'My Parents Didn't Want Me to Go to College in Apartheid South Africa. So I Moved to Israel'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A South African expat who believes there's no apartheid in Israel, and a Dutch expat who believes life in Israel is more meaningful than in the Netherlands

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Michael Jankelowitz.
Michael Jankelowitz.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Michael Jankelowitz, 66, lives in Jerusalem, flying to Cairo

Hello, I hope the weather in Cairo is good.

That’s what I said to myself: You’re nuts for going to Cairo in this heat. It’s my first visit to Cairo, and I always thought I’d go to see the pyramids, but not in the summer. In the end, I’m going for the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. I grew up in South Africa, and sports is a very important subject for us. I remember going to games with my father, and it’s still in my blood. Now I travel all the time; I enjoy seeing sports events around the world.

Are you retired?

I’ve been retired for eight years, and I feel young; I don’t feel like a regular 66-year-old. I’m in good health, touch wood, of course, and even if I live to be 86, I don’t have much time left. So I think, why not take advantage of my free time in the best way possible? I’m looking for action, even now, as a pensioner.

What was your action before?

I worked in the Jewish Agency for 35 years. I was their spokesman and I was an emissary. In 1993, when I came back from a stint as an emissary in North America, I was told, “Michael, it’s time to grow up. You’re constantly spending; it’s time to see how hard it is to raise money.” Which is how I got to the treasurer’s office and to human resources and a few other positions.

How did you get to the Jewish Agency?

To begin with, I made aliyah. I had a Zionist education at home. I learned Hebrew. My father was one of the founders of the local Jewish school, where I was a student in the first graduating class. In two months I’ll be attending a reunion to mark 60 years since the school's founding.

After I graduated, my parents said, “You’re going to be a student now, and there’s an apartheid government. It’s not good for you to study here, you’ll be arrested. You’d be better off going to university in Israel.” And I went to Bar-Ilan University, I joined the student union, and from there I got to the Jewish Agency. My parents remained in South Africa.

Did apartheid bother them?

My father was a lawyer, and by chance he specialized in human rights. I have to say that my father wasn’t a political person and he wasn’t a member of the ANC [African National Congress], but he felt he had to defend the oppressed. My father had a black client, Govan Mbeki, who once asked my father to go with him to see the black bus drivers on strike. There’s a famous photo that was published in The New York Times showing the two of them in a small Renault and a column of black people on strike walking in the background.

In 1964, Mbeki and Mandela and all the ANC people were arrested and imprisoned. But when he was released, more than 20 years later, he was given a big reception in Port Elizabeth. At the event, Mbeki asked, “Is Colin Jankelowitz present in the hall? If so, I’d like him to stand up. Now, everyone is on my side, but when I was looking for a lawyer, Colin was the only one who agreed to defend me.”

Wow, that’s amazing.

His son, Thabo Mbeki, succeeded Mandela as president of South Africa. In 1990, when I was a shaliah in New York, Mandela was released and visited the city. I felt I had to see it. The mayor at the time, David Dinkins, held a large reception for him. I asked for an invitation, and his aide said, ‘You’re joking – everyone wants to come.”

I said, “Listen, if you could tell him that Colin Jankelowitz’s son wants to come, that might help.” That same evening, the aide got back to me and asked how many invitations I wanted. My father was still alive, and it really warmed his heart that I went to meet Mandela. When I met him, I said to him in his tribal language, “Hello, Chief Mandela,” and he was pleased.

What’s your opinion about people who say there’s apartheid in Israel?

There’s no comparison. Apartheid is racial separation. A black person couldn’t travel on the bus with you there, couldn’t go to university, even if he was a millionaire. It’s not a political thing, it’s a color thing. Here the minorities have rights. But it outrages me that people in Israel say we have to separate from the Palestinians. To my South African ear, that’s a problem. Because that’s what the whites in South Africa said.

Amit Gal and Mor Atsmon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Amit Gal, left, and Mor Atsmon, both 19; Amit lives in Moshav Sha’ar Efraim, Mor lives in Binyamina and is arriving from Amsterdam

Hello, what were you doing in Amsterdam?

Mor: I grew up in Amsterdam and I lived there until four years ago, when I made aliyah. I went to visit friends and family because I’m being drafted in 12 days.

Do you know into which unit?

Mor: Bardelas, border infantry. It’s something like Caracal, a mixed, coed battalion. Six of us from a mekhina [premilitary academy]at Givat Haviva are being drafted together.

What do you actually do at the mekhina?

Amit: It’s intended to prepare high school graduates for the army and for life. At our particular program, the emphasis is on education and contributing to the community, and how to wield influence in a military setting.

Mor: I hope to be able to influence.

A bit gung ho?

Mor: I want to be a commander; I’m not sure about being an officer – we’ll start with squad leader. I want to be where the action is, and see it from a different perspective. I’m not someone who comes to the army to hold a rifle and shoot it, and if arrests have to be made, I want to make them in the best and most humane way possible. I hope that if questions arise, I’ll be able to cope and decide. But in any case, I immigrated to Israel to serve in the army and defend the country and the people.

Where’s the patriotism from?

Mor: My parents grew up in Israel. They came for a short stay but ended up staying for 12 years. When I was 15, I pushed hard for aliyah. I told them that when I finished school I’d go to Israel to serve, and they said they’d come with me.

Nice of them – it’s Amsterdam, after all.

Mor: It’s terrific in Amsterdam, everything is convenient. But life here is more meaningful.

In what way?

Mor: There I didn’t have to face the questions I have to face now. At the academy I learned a lot about what’s going on in the country – not necessarily good things, but things you have to deal with – and that’s pushing me forward. Israel isn’t a perfect country, but I love it, and that’s that.

And the choice of the mekhina is related to meaningfulness.

Amit: I felt that the transition from 12th grade to the army was too drastic, and I wanted a year for a pause – to shape myself, to understand the world better, to get to know new people in depth, to be at a place where you develop.

And was it like that?

Amit: The mekhina met all the goals I had set myself. I met new people who reflected back to me things I hadn’t known about myself.

Mor: To live with 38 people is to meet a lot of people who are different from you. Amit would always tell people to let her know if she did something unpleasant. That seemed mature to me because she put herself to one side to improve someone else’s experience.

Isn’t everyone a good kid?

Amit: Not everyone is the same type. Everyone comes with his baggage from home. That’s part of what’s good. There was also friction – criticism regarding fraternity.

How were you critiqued?

Amit: People said I didn’t initiate social ties but waited to be approached, and that’s something I hadn’t seen in myself. I think it’s because I had grown up with the same people since childhood.

Sounds intense.

Amit: Yes, and because it’s a coed academy, issues related to gender also came up. And that was difficult.

Mor: Urgent issues. And some people in the group didn’t always like it that this issue was being raised.

The boys?

Mor: Girls are more open to the subject, the boys are less open .... We also had an activity where we swapped clothes. Boys wore girls’ clothes and vice versa. That was an interesting experience – the boys suddenly noticed that girls’ clothes are tight and uncomfortable. For the girls it was comfortable; everyone was in pajamas.

Sounds like fun.

Amit: I didn’t like the way I looked in boys’ clothes. Most of the girls felt the same way. And I had to cope with not looking my most feminine.