While in December 2018, South Africa’s ANC government welcomed to Cape Town a Hamas delegation from Gaza committed to Israel’s destruction, a renovated community centre was being opened in Johannesburg. This community centre is sponsored by Israel.
This same Hamas who only weeks before fired some 500 missiles at Israel’s civilian population,in comparison to Israel – who opts for Construction rather than Hamas-style Destruction.“
By David E. Kaplan
While the news focused on Cape Town where a Hamas delegation in Parliament, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that South Africa “will work towards the full boycott of ALL Israeli products and the support of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel; and will ensure that ANC leaders and government officials do not visit Israel,” there was another event playing that was not making news.
A renovated community centre sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in South Africa, was unveiled in Soweto in early December 2018, despite pressure from the BDS movement to scrap the project.
The opening of the new community centre proceeded despite the tensions between the two countries. Last May, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel, who has since returned and in June, the mayor of Johannesburg suspended Mpho Phalatse, a council member in charge of health after she made a public declaration that the city was a “friend” of Israel.
This trajectory of antisemitism was further evidenced when during November 2018:
– Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar called in the presence of ANC leaders in Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island for a violent Jihad against Israel “to regain the land inch by inch”.
– the Johannesburg City Council voted to rename a major street in the city after Palestinian terrorist and hijacker Leila Khaled.
– following BDS pressure, Stellenbosch University disinvited to a conference, seven professors from three universities in Israel.
Despite all this, and throughout the year, Israel’s ambassador to Pretoria, Lior Keinan, has been promoting social projects involving the local population across the country. The unveiling of the community centre in a distressed neighbourhood in Soweto, follows a spate of projects by the Israeli embassy in the fields from agriculture, women’s empowerment to advancing gay rights. The Community Centre is just the latest, and proudly displays a plaque noting the contribution of the Israeli embassy. The unveiling took place in the presence of Ambassador Keinan and Israeli, Danny Adeno Abebe, who initiated the project.
From Dreamer to Doer
An Ethiopian who immigrated to Israel with his family as a young child, Abebe, is presently the shaliach (emissary from Israel) to the Jewish Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror, that was founded in South Africa in 1930 by Norman Lurie of Johannesburg. Lurie was more than a dreamer; he was a doer and so is this young emissary from Israel.
Inculcated with the values of Tikun Olam (“Correcting the world”) Abede initiated a programme called “Your Neighbors,” where through Habonim, they organized enriching monthly encounters between Jewish children in Johannesburg and children in the distressed area of Kliptown in Soweto. The activities at these meetings, ranged from doing homework together to the more social activities like dancing.
“However, “the community centre where we were meeting, lacked a roof and became difficult to conduct activities during rainy days,” said Abede. The makeshift roof became moldy, and “the musical equipment was destroyed by the water.”
Abebe invited Lior Keinan, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, to visit the neighbourhood and meet with the local leadership, who requested help in repairing the roof.
No sooner had Keinan agreed to assist on behalf of the State of Israel, predictably the local BDS activists responded by putting pressure on the local leadership to halt the renovation plans.
Rather than show concern for a community in need, in true BDS fashion, its leaders decried the community centre project as “a public relations stunt financed by the apartheid state in the Middle East.”
The residents of Soweto saw through the BDS façade of underlying hypocrisy and false pretense and accepted the Israeli aid since the project was designed to benefit the local population.
Abebe says, “the community centre plays an integral part in the lives of more than 400 children living in Soweto, where they can now spend their time doing homework without the dangers of getting drenched by rain.”
Abede who is presently at the annual Habonim summer camp in Onrus in the Western Cape, says “There is something about being an Israeli emissary that reinforces my profound love for my country. And the distance from family that my work demands, makes me long for it even more.”
Abede is no less a man of Africa than those he brings Habonim to engage with. He has the depth of understanding prejudice and deprivation from personal experience.
Arriving in Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses when Israel began a seven-week clandestine mission to bring more than 8000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Abeda’s saga is no less compelling than the biblical saga that transpired over 3000 years earlier.
Referencing the story of Passover when the Jews fled the slavery of Egypt and undertook the long and arduous journey to ‘The Promised Land’, he says “We understand the meaning of freedom, liberty and a long journey undertaken through the desert. Our family experienced the uncertainty throughout the journey, as well as the sense of helplessness, much like the wandering Jews must have experienced with Moses as they walked through the desert without truly knowing their destination or having hope.
When we read the Haggadah (text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of the Jewish Passover), we feel we are part of that same journey, part of the people who reluctantly followed Moses.
We, too, walked in the desert dressed in minimal clothing, thirsty for water and hungry for food. We too walked endlessly without knowing where our escape route from Ethiopia would lead us. Like those Children of Israel, we were refugees. We too, shed tears while burying our dead where there was no cemetery. We too, laid our dead to rest at the side of the path and continued our seemingly endless journey with the vague hope of reaching the land of Israel.”
Abede says “it is hard to shake off the comparison between our exhausting journey and that of the Children of Israel. We had the same purpose – getting to the land of Israel.
I still remember my father’s dark gaze and my mother falling ill in the desert. I remember my sick younger brother in the refugee camp in Sudan. I remember myself with a runny nose and a bleak look of hopelessness.”
He recalls, “the dead having been buried among the great stones, near a tree trunk or behind a small grove because they were Jews.”
Among them was his aunt, his father’s sister, so when “when we sit each year at the Passover table and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt and of G-d’s miracle with the Children of Israel, I praise G-d the miracle in bringing us from Ethiopia to Israel.”
Love Thy Neighbour
Abede’s “Your Neighbour/Makwelwane” project was launched early in 2018 when the members from the youth movements of Habonim and Bnei Akiva as well as teachers and pupils from Johannesburg’s King David Schools engage with the youth in Kliptown, Soweto. Says Abede, “The goal is to enrich the education of pupils in Kliptown one Sunday every month. The Jewish youth will tutor them in maths, science, English and other skills needed to pass matric exams. In return, the Kliptown youth will teach their Jewish counterparts Zulu, tribal dance and their local culture.”
The idea behind the initiative is “to activate the idea of ‘Love thy Neighbour’ by closing the gap between cultures and sharing skills,” says Abede.
From the Community Centre in Kliptown, Soweto the message is to engage and prosper.
This message this writer heard from Ambassador Keinan when together with Akiva Tor, Head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs at an event on the 5th November 2018 at Café Riteve hosted by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), United Jewish Fund and the SAZF (South African Zionist Federation).
Ambassador Keinan revealed that despite the efforts of BDS, progress is being made in so many areas not receiving the media attention it deserves and that the potential remains for Israel to assist and enrich South Africa in so many areas from hi-tech, agriculture, water management, cyber technology and health.
He reiterated much of what he had expressed in September to the SA Jewish Reportthat Israel’s relationships with countries in the Middle East have greatly improved, enjoying good relationships with the other countries in BRICS, like Russia, China, India, even Brazil. “We also have much improved friendships on this continent, and we are opening more embassies in Africa and African embassies in Israel. We have a record number of African leaders coming to visit Israel, so why should South Africa stand alone? There is no logic to this.”
From his experience of BDS, Keinan said the organisation has nailed its colours to the mast. “The fact that it stands with Hezbollah flags outside Israeli embassy events says everything. Hezbollah has nothing to do with Palestinians, and everything to do with Iran and the destruction of Israel. Whatever BDS says, this makes it clear it wants to see the total destruction of our country.”
The meaning of ‘Habonim’ in Hebrew is “the builders”. Projects and initiatives that bring people together in enriching engagement is about building not like BDS which is about destroying.
Moving away from ‘destructive’ to ‘constructive’ messages, the Community Centre in Soweto supported by the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish youth movements in South Africa stands as a beacon of hope and promise.