SA Jewish leadership confront Israeli PM over travellers’ ordeal
Orthodox spiritual leaders in South Africa have expressed their shock and dismay over the treatment of South African travellers turned away from Ben Gurion Airport last Friday night.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, South African Rabbinical Association Chairperson Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, and the dayanim of the Beth Din of South Africa wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on 30 November expressing their unhappiness.
The group of five travellers from South Africa included two who were going to Israel to comfort the Kay family after the murder of their son and brother, Eli Kay, in a terrorist attack on 21 November.
They were in the air when Israeli authorities decided to ban South African travellers in light of a new COVID-19 variant discovered by South African scientists. On landing in Israel, they were forced onto a flight back to South Africa via Dubai on Shabbat.
“We were shocked and dismayed to hear that a group of Jewish travellers from South Africa, who arrived at Ben Gurion Airport this past Friday, were denied entry into Israel and forcibly returned to their country of origin, and as a result were compelled to desecrate Shabbat,” wrote our religious leaders.
“That this took place in the Jewish state is simply unconscionable,” they wrote. “To further compound the trauma, two of the passengers were making their way to Israel to spend Shabbat with the Kay family, who are mourning the loss of their beloved Eli in last week’s terror attack in Jerusalem. From the reports we received, no attempt was made to accommodate the passengers by allowing them to remain in quarantine over Shabbat.
“To force fellow Jews to desecrate Shabbat is a violation of the Jewish identity and Jewish values of the state,” they wrote. “The manner in which the religious rights of these individuals have been infringed isn’t something one would expect of any country, and certainly not the Jewish state. On behalf of South Africa’s rabbis and the communities we represent, we wish to record our strongest objection to the forced desecration of Shabbat.”
One of these travellers, Ilana Smith, says the incident led to more stress and trauma for the Kay family, who tried to help the travellers in spite of being in mourning. “I was going to Israel only to be there for the Kay family. I was staying nearby, and was going nowhere else. And now the Kay family had this extra stress on their hands – the last thing they needed! Kasriel Kay was phoning the rabbi in Dubai, trying to help us. My family back home went into Shabbos not knowing if I would be stuck in Dubai. There are post-traumatic repercussions from this ordeal.”
Melissa Genende was travelling to Israel from South Africa to see her grandchildren on the same flight as Smith. “We had no knowledge of the flight ban, and weren’t stopped until we arrived in Israel on Friday afternoon. Our passports were taken from us. We were marched underground and came up at the departure gate for the flight going back to Dubai.
“We were threatened that if we didn’t board the plane, the police would be called,” she said. “This in fact did happen while we explained that we didn’t want to fly on Shabbat. At this point, we had no choice but to get on the plane. I’m not fully shomer Shabbos, but I would never travel on a plane on Shabbat. I have travelled many times in my life, and always make a plan that I don’t travel on Shabbat, often with a lot of extra cost.”
She’s angry that all the other people on the plane entered Israel with no problem. “We came from South Africa on the same plane, so why were we not giving any other option? We could have gone into bidud [quarantine] for a few days. We had all been tested, and I had already prepaid for PCR tests at the airport. I understand the panic. What I don’t understand is how they make a decision for five people and let everyone else in the country.”
The group had no opportunity to get food or water while waiting in the airport. “Kosher food was also unavailable to us for the entire two flights. When we landed in Dubai, it was already Shabbos. We had nowhere to wait all night until our flight at 05:00. We managed to find a lounge that would allow us to pay $32 [R513] for four hours. There was no kosher food there. We arrived back in South Africa at 12:00 on Saturday. Our luggage didn’t arrive, and we still have no idea where it is or when will get it back.”
Genende has since been ill from dehydration and travel sickness. “I’m taking this as far as can. I’m hoping that the Israeli government will do something about the staff at the airport. At the very least, I want a new ticket to Israel. I will fight until I get answers and compensation.” Emirates, she says, won’t reimburse her as she has “used” the return flight.
Even though she was able to get home, she says she would have preferred to be stuck in Israel than to have experienced this. She says she and the other South Africans have since been asked to go to the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria to meet the ambassador. She’s waiting “with bated breath” to hear what’s said. She’s had no other communication from anyone in Israel.
Former MK and olim advocate, Dov Lipman, has worked tirelessly with his organisation, Yad L’Olim, to assist olim and their families to deal with travel restrictions throughout the pandemic. In the past few days, he has barely slept as Israel went from one extreme to the other in a matter of hours.
“It’s been a really difficult time for South African Jewry,” he says. “I hear their pain, I hear their cries. The incident last Friday was nothing short of tragic, and I use that word deliberately. It’s a tragedy when someone arrives in Israel legally and is turned away.”
He says the incident has been covered extensively by the Israeli media, “with strong criticism of the government for the way it was handled from all segments of Israel’s population. At the very least, this kind of thing won’t happen again because of the degree of criticism.”
He was involved in trying to assist the South Africans. “I had a hard time enjoying my Shabbat knowing that people were in transit to who knows where. It was very painful. I’m now even more motivated to help olim and their families around the world. I believe all of our efforts will lead to a better situation.”
In response to queries from the SA Jewish Report, the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria released an official statement. “We deeply regret the unfortunate incident that occurred at Ben Gurion Airport on 26 November when a group of South African citizens were deported and had to violate their religious beliefs. The incident took place immediately after the imposition of new strict COVID-19 regulations. The incident is being investigated, and necessary conclusions will be drawn. Needless to say, if the embassy had been informed of these events in time of the occurrence, this unfortunate chain of events could have been prevented.”
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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