After leveling off for several years, Jewish emigration from South Africa is on the rise. According to JTA, while no exact figures are available, the Israel Center at the South African Zionist Federation predicts the total number of olim (immigrants) from South Africa, which reached 178 in 2007,will double or even triple in 2008, possibly reaching 450 or more.
The first group flight of olim from South Africa in recent memory arrived on July 21, with 86 olim on board. According to Sidney Shapiro, the Director of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel, there has been a marked increase in the number of young olim.
Affirmative action: a problem
"In previous years the number of 18 to 25 year olds was insignificant whereas this year saw a large increase in the number of young people coming to study, which is an important change in trend of Aliyah [immigration]," Shapiro said. He estimated that this trend could be the result of the effect of "affirmative action" programs in South Africa. "Recent white graduates find difficulty in finding employment and there is also talk of the standard of higher education dropping, although some people dispute this vehemently," he said. "In Israel, students who make Aliyah are offered incentives from the government."
Shapiro also cited another new trend: "Whereas in last five years we've seen a large proportion of religious people among the olim, not more than 45 percent of this year's immigrants are religious. I am saying this as a positive thing: it means that secular families also making Aliyah."
Politics provide the push
South African politics are another Aliyah motivator: with the election of the controversial Jacob Zuma as president of the African National Congress at the end of last year and the forced resignation of President Thabo Mbeki, many young Jews want out.
"South African Jews constitute one of the best Zionist communities in the world today."
Ofer Dahan, the South African Zionist Federation's director and the Aliyah emissary, said the wave of emigration comprised both "pull" factors – Zionist ideology and strong opportunities – and "push" factors.
"The 'push' is brought about by South Africans who fear for the future of this country," Dahan said. "There are some olim who have given this reason."
"We have another flight of 100 people – this time families – scheduled for December and a waiting list for a third flight next year," he said, adding that "South African Jews constitute one of the best Zionist communities in the world today."
From a peak of 120,000 in the 1970s, the South African Jewish population has declined to approximately 75,000 today, with more than 50,000 in Johannesburg and 16,000 in Cape Town. Since 2000, nearly half of the Jewish émigrés have gone to Australia, followed by the United States (18 percent), Israel (12 percent) and Canada (9 percent).
On a local South African Jewish e-mail exchange, advertisements for the sale of furniture and household goods of those emigrating have escalated since talk of Zuma coming to power.
But the large Chasidic community in South Africa is staying put.
"We've seen multiple potentially explosive situations which have been miraculously solved in a peaceful way through democracy taking its course," said Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, administrator of the Lubavitch-run Torah Academy.