It Wasn't the DDT; It Was the Humiliation

Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg

The television series "East Wind" that tackled the history of the immigration from Morocco, raised a lot of reactions in the media. The prevalent one was to reject the accusations of discrimination and oppression brought up in the series as typical "weepiness." The other point made was that all immigrants to Israel during those years - Ashkenazi no less than Mizrahi - suffered problematic and humiliating absorption.

Against this background, the reaction of Dr. Yaron Tsur of the Jewish history department at Tel Aviv University, who specializes in the history of the immigration from Morocco, is exceptional. Tsur, whose book "A Torn Community" was published last year by Am Oved, is certainly one of the most relevant authorities in the discussion of the series "East Wind," and he really liked it.

"I was fascinated and moved," he says. "Of course I had all kinds of reservations about one detail or another, but as far as I am concerned these are marginal. I was excited because I heard the voice that I know so well from my research for the first time in the media. This is the voice that expresses the uniqueness of the Mizrahi ethnic problem. David Benchetrit (the filmmaker) worked with great talent when he gave some of the outstanding representatives of the second generation an opportunity to speak at great length.

It is clear he had a statement he wanted to make through them, but what was important as far as I'm concerned was that the interviews embodied different and varied personal biographies through which they came to the same conclusion - from the experience of Sami Shalom Chetrit, who tried to become part of the general Israeli public and ended up making an effort in the opposite direction, to people who have been especially successful in their integration, such as Professor Shlomo Ben-Ami. I was especially impressed by the authenticity of the pain he carries with him to this day, despite all his successes."

Tsur himself does not come from a Moroccan family. He is the son of a German-born father and Yemenite mother, born in the year the state was established (so, he is 54) and he is very familiar with the complexity of the ethnic question in Israel. But he himself did not personally share the experience of the immigrants from Morocco. He says he came to specialize in the history of Jews from the Muslim countries when, at the outset of his academic career, he was asked to write an introductory course in modern Jewish history for the Open University ("Jews in an Era of Changes").

"I discovered that for the pre-modern era I did somehow manage to find varied expressions of all the diasporas in the research. But about the Jews of the east during the past 200 years there were hardly any studies, and then I decided that I would devote my career to this field - the study of Jews in Muslim countries." He wrote his doctorate about Tunisian Jewry, and in recent years he has specialized in the study of Moroccan Jewry.

It's not the spray

First of all, he rejects the main argument by the opponents of the series and its accusations which held that "everyone suffered" during the years of mass immigration - everyone was sprayed with DDT, everyone lived in transit camps.

"It's true that everyone suffered," says Tsur, "but for the Mizrahis, and in particular the Moroccans, in addition to the objective difficulties in their absorption, they were labeled as inferior, simply on the basis of their origins and the country they came from. The unique experience of the Mizrahis and the Moroccans was not the DDT but the humiliation. They and their parents were not given due respect - they were treated as somehow inferior in the local hierarchy."

He explains this labeling not as an arrogance unique to Zionism, but in the context of the general approach that prevailed in the world at the time. "The era of nationalism from which Zionism sprang was also the era of colonialism in the world, and in that era there was a clear hierarchical division between Europeans and non-Europeans, and Israeli society could not avoid this division. These are basic mores of the period."

But even within the general labeling of the immigrants from the Muslim countries, the immigration of the Jews from Morocco had unique characteristics, which explains why their descendents are especially angry at the way they were absorbed, even relative to other Mizrahi immigrants.

"First of all, the quantity - Moroccans are the largest immigration group from Arab countries, about a quarter of a million people, more than double the size of the Iraqi immigration which was the second largest immigration from the Arab countries. The leadership of the young state of Israel during those years on one hand had a desire to bring over the immigrants from the Arab countries, both because of the Zionist ethos and because of the demographic fear of the Arabs. On the other hand, it was also afraid of changing the internal demographic balance between the `European' Ashkenazi majority and the Mizrahi minority that is not admired and this fear was especially obvious with regard to the large immigration from Morocco.

"At the time the leadership had two basic approaches to the `problem.'

There was the integrative approach, that upheld the official egalitarian Zionist ethos, which believes in the equality of all Jews. This is the approach held by David Ben-Gurion, with all the images and stereotypes he also had about the immigrants from the East - as well as about the Holocaust refugees from eastern Europe. But ultimately, as a national leader, he was motivated primarily by basic demographic fears vis-a-vis the Arabs. This approach was also upheld by Yitzhak Rafael, the religious Zionist who headed the immigration department at the Jewish Agency.

"As opposed to them, the head of the absorption department at the Jewish Agency, Giora Josephthal, and other figures like Nachum Goldman (head of the World Zionist Federation, who lived in the United States), favored a more selective approach, especially from fears for Israel's cultural character, although also from a feeling of identification with the distress of the immigrants, some of whom were dumped into the moshavim and suffered from hunger.

Then they proposed that perhaps, in those countries where the Jews were not in immediate danger, they might wait a bit. This approach was supported by Dr. Haim Sheba, the director of Tel Hashomer Hospital, to whom Ben-Gurion always lent an ear, and he supported a selective approach both for health reasons - fear that diseases would break out - and from those same general cultural reasons.

"The tension between these two approaches led to pendulum swings with respect to the Moroccan immigration, with the question of which element tipped the balance was mainly connected to the general characteristics the immigration at every stage. When there were `enough' immigrants, from other countries, the selective approach reigned supreme, and when the overall number of immigrants declined again the integrative approach was evident. Therefore, during the main years of immigration, from 1949 to the end of 1951, the selective approach was dominant, and selection was applied in effect in determining entitlement

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