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Out of South Africa Initiative by Aussies Strikes Wrong Chord

South African Jewish leaders are fuming over a new initiative by Sydney’s Jewish community to help Jews emigrate from Africa to Australia.

Zev Krengel, the national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, wrote a letter last month urging Jewish leaders to suspend Project Sydney, a joint initiative of the New South Wales Jewish Communal Appeal and the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies.

“Seldom in the history of our community has there been such outrage towards the Jewish community of another country,” Krengel charged. “From around South Africa, I am receiving calls expressing disquiet.”

He wrote later, “We there believe that it is distasteful in the extreme and embarrassing for South African Jews to have you launch a campaign through published advertisements and a high-profile visit to attract members of our community to Sydney.”

Two representatives from Project Sydney spent a week recently in South Africa, where they met more than 150 families who had expressed interest in emigrating to Australia.

Krengel told JTA this week from Johannesburg, “The community wasn’t happy at all. Some people were very, very unhappy; other people were furious.”

The Jewish population of South Africa has dropped from about 120,000 in 1970 to an estimated 75,000 today. They left early on because of apartheid, but now Jews are leaving largely due to crime.

Jewish leaders in Australia said that about 70 percent of the potential South African emigres with whom they met were affected by violent crime.

Businessman Sheldon Cohen, 47, was shot and killed last week in Johannesburg as he was waiting for his teenaged son to finish soccer practice.

Thousands attended Cohen’s funeral on Jan. 30, according to Johannesburg’s The Times newspaper.

“Sheldon’s death cannot go down as another statistic,” Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said at the funeral, the newspaper reported. “Our government needs to be held accountable for this. We as the community are not going to stand for this and we say that one murder is one too much.”

Krengel said he met with the two Project Sydney representatives “in good faith,” but added, “We’re never going to welcome and encourage them. I don’t think it’s doing any good for our community.”

Selwyn Shapiro, the director of Project Sydney, said the initiative evolved from immigration agents receiving large numbers of requests for visas to Australia from South African Jews.

“We didn’t go there to encourage anybody to leave,” he said. “I fully understand their position; they are a strong community and don’t want to be weakened. But people want to leave for their own reasons. People who are looking to come to Australia will find a community that welcomes them in Sydney.”

Vic Alhadeff, the CEO of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, traveled with Shapiro to Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“What we were offering was information about Sydney and assistance in the form of networking, contacts and social support for those intending to relocate to Sydney,” said Alhadeff, who returned last week from the South Africa trip.

“The benefits are mutual: emigrating families will be far more likely to remain within the Jewish fold if they are welcomed into a community, and they will strengthen Sydney’s Jewish community.”

But Michael Bagraim, the national president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, told JTA from Cape Town, “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. Our stop phrase has been ‘Go home [to Israel] or stay home,’ and it has been right throughout apartheid. To interfere with that makes us all feel unhappy.

“I don’t think it’s kosher for us to go off to Sydney and say if you wish to come to Cape Town we can assist you.”

Bagraim said some of the anger has been assuaged by Project Sydney’s pledge not to target those making aliyah and only to engage with people who already have decided to leave South Africa.

But he warned that the publicity campaign could impact negatively on local Jews.

“It’s very uncomfortable to have these advertisements,” Bagraim said. “Our government will ask the question, ‘is it acceptable to our local Jews?’ It might be perceived by the powers that be as Jews acting negatively.”

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