Traditionalist Yemenites encouraged to rebel

Yemenite immigrants rebelled against the Israeli state amid efforts to force a secular lifestyle on them, a new study has revealed. They were, however, empowered to speak out by sympathetic officials. Noa Shpigel reports in Haaretz: (with thanks: Lily)

Kiryat Shemona in 1964

New arrivals at a transit camp in northern Israel in 1949 demanded a synagogue and threatened a hunger strike over the absence of religious education.

One of the things Sara Damri remembers to this day is the anger of Yemenite immigrants who were sent to a place in northern Israel that was devoid of synagogues, and being forced to wage a battle to keep their traditional Jewish sidecurls.

Damri, who says she’s “about 75,” was 6 or 7 when in 1949 she arrived at the Kiryat Yosef transit camp (ma’abara in Hebrew), which today is the small northern town of Kiryat Shmona. She remembers that Yemenite boys had their sidecurls (“peyot” in Hebrew) forcibly cut off, and that some of the boys cried.

Damri is among the few Yemenite immigrants from the period who remained in Kiryat Shmona. A large number moved to the center of the country – to the Sharon region – where they established a moshav (cooperative agricultural community). Others dispersed elsewhere across the country.

When it comes to the story of Yemenite immigrants to Israel, the dominant narrative is that they arrived in transit camps in a helpless state and were met by long-time residents who were insensitive to their plight and failed to understand or respect the traditions of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries.

But a new study of the period, carried out by Dr. Amir Goldstein of the Tel-Hai Academic College near Kiryat Shmona, focuses on the immigrants at Kiryat Yosef and their rebellion at efforts to assimilate them into Israeli society as quickly as possible, along with their insistence on maintaining their traditions.

Goldstein’s research is to be presented shortly at a Galilee studies conference at Tel-Hai.

In July 1949, 14 Yemenite immigrant families came to what were the ruins of the Arab village of Al-Khalisa and were settled in abandoned Arab homes. Their arrival in the area followed long and difficult months of travel from Yemen and periods in immigrant camps. A month later, an additional group arrived from Yemen. Since no housing was available for them, tents were erected and a transit camp created.

“We arrived at night in trucks. It was tough. It was raining and our tents ripped,” said Damri, recalling that her father complained that the tents were full of thorns. A year later, the site was renamed Kiryat Shmona.

It became home to thousands of new immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Romania, India and elsewhere. The town was surrounded by kibbutzim and other established communities, whose residents had been expected to extend their assistance to help the newcomers settle in. But problems soon surfaced.

The authorities appointed Eliezer Karol of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi as manager of the transit camp. From his own diary entries, it appears he did in fact try to help the immigrants find work, grow crops and tend to livestock on the small plots of land they were given.

But in keeping with Karol’s own values, he brought in youth counselors from nearby kibbutzim and apparently made no particular effort to set up a synagogue – and certainly not to establish a religious public school.

In the summer of 1950, a committee of Yemenite immigrants dispatched a letter to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion demanding Karol’s replacement. It was addressed to Ben-Gurion himself (“Honorable Sir, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion”), and to his assistants and cabinet, expressing gratitude that through their help and that of the Almighty, they were able to immigrate to Israel. But then, paraphrasing religious sources, they described what they alleged was Karol’s apathy to their needs.

The letter detailed food shortages and attempts to force a secular education upon their children. They demanded a religious kindergarten teacher and a Yemenite elementary school teacher.

Goldstein says there are two dominant accepted narratives about how Israel absorbed the Yemenite immigrants (part of a wave of new immigrants arriving in Israel in the state’s early years). One was that they were received in the only way possible for the new country at that time. The other was that they were wronged and their traditions disrespected. But both are told without regard to what the immigrants themselves were saying at the time.

Goldstein doesn’t ignore attempts to erase the immigrants’ Yemenite-Jewish heritage. But he also attaches importance to their own protests and the attention it attracted.

In his ongoing research, Goldstein has followed their exchange of correspondence with authorities over a four-year period, reflecting the activism of the Yemenite newcomers in Kiryat Shmona, who refused to be assimilated into the Israeli melting pot.

Despite the good intentions described by Karol in his diary, the Yemenite residents of Kiryat Shmona were unforgiving. In a letter to Shimon Aviezer, one of the heads of the Yemenite department in Mapai (the ruling party at the time and predecessor to the Labor Party), the immigrants delivered an ultimatum: If their needs were not met before the upcoming Jewish holidays, they would come to Aviezer’s office with their families and stage a hunger strike. “But if you arrange things for us without [forcing us] to take such steps, we will be forever grateful to you for the rest of our lives,” they wrote.

According to Goldstein, the pressure worked. The matter was taken up by Mapai officials in Jerusalem and, nine days later, Karol stepped down from his job.

Despite that, relations failed to improve. In January 1951, the immigrants again wrote to Ben-Gurion, complaining about attempts to send their children to secular schools. But it’s not clear if they received a response.

The immigrants didn’t remain idle in their transit camps, either. They worked their small plots of land; some also worked in construction as well. They were part of the effort to develop Kiryat Shmona, but they continued to fight for what they believed in. Goldstein said this was a sign of their sense of belonging in Israel, and in their belief in their ability to influence things. But they were ultimately worn down.

Goldstein cited a 1952 letter (now in the Ben-Gurion archives at Sde Boker) that the immigrants sent to then-Knesset Speaker Yosef Sprinzak, which was in sharp contrast to the early letters written in beautiful Hebrew and in a respectful tone. The letter to Sprinzak reflected a sense that they were victims of neglect and had been marginalized, as well as an indication that they felt isolated from the country’s other citizens.

“Our bad luck caused us to be thrown into this lousy place without any arrangements, and were separated from all the other citizens of Israel,” they complained.

They were particularly irate that a newly built synagogue was 2 kilometers (about 1.25 miles) from their neighborhood. But they also wrote about food shortages and a lack of jobs. Furthermore, they alleged that immigrants from Romania were receiving preferential treatment.

But their harshest criticism was reserved for the treatment they received from a woman working at the nearby social welfare office (in Kfar Giladi), whom they accused of showing contempt for them and assisting only those she felt like helping, rather than those who needed it. They also claimed she was critical of immigrants with large families, saying that they should stop procreating.

Perhaps the Yemenite immigrants did have a sense of belonging to Israeli society, Goldstein acknowledged, but not in Kiryat Shmona. In 1953, a group of about 80 families – most of the town’s Yemenite immigrants – left to establish Moshav Sha’ar Efraim in the Sharon region. The move was at their own initiative, in cooperation with the Histadrut labor federation’s agriculture center; others scattered to other moshavim. Kiryat Shmona is now home to just a few of the Yemenite families who arrived in the early years.

The labor federation’s Davar newspaper published an editorial during that period in which it sought to make clear that the Histadrut’s agricultural department deserved credit for providing the plots of land, saying it had prepared the immigrants for life in their new moshav.

The fact the Yemenite immigrants were able to form a group and fight to maintain their traditions, and for the immigrant services they felt they deserved, is inspiring, Goldstein believes.

But he said it was only fair to also “emphasize the role played by the society receiving the immigrants in this story. Even if mistakes were made, and even if sensitivity was not always shown to the immigrants’ culture, it appears that the work of Eliezer Karol and other volunteers in the Kiryat Shmona transit camp [and from the Mapai party and the Histadrut labor federation] also contributed to Kiryat Shmona Yemenites’ sense that they could speak out. They had someone to turn to and to present demands to.

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