David E. Kaplan
THE JERUSALEM POST
March 2, 2008
In the wake of an unsatisfactory war in Lebanon in 2006, Israelis tended to reflect rather than celebrate last Yom Ha'atzma'ut. Not so this year. Apart from talk of the surviving Beatles arriving here for Israel's 60th anniversary, many organizations, from Zionist federations to youth movements, are holding reunions this year. One such is the South African Betar movement, which is expecting some 800 participants to converge on May 4 at Jabotinsky Park near Binyamina.
When Ze'ev Jabotinsky arrived in South Africa in 1930, he lit a fire under the country's fledgling Revisionist organization, as well as attracting a mass of young recruits to its youth movement, Betar. Shmuel (Moeki) Katz, then 15, was one.
The author of a biography on Jabotinsky, Lone Wolf, and a frequent correspondent to The Jerusalem Post, Katz describes "Jabo's" address to the Jewish community in Johannesburg as a pivotal moment in his life. The speech propelled him on a journey that included becoming the last commander of the Irgun in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and the only South African ever to be elected to the Knesset. "There was not a seat to be had in the City Hall," he told Metro. "Even with the poor acoustics, he held his audience through every second of an address that lasted over two hours. Between pauses, you could here a pin drop. I was mesmerized. I went home that night and repeated each point he made to my mother."
"Don't be spectators, be players," Jabotinsky urged those assembled. The next day, Katz joined Betar.
"Jabotinsky believed that spiritual rootlessness was no less horrendous than physical insecurity, and consequently the dangers of spiritual impoverishment were greatest exactly where external pressures were weakest," Katz recalls.
Many of the over 60 former Betar members expected to attend the reunion will be hailing from "physically secure" Diaspora communities in which alarming rates of assimilation bear out Jabo's foreboding of nearly eight decades ago.
A much younger Betari who plans to attend the reunion is Shely Cohen of Ra'anana, who in 1992 became the first female national head of South African Betar. "Betar was my life and from the age of 14, I knew I would come live in Israel. After school, a mini-van would fetch my sister and me from King David School and take us to the Betar office. If not hanging out there, you could always find us at the bayit."
Leon Charney of Yehud, who served as Betar's national head from 1951-1952, joined the movement at the age of 10. His four older sisters had all been members of Betar in Lithuania before they arrived in South Africa in 1936. "We got out just in time," he says. Charney recalls the excitement of those heady days in the movement in Johannesburg. "Raphael Kotlowitz, who had also been a former head of Betar, was summoned to Palestine, where he was appointed to head the Irgun in South Africa. Similar branches were being established in Diaspora communities elsewhere in the world."
Kotlowitz, who would later become chairman of the Jewish Agency's Aliya and Absorption Department, found his activists among the young Betar members.
"[We] had to be careful. The first thing we did was set up an underground press in my sister's basement in Orange Grove, where we printed anti-British pamphlets and posters, calling for the British to leave Palestine."
The great escape
"[Kotlowitz] called a meeting of our Betar group to organize false passports for a planned escape of some of the Etzel (IZL) and Lehi prisoners at a detention camp in Kenya," relates Charney. "They were to dig a tunnel under the barbed wire perimeter."
"We applied for passports, which were then doctored with the photographs of the prisoners who were to escape." The question was how to get the passports to Kenya and fly the escapees out.
One of Charney's brothers-in-law, Isaac Kaplan - who later became a celebrated plastic surgeon and pioneer in laser surgery - came into the picture. A few years earlier, Kaplan had worked his way to Palestine to attend a Betar training course. He had visited a small Betar settlement in Rosh Pina. Now, back in South Africa, Isaac had a job on his hands. He was entrusted to organize transportation for the detainees, who - according to the plan - were to be met and driven to the border of Rwanda and from there flown to Europe, posing as South Africans. "We charted a plane to fly them from Goma to Leopoldville, where they would board a Sabena plane for Brussels. However, on arrival, we learned that the runway in Goma was too short to take off with eight passengers, which meant crossing Lake Kivu to Costermansville, where the runway was longer," Kaplan says.
He and his Irgun cohorts found a small motor vessel with an agreeable captain to take them across the lake. As they were crossing, "Mount Kivu erupted and the lava came pouring into the lake with the water near the shore boiling." Although a spectacular sight, "we were not exactly in the mood to appreciate this natural phenomenon and I shall never forget Jacob Meridor strutting up and down the small deck like a caged lion saying how he felt completely trapped."
The saga would play out with some of the escapees making it to France, where they would help prepare the Altalena for its voyage to Palestine, laden with arms, in 1948. Isaac, meanwhile, headed to London, where he lay low for a while, having read in a local newspaper that "two South Africans involved in the escape of Jewish terrorists from an internment camp in Kenya were being sought by the police." Best to hide out where they least expected you, he believed.
Kaplan's family was synonymous with the Betar movement in South Africa. His brother Michael had also heard Jabotinsky's 1930 address at the Johannesburg City Hall and joined Betar with Moeki Katz the next day. His other brother, Julius, was national leader of the movement in the mid-1930s and his sister Doris, who would later marry Altalena commander Eliyahu Lankin [after first being Moekie Katz's wife until 1953], joined the Etzel after arriving in Palestine in 1946. She wrote a book in which she describes a ceremony at the Etzel headquarters, "where we drank a toast in the candlelight to the first 13 IZL-manufactured Sten guns, which had just arrived in Jerusalem.
I felt like a conspirator, so perfect was the atmosphere - figures flitting in and out holding whispered colloquies; a tough-looking woman in a bandana around her head passing cups of beer and chunks of cheese and in the dark corner, the Sten guns lovingly caressed and cooed over by unseen enthusiasts."
Back to the present
Come this May, there will be no shortage of enthusiasts toasting a movement whose members have supported Israel with unquestionable loyalty and whose leadership led by personal example. "Ours was a movement whose national leaders made aliya," says Laurie Shochat of Herzliya. Laurie and his brother Steven - both members of the upcoming reunion's organizing committee - came from the small country town of Worcester in the Western Cape. Betar was introduced in their town when they were youngsters in the late 1960s. "Students at [University of Cape Town], like Mike and Naomi Heim, now married and living in Hod Hasharon, used to drive out to Worcester on weekends, a distance of over 100 miles and through mountain passes, to hold meetings.
As we grew older, we took over the reins of leadership, and despite being a small Jewish community, we each year sent an impressive number of youngsters to summer camps." During their university years at UCT, the Shochat brothers would each serve as national head of Betar.
"It's true we did not take issue on local political issues in South Africa," says Laurie. "Guided by Jabo, we believed this would distract us from our sole goal of inculcating a love of Israel and standing up for Jewish identity."
When a Cape Town shop was found to be selling Nazi memorabilia, he recalls, "we put a stop to that by spray-painting the shop's windows," and when Muslim students at UCT wanted to establish an anti-Israel lobby, Betar organized a massive Jewish attendance at the group's inaugural meeting. "When it came to voting, a few of us were elected to this Muslim student body and our first order of business," laughs Laurie "was to close down the organization."
All Betarim interviewed by Metro agree that their involvement in the movement prompted them to make Israel their home. "I was on the Betar Machon program, based on a moshav near el-Arish in the Sinai, when the Yom Kippur War broke out," says Ricky Davis of Metulla. "We saw the movement of military hardware going back and forth, and with most of the male members of the moshav being called up, we took over guarding the moshav." Davis returned to South Africa after completing Machon, but made aliya the following year, in 1974. Two years later, he would see action when he participated in the Entebbe Raid in 1976. "My platoon's role was to blow up the Ugandan MIGs on the ground, so they could not give chase once we left with the freed hostages," he says.
Another Betari looking forward to the reunion is Harry Hurwitz, founder and director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. Harry arrived in South Africa in 1934, already a member of Betar having heard Jabotinsky speak the previous year in his native Latvia. It was in Riga, Latvia's capital, that Jabotinsky founded Betar in 1923.
"When I arrived in Johannesburg, there was very little Betar activity for the youngsters. This we set about remedying and by the time I was well into high school, I was head of Betar in Johannesburg and running new groups in the smaller satellite towns outside Johannesburg, where I used to travel by train each week."
In Israel, Hurwitz served as Minister of Information at the Israel Embassy in Washington, under then Ambassador to the US Moshe Arens, during the crucial years 1981-1984, during which Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in Osirak (1981) and invaded Lebanon (1982). On his return to Israel, he was appointed adviser on world-Jewish communities to then-prime minister Begin.
With the dominance of the Habonim Dror and Bnei Akiva youth movements in South Africa today, does he feel there is any chance of reviving Betar to its former prominence? By all accounts, Betar has become a one-city movement, centered in Johannesburg. Hurwitz is not positive. "It's pitiful. It's not a question of facilities or budgets, but a leadership with sufficient motivation."
Could the upcoming reunion rekindle the Betar spirit and be a springboard for such a revival? "I doubt it. You cannot in 2008 build and maintain a movement on nostalgia. It will be very nice for all of us who grew up in the movement to get together, but that's all."
Nevertheless, he leaves the door open. "Who knows, a leadership may still emerge, inspired by the ideals of Jabotinsky and deeds of the past. After all, Betar is not only about politics, but also about codes of conduct and behavior. It would be wonderful if Betar would emerge as a strong vehicle for aliya."
Hurwitz may soon be surprised. At the reunion, he will have an opportunity to engage the movement's future leadership. Those on the year-long Machon program will not only be attending the reunion, but participating in the activities. "The plan is for them to present an audio-visual Powerpoint show of the movement today in South Africa and meet former members," Betar's current head, 22-year-old Ryan Sauer, told Metro in a telephone interview.
Despite a dwindling membership, "we have at least five members making aliya each year - that's more per capita than any other movement in South Africa," says Sauer. "We are frequently the victim of our success. Each year, at least three of our five future leaders, in Israel on the [year-long] program, decide to stay rather than return to South Africa and work for the movement. What am I to do? Try persuading someone who is passionate about Israel and wants to enroll in the IDF to come back to South Africa? No! They're fulfilling the highest ideals of the movement and we're proud of them. But the price we pay is not enjoying their acquired leadership skills in strengthening the movement."
Sauer laments "the absence of a parent body, like [that which] Bnei Akiva enjoys with Mizrachi to help financially, ideologically and politically. We have suffered by not having shlichim (Israeli emissaries) for a number of years and the financial resources to sponsor youngsters to attend summer camps and participate in programs to Israel."
He points out a particular niche in the community that Betar serves that has not received the recognition it deserves. "Bnei Akiva and Habonim Dror have a strong footing in the Jewish day schools. We don't. We service kids from the government sector, who would otherwise be denied an education in Judaism and Zionism. Because parents may be unable to afford the expensive fees at the Jewish day schools, why should these kids be denied access to their enriching heritage?" asks Sauer. "About 80 percent of the Jewish students at government schools are members of Betar. We should be supported to the hilt, not ignored," say Sauer, who hopes that the upcoming reunion will create a dialogue between former Betar members in Israel and the movement's leadership in South Africa. "My message is that we need you, and you are in a position to help. We hope the reunion will not only celebrate the past, but herald a promising future."
The gauntlet has been thrown.
Monday, March 3, 2008
And Look at What the South African Betar is Doing