South African Jews aid refugees

Zimbabwean refugees on June 2, 2008 at a temporary refugee camp in a police station south of downtown Johannesburg. (Illan Ossendryver)

Zimbabwean refugees on June 2, 2008 at a temporary refugee camp in a police station south of downtown Johannesburg. (Illan Ossendryver)

JOHANNESBURG (JTA) – She stood outside on the sidewalk between the kosher restaurant and shop in a Jewish area of Johannesburg, plying her handicraft. To the housewives sipping their coffee or buying groceries, she could have been any other street vendor, save for the ragged clothes and the pain and fear etched on her face.

Joyce – not her real name – from the beleaguered neighboring state of Zimbabwe, was just one of thousands of victims of xenophobic attacks on refugees in South Africa who mistakenly thought they would find a better life here.

Instead thousands have been hunted, beaten and torched in a wave of violence against refugees from neighboring countries, including Zimbabwe, who have fled economic and political turmoil in their homeland.

Dozens have been killed by mobs seeking out “foreigners” in a manner akin to the pogroms of Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“They burnt my home, they took all my possessions,” Joyce said. “I, with many others, fled the township of Alexandra and am living in a church hall. But I cannot go back.”

She said President Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe “torture us, persecute us – and they gouged out the eyes of two of my relatives.”

The Jewish community has responded overwhelmingly to appeals for help for the victims from South Africa Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and other Jewish organizations.

“We know from centuries of bitter experience what it means to flee from your home in fear,” Goldstein said. “Indeed, South African Jews are descendants of refugees who fled the barbarism and anti-Semitism of Europe.”

He said the Talmudic precept to love and not oppress the stranger was the most oft-repeated Torah commandment.

In a call for donations of clothing, blankets, toiletries, medical supplies and food, Rabbi Aharon Hayon of the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town said his synagogue, the Herzlia Jewish day schools and the Board of Deputies were temporarily housing 200 destitute refugees in a building belonging to his congregation.

In the other major centers, many were given shelter in police stations and church halls.

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the Board of Deputies, called on all communities to stand against the human rights violations of refugees.

“As a people who have been the target of hate crimes, genocide and prejudice for centuries, the Jewish community appeals to all citizens to treat the strangers in our land in the great spirit of ‘ubuntu,’ ” she said, using the term for humaneness.

Jewish youth groups, including Habonim Dror, rallied to the cause, as did the Jewish schools in Johannesburg. The South African Union of Jewish Students spearheaded a collection and joined a march for peace.

Jewish doctors volunteered their services for medical treatment, while the Union of Jewish Women, the Jewish Women’s Benevolent, the United Sisterhood, and Orthodox and Progressive congregations coordinated collections of goods.

“Part of the miracle of our country’s transition to a multiracial democracy was how, virtually overnight, violence between South Africans ceased,” said Zev Krengel, the national chairman of the Board of Deputies.

He said the status quo continued for the past 14 years until the underlying feelings of hostility against foreign migrants “erupted into what can only be described as a xenophobic pogrom.”

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