Anxious South African Jews Are Planting One Foot, or Two, in Israel

Some choose to immigrate, others invest in real estate. Either way, the falling value of the rand is giving them less money to play with

Adi Cohen
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Architect’s illustration of the Michaelangelo project in Tiberias.
Architect’s illustration of the Michaelangelo project in Tiberias.Credit: Piedmont enterprises
Adi Cohen

“When we left South Africa for Israel in January 2016, it was when we’d reached the point where we stopped feeling safe in our home,” says Steven. He asked to be identified by his first name only.

“One early summer evening, my wife and our two sons, who were nine and 10, had just left the house when suddenly two cars pulled up alongside them and three men got out and accosted them and robbed them at gunpoint. Luckily no one was hurt, but the traumatic experience stayed with us. Six months later, we were out of there.”

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With the move to Israel, Steven and his wife left behind good jobs and a community they loved. They sold their house in Johannesburg – a 450-square-meter single-family home on a quarter of an acre – for less than $290,000. 

“We loved our life in South Africa, but it was important to us to move to a place that would give us a sense of security,” Steven says. 
“More and more young couples from the Jewish community in South Africa are coming to the same decision and making their way to Israel. The decision to leave usually derives from a combination of the feeling that has become part of life there, which my family experienced directly – the lack of personal security, along with the difficulty economic situation in South Africa today. These problems aren’t unique to the Jewish community, but at least we have the feeling that there is always someplace we can go.” 

Immigration on the rise

Steven’s story is not uncommon. More than two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africans are trying to cope with economic instability, soaring crime and an uncertain future. The aliyah statistics tracked by the Jewish Agency clearly illustrate the trend: In the first half of 2019, 318 people immigrated to Israel from South Africa, a 23 percent increase over the same period in the previous year.

In addition to the growing aliyah numbers, there has also been a notable rise in property purchases by South African Jews. 
“Lately we’re seeing increasing interest by South African Jews in Israeli real estate, with some people looking to buy apartments and to move here to live, and others who see Israel as an attractive investment opportunity and a place that can give their children a more secure future,” says Ari Shapira, the owner of Hold Real Estate, which specializes in marketing property in Israel to foreigners. 

“This trend really applies to Britain as well as South Africa, two countries currently undergoing a lot of changes. South Africa is experiencing government upheaval and economic change, and in Britain – another favored destination for South African emigrants – there is uncertainty because of Brexit. What the Jewish communities in both countries have in common are signs of uneasiness, especially given the increased activity of the anti-Israeli boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in both of them. All of these things are leading many Jews to look for an alternative plan, and ultimately to invest in Israel,” says Shapira.

The South African chapter of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) members protest outside the High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 2014.   Credit: Hassan Isilow / Anadolu Agenc /

A survey by TheMarker of several real estate agencies throughout Israel found that dozens of homes were purchased by South Africans last year, after many years when these transactions were in the single numbers.

Steven and his family went straight to Ra’anana, a bedroom community northeast of Tel Aviv that positioned itself as a magnet for immigrants from South Africa during the first large wave of aliyah from there, during the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Ra’anana is seen as a city with a large and well-developed ‘Anglo’ community,” as immigrants from English-speaking communities are called in Israel, “which draws a lot of buyers from South Africa,” says Joe Cohen of Anglo Saxon Real Estate’s Ra’anana branch. He himself made aliyah from South Africa in 1986. “Here you have a huge selection of cultural events and community activities in English, and a synagogue that looks just like a synagogue in South Africa. Even at the public school, where my daughters go, at least half of the class is English-speaking,” he says.

But Ra’anana isn’t right, or affordable, for everyone. “Due to the weakening of the rand, the South African currency, someone who sells a fancy villa today in Johannesburg on a [quarter-acre] of land with a private pool will barely have enough money to get a four-room apartment in Ra’anana,” Cohen says. “Ra’anana still attracts a lot of South Africans and the number of people coming here is on the rise, but most of the immigrants who are coming now are renting apartments, and fewer are buying.”

Wider horizons

“In the past, South African investors and buyers were mainly interested in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ra’anana, and they mostly bought penthouses and large apartments, but now we’re seeing them compromise on smaller apartments and primarily on less-central areas,” Shapira adds. He says the list of communities favored by South African property buyers, whether as homes or as an investment, has grown to include cities where prices are lower, such as Or Akiva, adjacent to the seaside community of Caesarea, and Tiberias, on the shore of Lake Kinneret.

South African enjoying a community picnic.Credit: Herschel Gutman

Eyal Amir is a partner in Piedmont Enterprises, which recently completed the construction of a new neighborhood in Tiberias. Called Michelangelo Kinneret, it’s the largest neighborhood to be built in the northern Israeli city in years that doesn’t target the religious Jewish population.

It consists of 200 apartments in 10 eight-story buildings and 40 single-family homes. More than 10 percent of the buyers are South African Jews. Most bought the apartments there for investment purposes, while a few intend to use them as vacation homes.

Amir: “We’re seeing an increase in interest and activity from South African buyers. However, the Jewish community in South Africa, many of whose members already emigrated as the apartheid regime was collapsing in 1990, now numbers about 75,000, which is quite small compared to the big Jewish community in France. I wouldn’t be so quick to call them ‘the new French’ in the Israeli real estate market.”

Netanya is also popular with South African property buyers. The seaside city has recently lost some of its appeal to French investors. “Last year we saw a jump in the number of transactions by South Africans in Netanya,” says Julian Shapira, a partner in Home in Israel. The agency specializes in selling homes to foreign residents.

“The average used to be seven or eight per year, but in 2019 there were 16 transactions,” Shapira says, most of them in the Ir Yamim neighborhood. He says South Africans are drawn to Ir Yamim’s proximity to the ocean as well as its religious schools, the large English-speaking population and the broad array of culture and entertainment offerings in English.

Shapira travels to South Africa often. He says there’s a significant economic divide within the country’s Jewish community that is also reflected in their behavior when it comes to property in Israel.

“Among the 70,000 to 80,000 Jews who live in South Africa today, you hardly see any who are middle-class. By my rough estimate, 20 percent to 30 percent of them, and of the ones we meet at the marketing conventions that we hold every few months, are well-off, even very wealthy. The rest do not have much financial wherewithal and will have a lot of difficulty buying an apartment in Israel, certainly in the high-demand areas.”

Size counts

Continuing, Shapira says: “While the non-affluent population will mainly be looking for cheap housing to rent, we see that the affluent South Africans are usually looking for homes that are 240-300 square meters, for penthouses or the more upscale projects. Many of the South Africans who move to Israel are leaving behind huge villas and enormous houses, so in looking for an apartment, they’re less concerned with the number of rooms than with the size, which really matters to them.”

The social gaps described by Cohen and Shapira, as well as the notable changes in investment trends in terms of locations and the type of properties sought by South African buyers in Israel today to some extent reflect the current economic reality in South Africa, with all the upheavals the country has gone through in the past decades.

Despite being the largest and wealthiest economy in Africa, and responsible for about a quarter of the continent’s gross domestic product, about half of the population lives below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is 28 percent. According to figures issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in September, a majority of the unemployed are between 18 and 24 years old. 

The rand has also struggled to recover since the fall of the apartheid regime. From 0.82 rand to the U.S. dollar just before the fall of the apartheid regime, it has fallen to 14.8 rand to the dollar today. For whites in South Africa, including Jews, the years since the 1993 change of government have been filled with a good deal of upheaval. After years of colonialist rule that gave whites much power and access to precious resources, this population has had to adjust to its new minority status. The percentage of whites in the South African Republic has also been shrinking and is now down to 8 percent, compared to 20 percent during apartheid rule.

A majority of the South African Jewish community of 75,000 is concentrated in Johannesburg, with about a quarter in Cape Town and the rest scattered in different cities. “It’s a very Zionist community, very traditional and cohesive. At its peak, before the big exodus in the 1970s and 1980s, it numbered 140,000 people. We also saw a big exodus in the early 1990s with the end of the apartheid regime, due to the uncertainty and instability that pervaded the country in those years,” explains Liat Amar Arran, the Jewish Agency for Israel representative in South Africa.

“I believe that the present growth in the aliyah numbers is part and parcel of the present situation in South Africa. While the country is trying to steady and stabilize itself, the Jewish community is naturally sometimes asking itself if it has a future there,” Amar Arran says.

“Since the end of the apartheid regime and the start of democratic rule in the early 1990s, a new policy of affirmative action has been instituted in South Africa, which the government is using to try to remedy the injustices of apartheid,” says Doron Klein, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel (known as Telfed), which assists South Africans with the immigration and absorption process. “You see it mainly in workplaces and academia, and what it basically means is that can be quite difficult for whites to find work.”

Anti-Israel atmosphere

“There’s another problem for Jews in South Africa now too – the very anti-Israeli atmosphere in the country, which is the general rule among the public and also among a large part of the government,” says Klein. 

“Many in the country make a simplistic comparison between the historic struggle of the blacks in South Africa against apartheid and the Palestinians’ struggle for liberation from the Zionist Jewish regime. This comparison gave rise to the BDS movement in South Africa, which uses the same methods that brought down the apartheid regime,” says Klein.

“At the universities and countless demonstrations, we’re witnessing a lot of condemnation and attacks on Israel, which is portrayed as an apartheid state, as a colonialist entity that kills women and children. For the Jews in South Africa who see Israel as a country that represents them just as much as South Africa does, this creates a very uneasy atmosphere. 

“The first thing that South Africans are looking for when they come to Israel is a community. These immigrants know that they are leaving behind fancy houses and quality of life and that in Israel they’ll probably have to live in an apartment that, if they’re lucky, they’ll be able to buy, or if not, that they will have to rent. Therefore, the community becomes the most important and meaningful thing for them. It doesn’t have to be a South African community. Just as long as it’s a warm and welcoming community, preferably an ‘Anglo’ one, that will embrace them.”

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