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SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home

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Israel

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.

But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.

“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”

Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”

For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.

“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”

For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.

“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”

Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.

“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.

“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”

Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.

“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.

Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”

Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”

Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”

Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”

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What really happened in Israel this week

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It’s just gone 03:00 in the morning on Wednesday, 12 May. I’m hunkering down in a bomb shelter which doubles up as my study in Tel Aviv. I’ve checked a few times that the iron door and window are tightly shut. I can hear the sirens screeching overhead, followed by a pause, and then a massive explosion.

Just a few hours ago, I was outside on the streets, which are eerily quiet for this busy city.

An earlier night-time drive into neighbouring Holon was even more unusual. A main thoroughfare was cordoned off by police and firemen who were shouting into their cell phones and at each other. Half an hour earlier, a rocket had hit an empty bus and debris was lying everywhere. The glass windows of nearby shops had been completely shattered, and residents were coming to assess the damage. Four people are being treated in hospital, one of them a five-year-old girl.

It’s been chaotic since last Friday night, when clashes erupted outside the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. For five consecutive nights, the pattern has been pretty much the same. Muslim worshippers make their way into the Old City through Damascus Gate while outside, Israeli police and the army take up position. There’s even a section where the journalists stand. After the prayers, a group of youngsters inevitably start hurling water bottles, rocks, and glass at the officers who after a while, respond by charging into the crowd, arresting some of the protestors, and firing stun grenades. It’s predictable.

Hamas, the rulers in Gaza, are egging on the protestors. The announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he was postponing Palestinian elections – the first in 15 years – indefinitely, and blaming Israel for it, didn’t help. Neither did the fact that this is happening during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a heightened time of religious sensitivity. It also comes after the Supreme Court was meant, on Monday, to give a ruling on the evictions of about 70 Palestinians from houses in the contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah that Jews say they owned before 1967. The court has delayed the announcement of its decision.

But still, the result is the worst violence in four years, and it has quickly spread to other Israeli Arab localities. The city of Lod just outside Tel Aviv is in lockdown. The Israeli army imposed a state of emergency after troops had to evacuate some Jewish residents amid clashes between Arabs and police and after buildings, including a synagogue, were set alight.

At the time of writing, five Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed. The latter happened after Hamas fired an antitank missile at an Israeli jeep on Wednesday morning. One of the Israeli civilians killed was a pensioner who was too old to get to a shelter and who died alongside her Indian helper in their home.

Hamas has criticised Israel for trying to change the status quo in Jerusalem, but Israeli soldiers insist they are reacting only after coming under fire. They accuse Palestinian youngsters of shoring up stones, rocks, and homemade ammunition inside the Al Aqsa compound and attacking them with it.

But the international community is clearly more on the side of the Palestinians. Amnesty International has accused Israel of excessive force that I, as a journalist covering the protests, dispute. There are certainly some instances of the Israeli security forces manhandling and violently attacking protestors but on the whole, certainly outside Damascus Gate where I’ve been most of the week, it’s dangerous for the troops as they are provoked and hit with things that could seriously injure them if they weren’t wearing helmets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wouldn’t give in to rogue elements trying to disrupt Jerusalem, and in his latest speech has threatened that Hamas will pay a “dear price”.

I’m on the phone constantly with my colleagues in Gaza. One lives in the Hanadi Tower, a 13-storey residential building in Gaza city, that collapsed on Tuesday after Israeli air strikes targeted an office used by the political leadership of Hamas. An hour before the strike, residents were warned to leave their homes by the Israeli Defense Forces and hence there were no reports of injuries. But my colleague is now homeless.

I also have an Israeli friend who phoned me in tears. Her son is among the thousands of soldiers who have been called up to the Gaza border. It’s not yet clear if Israel plans a ground offensive but all options are on the table. Five thousand additional reserve troops have also been making their way to beef up the army in the southern Israeli communities and help those maintaining calm in Israeli cities across the country – Haifa, Ramle, Akko, Beer Sheva, and others.

While between 80% to 90% of rockets fired from Gaza – and to date there have been more than 1 200 in total – have been shot down by Israel’s anti-missile defence system, the Iron Dome, many Israeli civilians are choosing to move to the north out of harm’s way – hopefully.

Several of those I interviewed blame American President Joe Biden for the flare-up. After he took office in January, Biden expressed little interest in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He’s also been reluctant to get involved in the current conflict, but is being urged to do so. The clashes have caught his administration on the back foot. By comparison, the Trump administration showed unstinting support for Netanyahu and hostility towards the Palestinians.

“If Trump was in office now,” many Israelis tell me, “the Palestinians would be too scared to act like they are now. But they know Biden won’t do anything!”

Come tonight – and probably for the rest of the week – I’ll be sleeping in my bomb shelter, as will hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Gazans, too, will be hunkering down where they can find shelter. No-one wants another war; but then again no-one’s being asked.

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Israel

SA olim hunker down under a rain of rockets

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As rockets rained down on most of Israel from Monday to Wednesday this week, many South African olim hunkered down in safe rooms, bomb shelters, and stairwells. Meanwhile, one healthcare worker was on the frontlines of her hospital, treating the injured in what she called a “miniature mass-casualty event”.

Gila Nussbaum is an emergency physician in a hospital in the south of Israel. “I’m trained to remain calm and work under pressure, but yesterday, that pressure escalated when my own life and those of my colleagues and patients was in danger,” she told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 12 May.

“We have had drills, but no amount of simulation can match reality. Yesterday, when the sirens sounded, we were ready to seal the emergency room, stay in the internal corridors, and continue doing what we always do under slightly different circumstances. Then we got notification that rockets had landed in a residential area, people were injured, and they were on their way.

“We activated a mini mass-casualty event. This means we clear an area of the department of usual patients and family members. It also means rushing admissions, moving people to safe areas, and pushing extra beds into corridors and passages. We bring in extra equipment, we activate staff on standby, and we stand at the ready.

“Then they started to come: an elderly man in a wheelchair, a child who was with a babysitter, a mentally disabled lady who didn’t understand what was happening – people injured, scared, and anxious. We treated each one and reunited family members who had been separated. We continued treating patients who came in with strokes, heart attacks, and pneumonia – the usual things don’t stop just because rockets are falling. And so we kept going – doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, radiographers, cleaners, security services – all the personnel required to keep an emergency department running. Through it all, Israelis, Arabs, South Africans, Americans, Brazilians, and Brits worked as a team.

“Thank G-d, most weren’t too severely injured and were able to be discharged, but then we suddenly faced a new dilemma: our usual note of “discharged home with the following instructions” was no longer applicable as the majority of these patients no longer had a home to go to. Their homes were now a pile of rubble. And so we faced the new challenge of finding placement for them.”

Eventually Nussbaum’s gruelling 14-hour shift ended. After arriving home, sirens sounded and “my long day was extended by dragging my three small children out of bed and into our mamad [safe room].” On the next evening [Wednesday], she says: “It was a scary drive. I had to stop three times because of rockets, get out the car and lie down on the side of the road.”

“When a rocket falls nearby, you really hear it and feel it. It’s so, so scary,” says grandmother Jolleen Hayon, who lives in Ashkelon and works for the Baltimore-Ashkelon partnership, connecting Jews from both cities. “I’m 14km away from Gaza. A rocket landed on a car, 30m from my house. The car was parked a few metres away from a home for children at risk. If the rocket had exploded there, it would have been a real disaster. We can hear the Israeli army planes and jets going past, and we hear the bombing in Gaza. All of these sounds are the sounds of war … it’s a horrible noise.”

Like many Israelis, Hayon wishes that things hadn’t escalated to this level, and that both sides could make peace. “I’ve been here for 10 years, but one never really gets used to it. The constant tension of needing to get to the safe room in 28 seconds is tough. And for ages after things quieten down, every time you hear a motorbike revving or a car backfiring, or someone drops something, you just about jump out of your skin. It’s really something that goes deep.”

As she and her husband sheltered in their safe room in 30-degree heat on Tuesday, a rocket hit the power lines and so they had no electricity the whole day. “It was pitch dark and boiling. We slammed the door, locked it, and listened to the booms of the rockets falling.

“The situation in mixed cities is so scary,” she says, referring to civil unrest in cities with Jewish and Arab populations, like Lod. “To think of people’s neighbours marching through streets, lynching people, setting cars and shuls alight, throwing rocks … is very worrying.”

Eighteen-year-old Lexi Price is spending her gap year at Machon Maayan, about a 10-minute drive from Ashdod. “We’ve been hearing a lot of rocket fire. This morning [Tuesday] was the first time that I’ve ever had to go into a bomb shelter. I was stressed out as I wasn’t prepared for it at all. Tonight [Tuesday night] we’re sleeping in the bomb shelter. The madrichot were trying to calm everyone down. The siren went off, and the girls started panicking. I asked the ‘house mom’ if we could tisch [sing religious songs], so we were singing while we could hear rocket fire and the Iron Dome intercepting it. It was so powerful to be singing while that was happening.”

On Tuesday night, media consultant Darryl Egnal was at a party for international students at Bar-Ilan University’s International School in Ramat Gan. “Twenty minutes after I arrived, sirens could be heard over the music, which was shut down immediately, and we were all ushered down two flights of stairs into the basement bomb shelter which doubles as one of the university’s libraries.”

Egnal made aliyah in 2009, and says that “in the past, there would be one or two sirens with simultaneous explosions being heard as the Iron Dome intercepts the rockets. You’d wait 10 minutes to make sure it was safe, and then go back to whatever you were doing. This time, however, there was siren after siren and explosion after explosion. It didn’t seem to end.

“Food and drink was brought down, and eventually, the music was too, so the students continued the party in the shelter. Being international students, this was the first time most of them had experienced a rocket attack on Israel. Some were afraid, some took it in their stride.”

Later, she was woken by a siren at 03:00. “Planning to go down to the basement shelter, I opened my front door to see many of my neighbours in the passageway and the stairwell, something I wasn’t expecting. Apparently, if you live on the upper floors of a building and can’t get to the bomb shelter, the safest place to go is the second floor, which is where I live. So I grabbed one of my chairs and joined them. Adults, teenagers, toddlers, babies … and a dog. We sat there for about 30 minutes while the sirens wailed and rockets exploded.”

Social worker Leanne Manshari has lived in Ashkelon for 12 years. Her son’s birthday fell on Yom Yerushalayim, and his friends had just arrived for a surprise birthday sleepover when the sirens started going off. “The mothers decided the kids could stay, and so they had a sleepover in the safe room. It was an experience we will never forget!”

Manshari is a social worker for a girls’ boarding school. “In the middle of the night, I had to go to the school, which is a half-hour drive from Ashkelon. The girls were traumatised because when they were driving back from Yom Yerushalayim, rocks were thrown at their buses. Driving through Ashkelon under rocket fire was extremely frightening even though I’m not an anxious person.”

She says her eight-year-old daughter is extremely anxious about the rockets. “We were bombarded every ten minutes. At one point they told us not to leave the mamad for a few hours because one of the Iron Domes wasn’t working.”

The family has since left to stay with Manshari’s sister-in-law, near Haifa. “I am happy to be here and to see my sister-in-law, but I also want to go home. It’s surreal. You really want to be in your own house but you can’t go home, it’s just not safe.”

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Skies between SA and Israel could open soon, says Israel’s COVID-19 chief

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South African Jews and their relatives in Israel are battling yet another travel ban implemented by Israel at the beginning of May, which forbids travel to South Africa and seven other countries. Yet Tomer Lotan, the executive director and policy chief at the Government of Israel National Coronavirus TaskForce, told the SA Jewish Report it might shift soon.

“I think it will change pretty soon. The policy is based on the idea of opening as much as we can inside Israel, but being very strict with our borders. We call it the ‘inverse watermelon’ – the inside is green and the outside is red. It sounds much better in Hebrew!

“We went through two to three months of relief in daily activity and opening our economy,” he says. “This was mainly through the ‘green pass’, a project that I was privileged to lead [allowing those who are vaccinated access to daily life, sport, and cultural events]. There were about six to seven phases of relief to get our economic activity as close as we could to daily routine.

“But the other side of the equation has been to keep our borders as strict as possible. It’s a challenging balance. We’ve been more conservative about our borders than before because we want to maintain the achievements of our vaccination project. We don’t want to risk it with a ‘variant scenario’ [a COVID-19 variant entering the country.]”

He says an Israeli High Court decision two months ago ruled that “we cannot block Israeli citizens from travelling back to Israel. This means we had only one option left: to have a differentiated approach to different countries. This is why we created these criteria, focused on countries that are more dangerous for Israel because of the presence of variants of concern. We also looked at the traffic between these countries and Israel.”

In the case of South Africa he says, “the South African COVID-19 variant is still a concern according to our Ministry of Health. However, I must say, over the past week or two, we have seen more evidence that the South African variant may be less dangerous than we originally thought. So I’m more optimistic that in the short term, Israel will update its knowledge on the South African variant. We hope that the evidence will give us confidence that it won’t affect those who are vaccinated, and then the policy [on travel between South Africa and Israel] might change. But we’ve been very conservative because no one wants to make the mistake of ‘reading the map’ incorrectly.”

Lotan says South Africa’s recent low COVID-19 numbers don’t have a big impact on Israel’s assessment of its travel ban. Rather, the traffic between the two countries and strong family ties between people has more of an impact.

“But we want to emphasise that the health ministry and Israeli government are very aware of the need to reconnect communities and families. We hope to make sure that over the coming weeks and into the summer, there is more traffic between South Africa, Israel, and other countries, not only for the Israeli economy, but also because of the very important ties to these Jewish communities. We are making an effort and it’s ‘on our table’. We are putting a lot of effort into updating policies.”

So is Israel’s fight with the pandemic coming to an end? “Most Israelis feel that ‘corona is over’. They act like it’s over, and there is much sense in that as we are really close to normal routine,” he says. “And our numbers are dramatically, fantastically low. The only question mark is the fact that the world is still suffering terribly from COVID-19. So it’s still premature to say that it’s over.”

He says the Israeli government will soon “pilot groups of tourists to start tourism again in Israel. That’s the next step. We’ve done things gradually, in a cautious way. We aren’t running forward [without thinking things through].”

Regarding sectors of Israeli society that may have been resistant to vaccines, Lotan says “the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] do vaccinate. They are at least 60% vaccinated, which is high compared to the rest of the world.” He points out that they haven’t experienced an increase in COVID-19 numbers after the large gathering at Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer.

“Arab Israeli citizens also have very high vaccination numbers. It took a while to increase numbers – it started slowly, but after we adjusted our messaging and created greater accessibility in Arab villages, there has been increased compliance.” These efforts have extended from East Jerusalem to Bedouin families in the Negev. Lotan says Israel has also vaccinated 200 000 Palestinian workers that come in and out of Israel. Although it’s in Israel’s interest that all Palestinians are vaccinated, this responsibility falls to the Palestinian Authority.

Regarding the large numbers gathered at Mount Meron, Lotan says, “for so many years, the event has been unmanaged. It’s like a ‘no man’s land’. We concluded COVID-19 restrictions for Meron based on the green pass –allowing only those who are vaccinated to attend, restricting numbers, and so on. The plan was agreed with the relevant ministries and the police.

“But then it was disputed at operational level. Who would enforce it? Who would check the green passes? And then the formal restrictions weren’t voted in by the government. It was a very good plan, but no one signed it. So the event was unmanaged.”

He says this failure is a symbol of “the failures of the Israeli system. It’s not just political, it’s about the weakness of authorities. So the miracle [of Lag B’Omer] didn’t happen this year.”

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