Absorbing the Exiles

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

The European refugees, who were generally the first to arrive in Israel, frequently secured the preferable locations, whereas the Jews from Asia and Africa, who came afterward, often had to be satisfied with the peripheral areas which offered fewer economic opportunities and possibilities of employment. There was essentially no work for the residents of the tent camps, and this created a situation of demoralization and frustration. By the end of 1949, some 90,000 Jews lived in these camps and serious concerns about their conditions were expressed both in Israel and abroad.

Transit Camps

The need for temporary housing coupled with the problems in the tent camps led to the establishment of the "ma'abara" or transit camp. Conceived in March 1950 by Levi Eshkol, the treasurer and head of the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency, the transit camp was intended to provide temporary housing and employment for new immigrants until they could be absorbed into Israeli society. Camps in which the residents would have to work were to be established throughout the country.

The first such ma'abara was set up in May 1950 in Kesalon, in the Judean Hills. By the end of 1950, 62 transit camps housed some 93,000 new immigrants, especially from Rumania and Iraq. Different types of camps were established. In camps that were located near towns and cities, residents were generally employed in urban occupations. Immigrants in rural ma'abarot [plural of ma'abara] engaged in agricultural work. Some camps offered both possibilities. Other ma'abarot, established in remote areas of the country such as Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanese border and Yerucham in the Negev, were destined to become independent centers.

The structure of the camps was essentially similar: families lived in small shacks of cloth, tin, or wood, no larger than 10 to 15 square meters each. Other shacks housed the basic services: kindergarten, school, infirmary, small grocery store, employment office, synagogue, etc. The living quarters were not connected to either water or electric systems. Running water was available from central faucets, but it had to be boiled before drinking. The public showers and lavatories were generally inadequate and often in disrepair. A paucity of teachers and educational resources severely hindered the attempts to provide the camp children with suitable education. Work, even relief work, was not always available.

In these conditions, the ma'abara was susceptible to manipulation by political parties, which saw in the camps masses of potential supporters as well as fertile soil in which to plant their political ideologies. The number of Jews in transit camps and other temporary frameworks reached a peak at the end of 1951: 220,517 in transit camps and 256,506 in all forms of provisional housing. Roughly two-thirds of these immigrants came from Moslem countries. During subsequent years, the ma'abara population declined as it began to integrate into Israeli society. At the start of 1953, 157,140 people lived in the transit camps; in May 1955 the number stood at 88,116. By the end of 1963 only 15,300 remained. Some transit camps were turned into moshavim or development towns, others became urban neighborhoods or suburbs. Many were simply dismantled.

Economic Challenges

Israel's early absorption policy must be seen against the economic challenges of the time. To cope with the lack of resources, the need for developing infrastructure and industry, as well as the necessity of providing for the rising immigrant population, the government was forced into a policy of "monetary expansion" (i.e., the printing of money). In order to prevent a steep rise in prices and to ensure that the entire population would be able to obtain a minimum of basic commodities, an austerity plan ("Tochnit HaTzenah") of price control and rationing was initiated in 1949.

The problems inherent in this policy ("suppressed inflation" which created a black market, hurt exports and subsidized imports, leading to a depletion of the country's foreign currency reserves) brought about its collapse at the end of 1951. The New Economic Policy introduced in 1952 by Israel's Minister of Finance, Eliezer Kaplan, and continued by Levi Eshkol, combined rapid devaluation of the Israeli pound, abolition of price controls, and encouragement of exports. During this period, increased sums began to come in from various sources: the United Israel Appeal, Israel Bonds, the United States (economic aid), and the Federal Republic of Germany (reparations agreement). By 1953, the economy had entered a period of considerable growth.

Development Towns

With the renewal of large scale immigration in the mid‑1950s, mainly from North African countries which were undergoing nationalist struggles for independence from colonial rule, immigrants were no longer channeled to ma'abarot, but directly to moshavim or "development towns," new settlements that were created (some out of former transit camps) in remote areas with the express purpose of dispersing the Israeli population. Thus, in effect, the process of separation and isolation of immigrants from developing countries continued into the second half of the decade. In the remnants of the ma'abarot and in some of the development towns and new moshavim, the traditional social and occupational nature of the immigrants, the lack of resources, high unemployment, and isolation contributed to the evolution of serious social problems and the formation of slum neighborhoods.

Culture Shock

The "culture shock" for immigrants from developing countries of particular significance was the shock and disorientation that the new immigrants from developing countries faced upon arriving in Israel. These people came from pre‑industrial societies in which the large extended family was an important social unit. The father tended to wield considerable patriarchal authority, and women played traditional roles in running the household and raising children. Few had extensive general education or modern vocational training. Most of the immigrants had been religiously observant before coming to Israel, but their religious orientation resembled neither the modernist neo‑orthodoxy nor the anti­modernist ultra‑orthodoxy that developed in Europe as alternate observant Jewish responses to modern society. The immigrants carried with them their own social and cultural conventions, which had been influenced by the surrounding culture of their former host societies.

Israel, on the other hand, was a modern, industrial society. The smaller, nuclear family functioned as the dominant social unit and the father exercised less control over the members of the household. While women still tended to play a greater role than men in the home andin raising the family, it was common for Israeli women to work outside the home and some pursued their own professional careers. The more modern technologies and lifestyle in Israel required a greater degree of skilled workers.

No less important was the primarily secular character of Israeli society. Social, political, and cultural life in Israel was modeled primarily after European patterns. Due to a lack of marketable vocational skills and a greater difficulty (compared to the children) in adapting to the new surroundings, the immigrant father lost much of his former prestige within the family. The large family itself became an economic liability, and the traditional role of women as housekeepers limited their participation in the paid work force. The secular lifestyle of the country seemed to negate many of their traditional values. Israeli authorities often made no secret of their low regard for what they viewed as the "backward" or "primitive" culture of the immigrants from developing countries. The general Israeli expectation was that these newcomers would modernize and assimilate into the new society.

As the majority of veteran Israelis who held positions of authority came from Europe, immigrants from Asian and African countries were at a considerable disadvantage. Housing, food, and employment were often secured through personal connections, which were sorely lacking among the Jews from Moslem lands. In their treatment of the new immigrants, Israeli authorities reflected a genuine though often patronizing concern for the welfare of the newcomers and a desire to absorb them into Israeli society, together with a certain degree of prejudice and, in some cases, a desire to exploit the situation for political gain. It was an experience that would not be soon forgotten by either the newcomers or the veteran population.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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