The current refugee crisis in Europe has evoked memories among Jews in particular. More often than not, the comparison is made with Jews desperate to flee the Holocaust. Overlooked
is the fact that in Israel’s early years, refugees, mostly from Muslim countries, outnumbered
residents. Lyn Julius writes in the Huffington Post:
Israel itself was one large refugee camp in the 1950s and
1960s. The sight of row after row of tents filling our TV screens
recalls the ma’abarot, hastily erected “transit” camps of
fabric tents, wooden or tin huts. These were conceived by Levi Eshkol of
the Jewish Agency to provide temporary housing and jobs. The first ma’abara was established in May 1950 in Kesalon in Judea.
In 1964 1.3 million Israelis went to see the cinema box office hit Sallah Shabati
— a satire about a bearded Yemenite immigrant who has just arrived in
the promised land with his seven children and pregnant wife. Sallah —
played by Topol, who would later achieve global fame as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof — uses all his wiles to try and make money and move into better housing. His name is a pun on words: “Sorry I came”.
EU as a whole, with a population of over 300 million, is taking in as
many immigrants today as Israel, a country of half a million, absorbed
in the early 1950s. As well as 100,000 Holocaust survivors, the tiny
struggling country took in 580,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
By the 1960s, the refugees had tripled the country ‘s population.
Children playing in a ma’abara
Jews were destitute, escaping violence and persecution in Arab
countries with nothing but a small suitcase and the shirts on their
backs, having been stripped of their livelihoods and property. They had
often left behind flourishing businesses and comfortable homes. There
was no question of a “right of return” to countries where mobs went on
the rampage shouting “Itbach al-Yahud” (“Slaughter the Jews”), money was extorted from them and they could be arrested on the slightest suspicion of being a “Zionist spy”. The UN did nothing to ease the burden, and still today, the world remains oblivious to these refugees’ existence.
The size of Israel’s endeavor was staggering. A nation of 650,000 absorbed 685,000 newcomers, some arriving with trachoma and TB. During the first years of statehood, roughly two-thirds came from Muslim countries.
were deplorable. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter, exposed to the
wind and the rain. Everything from food to detergent was rationed.
Refugees had to line up to collect water from central faucets. The water
had to be boiled before it could be drunk. The public showers and
toilets were rudimentary.
Often the newcomers had no say where they were resettled. Large numbers, especially North African immigrants, ended up on the country’s peripheryin
dusty development towns in the Negev desert or on the Lebanese border.
Western immigrants secured housing in the cities of the coastal plain,
food and jobs through personal contacts which the immigrants from Muslim
lands lacked. Yiddish speakers were given preference over the
easterners when it came to employment. Such was the shortage of jobs
that some Moroccan refugees were made to cart grass from a neighboring
kibbutz to Ashdod beach.*
In spite of lingering resentments, the
absorption of one of the largest numbers of refugees in proportion to
the host population has been an astonishing success. Later, Ethiopian
refugees and a million Soviet Jews brought their own challenges. By
then, however, the country was a great deal more prosperous, and the
refugees were sent directly to absorption centers. They were encouraged
to attend total immersion courses in Hebrew and given money to help them
afford a permanent home.
captures the culture clash between the petty Ashkenazi (western)
bureaucrats and the eastern refugees. Political parties come to the ma’abara
to court people who have never lived in a democracy for their votes.
Sallah himself has to climb a steep learning curve. The refugees press
on and build new lives for themselves. Sallah’s children fall in love
with Ashkenazi kibbutzniks next door, prefiguring the 25 percent intermarriage rate in Israel today. It’s a story with a happy ending: no matter the tribulations, Sallah is not sorry he came.
*Simon Skira in documentary Les Destins Contraries