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South African Jews are on the move




According to the findings of the report compiled by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and the Isaac & Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, migration and emigration present a pressing issue for the local Jewish community.

“Emigration is a huge challenge, not just in terms of the numbers that have already left the country, but also the number of people who say they are considering leaving in the future,” Dr David Graham, senior research fellow at the JPR and the author of the report told the SA Jewish Report this week.

“In that context, the community’s perceived ‘existential threat’ differs notably from others, where chief existential concerns relate to assimilation, anti-Semitism, low fertility, and ageing. That isn’t to say these aren’t issues in South Africa, it is just that emigration drowns out these other issues.”

Statistics show that about 37% of survey respondents said they were likely to move from their current location in the next five years, whether to a different suburb, city, or abroad. The main factors influencing the decision to leave South Africa are geography (with Joburgers being most likely to relocate), age, and marital status.

A total of 43% said that they had considered leaving South Africa permanently in the past year. Moreover, 41% of those who said they were likely to move in the next five years said they would leave South Africa, most of them for Israel.

“The levels of emigration from South Africa over the past two decades, whilst fluctuating, have been undeniably high in both absolute and relative terms,” said Graham. “And data revealed by the survey suggest this will continue.

“We don’t have the data to say, but the motivation is fairly simple: when Jews feel safe and secure, they tend to stay put; when they feel threatened or insecure, they seek to move.”

Graham said that countries go through different upheavals in different time periods, and South Africa’s Jewish population is by no means unique in this respect. “The desire to migrate corresponds directly with the perceived intensity of the societal problem to hand, but also the ability to leave and impediments to doing so are important considerations,” he said.

According to the findings, the top reason given by respondents for wanting to leave the country was concern about the future of South Africa, including political stability and the government. This was followed, at some distance, by concern about personal safety and crime, with the desire to live in Israel ranking third.

Access to international spaces and opportunities also seems to be a determining factor. Natan Pollack, who emigrated to Amsterdam a year ago, said that he didn’t run from South Africa so much as run towards an opportunity elsewhere. A co-founder of technology and innovation immersion venture En-novate, Pollack sought a new opportunity elsewhere after leaving the company in 2018.

“I wanted to compete against young professionals at a global level, so it was important to be somewhere that gave me a sense of global competition,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “Another consideration was the diminishing value of the rand, and though it wasn’t certain, I felt it was a safer bet not to limit myself financially.”

In spite of his affinity for South Africa and its Jewish community, Pollack wanted to tap into a more global mindset, feeling that European countries offered greater diversity and alternatives. Today he works at Mambu, a fintech company which innovates banking systems.

“I think I’ve found a lot of what I wanted. Beyond the access to new spaces and experiences, the change in physical safety has played a huge role in reducing anxiety and improving daily well-being,” he said.

South African Jews aren’t looking for opportunities only overseas. A total of 38% of respondents said they would move locally, with some of them saying they were likely to move to a different region of South Africa. More than half of this sub-group preferred Cape Town, a fact illustrated by the report’s suggestion that a net population flow away from Johannesburg and towards Cape Town took place in the five years preceding the survey.

Said Graham, “Compared to Cape Town, Johannesburg is more religious, close-knit, and wealthier, but it’s also more concerned about crime, less mobile, and keener to leave.”

While the main reason given for moving to a different part of South Africa was a better lifestyle, Jews have also found job satisfaction in Cape Town. Gavi Ziegler, who relocated from Johannesburg to Cape Town with his wife in 2018, said that his move to take up the role of campus rabbi at Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School brought a notable improvement in his quality of life.

“The lifestyle is definitely better,” he said. “Weekends are like a holiday, and when you return to work on Monday, you really feel like you’ve had a break.

In spite of keenly feeling the considerable difference in the size of the Jewish community, Ziegler said he was able to express his religiousness comfortably and meaningfully. In fact, while the report suggests that Cape Town is less religious, Ziegler said that the social awareness of religious Jews in Cape Town felt greater than in Johannesburg.

“If you are religious here you feel that your actions make a difference,” he said. “Your voice is heard, and you feel the contribution that you make. While the community is smaller and religious people may be more isolated, they are proud, and you can feel their impact.”

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