The Pioneers of Sderot

This week people saw terrified residents pushing their way onto a bus going out of town, but everyone forgets the story of the brave North African immigrants who carved that town out of a barren hilltop here.

Meron Rapoport
Meron Rapoport

This Monday, Sderot looked like the lavish set of a movie. Its attractive houses were spread out against green hills ("the Western Negev" is a misleading term because this Negev is green and not yellow), but the roads were almost empty. It seemed as if there were emergency-rescue teams on every corner and plenty of TV crews, all waiting for instructions from some invisible director, who would shout "color red" - the signal for an approaching Qassam rocket - instead of "action."

We meet some of these TV crews on a steep hill west of the town, their cameras aimed at the scenery. Areleh Cohen, a "local" patriot and historian, points out some of the salient spots: Here, a stone's throw away, is Beit Lahia, and that is Beit Hanun; there is Jabalya and over there is Sajaiya - the Gazan neighborhood where an Israeli missile hit a house a day earlier, killing eight people, most of them from the Al-Haya family. A few hours after we climbed the hill, a Qassam rocket was fired from one of these quarters and landed in the center of Sderot, killing Shir-el Friedman. The TV cameras no doubt captured the missile's trajectory over the green fields between Sderot and Gaza.

Cohen is preparing for an important moment in his life: In June, as part of the Sapir Academic College's Festival Darom, the movie "Hehalutzim" ("The Pioneers") will be screened at the Sderot Cinematheque - a project Cohen worked on with director Sigalit Banai for several years. The film tells the story of Sderot and the "pioneers" who first settled the town: These people were indeed abandoned to their fate by the Zionist establishment in the middle of the night, without water or food, on a barren hill overlooking Gaza, as one learns from the protagonists' testimonies, delivered directly and devoid of self-pity. But over the years, with their own hands, they built up this little town on the border, and for that reason they are entitled to be called "pioneers," the highest title granted by Zionism.

Bitter memories

But one should not get the wrong idea. These pioneers have bitter memories. They suffered not only difficulties, but also cruelty for the sake of cruelty. In one of the most touching scenes in the film, Zvi Cohen, a city resident, relates how parents used to send the children with buckets to bring water from neighboring Kibbutz Gevim, because there was no water in the transit camp. If the kibbutzniks caught them, he says with a kind of apologetic smile for revealing awful things like this, they would dump out the water, lock them up in a hut on the kibbutz, beat them and set them free only in the evening.

But this is not the story that Cohen and Banai are trying to convey in the film. For them, "The Pioneers" is the story of the bravery of those who were victimized by circumstances, who refused to consider themselves as such and managed, despite all odds, to raise children without hatred and to retain part of their culture.

"I conducted dozens of hours of interviews, but I never heard the old people saying: 'They took that away from me, they did this or that to me,'" says Banai, who adds that as a person of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) origin herself, she at first wanted to concentrate on the discrimination against the residents. However, she learned from Cohen and the other interviewees that they do not want to view themselves as victims. The memory of the injustice has not disappeared, Cohen says, but he hopes that with the aid of the film, Sderot's residents will slowly realize that they were heroes.

But now, Cohen says, the Qassams are falling, Gaydamak has arrived, and what people see on TV is the man in a tracksuit shouting and shoving as he battles for a place on the bus out of town. The man in the tracksuit, says Cohen, has every reason to be stressed: For seven years, no one has built fortified rooms for him, and now, in the past two weeks, Qassams have fallen on every street in town. But the picture that remains in the mind of the TV viewer is one of wretchedness. "It is hard for me to reconcile myself with these pictures," Albert Gabbai, the editor of the local paper Din veheshbon, tells me later. "Gaydamak provided a total of eight buses, but those are the pictures that the media captured."

Areleh Cohen, 50, was born in Morocco and came to Sderot at the age of 6. He is a well-known activist in the town and was director of the education department; he is friends with the people behind the musical revolution in Sderot, and was part of the group that got Amir Peretz elected as local council head. But he also views Sderot with the eye of a historian. He has just finished his doctoral thesis, about the history of the development towns, with a focus on Sderot, Netivot and Ofakim, and he hopes to publish the thesis in book form. "There are three books about the history of Kibbutz Ruhama," he says, "and there is not one book about the history of the development towns."

A Moroccan story

The development towns, Cohen says, are a Moroccan story. In the 1961 census, 99 percent of the residents of Netivot were immigrants from North Africa. The few Ashkenazim were teachers and principals. In Sderot, the percentage of North African immigrants - mostly Moroccans, because the number of Tunisians was small and the Algerians had French passports and immigrated to France - was 87 percent at that time. Another 11 percent of the town's residents were immigrants from Kurdistan. This was no coincidence.

In the first few years of the state, David Ben-Gurion did not want to bring the Moroccan Jews here, Cohen says. But in 1954, he understood that there was no choice: Israel had more emigrants than immigrants, the policy of population dispersal had failed, many new moshavim were being deserted and the Palestinian refugees were threatening to return. Therefore, Israel started to bring over the 250,000 Jews of Morocco. "Even though we had it good with the Arabs," Rafael Deri explains in the film, "we said we would come to the Land of Israel."

The Jews from Morocco were sent straight to the peripheral areas of the country. Within two years, 75,000 North African Jews had been sent to moshavim and then to transit camps along the borders, forging the core of the so-called development towns. Sderot was set up opposite Gaza and the camps that housed Palestinian refugees, who had fled only a few years earlier from that very same area. The campaign was known as "from the ship to the village," and those who directed it knew in advance, even when the prospective immigrants were still in Morocco, where every new immigrant would be sent - to Sderot or to Kiryat Shmona. The immigrants didn't know this.

The director of the Gevim-Dorot transit camp, from which Sderot developed, relates in the movie that he was given explicit instructions to get the people off the trucks at all costs, and the moment they were off, to send the trucks away. "There was fog, so I told the people they were near the sea, at the port, and that they would soon be sent to the Land of Israel," he relates. Rachel Uliel, the mother of the musician Haim Uliel and one of the main figures in the film, says she requested to go to Jerusalem because she had relatives there. "They told me it was close and that if I had a bicycle, I could ride to Jerusalem."

Special status

The memories of those times have not been erased. "The world at that time behaved inappropriately, not us," says Uliel, laughing. But 50 years later, Sderot has a special status in the Israeli narrative. The Sfatayim (Lips) rock band to which Haim Uliel, Rachel's son, belongs, was one of the first that dared to sing in Arabic, revolutionizing Israeli music. In its wake came Kobi Oz, Knesiyat Hasechel and other stars - all residents of Sderot. Sderot produced the leader of the country's second biggest party, the Sapir Academic College has become the largest college in Israel, and the model Miri Bohadana grew up in Sderot, as Gabbai reminds me. Even the quintessential Israeli resident called Mas'uda comes from Sderot. And then came the Qassams.

Cohen does not have an explanation for the riddle of Sderot. Rather, he seems to have two: the kibbutzim and Gaza. Sderot was set up between the kibbutzim and was intended to provide a reservoir of workers. The town has very few residents who have not worked on one of the kibbutzim or factories in the area at one stage or another. This connection was the source of the love-hate relationship. There were the kibbutzniks from Gevim, who threw out the water of the thirsty children from the transit camps, but there were other kibbutzniks who went to help them.

"People from Ruhama stole bread from the kibbutz dining room to take to the transit camp. People here have not forgotten that," says Cohen.

The people of Sderot, he adds, recognized the hypocrisy of the kibbutzniks who spoke about socialism while exploiting them and treating them with disdain. But they realized that the kibbutz was considered a pioneering enterprise of Israeli society, and adopted at least some of its ideals. Many of them studied at kibbutz institutions, and the branch of the left-wing youth movement Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed in little Sderot is one of the largest in the country. Amir Peretz was educated in the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, which also had quite a large branch. Cohen adds that there were a large number of secular Jews in Sderot, who had come from large towns in Morocco. The Uliel family's coffee shop, for example, was open on Friday nights and served alcohol as early as the 1960s. Nowadays, this would be inconceivable.

But there was also Gaza. After the Six-Day War, Gaza became the closest urban center for Sderot residents. They went there to shop and see the dentist. And there, to a certain extent, the residents rediscovered the Arabic culture on which they had been raised in Morocco and Kurdistan - that same culture that official Israel had tried to wipe out. "The message from Israeli society was 'you are Arabs,' and therefore in order to escape this image, we had to hate Arabs and think there was no Arab culture," Cohen says. "But in the eyes of the others, we seemed like Gazans." The people of Sderot bought albums by Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab in the shops of Gaza, music that couldn't be found in Israel. In the Uliel family's coffee chop, singers and belly dancers from Gaza appeared alongside Jewish singers from Be'er Sheva who sang in the Moroccan dialect, and Arabs from Jaffa. All the music of Sderot, Cohen relates, grew out of this coffee shop.

Danger of retreat

Banai says she was captivated by the story of Sderot, as told by Cohen. In the beginning, she opposed his attempt to affix such a Zionist term as "pioneers" to the town's veterans, but after a while, she was convinced. "The women here were revolutionary," she says. "Rachel Uliel ran her business without even knowing how to read or write; everything was in her head. Areleh's mother sent all her children to study. They were pioneers, but they did not get recognition."

Now, however, in the wake of the Qassam rocket threat, Sderot is in danger of regressing. In any case, things were never that advanced - about 60-70 percent of the residents earn only minimum wage, Cohen points out, and the feeling of being cut off from the center has never left the place. "If there were leadership here, it would have taken the really miserable people away, and put up the 2,500 people who receive welfare in hotels," says Cohen. But that did not happen. And then Gaydamak came along and turned Sderot into a symbol of how the central government's authority is being transferred into the hands of rich men, just like in the Jewish towns in the Diaspora.

On Monday night, after Shir-el Friedman was killed by a direct hit from a Qassam, some Sderot residents blocked the way of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. There were also shouts of "death to the Arabs." Even without an official study, it is clear that Sderot residents feel they cannot return to life as usual in the wake of the Qassams, and that their neighbors in Gaza must be punished. Cohen is apparently in the minority; he recalls that the only quiet over the past six months came when an agreement was reached with Hamas - and that is where he would like to see things going now. The people of Sderot are living in a state of existential fear, he admits. But for one, he, Cohen, has not forgotten that there are also human beings on the other side, starving in Gaza.



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