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S. Africa Jewish Leaders Criticize Israel’s Depiction of Their Community

February 12, 2002
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Jewish officials here want to get the word out that South African Jewry is not a community in crisis.

The move comes after Israeli officials offered enhanced benefits to immigrants from South Africa, Argentina and France.

While not criticizing those benefits, South African Jewish leaders are criticizing Israel for suggesting that a crisis atmosphere prevails here.

Also coming under attack is a report emanating from government sources in Israel, published here, alleging that the community “felt under siege” from the country’s large Islamic community and a government policy that “has taken a pro-Muslim turn.”

Mervyn Smith, immediate past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, appeared on national radio and television to explain the Board’s stance on the issue.

Israel’s increased subsidies are to be welcomed, he said, but the reasons given for the move are “harmful” to the community.

“We’ve lived with the Muslim community for very many years and there are elements that are radical, but it would be a big exaggeration to say that South African Jews should go on aliyah because of their attitude,” he said.

“What drives emigration are the factors affecting all communities, such as the increase in violent crime and the economic situation. We’re unhappy with a lot of what the Muslim community has done, but we certainly don’t consider ourselves to be under any meaningful constant physical threat,” he said.

“It is also not correct to say that the South African government has turned pro-Muslim,” Smith added. “It has turned pro-Palestinian and against Israel, but it’s quite wrong to suggest that Jews are lesser citizens in this country. On the contrary, we have good relations with the government and there’s no suggestion that it is against us.”

Motti Talmor, head of the aliyah department of the South African Zionist Federation, denied that the increased benefits are a response to a perceived crisis in the country’s Jewish community.

“Many people are leaving here anyway, and we regard it as a window of opportunity to encourage them to go to Israel instead of elsewhere,” he said.

While emphasizing that the situation here was in no way comparable to that pertaining in crisis-ridden Argentina, he said the devaluation of the rand and the difficulty many potential immigrants experienced in selling their property had prompted Israel’s “tailor-made financial assistance” for the South African community.

Weighing in on the issue, the nation’s chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, announced that no significance should be attached to the fact that he has called on the nation’s rabbis to inform their congregations of the benefits available from Israel to those thinking of moving there.

“The aliyah department asked me to give it as much publicity as possible, and since I am a Zionist, I’m doing just that,” he said.

While welcoming the increased benefits, Harris was skeptical that this would lead to a marked increase in the number of South African Jews moving to the Jewish state.

Those who move to Israel for ideological reasons would not be affected, he said, nor does he expect the increased benefits to have an impact on emigres headed for countries like Australia and Canada.

“But I do think that there are a good few hundred people each year who put Israel into the equation, and it may well make a difference to them. I hope it does.”

While acknowledging that the Muslim population — particularly in Cape Town — is cause for legitimate concern, Harris added, “Israel imagines it’s a bigger crisis than we do.”

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