Israeli ambassador dusts off his suitcase for home
As Israeli ambassador to South Africa Lior Keinan repacked his dusty suitcase – that has long been ready for a potential emergency exit – he marvelled at the South African Jewish community.
As his four-year tenure came to an end this week, he told the SA Jewish Report he will miss a community that’s probably the closest knit and most Zionist in the world.
“I’m so impressed with how much this community is willing to risk to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel, Keinan said. “Many communities around the world would be timid when challenged about Israel, especially the way that it happens in South Africa. But not South African Jews. They stand proud. I really admire that, and have made it known back home.”
“Israel knows and really cares that this community stands by it,” Keinan said.
He’s not, however, going to miss the anti-Israel sentiment from government and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The amount of energy spent discussing Israel in government was something he was shocked by when he first got here. “It’s astonishing how much Israel gets discussed in politics here. It’s strange and something that people wouldn’t expect in Israel,” he said. “It’s truly exaggerated.”
However, in spite of the challenges and threats, which made him question his longevity here (and ensured he kept his bag packed), he’s grateful that none of the threats were realised.
“There were no academic boycotts. Although the government brought the South African ambassador to Israel back home and didn’t replace him, it hasn’t downgraded the embassy.
He was also pleasantly surprised to find that while the political front may be unfriendly, the reaction he got from most South Africans was welcoming.
Not least of those the 400 000 rural people whose lives his embassy helped to change by providing fresh running water.
He’s proud of this initiative that was fulfilled in 80 villages using Israeli technology, working closely with donors and non-government organisations.
“We evaluated the ground, put up solar panels, drilled until we found water, then pumped it out with a series of pumps,” Keinan said of the process.
“Now, instead of walking for kilometres with a bucket to get polluted water, the villagers have taps next to their homes,” he says, referring to the biggest bilateral project between South Africa and Israel during his term.
“I took my whole embassy to the inauguration, and I will never forget the eyes of the children when they saw fresh running water coming out of a tap.”
When he first arrived in South Africa, Keinan felt confident that he was familiar with the country as he is married to a South African and had been here before.
What he wasn’t expecting was the love he would get from people around the country. “I was amazed at how many people we met not only knew about Israel, but loved Israel. They wanted to take us into their homes and find out all about us,” he said.
He wanted to put the BDS “noise” into perspective. “We need to separate the noise they make from what’s happening on the ground,” Keinan said. “The past 20 years that BDS has been acting have been our best time in Israel. We have tripled our GDP [gross domestic product] and we haven’t done this because the world is boycotting us. The truth is, Israel, with its nine million people produces more than 60 million in South Africa. So, we simply don’t react to all the demands and protests.”
He said he has made it known to the authorities in Israel how supportive South African Jews have been. He’s positive that the relationship between South African Jews and Israel will get even better, not least because the new president, Isaac Herzog, and the minster of diaspora affairs, Nachman Shai, have both visited South Africa in the past four years.
“They are both very supportive of this community as they have first-hand experience of it,” said Keinan. “In fact, President Herzog has been keeping in touch with what has happened here since his visit.”
Although the relationship with the South African government hadn’t been easy, Keinan said he has had a few meetings with government members. “Some were co-ordinated and some were at events where we orchestrated a meeting,” he said. “They were mostly positive under the circumstances.”
However, trade between Israel and South African businesses has grown substantially, and the Israeli trade office has been the “matchmaker” in these deals.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 didn’t help him achieve all he wanted to do. Keinan spoke of his time here as divided into “before corona”, when he could get more done, and “during corona”, when life has been tough.
“It was also difficult as we couldn’t see our two children who are soldiers in Israel,” he said. “My wife and I will miss South Africa and our friends and family here, but we are going back to our soldiers, and we are going home.”
He doesn’t know what the future holds for him back in Israel because nothing had been finalised, but he hopes his next diplomatic mission will be as exciting and as challenging as it was here.
His advice to his successor was not to sit in Pretoria, but visit all around “this marvellous country” where “he will find friends wherever he goes”.
“I will also tell him not to let the anti-Israel noise hold the narrative about Israel hostage as those behind it are marginal in their influence. The ones that make the most noise aren’t the most powerful influence.
“I will always be available to him, but I won’t interfere as I don’t believe ex-ambassadors should do that,” Keinan said.
He was grateful that he managed to get to the end of his tenure without having to use his packed suitcase. “I always worried if I was going to be here the following day. At least three times, I wasn’t sure. First, when there was a call to downgrade the embassy, then when the South African ambassador was brought back, and most recently during Operation Guardian of the Wall.”
His suitcase is now no longer dusty and en route to Keinan’s home in Israel.
Israel hatred sours drawn-out Clover strike
Israel is being used as a political football by striking workers, unions, and the anti-Israel lobby in the protracted domestic labour dispute with Clover, which has entered its ninth week.
Clover was acquired in 2019 by a consortium called Milco SA, which is led by Central Bottling Company (CBC). CBC is an Israeli-based manufacturer and distributor of soft drinks, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.
The merger was complicated from day one as anti-Israel lobbyists attempted to scupper the much-needed R4.8 billion deal.
Essentially, when the merger was unfolding, Clover made commitments to the South African competition authorities to create more jobs and protect existing jobs. However, the company has now embarked on a series of retrenchments arising from the restructuring of its operations.
Disgruntled workers have downed tools for nearly 10 weeks in protest over, among other things, restructuring, non-payment of bonuses, retrenchments, job losses arising from crippling factory closures, salary cuts, and working conditions that have allegedly worsened over the past two years.
It’s messy, and the relationship between workers, unions, and Clover may sour further with no end in sight. The anti-Israel lobby has jumped on board from the start, lending its voice to the strikes.
It should be noted that job losses were identified by Clover before Milco approached it with a merger proposal.
Trade unions representing Clover workers, including the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, said hundreds of workers had already been dismissed, while hundreds more had accepted voluntary severance packages. They said more jobs were under threat.
Clover has reportedly said it has “explored all possible avenues to minimise retrenchments”, but cannot avoid lay-offs.
In a statement, the company said retrenchments were “necessary to enhance Clover’s resilience for the benefit of its collective stakeholders”. The company, it said, “had been subject to a difficult trading cycle for several years, where economic growth has been poor, costs have generally been rising above inflation, and consumer spending has been subdued. COVID-19 has added to these pressures and the uncertainty faced.”
Striking Clover workers marched through the Johannesburg city centre on 18 January, stripping Clover products from shop shelves including places like Checkers, and leaving them in shopping trolleys.
Last week, there were similar scenes of chaos at shops such as Pick n Pay selling Clover products in Observatory, Cape Town.
Among many demands, the workers are insisting that the company stop plans for further retrenchments and reinstate all workers. They also want it to be independent of the Israeli CBC. Calls have also been made for nationalisation of the company.
Political economist Phumlani Majozi said that while workers had a constitutional right to mobilise and push for their demands, it was important to look at what motivated this particular strike.
“The matter has been politicised, which is a bad approach from our unions, but it’s not surprising. Any labour dispute shouldn’t be politicised because then the dispute gets tainted. Going into the issue of Israel and Palestine isn’t going to help their members secure jobs,” Majozi said.
“Going into shops and causing chaos will obviously have a negative impact on Clover, and this will definitely have an impact on jobs and there will be more job losses. It’s sad that this issue is being politicised, and it’s sad there are some politically motivated movements that have joined in the strike to push their agenda. It’s disappointing.”
The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) this week said it was “disturbed” by the “trite attempt” by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to exploit a South African labour dispute to pursue its own nefarious, antisemitic agenda.
SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin told the SA Jewish Report, “The retrenchments and wage cuts which have brought about the strike are, for BDS, merely an afterthought in its fervent pursuit of demonising Israel in cases where the connection can only be described as diluted.”
Polovin said Clover was owned by a subsidiary of Israel’s CBC, and it was patent that at its core, this was a local labour dispute.
“Lacklustre attempts by BDS have been made in an attempt to shoehorn Israel into the fray of this matter by stating unfounded conspiracy theories. Chief among these bizarre allegations is that Israeli companies are attempting to flood the market with Israeli dairy products in order to destroy local industry, akin to cases that are already plaguing the global South,” he said.
“Furthermore, BDS has accused Israel’s CBC of breaking international law, this claim of course being made without justification. These allegations are entirely baseless, and one can quickly deduce the true intentions of the BDS when they are forwarded.”
Political analyst Daniel Silke said industrial action in South Africa including strikes and worker unrest applied across a variety of industries and companies, so it wasn’t necessarily peculiar to a company with Israeli ownership or shareholding.
“However, the fact that there’s an Israeli connection certainly makes Clover a little more susceptible to industrial action,” Silke said.
“Trade unions here are vehemently anti-Israel and take a pro-BDS standpoint. The Israeli connection adds a degree of militancy and mobilisation to any kind of industrial action. Companies with an Israeli connection will find that if there is industrial action, it could take on more sinister or difficult global overtones rather than just being a domestic industrial or labour issue.”
Labour expert Sara Gon from the Institute of Race Relations said that in terms of the Labour Relations Act, a company was entitled to restructure if it was inefficient, costly, or overstaffed. “This is contrary to what’s being said in public-sector strikes, where the impression has been given that restructuring and retrenching is unlawful.”
She said management was entitled to embark on these actions if it believed it would benefit the larger company.
However, a company has to consult with employees and/or their representative trade unions and justify its actions and consider the views of employee representatives.
“Clover management has said trading conditions are difficult with poor economic growth, rising costs, and subdued consumer spending. For these reasons, a review of all aspects of Clover’s business was undertaken, which led to the difficult decision to restructure,” Gon said.
“GIWUSA has objected to Milco’s involvement in Clover since 2019 ‘in solidarity with oppressed people of Palestine’. The demands probably come more from the unions than the employees, because of the intensely anti-Israel stance taken by the federation they belong to, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.
“The DTIC [Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition] approved the takeover of Clover by Milco, and has no authority to interfere with the ownership or otherwise of the company.
“The anti-Israeli position is standard fare, but the two-month long strike is more puzzling in that not only will wages be lost over the period of the strike, it could aggravate trading conditions and result in more retrenchments.
“On the other hand, one can understand the desperate need to keep as many jobs in this punishing climate. The need to keep the company in existence is, however, paramount,” Gon said.
More rolling mass action is expected.
Pandor ends year with extreme rhetoric against Israel
South Africa’s anti-Israel stance is one thing we don’t seem to be leaving behind in 2021, as Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Dr Naledi Pandor devoted a section of her end-of-year media briefing to the topic.
Her comments suggest Israel’s very existence is problematic, blame Israel for the conflict, and emphasise South Africa’s vehement opposition to the Jewish state being given observer status at the African Union (AU).
Pandor titled this section of her speech, given on 14 December 2021, “International solidarity work relating to Palestine and Western Sahara”. She then devoted the entire section to criticising Israel.
“In 2021, we have highlighted concern that the situation relating to Western Sahara and Palestine remains deadlocked – in some instances even worsening,” she said. “The question of Palestine is still unresolved after 70 years, and continues to challenge human conscience and international justice.”
As Israel has existed for 73 years, her comments show that she finds the very existence of the Jewish state problematic.
“In keeping with South Africa’s long-term and principled support for the Palestinian people, the government of South Africa remains committed to supporting initiatives aimed at refocusing the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process. The Palestinian question remains at the heart of the Middle East situation,” she said.
“The South African government believes the only way to bring about lasting peace in the Middle East is to have a comprehensive and unconditional negotiated settlement to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza. The ongoing delay in achieving such a settlement leads to an unending cycle of violence.
“In the context of Israel’s continuing violation of its international-law obligations, we have worryingly seen the African Union Commission this year granting Israel the status of an observer at the AU. This came as a shock, given that the decision was made at a time when the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of their land,” said Pandor.
“The unjust actions committed by Israel offend the letter and spirit of the charter of the African Union,” she added. “The AU reflects Africans’ confidence that it can lead the continent through practical expression of the goals of the charter, especially on issues relating to self-determination and decolonisation. The decision by the AU Commission in this context remains inexplicable. We look forward to the 35th ordinary summit of the African Union where the heads of state will discuss this matter.”
Local political analyst Daniel Silke notes that “the statement continues to reflect South Africa’s clear decision to side with the Palestinians rather than adequately balancing this with a deeper and more meaningful interrogation of the concerns of both sides, including the security needs of Israel. South Africa is largely excluding itself from the changing dynamics in the Middle East, such as the Abraham Accords, which have brought a much greater understanding between Israel and many of its Gulf and other Arab neighbours. Not to mention the fact that in past weeks, we have seen Egypt, Jordan, and even Turkey possibly indicating that they are looking for closer relations with Israel.
“South Africa will continue to drive the AU agenda,” he says. “But again, increasingly it’s going to come up against a changing dynamic of improving diplomatic relations between African countries and Israel.”
Local political analyst Ralph Mathekga agrees that pushing an anti-Israel agenda at the AU may not work in South Africa’s favour. “The AU hasn’t focused much on the issue of Israel/Palestine because there are more pressing issues for the region,” he says. “South Africa also has its own challenges, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems quite distant in terms of priorities.”
“South Africa will be a prime mover in trying to get the AU to reverse its decision on observer status,” says Steven Gruzd, the head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “It will be interesting to see how much support Israel has been able to consolidate in Africa after five years of diplomatic positioning. The chair of the AU passes from Democratic Republic of the Congo to Senegal in 2022. Israel has good relations with both, but this decision will almost certainly be challenged.”
The national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Professor Karen Milner, says, “We welcome Naledi Pandor’s call for a negotiated solution, even though it’s regrettable that she wrongly places all the blame on Israel for its failure. In view of the need for the international community to engage with all parties in the conflict to help them reach a lasting settlement, the government’s continued opposition to Israel’s observer status at the AU is baffling.”
South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin says, “The minister’s speech ignores the actual reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains persistent to this day. In spite of decades-long efforts by both Israel and external actors, all attempts at a lasting and universal peace have failed. The responsibility of this failure lies squarely in the hands of the Palestinian leadership which has unfailingly and consistently rejected peace and recognition of the Jewish state.
“Minister Pandor bizarrely positions Israel at ‘the heart’ of the ongoing crises in the Middle East,” says Polovin. “This crude analysis is done without elaboration or mention of the ongoing conflicts and human-rights disasters where Israel is either a mere spectator or committed to assisting those in dire predicaments.
“Within international relations, dialogue should be encouraged. These ideals are ironically espoused in the minister’s speech. However, it’s made clear that the intention of Dirco is rather to isolate Israel, which would consequently dash any hopes of a settlement resolved with the joint participation of the international community.”
“South African Jewry has sadly got used to the government’s extreme position,” says Gruzd. “Minister Pandor has said strongly anti-Israel things before. Equally sadly, without real peace-making in this conflict, this government could become even more intolerant of Israel.”
What’s driving SA’s record aliyah numbers?
In 2021, there were record aliyah numbers from South Africa – the highest since 1994. Israeli media reported a 50% to 70% increase on 2020. Olim and those in the field say that a combination of the pandemic, uncertainty about South Africa’s future, and unemployment have led to this increase. Just as 1994 was filled with unknowns about South Africa’s future, so too is a post-pandemic world. South African Jews are questioning where they want to be – and many are choosing Israel.
“We had 555 olim [from South Africa] in 2021. It was a record number since 1994,” says Israel Centre Director Liat Amar-Arran. “The numbers in 2022 will depend on the situation in South Africa, the world, and Israel. I’m assuming we’re going to see the same [numbers].”
Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline says 753 South Africans made aliyah in 1994. “However, in 1994, the community was double the size it is now. Therefore, proportionately, 2021 holds the record of the most South African Jews making aliyah since the 1970s.
“The number of olim scheduled to arrive in January 2022 is almost double the number of arrivals in January 2021,” he says. “Given these numbers, we anticipate another large aliyah wave.”
In January alone, there were 46 new South African olim and another flight with 35 to 40 people is planned for next week. There may be another aliyah flight with El Al on 15 February.
“People have had the opportunity to re-evaluate their lives,” Amar-Arran says. “People who lost jobs may have decided it’s time for a change. Some believe there’s no future for their kids. Others realised they could work remotely, so they make aliyah and work from there. I also believe the riots [in South Africa in July 2021] made people decide to make aliyah.”
For Stan Sadman who came alone on aliyah from Cape Town in January 2021, the main driver was his inability to find work. “I’m in my 50s. I was in sales, and I struggled,” he told the SA Jewish Report from Netanya. “Especially when COVID-19 came, and even the year before, the economy was going down. I’m now working as a janitor in a big retirement village. There’s no doubt about it, there’s a lot more opportunity here if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. But you’ve got to start fresh as an Israeli. When you leave South Africa, close the door. Unless you come with a lot of money, you’ve got take a step or two down in your standard of living.”
Another oleh wrote on Facebook that “a big motivator is more job opportunities. For me, it’s certainly true – especially with the incentives [in South Africa] which are harshly unfavourable to white males.”
“The South African Jewish community is Zionist, so there’s always a pull factor to live in Israel,” says Kline. “Another significant factor is that many olim are joining family who have already made aliyah. Many young families are moving here because they believe Israel offers a better future, employment prospects, education, and healthcare. Personal security is an obvious factor. And let’s not forget that Israel is a vibrant democracy with a strong and stable economy.”
Amar-Arran says the demographics of olim are wide-ranging. “We have 18-year-olds going to the army, ulpan, and higher education; younger and older families; elderly people joining their kids – all types of demography.”
“Families made up almost half of our 2021 olim,” says Kline. “Thirteen percent of 2021 olim were young singles [18 to 25]. Seventeen percent of new olim were seniors.”
Amar-Arran agrees with Sadman that aliyah is a big adjustment. “It’s a very different culture – Israelis can be less polite! It’s more expensive, and homes are smaller. People may struggle with Hebrew.”
Says Kline, “Understanding the differences between the cost and standard of living between Israel and South Africa is important. Telfed hosts klita [absorption] webinars for new olim, during which our social worker explains the importance of budgeting and living within one’s means. There have been instances where olim took out loans that they struggled to repay, so we do caution against this. Emigration can also be an emotionally challenging experience. In the webinars, our social worker speaks about the importance of finding networks for support – in shuls, schools, communities, through hobbies, volunteering, or just finding one reliable friend who can offer good advice.”
Sadman says basing the place you live in on a job is a mistake. It’s more important to find your community and settle in, then find a job. “I made that mistake, and I’m now in Netanya, although I would have preferred to be in Ashkelon. At the same time, I’m a 10-minute walk from the beach. The freedom here is amazing.” He advises people to work part-time until they find something more permanent as the rand’s value is low and one needs to earn shekels to get by.
Amar-Arran says the high aliyah number has had an impact on the Israel Centre. “We’re working very hard. Especially during COVID-19, the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork for aliyah is crazy. I wish we had more time to contribute to people, as we are trying to give a personal service. But when you have 70 olim in one month, you don’t really have the time to sit with each one of them privately. We don’t really have a budget to hire people, but I hope we can have another aliyah worker who can assist us this year.”
On the other side, the high numbers have also had an impact on Telfed. “Our services are in high demand – including employment counselling, support from our social worker, housing [there is a long waiting list for Telfed rental apartments in Ra’anana and Tel Aviv], and scholarship applications,” says Kline.
“We are dependent on donations to allow us to continue to offer these free services. Donations also allow us to provide urgent financial assistance to olim who have fallen on difficult times. A committee assesses each request to ensure that support is given to those in genuine need. In addition, we offer financial counselling so that those in need of help can get back on their feet.”
Amar-Arran emphasises that making aliyah isn’t for everyone. “It’s important to know that aliyah isn’t going to solve your problems. Israel is amazing place to live, but people need to know that feeling settled takes time.”
“Aliyah is a sharp learning curve, exacerbated by the language and cultural barrier,” says Kline. “Arriving with realistic expectations, some spoken Hebrew, and patience can stand olim in good stead. If you’re considering making aliyah, get in touch with us. Community support is instrumental to successful aliyah.”
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