Absorbing the Exiles

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

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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.

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