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Ashkelon soon turns 70

Imagine driving from Cape Town Street to South Africa Boulevard and then turning into Johannesburg Street, while the magnificent Mediterranean sea, a marina and a superb beach are 5 minutes away. You can have all this and more by being in Israel in the city of Ashkelon.  You can even enjoy reading a bit of Afrikaans if you visit Afridar Square and read the history recorded on the three sided foundation plinth in English, Hebrew and Afrikaans.

From the words above it becomes obvious that South African Jewry were responsible for the establishment of modern Ashkelon, which will be celebrating  its 70th birthday in December this year. Ashkelon gives you the sea, the sun, some South African nostalgia and all this while being in Israel. Ashkelon, like Israel itself, is an anachronism being just 70 years young with a history going back 3,000 years and more. Besides all  the other attractions, there are excellent museums and archeological digs that take visitors back into the distant past.

The Ashkelon story started during the Second World War with the establishment of the South African Jewish War Appeal which was set up with the intention of assisting Holocaust surviors as news of the extent of the horrors taking place in Eastern Europe became known. The original idea was to assist the Holocaust survivors in rebuilding their lives in Europe, but it soon became obvious that that vast majority of survivors had found their way home  to the nascent State of Israel. This resulted in a decision to use the funds of the South African Jewish War Appeal to provide housing assistance in Israel.

The Government of Israel had put a strategic development plan into place which called for the establishment of new population centres in  the north and the south of the country, away from more densely populated central areas along the coastal belt and adjacent inland areas stretching from Tel Aviv to Haifa. The State Planners decided that the South African funds should be used to establish a garden type village close to where the ancient city of Ashkelon had been located, and so the seed was sown for the modern city of Ashkelon.

The South African Jewish War Appeal committee established a company called Afridar, a play on the Hebrew words  Darom Africa, which means South Africa. Afridar, the development company for the establishment of  the new village, built 468 attractively designed cottages overlooking the Mediterrann sea. During 1953 Afridar, as the village was named, merged with the neighbouring town of Migdal Ashkelon in a process that was completed in 1955  The united towns fittingly took the biblical name of Ashkelon. While the direct South African interest in Ashkelon waned after the merger, there was a continued South african presence in the Management of the city.

The South African Zionist Federation. Israel, commonly known as Telfed, played a huge role in the very early days of Afridar in recruiting South Africans to work, manage and live in the village. The original management committee was headed by South African Max Spitz, who was succeeded by Louis Pincus, also South african born, while Selwyn Lurie served as the Managing Director of Afridar until 1958. The first Mayor, Town Clerk and Town Treasurer,  Henry Sonnabend, Philip Gillon and Sam Wulfson respectively, were all South Africans. Following the merger of Afridar and Migdal Ashkelon, South African Leo Tager was elected as the second mayor, while compatriot Jack Schneider was appointed as the City Engineer. Another South African, Max Decktor was elected as Deputy Mayor of the city, serving in that office for a number of years.

South African funds were used to assist in the building of the Ashkelon Hospital, currently known as the Barzilai Hospital, which boasts a Mary Gordon  Maternity Wing, named in honour of the world renowned South African Dr. Mary Gordon. The Eric and Sheila Samson Emergency Surgical Hospital recently opened its doors as part of the Barzilai Hospital in a continuation of South African interventions in the city. The South African Zionist Federation, both in South Africa and in Israel, South African Jewry and indeed all of South Africa can take great pride in the part played in what has become the major  modern city of Askelon with a population of 140,000 citizens.

Telfed is currently working with several other organisations to organise a huge 70th birthday bash for Ashkelon, which will highlight the South African contribution to the city since its establishment. One of the aspects of the celebration will be the arrangement of a unique tour  which will not only showcase Ashkelon, but also take visitors to parts of Israel off the beaten track, which they would not normally visit. Watch the press for further details of this once in a lifetime opportunity to get to see and know the real Israel and join in the celebrations of Ashkelon’s 70th birthday.

 

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