By David Saks
To mark the 70th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, the editorial board of Jewish Affairs, a journal published under the auspices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies since 1941, decided to devote the Rosh Hashanah 2018 issue of the journal to the topic. Contributions, particularly personal memories relating to the founding and early years of the Jewish state, were invited, and people, both from the local Jewish community and former community members now living abroad, took up the invitation. The result was a true landmark issue of the journal, one providing much original material and many fascinating new insights into Israel’s establishment and the noteworthy role that South African Jews played in its birth and early struggle for survival.
‘Fighters and Founders’
The first section features first-hand accounts of South Africans (mainly, but not exclusively Jewish) who participated in the tumultuous early months of Israel’s existence, when the fledgling Jewish state was faced with critical challenges from both within and without its borders. All of them volunteers, they included soldiers, kibbutz workers and medical personnel. The section includes the memories of six South African Machalniks – foreign volunteers who fought in the Israeli War of Independence – namely Leslie Marcus (as recorded and written up by Leila Bloch), Eddie Magid (based on extracts from a recent biography on him by Michael and Suzanne Belling), Ellie Isserow, Audrey (Benedict) Meyersfeld, Henia Bryer (by Veronica Belling) and Elie Zagoria (with an introduction by David Solly Sandler). Marge Clouts records what it was like to work on a kibbutz in the years 1948-9.
Says Leslie Marcus: “My late brother Sam had a clothing shop, so I got a few shmattes together in a suitcase. There was a fellow called Solly Levin (from Claremont kosher butchery) who had a car; he came and fetched me at six the next morning and took us to the airport.
There were two of us, me and Max Korensky from Paarl. I had never been on a plane before It took us four days to get to Israel We had to stop every four hours to refuel. When we landed…we were taken straight away to some camp in Haifa. Two days later I was in the army, fighting. I was all of 21 but I was ready for it.
There were 32 of us in our unit of various nationalities. I was second in command. There were eight South Africans. We were the first to go into battle. Why did we go into battle first?
Because we were the most trained.”
Marge Clouts who spent two and a half years in Israel soon after the founding of the state records: “The excitement of landing in Israel was intense. We did not land at Lod (now Ben Gurion Airport) but on some very small airstrip. We were then transported by truck to the army base at Tel Levitsky. A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we visited the welcoming and comforting South Africa office. The kibbutz they found for us was called Bet Keshet, a four-year-old basic settlement of about seventy Sabras located in the foothills of Mount Tabor in the lower Galilee. The settlement had recently been traumatised by the deaths in an ambush of seven of its leading members.
Our first Sunday at Bet Keshet we heard the church bells of the monastery on Mount Tabor, and at the same time the ominous sounds of distant gunfire.”
“One Sunday Morning in May 1948…”
Part II looks at perspectives from Diaspora Jewry in the period leading up to Israel’s establishment. Glenda Woolf’s memoir of how Bloemfontein Jewry celebrated the inauguration of Israel’s independence is reflective of how South Africa’s fervently Zionistic Jewish community will have greeted the much longed and hoped-for occasion.
“I remember waking up early one Sunday Morning in May 1948, and hearing, “Wake up. Quickly, get up. Today is a very special day. We Jews have our own country again. Soon we are going to shul to celebrate. The children must wear fancy dress. Hurry, we don’t want to be late.”
Glenda continues, “….The flag was raised. We sang Hatikva, and slowly a murmur of sobs came from here and there among the crowd. It was then that my mother said, “You must always remember this day. For the first time in thousands of years we Jews have our very own country. Your generation will be different to our generation.”
Veteran contributor and editorial board member Gwynne Schrire has made available the recollections of her mother, Mary, a stalwart worker for the women’s Zionist movement first in Kimberley and later in Cape Town. Florrie Cohen recalls her days on hachshara – an agricultural training programme for prospective olim – in the English countryside in the early days of World War II. As with all the memoirs in this issue, one gets a sense of the powerful spirit of idealism and self-sacrifice that underpinned the Zionist movement during those crucial years. Another veteran JA contributor, Cecil Bloom, evaluates the impact made on Zionism in the UK by Haham Moses Gaster, at the time a prominent figure in the Zionist movement but today largely forgotten.
The deeper significance of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish religious thinking, as well as how this history is being distorted by those driven by an implacable hatred for the reborn Jewish state, are the subjects of Part III of this issue. Artist and poet Abigail Sarah Bagraim reflects on the meaning of the Patriarch Abraham’s spiritual journey and connection to the Holy Land, a thoughtful piece complemented by one of the writer’s most recent paintings on Jewish religious for which she is justly renowned. (As will be recalled, another of A. S. Bagraim’s paintings, “The Welcoming of Shabbat”, graced the front cover of the Pesach 2018 issue of Jewish Affairs. The artist’s work can be viewed, and prints ordered, at www.abigailsarah.co.za).
We next have reprinted an address given by the late Chief Rabbi B M Casper on the spiritual and historical connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, an analysis that is both erudite and deeply felt. Finally, Rodney Mazinter, also a regular JA contributor, considers how contemporary antisemitism and hard-line anti-Zionism – to the extent that they can be separated at all – overlap with and inform one another. It is a sobering reminder that while Israel has to date emerged triumphant in its battle for survival, final victory in that struggle is still to be achieved.
Writes Mazinter: “Antisemitism did not just disappear with the end of World War II. Like most Jews, we got used to having ugly things said about us from time to time. Mostly we were lucky and grateful for the many Christian friends who stood up for us, and still do. But nothing prepared us for today’s misinformation, demonization of Israel, and the gut-wrenching anti-Israel, antisemitic hostility expressed by many students, professors, church members and even established “liberal” newspapers – and now, even Jews who act out their anti-Israel stance for whatever reason. The new form of bigotry against Israel is called the :new antisemitism” which replaces “Israel” with “Jew”…”
On a more positive note, Mazinter continues, “Meanwhile, venture capital continues to pour into Israel. The business world, the engine of growth, education and prosperity, is voting with its feet to seek investments in the only reliable country that constantly points the way for the future of humanity.”
The special “Israel at 70” issue of Jewish Affairs, as well as all previous issues of the journal from the beginning of 2009, can be freely accessed on http://www.sajbd.org/pages/jewish-affairs. Those with a particular interest in Israel are referred to the Rosh Hashanah 2017 issue, which likewise is very much focused on the Israel-themes.
David Saks is Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Editor of Jewish Affairs.
Feature picture: South African volunteers, engineers at the Sodom Camp, meeting with some of the 7th Battalion Infantry soldiers who walked down to Sodom through the waids and reached it a while before our jeeps did. First and second on left – Dov Golanty and Zvi Sikoler (Israelis), third on left – Hymie Kurgan (SA), extreme right – Sydney Bellon.