The mass immigration had started even before the Law of Return was discussed in the Knesset. The task of the Law of Return was to regulate a process that was already well underway. The leaders of the young state made the decision to encourage the aliyah of the remnants of the European communities destroyed in the Holocaust and of the communities of the Arab lands in North Africa and the Middle East. The British had stringently restricted aliyah during the last decade of the Mandate, at tremendous cost in lives to the Jews of Europe. It was now clear that immigration should be totally unlimited: as many Jews as possible should be brought to the new state.
So the mass immigration began, changing completely the demography of the young state. If the Jewish population of the Yishuv numbered around 650,000 on the eve of independence, the first three and a half years of statehood - the period of mass immigration - saw an additional 684,000 Jews entering the country.
It was almost impossible for the young state to absorb so many immigrants; widespread chaos and hardship resulted. The immigrant camps, where the immigrants spent their first weeks and months, were scenes of complete disorder. Here is a description of one such camp, as viewed by a reporter who smuggled himself in, pretending to be a new immigrant.
The tiny tent, originally intended for two or three people, was packed full of beds, leaving no room to move. "We came here on Friday, two days ago,” the woman told him. "There were four hundred of us and the camp was full. There was no room for any of us. We stood here in the open, in the pouring rain...until after nightfall, while they set up the tents for us. The tent leaks and the rain gets into the beds...”
The small children are put on their chamber pots, in the midst of everybody, and then to bed. The older children are partly undressed and also put to bed. Here and there old men and women are already trying to sleep. They groan and clear their throats, unable to fall asleep, and then moan some more, whether it is from old age or ill health. But the majority are still talking from bed to bed. A group of Moroccans have dug up a bottle of arak from somewhere and have started to drink. Many people smoke, and the smoke fills the hall, mingling with the general stench and the odor of sweaty bodies in a hall whose windows are all shut tight and whose roof is hot tin. The faces are fiery red.
It's eleven o'clock, but the lights can't be turned off, because the switch for all three adjoining halls is on the other side of the partition, in a hall where most of the inhabitants are North Africans, and they are still making lively noise. So when darkness finally falls depends on them. Already there are loud snores and whistles and groans from different corners of the hall, and they never cease, not even momentarily.
About five o'clock some start to get up, and of course whoever is up makes as much noise as if no-one was still asleep... Nobody washes. In some camps there are hot showers, but in others there is no installation for hot water at all, so that all through the winter it is impossible to bathe, even if they want to. There are entire camps with thousands of men, women and children, where there is not a single shower room, not even for cold water. And when there is a wretched little bathroom, it is occupied by inmates who have nowhere else to stay...
The regular washrooms, with a few taps for washing one's hands and face, are utterly filthy, and needless to say do not boast such luxuries as a shaving mirror... Wherever an attempt was made to install normal toilets, they became so filthy within a few hours that is was impossible to use them, and they have generally been closed down... In many camps, therefore, the toilets are nothing more than holes in the ground, lined with sheets of tin, without any sewage or running water. These holes soon fill up and stink up the atmosphere, but in the absence of any other facility, people keep using them, though they overflow. Most of the toilets are enclosed, but sometimes they are only enclosed back and sides, and open to the corridor, so that as you go in you pass by people of your sex sitting side by side - and sometimes even of both sexes... Even when they are quite enclosed, they cannot be locked. In at least one camp the toilets are not in the form of cubicles, but fairly large rooms with several holes in them and it is not unusual to see a whole family going there together...
Such conditions were extremely demoralizing for the immigrants. Attempts by the authorities to improve the situation met with very partial success. There was inadequate food and little hygiene in most of the camps. Medical facilities were inadequate. In such a situation many inevitably became ill: some died, especially infants and young children. There was a feeling among some of the officials responsible for the administration of the camps that the state was breaking down.
In this situation voices started to be heard calling for the limiting of immigration. Some called for a temporary slowing-down of the flood of immigrants in order to allow the state to organize and to plan its absorption process more rationally. But there were other voices, too, that called for a permanent slowing-down of immigration. Some said, for example, that Israel could no longer continue to accept all the immigrants who wanted to come. Selection must be used in order to limit the sick and the old who constituted a burden on the society and the economy. Israel must start accepting immigrants on the basis of what was good for the country.
Proposals were made that Israel must publicize that the country could not be responsible for welfare cases, and that such cases would not be accepted. A correspondence developed between the authorities responsible for immigration into Israel and their representatives abroad, questioning the decision to absorb certain immigrant groups. There were those, like Ben Gurion, who stood behind the demand that all immigrants be encouraged to come, but it was no longer an article of faith for all. Zionism's traditional responsibility for the good of the whole of the Jewish people was now clashing with the needs of the State of Israel.