South Africans grieve friends caught in massacre
The mayor of the Shar HaNegev regional council, Ofir Liebstein (50), and Canadian olah Vivian Silver (75) have spent their lives dedicated to peace and improving the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, according to their many South African and global friends.
This clearly didn’t stop Hamas terrorists from targeting them on 7 October, when they brutally massacred more than 1 200 people, wounded about 2 900, and abducted many more into Gaza.
Liebstein, who was creating an industrial zone to provide jobs for Gazans, was killed defending his family and community. His teenage son was injured and is still missing.
Silver, who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and peace initiatives, lived on Kibbutz Be’eri, which terrorists stormed and took hostage. Silver’s fate is unknown, and she may have been abducted. Her last text said, “It’s absolute chaos here. Terrorists have infiltrated Be’eri. There’s shooting and screaming.” When her friend responded, there was no reply, and she hasn’t been heard from since.
“Both of them embody not only the best virtues of Israelis, but the best virtues of global citizens,” says Wayne Sussman, Johannesburg resident and Africa Institute director at the American Jewish Committee. “We must always honour Ofir’s legacy, and we hope that Vivian and others are safe, because the world, Israel, and the Middle East needs Vivian Silver.
“I had the privilege of working with Ofir Liebstein on numerous projects to strengthen ties between South African Jewish youth and the youth of the south of Israel,” Sussman says. “Ofir was an incredible individual. He spent most of his life living in the south, and he worked every day to close the gaps between those in the core – like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Gush Dan area – and those in the periphery, the areas he represented.
“He was committed to creating as many economic opportunities as possible for those in the south. He was a mayor committed to all residents in the area, whether they were Jews or Bedouins. He made a profound impact on Habonim Dror, as its national chairperson. His last act was to defend his family and community. He paid the ultimate price for his unwavering commitment to his people.”
Sussman has also known Silver for many years. “She had a remarkable impact on ANC [African National Congress] leaders [who visited Israel]. They were amazed at her commitment to female empowerment in peripheral areas, and the way she worked across borders, whether it was with Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, or Egyptians. She would often wait at the checkpoint from Gaza for sick Palestinians who needed cancer treatment in Israeli hospitals, and would personally drive them there. She isn’t just a great Israeli, she’s a person with global humanity. What happened to her and all those who were taken hostage or are unaccounted for is a great tragedy.”
“My friendship with Vivian spans nearly 30 years,” says South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Director Wendy Kahn. “I met her in 1996, and went on to work with her for many years, taking groups of South Africans to Israel to learn about agriculture, rural development, water, and more.
“Vivan’s incredible commitment to upliftment and to sharing expertise was an inspiration,” she says. “The organisation she worked for was called the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development [NISPED] and her real passion was working with one of NISPED’s divisions, the Arab Jewish Centre for Equality and Co-operation, together with Amal Elsana Alh’jooj. Not only did they work on projects to uplift Israel’s Arab communities, but for many years, they were able to extend their upliftment work to Palestinian groups.” She was also a founding member of AJEEC- NISPED, a Bedouin women’s organisation.
“Vivian and I reconnected when she went on to become one of the founders of Women Wage Peace [WWP], a grassroots peace movement in Israel that works with thousands of Jewish and Arab women promoting peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says Kahn. “In 2019, we brought a WWP delegation comprising Jewish and Arab women to South Africa to share their experiences with us and learn from our own experience of peace-building. During their visit, they engaged with government, civil society, other faith groups, and the media.
“Vivian has dedicated her life to peace-building and to uplifting those in need. I’ve been privileged to learn from her. My prayers are for the safe return of precious Vivian and the others who have been ruthlessly kidnapped.”
Cape Town resident Tamar Lazarus knew Liebstein. “Four years ago, Ofir helped us bring kids from the southern region of Israel to visit Cape Town so that they could enjoy a holiday and go to machaneh,” she says. Of these young people, Lazarus knows of only one that’s safe. The fates of the rest are unknown. She says a number of other shlichim to Cape Town knew Liebstein well, and are devastated.
Yossi Eshed, a former shaliach to Cape Town, saw Liebstein as “a friend and brother”.
“In 2015, I went on shlichut as fundraising shaliach for JNF [the Jewish National Fund] Australia, to Sydney, and he became the mayor of the Shar HaNegev [Gate of the Negev] regional council. As JNF Australia always supports the south [of Israel], we became more than good friends as we were supporting the region and his regional council specifically. Two years ago, we hosted him in Sydney. As I knew they would, people just fell in love with him. Such a strong Zionist, such a decent leader, a true mensch. One of his biggest projects was developing an industrial zone to promote coexistence and create employment for Palestinians.”
Called the Israel-Gaza Economic Development Unit, it would “utilise the skills of young, unemployed Gazans by giving them job opportunities which will in turn allow them to provide for their families”, according to a brochure for the development. “This enterprise will allow for about 10 000 workers to come out of Gaza every day and earn dignified salaries. Alongside industry, a medical facility will be established in the park, as well as a branch of an international-level university.”
In addition, the brochure said, “We aim to improve the infrastructure in Gaza, namely sewage, water, and electricity.” The project also sought to enable “high-level training for Gazan farmers to optimise agricultural resources” including “a training programme for Gazan high-tech engineers and entrepreneurs based around the Shar HaNegev incubator and Sapir College.”
One of Liebstein’s last Facebook posts was about him meeting young people from the region. “They ask questions, take interest, and show that the future of the Negev Gate is important to them,” he wrote. “With young people like this, the future looks optimistic and promising.”
“Habonim Dror Southern Africa is devastated by the killing of Ofir Liebstein,” the organisation said, describing it as an “insurmountable loss”. He was the “ultimate example of dugma ishit [personal example]”, it said. “We will always honour his memory.”
Habonim Dror Olami paid tribute to him, saying, “It’s with deep sorrow and shock that we inform you of the passing of our beloved chairperson. We’re thankful for all his incredible achievements for the Jewish people, and Habonim Dror in particular.”
The day before he was murdered, Liebstein wrote his last post on Facebook: “Simchat Torah is a celebration of finishing reading the book of the Torah and continuing reading it again from Genesis. The end indicates the beginning, marks the journey we went through, and gives us a moment to say thanks for being, and to be filled with hope for what’s coming. Together, we’ll continue to do good for the future of the Negev Gate. Shabbat Shalom and happy holidays, Ofir.”