South Africa a safe haven for anxious olim
South African olim and their families are taking refuge in South Africa amid the turmoil of war. It’s a difficult choice as they’re grateful to have a place of safety, but torn about leaving the land they love.
“I never felt pressure to get out of Israel during any previous attacks, but this time the thought was there immediately,” says Simon* a South African oleh who lives in Herzliya with his Israeli wife and their children. As they learned more about the massacre in the south, Simon decided that he had to get his family out. “My wife, Gita*, didn’t want to leave her family, friends, and the country she’s so connected to. We went back and forth, and eventually I decided to book for the following morning.”
Though he’d booked a flight, Simon was almost certain it wouldn’t happen. “Throughout the rest of the day, my feelings of helplessness grew,” he says. “If anyone had to get to us, I had no way to protect us, nowhere to hide. Texts were pouring in from South African friends and family urging me to leave, my wife couldn’t function, and my children didn’t know why we weren’t going out to play.”
Though Simon was anxious about the drive to the airport the next day, the roads seemed normal, and their flight left as planned. “I feel guilty for running,” he admits. “It’s nothing compared to how my wife feels. She was raised in Israel, and served in the army. She didn’t want to tell her friends. She was and still is too ashamed. She feels like she has let everyone and her country down. For the sake of my children, I didn’t give her the choice. I was going to take them whether she joined me or not.”
The couple is devastated to hear first-hand accounts of atrocities from Gita’s brother in the army. “We cry together all the time, wondering what will happen to everyone and what will become of our home, but we’re relieved that we’re safe and our children are happy,” says Simon. “We don’t know when we’ll be able to return. South Africa has always been my home, and we’re lucky that we have a support system here that we could come to.”
Together with their three children, South African born Sarah* and her Israeli husband travelled from Israel to South Africa on 1 October for a family simcha. Though they were due to return to their Ra’anana home this week, they’re now unsure when to fly back and are staying in Johannesburg. “I feel terrible that I’m here and not there,” says Sarah.
“We have absolutely no idea what our plan is. We’re in limbo. Is it going to get better? Is it going to get worse? Are they going to enter Gaza properly? Who is going to get involved? We just don’t know. I would like to go back as soon as possible, but my friends in Israel keep saying we’d be crazy to come back now.”
Her oldest daughter is in Grade 3 and is doing online classes. Most of her friends’ families have gone to Europe to wait things out. “It’s a mess. Everyone is trying to use Zoom to catch up on school work. It’s like corona[virus] times four,” says Sarah. “It’s awful for all our friends like us who have young kids who had just returned to school from the holidays.”
Yet, taking her kids back to Israel at the moment doesn’t seem feasible. “My oldest daughter is terrified of the rockets,” Sarah says. “About a year ago, when a barrage of rockets came, it was traumatising for the kids and we had to sleep in a bomb shelter.” With his family living in unsafe areas, Sarah says her husband is a wreck. “I feel like I could do so much more. We both feel so guilty, and are constantly questioning whether we’re doing the right thing. It’s for our kids, but it’s our home.”
Though Sarah loves and is grateful to have South Africa, she says she’s encountered antisemitism online and in person during her time here. “You don’t feel it so badly until something like this happens. It just feels different here, I was wearing a Magen David necklace one day, and I got these looks, and then I realised why.” Such incidents reinforce the need for Israel, she says. “It’s one home for the Jews.”
Having lived in the north of Israel for just more than two years, Gabi* and her two children, aged 11 and 13, arrived in South Africa on Monday, 16 October, for three weeks with a flexible return ticket.
“My Israeli husband is still there. He lived in South Africa for 20 years, but having grown up in Israel, he’s more used to sirens.” Though he booked tickets for his wife and children, Gabi’s husband has remained in Israel to help his elderly parents. He’s sad and anxious, but he wants to stay, says Gabi. Yet, he was grateful to have the option of sending his family to stay with his in-laws in South Africa.
“I didn’t feel scared for my life over there. We have a safe room in our apartment, so could go there if the sirens went off,” says Gabi. “Yet, because we live quite close to an army base and there were helicopters flying around all the time picking up soldiers and supplies, it was very tense.”
In their area, the family have, in fact, experienced only one siren so far. It went off by mistake, but it frightened the children, who were scared to go out of their apartment. “They’re quite calm usually, but this is the first time that they’ve had to deal with something like this,” Gabi says. “They were quite anxious.” Her daughter’s friend also lost a cousin who attended the Supernova music festival. “When you know people who know people, it makes the terrorist attacks scarier and more real. Two of our nephews have also been called up, so for my sister-in-law, it’s traumatic having her sons going into dangerous places.”
Gabi says it’s been amazing seeing South Africans and Israelis coming together at this time. “I do feel a sense of relief being in South Africa, but I’m sad to leave my husband and worried about him. I also feel a bit guilty about not being there and getting involved, but I’ve got to do what’s best for my children.”
*not their real names