After having been a dream for close to 2000 years, events converged in 1948 to facilitate the creation of a National State for the Jewish People.
Ironically, the opportunity to achieve statehood presented itself at one of the lowest ebbs in Jewish history. The Holocaust reduced world Jewry to a meagre 12 million. This remnant was scattered amongst the nations of the world in more than 100 different countries and, at the time, only 5% of world Jewry resided in the Land of Israel.
The challenges were seemingly insurmountable. In addition to having to contend with serious military threats, Israel was faced with the challenge of having to absorb huge numbers of immigrants — many of them war-fatigued refugees — from a multitude of countries. Many were old and sick and clearly placed a burden on Israel’s fledgeling and fragile economy.
This flood of new immigrants came from contrasting cultural backgrounds, with different languages. Infrastructures were sadly lacking. Against all odds, the people of this country came together and displayed the resolve to build a strong country and a robust democracy. Ever since our forefathers left Egypt, we’ve been a nation of complainers. It’s part of our DNA. But, for once, let’s put things into perspective. Let’s consider where we were in 1948 and where we are today. Today, Israel is home to more than 8.3 million people including around 25 000 former Southern Africans. Forty-five percent of world Jewry resides in Israel. That’s the essence of our success.
But life in Israel wasn’t always as relatively comfortable as it is today. Leading British economists antagonistic to the creation of a Jewish state claimed that limited supplies of natural water in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean could only support a population of two million. Today, this area is home to close to 14 million people and enjoys an excess of water. This didn’t just happen. The water excess we currently enjoy is due to the national effort invested to resolve an existential problem that threatened to shipwreck our Zionist dream. Israel’s average life expectancy ranks amongst the highest in the world. Life expectancy in Israel has increased by more than 9 years over the past 50 years! Israel has become a world leader in many different fields — communications, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, recycling of wastewater, desalinisation and energy technologies, amongst others.
We can say with pride that we have succeeded in building a powerful country. We have a strong military and an innovative population. We’re at the cutting edge of technological development in so many fields. We appear to hold the key to solving the world’s water problems. We’ve come a long way but we still have a way to go. We need to aspire to fulfil the Biblical prophecy of being a ‘Light unto the Nations’. We have so much to offer the poorer nations of this world. Tragically, our successes have come with some very heavy prices. 24 000 members of our armed forces lost their lives in the defence of our country and many innocent civilians were killed in terror attacks.
In 1948, 804 volunteers answered the call of the nascent state to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. This number represented the highest per capita contribution made by any Jewish community worldwide. Telfed was established by the South African Zionist Federation in 1948 to support these volunteers and those who made Aliyah following the declaration of the State.
Over the years Southern African immigrants have benefitted greatly from Telfed’s services. Through these services, Telfed continues to engage in immigrant absorption, providing employment counselling, offering discounted rental housing, making available student scholarships and creating volunteer programmes to help make our beloved country a better place. Its office is run by a small but dedicated group of professional staff members supported by more than 300 national volunteers.
Telfed has also undergone its own metamorphosis. While continuing its important work in immigrant absorption, Telfed has become a community organisation catering to the needs of the Southern African community. In Telfed’s earlier years, the Jewish Agency contributed the major part of Telfed’s financial requirements. But times have changed and for the past decade, no governmental or institutional funding has been forthcoming. Telfed’s commitment to providing our community with comprehensive services necessitated the creation of a fundraising infrastructure.
Other organisational changes, including a significant headcount reduction, were implemented to meet the changing realities. As both Israel and Telfed enter their 70th year, this is an appropriate time to evaluate and commemorate our national and communal achievements. It’s also an opportune time to give thought to our longer-term objectives and how we can contribute.
In the framework of its 70th Anniversary celebrations, Telfed has embarked on a comprehensive History Project, including the production of a film on the history of the organisation as well as an online digital archive of Telfed’s records. The project is spearheaded by former chairman Dave Bloom, assisted by former Telfed Director, Sid Shapiro. Looking to our future, we are now charged with documenting our past. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future”.