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Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG

South Africans in Israel
Olim or Émigré

by Sidney Shapiro

first published in SA-SIG Newsletter
Vol.5, Issue 1, September 2004


Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2004 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 4 October 2004


Sidney Shapiro, Director of Telfed, Israel Offices of the South African Zionist Federation, delivered this paper at the SA-SIG Luncheon as part of the 24th IAJGS Conference held in Jerusalem in July 2004.

From my very many years of working with South Africans, I have come to the realization that we are a people who lean towards understatement and modesty, or perhaps we just don't know how to blow our own trumpet.
At least this is the impression I got over the past ten years while examining the contribution of South Africans to the building of the Jewish State from the 1920's to this day. Not many people in Israel or other parts of the world truly appreciate the important role that South Africans have played in the development and advancement of the State of Israel, its society, economy, defence - their input can be found in a significant way in all spheres of Israeli life - except perhaps for politics, an area where but few South Africans feared to tread.
In order to better understand the South African community in Israel today, who they are, what they are, and what they are doing, I would like to create in your minds a tapestry of society. Examine each thread as it weaves in and out, over and under, thousands of other threads. You will see that every thread is interwoven, inter-dependent and helps to create a form or image. Now step back and look at the tapestry as a whole, secured by a firm and strong frame.
The tapestry is the tapestry of Israeli society; the frame - the borders of the State of Israel, and each thread represents a citizen of Israel, including each and every South African oleh who is intertwined with olim from hundreds of different countries of origin and Israeli born Sabras. There is hardly any section of this tapestry where S. African Jewry has not made a seminal contribution.
Since the founding of the State 25,000 South African Jews have ariived on Aliyah. If we look at the Jewish population in South Africa over the past 100 years and take the average number, we wrn find that some 20 - 25% of South African Jews made aliyah. Until the end of the 1980's one in every three to four Jews leaving South Africa settled in Israel. Today the ratio is about 1 in six to seven.
The majority of these South Africans who chose Eretz Yisrael above America, Australia or wherever, in all likelihood had to be people with a committed ideological life's plan, who see the good of the people over the good of the individual, who have a belief in the Jewish State and the desire to be part of the history of its development and progress. This is the basic difference between Aliyah and migration -the latter being motivated by materialistic factors, an attempt at improving one's standard of living, or seeking a safer haven, whereas Aliyah is motivated by an emotional, spiritual, moving up, both in the secular and religious sense. Eizenstadt said: "The migrant tries to duplicate the values and lifestyle of his country of origin, whereas the oleh tries to build a new life altogether." In fact, if we want to be realistic, people would not choose to go to Israel for materialistic reasons. I venture to say that aliyah from South Africa beginning in the early 20th century to the 1980's was generated by a basic acceptance of Palestine/Israel as a true home of the Jews i.e. the central feature of the Jewish people and the commitment to it as such. The truth is that South African aliyah is a formidable story of individuals, which in the aggregate amounts to one of the most remarkable voluntary seminal contributions to the yishuv by a Diaspora community.
For example:
When Jacob Gesundheit invested capital in the Tiberias Development Company in the 1920's, his purpose was to build holiday resorts utilizing the natural beauty of the Kinneret, a trait which was so popular amongst the immigrant Jews in the dorps of South Africa by becoming hotel owners. Gesundheit's aim was to attract tourists and thus inject the yishuv with sorely needed foreign currency.
When Chaim Joffe and Gesundheit together established the Palestine Cold Storage and Supply Company, it was with the realization that the storage of food and agricultural produce would be vital for the well being of the population during those difficult years. I assume they hoped to gain financially, but their priorities were for the good of the land and the people. This was the fore-runner of the cold storage industry in Israel.
If we look at a particular section of our tapestry, we can see, for instance, that the banking and insurance industries in Palestine and thereafter in the newborn state, were propelled by "the South African Group" consisting of some seven experienced South African business men - Migdal Binyan Insurance Company, Peltours Mercantile Insurance and many more. In fact, the insurance industry - both insurance companies and insurance brokers, was introduced into the Israeli market by South Africans. (Smokey Simon, Harold Stutzin). This tradition remains to this day with an inordinate number of South Africans in the insurance business.
It is generally not known that Israeli conglomerates such as Bank Leumi (Anglo Palestine Bank) Israel Africa Investments (African Palestine Investments) were founded by South African investors and entrepreneurs. The South African olim truly brought know-how and capital to the nascent Jewish State.
The late President Chaim Herzog, in a letter to the South African Zionist Federation (Israel) known as Telfed in March 1992, said inter alia "South African olim are a group true to the Zionist legacy its grandparents and great-grandparents brought with them from deeply Jewish homes in Eastern and Central Europe. The new skills learned in South Africa came with them to Israel; virtually every basically important aspect of Israeli has has benefited from them."
How true are his words! To my mind, the most significant and far reaching contribution by South Africans to Israel emanated from Machal. 3000 South Africans volunteered to fight in the War of Liberation - 800 were accepted. 800 young men and women many of whom had recently been demobbed from the Allied Forces in WWII, comprised a group of volunteers which was far more significant in number and contribution than any other Jewish community in the world. A dramatic contribution of South African Machal was the building up and operating of the Israeli Air Force. Many are the exciting stories told of how some of these heroic soldiers bought Dakotas in South Africa, flew them to Israel and immediately entered bombing raids. (Sixteen Dakotas were purchased in South Africa, eleven arrived.)
(Ezer Weizinan in recognising the seminal contribution of South Africans to the Israeli Air Force, often tells the non-apocryphal story - of the value of Sid Cohen's contribution to the air force: when, as Chief of the Air Force he was asked to provide a fighter escort for his uncle, the President, who was going abroad on his first state visit, he re~sed. When Sid Cohen returned to South Africa to complete his medical studies, Weizman provided two fighter planes to escort Sid's plane out of Israel).
The medical corps would have had a difficult time in functioning were it not for the large medical contingent from South Africa. Many of the doctors stayed on or returned to Israel later to make an enormous impact on medicine which is felt to this day. Perhaps because of their philosophy on doctor patient relations the disciplines of social, family and community medicine were introduced to Israel by South African doctors such as Professor Sidney Kark and also world famous cardiologists such as Professor Joe Bornman and Mervyn Gottesman.
There is hardly a specialization in Israeli hospitals and medical schools which does not have South African doctors in senior positions. The same goes for dentistry and other paramedical professions and private medicine where the first private medical centres were established by South Africans.
A relatively high percentage of the South African olim over the years came from the education professions. The system of teaching English took a dramatic change when the SA teachers made aliyah. Prior to the State, English at the famous Herzliya Gymnasia and Reali Haifa schools was taught by S. Africans. The establishinent of high schools with English as the language of instruction was initiated by Telfed. For 50 years there has been a constant S. African influence in the field of Jewish Zionist education in Israel and in the Diaspora. The late Louis Pincus and subsequently Mendel Kaplan as Chairmen of The Jewish Agency for Israel placed Jewish Zionist education at the top of their agendas. Names such as Simon Herman, Gidi Shimoni, Zeev Mankowitz, Avraham Infeld and Alan Hoffman are to this day synonymous with Jewish education and Israel-Diaspora relations. In the educational field one of the few South Africans to receive the prestigious Israel Prize is Professor Hillel Daleski (another South African to receive this prize is Dr Ian Froman for tennis).
One of the major institutions spearheading the cause of special education in Israel is Beit Issie Shapiro, founded and essentially run by South Africans.
Over all the many years I have been in involved in S.A. affairs in Israel, I continue to be amazed as the contribution of South African Jewry becomes more and more apparent. If we, once again, compare aliyah with migration of South African Jews to other countries throughout the world, the latter have excelled as individuals by contributing to their individual fields of specialization. In Israel the impact of the contribution of individual South African olim, had a national significance because they, in very many instances, mnovated, improved their professional or business fields which impacted countrywide in the smaller yishuv. By being "big fish in a small pond" they were provided the opportunity to influence society extensively and rapidly.
How many of you know that South Africans were in the forefront of the agricultural revolution when the innovations of modern science were brought from the laboratories to the farm. S. Africans who had come from the plaas or those who had trained on the pioneering farms near Klerksdorp, Palmietfontein, Brits or Oogies laid the very foundations of farming and agricultural modern methods. Arieh Zive (1939) in the cold storage of fruit; Dr Morris Zeligman pest control; Sidney Lossin Yudelman - irrigation - just to name a very few.
Some 30 settlements - kibbutzim, moshavim and towns were founded by South African groups.
How can we forget sport? In other countries South Africans take sport for granted, however in Israel, Tennis, Bowls, Cricket, Golf, Rugby, Hockey, Squash, Badminton, Netball were introduced by South Africans.
The type, extent and significance of the contribution of S. Africans to Israel and its society can be observed from some interesting characteristics of this S. African sub-community in Israel which is in fact basically different from other S. African sub-communities in the Diaspora:
i.. The fact that many S. Africans made Aliyah within a group framework provided an inherent strength not experienced in the emigration to other countries. In the pre- and post-state years, groups such as the graduates of the Pioneering Farm near Krugersdorp, or the graduates of the Cape Zionist Youth Executive or the Pioneering Soldiers were organized by the South African Zionist Federation in South Africa and then accompanied by Telfed which continues to look after the interest of the South African community in Israel till this day. Ths cohesiveness was not to be found elsewhere. The fact that many S. Africans made Aliyah motivated by the Zionist ideal, allowed them to feel at home fairly rapidly, to have some self-confidence and thus greater freedom of expression, especially as they were now members of the majority group.
ii.. S. Africans in Israel have been accepted by society in general as being a desirable element - considered to be well educated, influential and wealthy (even if this was not applicable to all S. Africans). They have thus been given many opportunities to contribute to their specific fields. This is given expression in the fact that we were and still are trailblazers, both on an organizational or individual level. Because Israel is a country of olim and is open to and accepting of newcomers, it is more accepting of innovations and new methods of doing things. It is a mosaic society and each ethnic group contributes it share.
iii. On the individual level, South Africans' work ethics and professional standards made a noticeable impact on society in general. Their influences can be seen in the marked changes effected in so called South African towns such as Raanana, Ramat Hasharon, Savyon, Ashkelon (Kaapstad, Johannesburg and Durban Streets), Efrat, Kochav Yair, Kfar Shmaryahu and others.
iv. The South African Jew in Israel, in the main, carries with him a distinctive background - a Litvak, a Zionist, often a Zionist Youth Movement graduate. It is mainly in Israel where these traits have a special significance. The South African feels a greater commitment and affilialion to his newly adopted country in Israel which gives him the impetus to make an extra effort to contribute and to influence his new surroundings. This emotional affinity by newcomers is not usually found in other countries, particularly in the initial years of residence.
There are however certain similarities and differences between Aliyah and emigration to other countries:
Ahyih and Olim
• Waves of emigration. 1961, 1972-1979, 1987, 1994. Aliyah 48, 56, 67, 73
• Young families 30-45 year olds
• Religious
• Weaker sectors of the community who cannot go elsewhere (elderly and medical insurance)
When I spoke of South Africans being trail blazers on the organizational level, I referred to Telfed, the first community organisation to be created - boasts many firsts, such as having created the first absorption centre, first rental housing project, direct absorption (Russians), which is now recognised by the Government and the Jewish Agency as the main method of absorbing new olim; new settlements -Manof, Sde Nitsan, Efrat, Kochav Yair and kibbutzim were initiated by South African through Telfed.
Telfed as a Jewish South African organisation is unique in its structure and operation. Although South Africans have got together in other countries they do not operate an office with professionals to assist their countrymen in settling down in their new countries.
Where, other than in Israel, will you find an organization of South Africans providing:
• professional counselors
• employment services,
• financial assistance,
• loans,
• bursaries,
• grants,
• magazine and website,
• rental housing,
• regional absorption committees,
• social and cultural activities,
• the elderly (Protea Retirement Home),
• community welfare services,
• fieldworkers,
• companions to the elderly,
• Projects - Modim (open to olim from other countries).
Some of the fields in which South Africans are excelling:
• Housing - Teppersen, Nurick, Altman, Anglo Saxon Real Estate, Corex, Gamin, Platzky,
• Food Industry - Burgher Ranch (broke tradition of falafel to the hamburger), Taste of Israel (Cadbury's) Nandos,
• Amdocs, Retalex,
• Architects - Harry Brand, Ben Peleg,
• The Arts - such as Dance - Jeanette Ordman, Silvia Duran, Zvia Brumer,
• Volunteerism - Shuls; Beit Issie Shapiro; Soldier's Welfare Organisation; WIZO.
A question was put to me a short while ago:
In what way have South Africans changed in their identity or religious behaviour due to the influence of their new country?
As far as can be determined, there has been no research so far on this question in regard to the South Africans and therefore comments can only be made based on personal impressions.
1. Identify Change
i. South Africans have by and large had to adjust to different behaviour patterns. The story goes that the first 3 words they learn in Hebrew are toda, bevakasha and slicha. Alter a number of years, the first words they forget are toda, bevakasha and slicha.
ii. South Africans migrated to other countries which have similar cultural and social backgrounds, and therefore didn't need to change significantly. We South Africans in Israel tend to regard ourselves as being the bastion of Western culture, however at the same time we also try to synthesize this with the Mid-Eastern culture in which we live, and therefore do change. Notwithstanding, in many cases our habits, manners and Anglo-culture infiltrate into the Middle-Eastern culture around us e.g. kibbutzim Tzora, Yizreel etc., cities Savion, Ra'anana.
iii. Our behavioural changes can be observed by the fact that when living in South Africa we tended to mind our p's and q's. Being in Israel is like being at home more than anywhere else in the world. So if we express ourselves too openly which is sometimes interpreted as being aggressive or outspoken, it can be understood.
2. Values Do Change
i. The fact that the oleh and/or his children have to do military service or live through wars and terrorist actions, influences them to become much more committed to their new country. They are more patriotic to their country in their feelings than they were to South Africa before they made Aliyah. "It is my home." Do South African Jewish emigrants to other countries feel the same about their new country?
ii. Values in economic terms change: prior to aliyah the materialistic side of life was all important. South Africans are often prepared to do work in Israel they would not have dreamed of doing in South Africa, for example menial work.
iii. Political Views Change
Events in Israel have caused olim to change their political views, e.g. Right-wing move to center, left-wing move to right, voting patterns change with each election. It is fascinating to talk to erstwhile Habonim graduates who voted for Right Wing and a former Betar Head who is today an extreme Left Wing supporter. Israel is a vital effervescent society which, together with the differing time frames, causes people to change their political views.
3. Religious Behaviour
i. Religious practice in Israel is generally regarded as being fully observant or not at all, with little room in between for the traditional style of observance familiar in S. Africa.
The exception to this is found in the more tolerant congregations such as the so-called South African Shuls - the Parow Shul, Kfar Shmaryahu and others. In addition, you will find South Africans joining the Conservative movement in Israel whereas in South Africa they wouldn't dream of doing this.
ii. For those who arrive in Israel moderately religious and who get involved with the religious community, they tend to become much more religious and sometimes even Haredi.
iii. There are those S. Africans who tended to identify with Yiddishkeit and the Jewish community through Shul attendance in S. Africa, many, once in Israel, adopt the attitude that they now live in Israel where the whole country is Jewish, where Yom Kippur and the Chaggim are national holidays, which one cannot but help feel and experience, and therefore do not need to attend Shul services. Incidentally, whilst some regard Israeli society as being essentially secular, recent researeh by Machon Avichal shows that there is a very high level of Jewish values and traditional observance across the board - Mezzuzot:lOO%, Pesach Seder:88%, fast on Yom Kippur:76%.
iv. In other words, S. Africans tend to become polarized in their religious practice to the extreme in both directions of religious observance.
It is not clear to me if South African Jews in other countries have some identity change.
There is no doubt that in Israel our identity has changed due to the influence of our new country. How can it not be when in a South African community as small as ours, 72 of our sons and daughters have paid the supreme sacrifice in defence of our country and a further 7 have been murdered by terrorists. There is virtually no South African in Israel who has not been touched by this in one way or another. Yes, we, as South Africans, are now more determined, committed and resolute than we have been before.

Sidney Shapiro



Immigrant (singular)
Israeli born citizens
Terminology used for "going up" i.e. "going up to Israel"
Eretz Yisrael
Land of Israel
Area known as "Yishuv" before the establishment of the State of Israel
Machal - Mitnadvim m'Chutz Le­aretz
Volunteers from abroad
Offices of the South African Zionist Federation in Tel Aviv
Thank you
Beit Issie Shapiro
Home for the Handicapped
Communal Agricultural Settlements
Private Agricultural Settlement
Holidays (Holy days)
Machon Avichal
Avichai Institute




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