Israel’s painful selection of Moroccan Jews

Olim Bemesorah ‏(“Cut to Measure: Israel’s Policies Regarding
the Aliyah of North African Jews, 1951-1956”‏), by Avi Picard,
Ben-Gurion University Press

 After 1949, Morocco lifted an emigration ban on its Jews, but Israel promptly imposed ‘selective’ medico-social criteria limiting numbers.  For a painful few years, migrants were turned down and children admitted to Israel without their parents. Avi Picard was one such child: he still bears the emotional scars – the subject of his new book, Olim Bemesorah, reviewed by Daniel Ben Simon in Haaretz. (With thanks: Sylvia) 

 See my comment below.


is a problem that refuses to be resolved. Even though more than six
decades have passed, there is a lingering feeling that they were
unwanted; that many of those who aspired to immigrate to Israel were met
by a wall of rejection. The young state asserted that, due to its
difficult situation, it was feasible to bring in only those Jews of
sound physical and mental state, and that financial hardship prevented
the country from taking in most of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who
were knocking at its doors. And even those Jews who did succeed in
immigrating were snubbed and insulted.

strong young children were taken to Israel; their parents were left
behind. Now a new psychological trauma was added to the physical
restrictions that initially prevented the parents from joining their
offspring, for several months or even years ‏(although this was not a
very common phenomenon‏). The families did not always have the time for a
proper farewell. Youngsters imbued with a sense of messianist mission
were compelled to separate from their parents, sometimes with only a few
minutes’ notice. Heartrending scenes of families being torn apart were a
not-uncommon feature at the start of the Zionist process of bringing
Jews to Israel from the countries of northern Africa.

all of the scars healed. Some of the children who grew up in Israel
refuse to repress that memory of the hasty separation from their
parents. Others still bear the pain of seeing their parents and other
relatives being spurned. Even some members of the third generation born
in Israel feel the primal traumatic experience that to a great extent
shaped their communal identity.

Picard, author of this study of the wave of immigration from North
Africa, is himself the child of immigrants. His personal experience led
him to write a seminar paper as an undergraduate about the subject,
which he then expanded upon in his master’s and doctoral theses, and has
now put out a full-length book. The photograph on the dust jacket,
designed by Shai Zauderer, tells the story. In it we see a shabby
suitcase that has gone through the migration ordeal, lying in the middle
of a barren desert.

many scholars have tended to focus on the absorption trauma of the
immigrants once they were here, Picard concentrates on the initial stage
of immigration from North Africa. A host of medical and social
restrictions were imposed on this wave of immigration. Candidates had to
submit to medical examinations. Failure to appear for said
examinations, or exhibiting negative behavior during them, constituted
sufficient grounds for disqualifying the would-be immigrant.

writes how, for example, “One doctor wrote that he discounts at first
glance those immigrants who seemed to be ‘too fat or too thin,
possessing distortions of bone structure, mental deficiencies, whiteness
in the cornea, festering conjunctivitis, or contagious skin

selective immigration policy was enacted in November 1951. It was then
that Jewish Agency administrators issued a document with stipulations
that affected the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews who dreamed of
realizing the return to Zion:

When emigration from Morocco became legal after 1949, Israel admitted only young, strong, healthy Jews

Eighty percent of immigrants from these lands had to be selected from
among candidates for Youth Aliyah, pioneering movements, those who
belonged to groups planning to found agricultural settlements,
professionals up to 35 years of age or families in which the breadwinner
was up to age 35. 

The aforementioned candidates would have to commit in writing to a
period of two years in which they would be engaged in agricultural work.

Authorization would be granted to the aforementioned candidates only
after a full medical examination supervised by a physician from Israel.

4. No more than 20 percent of the immigrants from the countries in question could be over the age of 35.

Recommendations of [potential] immigrants by their relatives in Israel
would be accepted only on the basis of a declaration of the relative’s
willingness and ability to absorb the newcomers.

decision to be selective regarding which would-be immigrants could come
to Israel became official government policy, to which the aspiration to
return to the homeland was now subject. “This policy was at variance
with the raison d’etre of the State of Israel,” writes Picard, “and its
being a sanctuary for the Jewish people, and open to immigration.”

aliyah and Mossad emissaries shuddered at the sight of the deplorable
state of the Jews they encountered in the Atlas Mountains. In the course
of my own visit there in recent years while I was a Haaretz
correspondent, I stopped at a few exotically named villages where Jews
had lived for centuries: Ait ben Haddou, Tinghir, Ouarzazate, Chichaoua,
Taroudant. There I was told by local Muslims about a certain dark night
in 1952 during which hundreds of Jews from the villages vanished. They
lived in huts and in pits and maintained the Jewish traditions, while
coexisting with their Arab neighbors.

woke up in the morning and Ben-Sheetrit had vanished and also Ben-Hamo
had vanished and also their rabbi had vanished. All of them
disappeared,” a resident of Tinghir, Morocco, told me. He took
possession of the hut belonging to one of the vanished Jews. He also
told me about others who were left behind; those who did not receive a
permit to immigrate to Israel, including some who suffered from
trachoma, ringworm or other diseases common in the Atlas villages.

emissaries filed reports back home, sometimes strongly worded, about
what they were seeing. When making the choice between saving Jews and
building up the young country, on more than one occasion the salvation
effort was relegated to second place.

shows no sympathy for the considerations of the fledgling state. He
argues that restrictions on immigration were directed toward North
African Jews more than toward those from other regions. He quotes Giora
Yoseftal, who headed the Jewish Agency’s absorption efforts and was a
key proponent of the policy of undertaking a “selection” among the
aspiring immigrants. He contended that until 1951, the absorption
department believed that Israel could contain only a certain number of
immigrants. “When did the breakdown occur? The breakdown came with the
last arrivals of the Moroccan and Tripolitanian [Libyan] immigration
wave in … 1951. They were a lumpenproletariat ‏(a term coined by Karl
Marx to describe a ragged proletariat that was of no use to the
revolutionary struggle‏), people without a future,” Yoseftal argued at a
discussion among the Agency management.

the process of limiting immigration was in force beforehand, but became
more acute in the case of Jews from North Africa. Indeed, Picard
asserts that the colonialist legacy that the state’s founding fathers
brought with them trumped the push toward integration that was so
important to the national ethos. This was especially the case when it
came to the North African immigrants − especially, the author notes,
those from Morocco. Of all the groups immigrating, the Moroccans seem to
have terrified Israel’s founders more than any other; they simply did
not know how to contain them. It was said about the Yemenites that they
were obedient and sweet-natured, and about the Iraqis that they were
diligent and serious-minded − which was also the perception of Iranians
and other groups. But with the Moroccans, every possible disgusting term
was applied. It was as if 10 measures of abhorrence and fear descended
on the world, and nine were taken by the Moroccans.”

Read article in full 

My comment:  Daniel Ben Simon is right that Avi Picard shows little understanding for Israel’s predicament in the early 1950s. The state was being overwhelmed with immigrants from Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Rumania, whom it took in unconditionally because their lives were at risk unless they were rescued urgently. Moroccan Jewry was considered to be less of a priority; and the French authorities – Morocco was not yet independent – would not allow mass emigration.  Although the policy now seems callous and even racist,  it made sense then to exclude those unable to work or with contagious or infectious diseases: Israel’s meagre resources were over-stretched.

Michael Laskier  in ‘North African Jewry in the 20th century’ writes that over time, Israel’s Ministry of Health doctor in Morocco tried to relax the selection criteria. Handicapped members of a family and the elderly could make aliya if accompanied by an employable young person. The selection policy did not stop whole villages from southern Morocco (the Jews from the bled were deemed tough and capable of agricultural work)  being evacuated, including the very sick. From August 1954, however, demand in the towns to leave Morocco accelerated: seven Jews had been massacred in the town of Petijean and Moroccan nationalists had attacked Jews in Casablanca, Safi, Boujad, Ouezzan, Mazagan, Ourika and Tiznit. (Laskier reckons that the French authorities averted a major attack on the Casablanca mellah. ) As a result of these mounting tensions, the Jewish Agency agreed to expand the emigration quotas from Morocco.  In 1956, however, emigration was forced underground once again. The ban was only lifted five years later when Hassan ll acceded to the throne and Israel agreed to ransom a mass exodus of Moroccan Jews.


  • You're wrong.
    Not the priorities and the limited capacity were the reason. And Romanian Jews, among whom the Jewish Agency shlichim (representatives) and Mossad agents made an aggressive campaign to convince them to leave Romania (!), were at NO risk. Many of them were already among the new communist leadership and the Jews were treated almost preferentially.
    In Iraq, too, as we all know, Jewish Agency and Mossad had even used terrorist means, e.g. bomb attacks against JEWS (!) to create panic and convince Jews to flee to Israel (well, Iraqis did also their best to make Jews leave …)
    And: in the Sixties Golda Meir instructed the Israeli embassy in Poland to introduce the same selection process Israel used a decade earlier in Morocco …

  • "Although the policy now seems callous and even racist, it made sense then to exclude those unable to work or with contagious or infectious diseases:"

    But is it not strange that those slighted with having infectious diseases and refused alyah were precisely from among the intellectual and professional class who turned around and had no problem emigrating to France, Canada and South America?

    There certainly were many diseases during and after WWII, more so in what was called then third world countries. But to cite trachoma as an excuse is disingenuous, considering that the AIU maintained a separate school for the country's trachomateux (see 1949 photo which suggests the disease was diagnosed early and treated.

    By the mid-1950s the quota for Morocco was 600. Much much lower than for Europeans. It is the samee quota they had for the Falash Mura in 2005, which sparked many protests from the Ethiopian community (and I'll add, the Falash Mura faced no existential danger at the time).

    Note also that in the photo none of the young men is wearing glasses.What does that say?

    As to Israel not having the ability to integrate more at the time, true, but there are documented reports of Jewish agency representatives on the site that show that the Jewish Agency was prepared to finance the emigration and the integration of many more people at the time.And it did.

  • I knew nothing about this and was saddened to learn about this part of Israel's history. On the other hand, Israel has made enormous progress and is now probably the best in the world at absorbing immigrants.
    With any luck, the people who read this will redouble their efforts to ensure that Palestinian refugees are absorbed into the countries into which they fled.

  • in fact a selection policy was nothing new. The British in the 1920s and 1930s gave a limited number of immigration certificates [sertifikatim] to the Jewish Agency which allocated them to individuals and organizations, giving preference to young people over older people. It was also charged by adherents of the Zionist-Revisionist movement led by Jabotinsky and later by Menahem Begin that sertifikatim were given primarily to "leftists," to members of socialist-oriented Zionist bodies such as Po`aley Tsiyon, HaShomer HaTsa`ir, and so on. This was a very bitter accusation in those days. The unauthorized immigration [`aliyah Beyt] was meant to get around the scarcity of certificates and the discriminatory manner of distributing them.


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