Why is there no Ma’abarot Day to recall the first home – a tent camp – that 80 percent of Israel’s oriental immigrants experienced when they first arrived? Article in Haaretz:
An odd question is posed by the protagonist of the television series
“Zagouri Empire,” in the first episode of the new season. Why, he asks,
does the Israeli calendar have no “Ma’abarot Day” – a reference to the
1950s’ transit camps that mainly housed Jewish refugees from the Middle
East and North Africa.
You won’t find an entry for ma’abarot in the
Encyclopedia Hebraica. The 1978 edition contains a terse discussion of
the subject (27 lines), but not as a separate entry, rather in the
general volume devoted to the Land of Israel.
Nor do we have a “Museum of Ma’abarot.” We have an
Israel Air Force museum and a Yitzhak Rabin museum and a Palmach museum
and a Ya’ir Stern museum (commemorating the founder of the pre-state
underground organization Lehi). But to learn about transit camps, you’ll
have to poke around in archives or listen to old wives’ tales.
In a collection of Davar Le’Yeladim – the weekly
children’s magazine published by the (now-defunct) Hebrew daily Davar,
which was a mouthpiece for the ruling establishment – from 1951-1952, I
found barely 15 articles on the subject, most of them written by young
Who is responsible for constructing our history?
Who is charged with the role of filling with content that odd and
self-interested concept referred to as “collective memory”?
When it comes to subjects like transit camps and
poverty, this is not only a question for learned historians. Recent
surveys have provided painful findings about the number of poor children
in Israel. A heated debate has also arisen about who’s responsible for
the fact that housing prices have lurched out of control – Benjamin
Netanyahu or Ehud Barak, or maybe it was the other Ehud (Olmert), or
possibly Menachem Begin, Golda or Ben-Gurion?
Perhaps the question should be rephrased: Who is
responsible for the fact that there are some people who have no prospect
of being able to buy an apartment today, whereas others own entire
buildings? That’s a question that calls for a consideration of the
history of poverty in this country.
The history of poverty here is a huge blank. Our
great cultural repression. The ma’abarot, the product of Israeli
poverty, are a historical wound that’s been removed from the map. And
not by chance.
In 1951, a quarter of a million people were living
in ma’abarot, 80 percent of them from Islamic lands. Most of the camps
were dismantled by 1959. Ten forgotten years. Memories erased.
Here, in a nutshell, are a few important points
which are apparently inconvenient to recall. The first inhabitants of
the ma’abarot lived in tents, one per family. Afterward, an improved
tent, hut-shaped but still made of canvas, came on the scene. Later,
there were tin huts and wooden shacks. Some of the ma’abarot weren’t
hooked up to the water or power supply, and filthy public toilets often
served dozens of people.
In April 1949, Zalman Aranne, a leading member of
the Mapai ruling party (and later minister of education), warned that a
“catastrophic situation” existed in the camps. Elihayu Dobkin, a senior
figure in the Jewish Agency, described the conditions as a “holy
horror.” But David Ben-Gurion ruled that the improved dwellings that
were being demanded for the new immigrants were too costly: “I don’t
accept this pampering [approach] with respect to people not living in
tents. We are spoiling them. People can live for years in tents. Anyone
who doesn’t want to live in them needn’t bother coming here.”
Beginning in September 1949, the Jews of Poland
were allowed to immigrate to the nascent Jewish state. Toward the end of
that year, the Agency reached the conclusion that the new arrivals from
Poland deserved better absorption conditions than the immigrants who
preceded them. “There are respected individuals among them,” was its
To spare these newcomers the suffering of the
transit camps, it was proposed to house them in hotels. At the same
time, meetings were held among the authorities about speeding up the
Poles’ placement in permanent housing – including in apartments
originally allocated for immigrants from the Arab countries.
“They were all aware that giving preference to the
Polish immigrants was wrong and so they resolved to keep it secret,”
wrote historian Tom Segev in his book “1949: The First Israelis.”
In January 1953, the Agency’s Immigrant Absorption
Department in Jerusalem noted, “Most of the European families have long
since left the ma’abarot, and more than 90 percent of the camps’
inhabitants are from the Oriental communities.”
During the past month I’ve been visiting distressed
areas in Israel – the winter 2015 version. Every morning I arrive in a
different place. Kfar Shalem, Ofakim, Or Yehuda, Ramle, the long and
depressing tenements of Jaffa Dalet. Distressed neighborhoods of Israeli
Jews. Happily, I haven’t seen especially harsh sights.
The images I had
in my mind of the ma’abarot and other sorts of immigrant camps have
been shattered. At the end of the 1970s, Project Renewal was launched to
rehabilitate rundown neighborhoods, and outwardly the situation has
over the years become fairly reasonable. But many of the people I’m
meeting are unemployed; a great many lead hardscrabble lives.
It seems to me that before we talk about the
distress of the retail price of Milky, the chocolate pudding snack that
symbolizes the middle class, we should recall this country’s distressed