Successful Aliyah?

We have discussed the fact that different concepts of Israel can cause difficulty and tension when they collide. Ultimately, the best way to confront these difficulties is by sensitive use of the democratic process. We use the word ‘sensitive’ with good reason: democracy is the best system that humanity has evolved for dealing with deep differences in outlook within a society, but it can mean different things. For example, it can mean the majority’s legitimately want a particular thing but being prepared to achieve it by crushing minority opinion and minority rights within a democratic process. Sensitive use of democracy entails understanding that minority opinions must be respected, that minorities must have a chance of expressing their identity and their opinions within the framework of the general population.

Israel has been a democracy since the beginning of its existence. It was clear to the architects of the state that this was the only possible moral and political framework acceptable within the new Jewish state. However, the question arises whether the democratic process has always worked as well as it could, and should, have done.

Let us now examine a case where the process did not work as it should have done: our example is from the 1950s but it continues to have implications in Israel today. For reasons that we will examine later, the early years of the state witness mass immigration. Much of this aliyah came from Europe as the survivors of the Holocaust made their way to the new country. The majority, however, came from the Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa. With regard to figures from the previous exercise, Zvia (the would-be pioneer), Gertrud and Sarah all came from the world of the Holocaust. Baruch and Moshe came from the Arab countries and Sam came from a completely different reality, that of the free Western world.

These sub-groups all inhabited completely different cultural worlds. A great gulf lay between the way of life in Europe and that in the Arab lands. Sam’s world, although different, was far nearer the European way of life; for example, he would have had a lot in common with pre-Holocaust Gertrud. On the other hand, the sub-groups themselves were split. Zvia and Gertrud were secular in their understanding of Judaism and Jewish life, whereas Sarah was deeply religious. On that level she had more in common with Moshe and Baruch although she might have found that hard to recognize should she have met them. Their version of Judaism, although halachic like hers, had developed over thousands of years in the Arab lands and was swathed in customs and traditions that would have been very foreign to her.

Yet again, it would be a mistake to put Moshe and Baruch together, despite the fact that both came from eastern - Arab - lands: there was a world of difference between the wealthy and educated merchant of the great capital city of Baghdad and the tailor from the Atlas mountains with only a limited education. Nevertheless, the European society that had developed in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine) tended to do just that. Moshe and Baruch would soon find themselves jointly fighting cultural stigmas that would make their progress in society more difficult than perhaps it may have been in other circumstances. Sarah, the Haredi survivor, would also have been stigmatized, although in a different way. So would Gertrud, a Holocaust survivor who, in different circumstances, would have had the tools to integrate easily, but now would also have to fight stigmas that would place her at a cultural disadvantage. The only two of our six characters who would find it relatively easy to integrate into the new state, accepted and embraced for what they represented, as much as who they were, are Zvia and Sam.

Let us try and understand why this may have been the case. The important thing to understand is that our six figures, all of whom came to Israel in the first years of statehood, did not walk into a vacuum. They came to a society that was small and strongly united by a serious of cultural beliefs. Despite the fact that there were a fair number of religious individuals and groups living in Israel, the dominant groups in the state were strongly - and often militantly - secular. They believed that religion was a fossilized remnant of an old way of life; they tended to regard religious Jews as the last representatives of a tradition that had existed for thousands of years but which was now on its way out. Religious Jews were examples of an old kind of Jew who had been right for the past, and was becoming increasingly irrelevant in the present. The future did not belong to the old type of Jew but rather the new kind.

The concept of the new Jew, in his Zionist incarnation, was the result of an intense ideological discussion that continued within the Zionist movement throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps in order to give its proponents the enthusiasm and strength to carry out the Zionist revolution that they took as their goal, the dominant group in pre-State Zionism, the labor Zionists and those close to them, created an ideal figure for Zionism: the new Jew.

He/she was everything that his/her opposite - the old Jew - was not. The old Jew was pictured as a weak, passive, defenseless individual, superstitious in belief, accepting fate as the will of God, and alienated from nature. The new Jew, on the other hand, was a strong, brave and active individual. He/she was rooted in nature and accepted responsibility for his/her own decisions. Instead of complaining to God or seeing adverse circumstance as Divine will, new Jews determined to take action to change the reality confronting them. The ideal new Jew was the - the halutz, the pioneer - who spent his/her life serving the nation, working the land and defending it.

In many ways, of course, the figures of the new Jew (the ‘hero’) and the old Jew (the ‘villain’) were stereotypes, representing only a certain percentage of their respective societies. Nevertheless, the pioneering society of the Yishuv accepted the figure of the new Jew as the cultural ideal and saw those who approximated one kind or another of old Jew in very negative terms.

The majority of Jews in the pre-state Yishuv identified with this kind of ideology to some extent. However, only a minority of the Yishuv were real new Jews according to the extreme model. These included the kibbutzniks and some of the urban workers who identified strongly with the labor Zionist ideology. However, this became the leading ideology within the Yishuv.

Then along came 1948. Against all odds, Israel became a state, dominated by the labor Zionist ‘new Jew’ ideology that emphasized the active, brave, secular pioneering values identified increasingly with a new and almost mythical figure, the sabra, the native-born Israeli. The sabra at his/her best was seen as embodying all the values mentioned above without a trace of ‘galutiut.’ This was the Jew of the future, the one who would serve the state and save the Jewish people.

After the war, the gates of the state were opened to immigration and hundreds of thousands of Jews started to flood into the country. To the shock and deep concern of many of the population of the Yishuv, it became clear that the majority of newcomers were very far from the model of the new Jew that they had envisaged represented the future of the state. In fact, most of the newcomers looked distinctly like different kinds of old Jew associated with the past. These people would also be a part of the future of the state.

The result was predictable. Those among the newcomers who were seen to represent (Zvia) or to be capable of aligning themselves with the labor Zionist ideology (Joe) found themselves rapidly accepted. All the others were greeted with various degrees of coolness and sometimes open disdain. The degree of scorn depended, to a large extent, on the distance of the individuals and the groups that they represented, from the desired norm.

We can identify three large groups who were seen, for different reasons, to be distant from these norms:

1. Holocaust Survivors. Holocaust survivors were stigmatized because they were seen as exemplifying the passive aspect of the old Jew. Those who came out of the camps were seen as representing the Jews who went to their deaths like ‘sheep to the slaughter’. In a Yishuv that was ignorant of the real situation in which Jews had lived through the years of the Holocaust in Europe, an atmosphere was created in which many of the survivors carried a burden of shame. The new Jews of the Yishuv felt that they would have behaved differently. The only survivors who tended to escape the stigma completely were those who had been part of - or associated with - the ghetto undergrounds or forest partisans. Mainly members of Zionist youth movements who had been educated in Europe according to the ideal of the new Jew of Eretz Israel, these people were seen as the model that more of the Jews should have followed. This would be the fate of the Gertruds.

2. Religious jews, especially haredim. Quite a large group of Haredim entered Israel in its first years of independence. There were a number of remnants of Hassidic groups which arrived together with their Rebbe. In general a fair number of the survivors remained deeply religious despite their experiences. These were all seen as being classic representatives of the tradition of the old Jew. So those who were also survivors carried a double burden. This would be the fate of the Sarahs.

3. Eastern Jews [Jews From Arab Lands]. These, as mentioned, were the majority of the new arrivals in the early years of the state. Despite the great differences between different sub-groups, there was a tendency to lump them together and stigmatize them in terms of their extremes. The vast majority were religious Jews. Confirming the worst stereotypes of the new Jews towards the religious, many had had no contact with modern life, as it was understood in the West. Many were ignorant of even the most basic aspects of modern life and were semi-illiterate as well. They were considered to characterize all those traits that represented the most backward and benighted of old Jew. In addition, their sin was to come from Arab lands with which the young country was still at war, countries seen as sunk in oriental sloth and backwardness (which had enabled the Yishuv to defeat forces far superior in numbers during the War of Independence). This compounded the negative stereotypes of the Sephardi or Mizrachi Jew in the eyes of many in the new Yishuv. This would be the fate of the Moshes and the Baruchs.

In this way we see that of our six new immigrants in the immediate post-war years, only two would have a relatively smooth welcome and absorption. It is always traumatic to move from one land to another, especially when the culture and language are so different; but in this case, because of the ideological nature of the Yishuv, the tasks of most of the new olim (immigrants to Israel) was doubly difficult. In many cases, their traumatic encounter with the new society and its representatives would leave scars that would last for many years, even being passed on to the next generation.

We have mentioned Amos Oz, the noted Israeli writer tried in 1982 to put his finger on the pulse of the country. As part of his travels, he found himself in Beit Shemesh, a small development town with many social and economic problems. At that time, it was mainly populated by eastern immigrants - from the early years of the state - and their families.

Sitting at a cafe, surrounded by members of those families, Oz heard the following monologue:

“Really, think about this. When I was a little kid, my kindergarten teacher was white and her assistant was black… In school, my teacher was Iraqi and the principal was Polish. On the construction site where I worked, my supervisor was some redhead from Solel Boneh [the government construction company]. At the clinic the nurse is Egyptian and the doctor Ashkenazi. In the army, we Moroccans are the corporals and the officers are from the kibbutz. All my life I’ve been on the bottom and you’ve been on top.

“I’ll tell you what shame is: they gave us houses, they gave us the dirty work; they gave us education, and they took away our self-respect. What did they bring my parents to Israel for? I’ll tell you what for, but you won’t write this. You’ll think it’s just provocation. But wasn’t it to do your dirty work? You didn’t have Arabs then, so you needed our parents to do your cleaning and be your servants and your laborers. And policemen, too. You brought our parents to be your Arabs.”

Amos Oz

Thirty years after the events in question, the scars were still raw; in many cases, they are still so today. Let us now examine the significance of these difficult subjects together with the students.



Activity

Building A Nation - Birthpangs

The aim of this activity is to introduce the students to the difficulties of nation-building and to start dealing with the complexities of the real Israel.


 

 

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04 Dec 2006 / 13 Kislev 5767 0