Absorbing the Exiles

Israel worked to absorb massive numbers of Jewish immigrants during the 1950s.

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Israel's Law of Return, passed in 1950, allowed for massive Jewish immigration to Israel. Over the next decade, more than 800,000 Jews immigrated to the fledgling Jewish state. The Jewish population at the time of the establishment of the state was approximately 650,000. Thus the new immigrants outnumbered the established residents. Absorption of the new arrivals caused growing pains for Israel, a nation that was simultaneously trying to accommodate new arrivals and build a viable political, economic, and social infrastructure. The following article describes Israel's absorption policies and their consequences in the 1950s. It is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Agency

Israel's Absorption Policy

The Israeli authorities dealing with immigration gave first priority to the Holocaust survivors and to those Jewish communities in Moslem countries that required immediate evacuation, namely Yemen and Iraq. With regard to other large Jewish centers such as Morocco, the conditions of which did not seem to warrant such a policy, selective criteria were applied to determine who would be sent to Israel. In November 1951, the Jewish Agency, the body that carried the major responsibility for immigration and absorption, set down guidelines for the selection of immigrants. These criteria continued the pre‑state principles of "pioneering" immigration and favored young, healthy people who would settle and work the land. In the reality of the 1950s, this meant that while the young and strong would be brought to Israel, the older and weaker elements would be left in Morocco.

jewish immigrantsAlthough the policy of selection became the subject of intense public debate in Israel and the regulations were soon revised, the principle of selection was maintained at least until 1956. 

After arriving in Israel, the first objective for new immigrants was to find a place to live. When the state was established, the Jewish Agency had at its disposal only a small number of hostels that together could offer overnight lodging to several dozen people. This was of course completely inadequate under the new reality. New immigrants quickly settled in areas that had been vacated by Arabs during the hostilities of 1948, for example Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, and certain neighborhoods in the major cities. When these areas were full, tent camps were established in which basic needs such as food and education, were provided. Thus, the date of arrival in Israel became a crucial issue. The earliest immigrants received the more desirable homes, closer to the centers of employment, while the later arrivals could find only dwellings on the urban peripheries or in the even more marginal tent camps. A difference of four or five months during 1948‑1949 could make a critical difference in the point at which immigrants began their new life in Israel.

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Jonathan Kaplan is administrative director at the Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.