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Israeli city started by South Africans turns 70

  • Ashkelon
Imagine driving from Cape Town Street to South Africa Boulevard, and then turning into Johannesburg Street, while the magnificent Mediterranean Sea, a marina, and a superb beach are five minutes away.
by PETER BAILEY | Nov 21, 2019

This is the case if you are in Israel’s city of Ashkelon with its 140 000-strong community. In fact, on a plinth on Afridar Square, you can read the history of the town in English, Afrikaans, and Hebrew.

The reason for all this is that South African Jewry were responsible for establishing the modern Ashkelon, which will celebrate its 70th birthday in December. While being almost 70, this city has a history going back 3 000 years or more, made evident by its museums and archaeological digs.

The modern Ashkelon story, though, started during World War ll with the establishment of the South African Jewish War Appeal, set up by South African Jewry to assist Holocaust survivors as news of the extent of the horrors taking place in Eastern Europe became known.

Originally, the plan was to help survivors to rebuild their lives in Europe, but this changed when the majority headed to the nascent state of Israel. So, the funds were used to provide housing assistance in Israel.

The South Africans didn’t choose where the housing would be, the Israeli government put together a strategic plan that called for the establishment of new population centres in the north and south of the country. These were away from the more densely populated central areas along the coastal belt and adjacent inland areas stretching from Tel Aviv to Haifa.

State planners decided that the South African funds would be used to establish a garden-type village close to where the ancient city of Ashkelon had been located. So, the seed was sown for the modern city of Ashkelon.

The South African Jewish War Appeal committee established a company called Afridar, a play on the Hebrew words Darom Africa (translated as South Africa). Afridar, the development company for the establishment of the new village, built 468 cottages overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1953, Afridar, as the village was named, merged with the neighbouring town of Migdal Ashkelon in a process completed in 1955. The united towns took the biblical name of Ashkelon. While the direct South African interest in Ashkelon waned after the merger, there was a continued South African presence in the management of the city.

Telfed, The South African Zionist Federation in Israel, played a huge role in the early days of Afridar in recruiting South Africans to work, manage, and live in the village. The original management committee was headed by South African Max Spitz, who was succeeded by Louis Pincus, also South African born, while Selwyn Lurie served as the managing director of Afridar until 1958.

The first mayor, town clerk, and town treasurer, Henry Sonnabend, Philip Gillon, and Sam Wulfson respectively, were all South Africans. Following the merger of Afridar and Migdal Ashkelon, South African Leo Tager was elected as the second mayor, while compatriot Jack Schneider was appointed as the city engineer. Another South African, Max Decktor, was elected as deputy mayor of the city, serving in that capacity for a number of years.

South African funds were used to assist in the building of the Ashkelon Hospital, currently known as Barzilai Hospital, which boasts a Mary Gordon Maternity Wing, named in honour of world-renowned South African, Dr Mary Gordon.

The Eric and Sheila Samson Emergency Surgical Hospital recently opened its doors as part of the Barzilai Hospital in a continuation of South African interventions in the city.

Telfed is working with several other organisations to arrange a huge 70th birthday bash for Ashkelon, which will highlight the South African contribution to the city since its establishment. One of the aspects of the celebration will be the offer of a unique tour for South Africans, which will not only showcase Ashkelon, but take visitors to parts of Israel off the beaten track which they would not normally visit.

  • Peter Bailey is chairman of the Telfed National Events Committee.


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