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Israel Ready but Not Expecting Upsurge in South African Aliyah

The Jewish Agency for Israel is poised to respond to any increased interest in aliyah among South African Jews in the wake of the African National Congress’ election victory there.

But it is being careful not to exploit the uncertainty some South African Jews feel in the face of their new and untested black leadership.

“This is a proper time to reassess our way of operating in South Africa,” said Yehiel Leket, acting chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.

But he said the Jewish Agency has “decided to adopt a policy of emphasizing the attractiveness of Israel” rather than of “warning Jews of the potential danger.”

So, for instance, the agency is increasing the number of pilot trips it offers to Israel for South Africans considering aliyah.

And meanwhile it has established a “situation room” in Tel Aviv to facilitate up-to-the-minute monitoring of political developments in South Africa, which is home to 110,000 Jews, including 20,000 native Israelis.

But whether South African Jews will begin flocking to Israel remains unclear.

On the one hand, the transition to democratic, majority rule and the end of Pretoria’s diplomatic isolation may usher in a new era of stability, one in which Jews feel they can “contribute to the upbuilding of a new South Africa,” said Leket.

On the other hand, aliyah from South Africa has already increased from 200 newcomers in 1992 to a projected 1,200 in 1994. This is a “significant sign that many people feel it’s the right time to come to Israel,” he said.

Leket’s sanguine approach to South African aliyah under the new regime contrasts with pronouncements by Hanan Ben-Yehuda, the Jewish Agency treasurer and chairman of its Committee for South African Affairs.

AGENCY LEADER HIGHLIGHTS UNCERTAINTIES

In recent articles, Ben-Yehuda has high-lighted the potential for tension and upheaval during the new government’s transition period.

He has predicted that many whites will be dismissed from key positions in the public sector, and he has warned that South Africa’s Jews are already “fortifying themselves.”

“A situation of uncertainty exists regarding the personal safety of the population,” he said, noting that riots could be “instigated by extremists on both or either side.”

Ben-Yehuda accused the Israeli government of having “failed to make South African Jewry a priority” because it wishes to maintain good relations with ANC leader Nelson Mandela, who is slated to become the country’s first black president.

Yigal Antebi, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s African affairs department, defended the government’s policy.

“We are following the developments very closely and are confident the elections were a success,” he said. “It was a generally smooth process, and this reflects on the future as well.”

“There is no panic, and no rush” to emigrate from among the “large, warm and Zionist community,” in South Africa, he said. Indeed, “we believe our good contacts with the ANC will help the Jewish community in the near future, as well as the long run.”

Antebi argued that Israel’s recently improved posture among African nations — it currently has full diplomatic relations with 32 of them — will also ultimately bode well for the Jews in South Africa.

Other Israeli officials have said that any aggressive “lobbying” for emigration from South Africa now, in the wake of the victory for democratic principles, is inappropriate.

“The greatest thing about Israel is that Jews know they always have a refuge, in case,” said one official. “It gives them extra room to maneuver, because they can always pick up and go. All we have to do is let them know we’re here and be prepared.”

Leket said the Jewish Agency is working “in full cooperation with the government of Israel, and there is no contradiction between our policy (of aliyah) and the good relations we (Israel) have to develop with South Africa.”

Leket spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency following a conference call Tuesday between members of the WZO Executive and Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel.

CONCERN FOR FOREIGN INVESTORS’ TRUST

Asher Cailingold, the head of the agency’s delegation in South Africa, also took part in the call, which was intended to inform the WZO and Jewish Agency about the atmosphere following the elections and their immediate impact on the country’s Jewish community.

Ambassador Liel reported an atmosphere of celebration among the blacks and calm among the whites, along with an uncertainty over how well-prepared the ANC is to run the country.

The uitimate concern, he said, appears to be whether foreign investors will trust the new regime enough to put money into it and give the economy a healthy boost.

But there is no atmosphere of panic among the Jews nor a sudden increase in aliyah, stressed Cailingold.

Nonetheless, he reported a substantial increase in the number of people making serious inquiries about emigrating for Israel.

He said he believes they are responding more to the “pull” of Israel, however, than the “push” away from South Africa.

Many South African Jews come to Israel on repeated visits, often on pilot trips for prospective olim sponsored by the Jewish Agency.

During those trips, they often find jobs, which are the single most important factor in prodding them to make the final move, say agency officials.

While more pilot trips for South Africans are being planned, a resulting boost in aliyah rates is not expected this year, Cailingold said.

For every South African who leaves to go to Israel, three leave for other places, Cailingold estimated.

Leket told Ambassador Liel he wishes the new South African government well and hopes for a continued strengthening of relations between Israel and South Africa.

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