Students praying at the Jewish Herzlia school in Cape Town in the 1960s (Photo/Courtesy South African Jewish Museum)
Students praying at the Jewish Herzlia school in Cape Town in the 1960s (Photo/Courtesy South African Jewish Museum)

In South Africa, we were overjoyed by the ‘modern miracle’ of Israel

Growing up in Cape Town in the 1950s and 1960s, Zionism and Israel were front and center in our lives. The Jewish community felt blessed living at a time of Jewish sovereignty, the re-establishment after 2,000 years of exile, of a Jewish state in Israel. A safe haven for Jews after the decimation of the European community.

The Lithuanian and Latvian Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought with them a strong belief in a Jewish state and return to Zion. Zionism was in the Litvak mother’s milk, and successive generations of Jews in South Africa ardently supported the cause. Every Yom HaAtzmaut the community, to a person, turned out to celebrate with joy and gratitude the fledgling state’s birthday.

When David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, visited the community shortly after relinquishing the office, the largest auditorium was obtained to accommodate the thousands who attended. As a young boy I can recall seeing the elder statesman bounding up the stairs to the speaker’s platform. He was greeted with much acclaim and adoration, like a modern prophet and a prime architect of the Jewish state.

I attended Herzlia, the Jewish day school of Cape Town, named after the founder of modern Zionism whose own credo of Im tirtzu (If you will it) was prominently displayed on the school uniform’s blazer badge.

In the late 1950s, Norman Sandler, founding headmaster of King David School in Johannesburg, initiated a program of 10th-grade students spending three months in Israel. Years later I led such a contingent of students. Based in Jerusalem, they spent their mornings studying Hebrew texts, Jewish history and the Hebrew language, while in the afternoons they toured historic sites. Later they covered the length and breadth of the country, exploring cities and villages. They also experienced living on a kibbutz. Many of these students are today living in Israel.

The community, to a person, turned out to celebrate with joy and gratitude the fledgling state.

My wife Rochelle’s three sisters all went on aliyah, to be followed by her mother and father. However, by that time I had been become headmaster of a Jewish day school and felt I was in a good position to teach the next generation of the centrality of Israel in the lives of the Jewish people and ensure Israel had a prominent place in the curriculum and culture of the school. I appreciated Golda Meir’s comment that the Jewish day schools of the diaspora were the outer defenses of the State of Israel.

In the past 70 years, Israel has responded to the Prophet Isaiah’s injunction to be a “light unto the nations.” In spite of shortcomings within its political leadership, Israel contributes today significantly and impressively to the betterment of the global nations through its innovation and ingenuity in the fields of agriculture, water conservation, medicine, technology, cybersecurity and the arts. Israel is often the first to answer the call of countries affected by natural disasters, offering humanitarian aid to friend and foe alike.

And in response to Moses’ promise of “the ingathering of the exiles” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5), Israel has done a spectacular job. It has been a beacon of hope, a place of refuge for endangered Jewish communities suffering from persecution or expulsion, including from the North African and Arab lands, and for Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews transported to Israel in daring rescue operations. In more current times Israel has absorbed Jews from the former Soviet Union and those impacted by the resurgent anti-Semitism in South American and European countries.

From making the desert bloom to its cutting-edge discoveries and successes, to being a sanctuary for besieged Jews, Israel and its 8.5 million people, surrounded by enemies that vow to destroy it, is a truly modern miracle story from which the Jewish world can derive enormous pride.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Mervyn Danker
Mervyn Danker

Mervyn Danker is a program associate at the MZ Foundation and the past Northern California regional director of AJC. He lives in San Mateo.