exploring the concerns of the South african jewish community
In this article Dan Brotman argues that with the hemorrhaging of the South African Jewish community due to emigration, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies should take a proactive role in lobbying for immigration reform and supporting prospective Jewish immigrants.
THE South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) was founded in 1912 as a direct response to the Jewish community’s need to lobby for immigration reform. At the time, the government had enacted a new immigration requirement which stipulated that prospective immigrants must speak a European language in order to be allowed to settle in the country. As Yiddish was not deemed a European language for immigration purposes, this new condition would have effectively put a halt to Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. The SAJBD successfully lobbied for Yiddish to be recognised as a European language, and as a result the Jewish community continued to grow.
"Between 1981-2005 alone, 40% of the South African Jewish community emigrated for a variety of reasons..."
Although the SAJBD’s activities today primarily focus on combatting antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments and expressions in government and civil society, I argue that it is once again necessary for the SAJBD also to ‘return to its roots’ and proactively encourage Jewish immigration to South Africa, which will replenish our community’s diminishing numbers.
Between 1981-2005 alone, 40% of the South African Jewish community emigrated for a variety of reasons, including political uncertainty, economic instability and rising crime. The SAJBD’s official position towards emigration has always been, and continues to be, “stay home or go home”, meaning ‘stay in South Africa’ or ‘immigrate to Israel’. However, between 2000-2008, 44% of Jewish emigrants voted with their feet and chose Australia. It was for this reason that the visit of Project Sydney in 2008, a joint effort of the New South Wales Jewish Communal Appeal and the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, drew much ire from the SAJBD. Former SAJBD National Chairman Zev Krengel described the visit as “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.” It is worth noting that the SAJBD does not oppose the activities of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Centre, which operates in the same building as the Board and actively assists members of the Jewish community to immigrate to Israel.
"Just as countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand actively promote skilled immigration in order to grow their population and economy, so too do their Jewish communities."
During their visit, Project Sydney representatives Selwyn Shapiro and Vic Alhadeff met with 150 families interested in immigrating to Australia, 70% of whom they claimed had been affected by violent crime. Alhadeff explained that “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.” While Krengel agreed to meet with the Project Sydney representatives, there was no indication at the time that the SAJBD was contemplating its own proactive campaign to grow its constituency through immigration.
Just as countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand actively promote skilled immigration in order to grow their population and economy, so too do their Jewish communities. Despite the Jewish community of New Zealand losing many members to neighbouring Australia, it established Auckland Jewish Immigration, a volunteer-run organisation under the auspices of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation. Through its members, it offers prospective and newly-arrived Jewish immigrants with advice on employment, accommodation and schooling, as well as assistance with immigration paperwork.
In Canada, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg decided to launch a formal immigration programme with the provincial government in order to bolster its dwindling numbers. In partnership with the Manitoba Nominee Programme, the Federation invites eligible prospective Jewish immigrants, aged 21 to 45, on a seven to ten-day ‘look-see’ visit to explore all facets of life in Winnipeg. During such a visit, the Federation arranges an interview with a Programme Officer from the Manitoba Nominee Programme. Prospective migrants who are deemed ‘desirable’ are then furnished with a formal letter of recommendation from the Federation, which helps fast-track their immigration process.
"When I met with a Jewish employment agency, I was told that as a foreigner, I was the “least desirable” candidate for a job."
The Jewish communities of Auckland and Winnipeg could have resigned themselves to the emigration of members of their communities, which ostensibly appears to be the current position of the SAJBD. Instead, they took a proactive approach and assist prospective immigrants, especially Russian-speaking Israelis and Latin American Jews. What would it look like if the SAJBD, and the South African Jewish community at-large, were to adopt a more proactive approach in assisting prospective and recently-arrived Jewish immigrants?
When I first arrived in South Africa shortly after the World Cup in 2010, I approached Jewish communal organisations for assistance, which I found to be utterly unprepared for the specific needs of foreign nationals. When I met with a Jewish employment agency, I was told that as a foreigner, I was the “least desirable” candidate for a job. I then went to a Jewish immigration attorney, who wanted to charge me tens of thousands of Rands to assist me with my immigration paperwork. As a recent university graduate, there were inadequate communal support services on offer to help me with all the various hurdles; I eventually gave up and returned home. Although I subsequently, successfully, immigrated to South Africa the following year, had there been a Jewish immigrant support organisation at the time, similar to those in Sydney, Auckland and Winnipeg, it would have made it much less onerous for people like me to settle in the country and integrate into the Jewish community.
In the past the SAJBD has selectively assisted immigrants with immigration-related matters. For example, in 2015, Holocaust survivor Mascha Schainberg was invited by the World Jewish Congress to be the South African representative at the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. As her Bolivian passport had expired, and she was not a South African citizen, the SAJBD worked with the Department of Home Affairs to obtain a travel document for her to facilitate her travel. The following year, she was naturalised as a South African citizen. In the 13 July article I wrote for SA Jewish Report, entitled “SA Jewish community at risk of losing young, skilled immigrants”, I profiled two highly-skilled immigrant members of the Cape Town Jewish community who ‘are lost’ in the Home Affairs’ system, preventing them from establishing secure lives in South Africa. While it would not fall within the SAJBD’s mandate to assist individual community members with immigration-related matters, it would be wholly appropriate for the SAJBD to support a community-funded, volunteer-led organisation that could do so.
"... the Jewish community has two choices when faced with issues of migration: ... resign itself to hemorrhaging more young skilled members of our community. Alternatively, it can compete in the global immigration marketplace and bolster our ever-shrinking community by assisting prospective Jewish immigrants"
Just last month, I attended a productive discussion between Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba and the Black Business Council. At the roundtable, I told the Minister that the current immigration policy is deterring entrepreneurs and investors from making their home in South Africa. He responded by saying that he welcomes suggestions from external parties on how to rectify this. I believe that this is a golden opportunity for the SAJBD to take the Minister up on his offer. This could be done by forming a task team consisting of Jewish lawyers, economists and business-people that meets with Home Affairs on a regular basis to make immigration-related policy recommendations which could stimulate foreign investment, economic growth and job creation.
One of the task team’s recommendation could be to introduce a community-based nominee programme, similar to that of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. Such a programme would help bolster South African communities that have drastically shrunk due to emigration, such as the Jewish, Greek, Lebanese and Chinese. In partnership with Home Affairs, the SAJBD could host prospective Jewish immigrants with critical skills on a seven to ten-day visit, where they could look at opportunities related to starting business, housing, schooling and religious life. After undergoing interviews with a Jewish communal panel and the Department of Home Affairs, the SAJBD could then provide them with a formal letter recommending them for a fast-tracked immigration process. Given South Africa’s high rate of unemployment, one of the requirements to participate in this programme could be to open a business which would lead to job creation for South Africans.
As South Africa’s future is uncertain, the Jewish community has two choices when faced with issues of migration: as per the status quo, it can resign itself to hemorrhaging more young skilled members of our community. Alternatively, it can compete in the global immigration marketplace and bolster our ever-shrinking community by assisting prospective Jewish immigrants who are attracted to South Africa’s good weather, low cost of living, rich Jewish life and business opportunities.
Dan Brotman was born in Boston, USA, and is a resident of Johannesburg. He is the Co-Founder & Director at En-novate, a company he co-founded with Investec. He previously served as the Executive Director of the South Africa-Israel Forum and Head of Media & Public Affairs at Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies, and is a vocal advocate of immigration reform in South Africa. His application for South African citizenship is in the process of being finalised.