dynamic community is empowering.”

They will also provide virtual activities for children and welcome packs. And, olim are invited to participate in a virtual musical Kabbalat Shabbat.

Liat Amar Arran, the director of Israel Centre South Africa, says many of the olim are making aliyah ahead of the new school year in Israel. “Like all flights during the pandemic, there have been challenges. For example, we needed to get agreement from Israel that there is enough space in its quarantine hotels to accommodate them. There has been a lot of work in the past two weeks, and our team has worked around the clock. Olim have to fill in many forms just before they leave.” Even with all of this extra administration related to COVID-19, she’s excited that the flight is able to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Lewus, who is 20 years old, is making aliyah from Johannesburg by herself. “I will be doing a year of national service in Israel [as an alternative to the army] before starting to study,” she says.

While it may seem like this group of olim are fleeing the current civil unrest, making aliyah takes time, and they started the process some time ago. “My aliyah process was gradual. I began the process about nine months ago,” Lewus says.

She is motivated by “pull factor” rather than “push factor”. “When I was in Israel on the Ohrsom gap year, I fell in love with the people, landscape, and feeling of unity. I knew I wanted to go back,” says Lewus. “I wanted to be a part of it, to be able to contribute.

“The recent unrest hasn’t influenced my feelings about aliyah,” she says. “I’m under no illusion that the perfect country exists. However, I do hope for a better future for South Africa. I feel so grateful and privileged to have been brought up as a South African Jew. Our community, culture, and upbringing are unique, and have paved the way for me to embark on my journey. I feel supported by family and friends in my decision to make aliyah, and my biggest hope is that they will be able to visit me soon.”

Tammy Wainer is 34, and making aliyah from Johannesburg with family. “The aliyah department has worked really hard to get everyone on this flight,” she says. “As much as I love South Africa and the comfortable life it offers, as a strong Zionist, my soul has always been drawn to Israel and the better life it can offer me socially and economically.”

Sandra (Sandi) Shapiro says “growing up in a very Zionistic home” is one reason she’s making aliyah. “My late father, Jack Shapiro, was the director of the Selwyn Segal home for 35 years. Although he never made aliyah, it was always his dream,” she says.

Their family is slowly starting to make that dream come true. “My son made aliyah in February, and had the privilege of being part of a historic flight with 300 Ethiopian Jews,” Shapiro says.

She’s motivated by push and pull factors. “I have been to Israel many times, and it has always been a lifelong dream to make it my ‘forever home’. After a horrible experience in October last year, I decided that the timing was right, and started my aliyah process. There were quite a few challenges with our government services, and it took a few months to get all my documentation together. The war in Israel also delayed the process – frustrating but understandable.

“If one is deciding to make aliyah, my advice is to have lots of patience and trust the process,” she says. “Eventually, at the end of June this year, I got approval. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks – I was finally going home. I’m filled with pride and so humbled to be a part of another historic flight. Being a part of such a large group is breathtaking. It’s absolutely amazing that so many of us are returning home.”

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Israel

SA seethes as Israel scores diplomatic coup in AU

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The South African government this week lashed out at the recent decision by the African Union (AU) to grant Israel observer status.

After nearly 20 years of persistent diplomatic efforts, Israel last week attained observer status at the AU. The development was welcomed by Israel, who has long held that the Jewish state has much to offer Africa.

However, predictably, it has been shunned by the government and local pro-Palestinian groups.

In a statement on 28 July, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), said it was “appalled” at the decision calling it “unjust” and “unwarranted”.

It said that in the context of the recent flare-up of violence in the Middle East, the decision was “inexplicable”, and accused the AU Commission of taking the decision unilaterally without consulting its members.

DIRCO said it would ask the chairperson of the commission to provide a briefing to all member states, which it hoped would be further discussed.

“South Africa firmly believes that as long as Israel isn’t willing to negotiate a peace plan without preconditions, it shouldn’t have observer status,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, the SA BDS coalition slammed the government for its silence on the matter, and for not immediately criticising the move like it has done in the past. The organisation urged the government, as well as other AU member states, to reject Israel’s claim to accreditation.

“We are extremely disappointed that our government didn’t immediately publicly reject the Israeli claim and announce that it would lodge an objection to the AU chair,” it said.

The SA BDS coalition accused Israel of “falsely claiming” that its assistance to African states in fields such as agriculture, technology, and economic development was philanthropic.

“In reality, this is simply opportunistic leverage,” it said, adding that Israel’s objective was to “muscle recipient states” to support it at the United Nations (UN) and other international fora.

One local pro-Palestinian media organisation tweeted “Remove the Zionist cancer from the AU”.

South Africa, along with several other African nations, has long opposed Israel’s desire to gain observer status at the 55-member continental organisation. While chairing the AU Commission from 2012 to 2017, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma strongly objected to Israel’s rapprochement with the organisation.

In November last year on the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, DIRCO Deputy Minister Alvin Botes accused Israel of “vociferously” lobbying African states to support its bid, saying that it was “more important than ever” to ensure that this didn’t happen.

Said Botes, “There is a growing and justifiable sense that certain African and Arab nations no longer see the liberation of Palestine as a common objective.”

He said Israel, with the support of America, was driving a wedge between these nations. “If Israel continues to score political victories while facing little resistance, it could eventually dominate Africa,” Botes said.

Algeria on Sunday condemned the decision of the AU to grant Israel observer status.

Israel previously held observer status at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but has long been thwarted in its attempts to get it back after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prioritised Israel’s relations with Africa during the latter half of his 12 years in office, including with several Muslim-majority countries on the continent.

Besides seeking new markets for Israeli expertise in fields like agriculture, high-tech, and security, Netanyahu was keen to improve African nations’ voting record on Israel-related matters in international fora such as the UN Security Council.

Aleligne Admasu, the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi, and Chad, on 22 July presented his credentials to Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, at the bloc’s headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hailed it as a “day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations”, noting that Israel currently has relations with 46 African countries.

The move will enable stronger co-operation between the two parties on various aspects, including the fight against coronavirus and the prevention “of the spread of extremist terrorism” on the African continent, the statement said.

In a separate statement, Faki Mahamat stressed the AU’s position over the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reiterating the bloc’s stance that a two-state solution was “necessary for peaceful co-existence”.

Steven Gruzd, the head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs said it was a pragmatic decision by the AU rather than an ideological one, as “Israel has a lot to offer Africa”.

“South Africa will feel a little out-manoeuvred on this one, given that during Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as AU commissioner, the proposal was blocked presumably by Arab states in the North of Africa as well as countries like South Africa.

“This seems to be a diplomatic coup for the Israelis. It has been quite a long time coming, and even though symbolic in many ways, it’s an entry into a forum where their interests are being discussed, and it will provide a platform for a deeper engagement with the continent.”

Since 2016, Netanyahu has been to Africa five times, displaying Israel’s keen interest in growing relations with African states, Gruzd said.

“Also, as part of the Abraham Accords process, we’ve seen normalisation with Morocco and Sudan, both Muslim-majority states. So, Israel’s forays into Africa is paying dividends, and I think it will be very pleased about this. South Africa is a strong supporter of the Palestinians, and I guess will see this as a defeat, but it’s not like pressure on Israel is going to be reduced by South Africa.”

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), welcomed the development, saying it was hopeful that AU members would work more closely with Israel on issues such as fighting the coronavirus, improving regional security, and implementing water, agricultural, and healthcare technology solutions.

“We are also further encouraged that the AU status may assist other African countries to do the same,” Polovin said.

“The SAZF believes that greater intercontinental co-operation with Israel is a sign that the South African government should follow suit in building and improving its relations with Israel. Furthering the partnership with Israel would bring increased positive benefits and impacts for all South Africans, and would help address the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality.”

Israel re-established relations with Guinea in 2016 and Chad in 2019. In October 2020, Israel also signed a normalisation agreement with Sudan.

In July 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier in decades to travel to the continent when he visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. There has been ongoing collaboration and engagement ever since with a number of African countries.

Meanwhile, the first direct commercial flights between Israel and Morocco landed in Marrakesh on Sunday, 25 July, more than seven months after the countries normalised diplomatic relations in a United States-brokered deal. This is another example of Israel and Africa moving closer together.

Passengers from Tel Aviv arrived on an Israir flight early on Sunday afternoon, and were met with dates, cakes, and mint tea at a welcoming ceremony organised in their honour. A second flight, by Israeli national carrier El Al, landed in Marrakesh later in the day. Both airlines are planning several flights per week to Marrakesh and Casablanca.

Morocco was one of four regional states to agree to normalise ties with Israel last year, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.

The normalisation deals between Arab states and Israel have been deemed a “betrayal” by the Palestinians, who believe the process should follow resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Israel

Aliyah interest spikes after unrest

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The director of the Israel Centre South Africa, Liat Amar Arran, says the organisation received “100 enquiries” into aliyah over the past three weeks, and that “at least 50 files were opened” – the first step in the aliyah process.

Comparing these figures to the 30 to 40 enquiries the organisation normally gets every month, Amar Arran says although she’s happy South African Jews see Israel as an option, we shouldn’t make aliyah in a panic.

“Making aliyah in an emergency means the person isn’t ready and hasn’t had time to do their research. It means they’re running away, and it’s very hard to settle when you are running away from something. Aliyah is a process.” Amar Arran emphasises that while Israel will always be there for South African Jews, it’s unlikely it would ever evacuate the community unless lives were truly at stake.

She says the Israeli government was updated during the unrest, but didn’t see it as an evacuation-type situation. Her team and the Israeli government have faith that the Jewish community will stay and succeed in South Africa for decades to come. “Israel will be there to strengthen, support, and assist,” she says.

She points out that Israel isn’t a solution to the complex challenges that people might be facing in South Africa. “If you are struggling financially, Israel isn’t going to save you. Yes, it gives some support and assistance, but aliyah doesn’t mean all your problems are going to be solved. You will probably carry the same problems with you. We want to see olim succeed, not collapse. You may get some assistance in the beginning, but eventually, you need to live your life there. We don’t want you to look back and say, ‘Why did I make this decision?’”

If you want to have the option of aliyah in a time of emergency, “then open a file now, and work on it [getting documents]. Don’t wait. You want to be ready on your side. Then you know that you have the documents, even if you might never use them. That’s your insurance.”

She emphasises that the Israel Centre doesn’t have the capacity to “hold people’s hand”, and that it’s each individual’s responsibility to gather their documents and do their research. While she and her team offer guidance, advice, and support, each person has to take their own steps.

She refers to the joke of a man in a town that’s flooding, and people keep offering him help – in a car, a boat, and a helicopter, but he refuses to go with them because he’s “waiting”. Eventually, he drowns and goes to heaven, where he asks G-d, “Why didn’t you come save me?” And G-d answers, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”

Essentially, she’s saying that you can take practical steps like opening an aliyah file if you want to have an option during times of crisis. You can also watch the informative video explaining the aliyah process that the Israel Centre recently released online. There will also be an aliyah Q&A webinar on 5 August, and the Israel Centre hosts these webinars often for prospective olim.

Though the organisation has been stretched to capacity in recent weeks, Amar Arran doesn’t expect the high level of interest to continue unless there’s more unrest. In addition, she says there is always more aliyah interest during harder lockdowns, when people are at home, less busy, and thinking about the future.

Meanwhile, olim who are making aliyah this week say the process takes time. “Getting all my South African documents [to make aliyah] was the biggest challenge, especially during COVID-19,” says Tammy Wainer. “At times it felt like I was climbing up a mountain with no end in sight! Once I had all my South African documents, it was smooth sailing.”

To others considering aliyah, she says: “Aliyah is a very big decision. Do your research, and weigh the pros and cons. Israel will be there waiting with open arms, but ultimately, it will be up to you to make a new life for yourself.”

The recent unrest in South Africa didn’t have an impact on her decision, but “it made it easier for me to say goodbye. I won’t miss going to bed at night feeling anxious at the sound of gun shots. But at the same time, it makes me worried about the loved ones I leave behind. Just because we are leaving South Africa, doesn’t mean we are turning our back on South Africa. The fire of South Africa lives in all of us, and I will continue to be proudly South African and proud of our incredible Jewish community from afar.”

Tamar Lutrin is in Grade 10, and making aliyah with her family. “Making aliyah during COVID-19 was both beneficial and hard. It was easier to leave because we weren’t spending every second with the people we love, but at the same time, we couldn’t say proper goodbyes.” To others considering making the move, she says, “Don’t prolong it, go as soon as you can. It’s hard to break down a life here without building up a new one there.”

The recent unrest “made it easier to leave”, Lutrin says. “My family and I were never leaving South Africa because we hated it, we love South Africa and the community, but it did make the grass look greener on the other side.”

Says Sandra (Sandi) Shapiro, “After the current unrest in South Africa, I can say that I’m fortunate to be one of the lucky ones to be able to leave South Africa in such uncertain times. I leave behind family and friends, and I worry for them all. I can only pray that Hashem will protect all of South Africa, and that peace, harmony, and tranquillity will prevail.”

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