Selection and Heartbreak: The Aliya of North African Jewry

While his book is based on careful academic research, it's not hard to discern how pained Avi Picard was when he learned about the restrictions imposed on North African immigrants in the early years of the state.

Daniel Ben-Simon
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Daniel Ben-Simon

“Olim Bemesorah” ‏(“Cut to Measure: Israel’s Policies Regarding the Aliyah of North African Jews, 1951-1956”‏), by Avi Picard, Ben-Gurion University Press, Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism ‏(in Hebrew‏), 397pages, NIS 87

This is a problem that refuses to be resolved. Even though more than six decades have passed, there is a lingering feeling that they were unwanted; that many of those who aspired to immigrate to Israel were met by a wall of rejection. The young state asserted that, due to its difficult situation, it was feasible to bring in only those Jews of sound physical and mental state, and that financial hardship prevented the country from taking in most of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were knocking at its doors. And even those Jews who did succeed in immigrating were snubbed and insulted.

The strong young children were taken to Israel; their parents were left behind. Now a new psychological trauma was added to the physical restrictions that initially prevented the parents from joining their offspring, for several months or even years ‏(although this was not a very common phenomenon‏). The families did not always have the time for a proper farewell. Youngsters imbued with a sense of messianist mission were compelled to separate from their parents, sometimes with only a few minutes’ notice. Heartrending scenes of families being torn apart were a not-uncommon feature at the start of the Zionist process of bringing Jews to Israel from the countries of northern Africa.

Not all of the scars healed. Some of the children who grew up in Israel refuse to repress that memory of the hasty separation from their parents. Others still bear the pain of seeing their parents and other relatives being spurned. Even some members of the third generation born in Israel feel the primal traumatic experience that to a great extent shaped their communal identity.

Avi Picard, author of this study of the wave of immigration from North Africa, is himself the child of immigrants. His personal experience led him to write a seminar paper as an undergraduate about the subject, which he then expanded upon in his master’s and doctoral theses, and has now put out a full-length book. The photograph on the dust jacket, designed by Shai Zauderer, tells the story. In it we see a shabby suitcase that has gone through the migration ordeal, lying in the middle of a barren desert.

While many scholars have tended to focus on the absorption trauma of the immigrants once they were here, Picard concentrates on the initial stage of immigration from North Africa. A host of medical and social restrictions were imposed on this wave of immigration. Candidates had to submit to medical examinations. Failure to appear for said examinations, or exhibiting negative behavior during them, constituted sufficient grounds for disqualifying the would-be immigrant.

Picard writes how, for example, “One doctor wrote that he discounts at first glance those immigrants who seemed to be ‘too fat or too thin, possessing distortions of bone structure, mental deficiencies, whiteness in the cornea, festering conjunctivitis, or contagious skin infections.’”

The selective immigration policy was enacted in November 1951. It was then that Jewish Agency administrators issued a document with stipulations that affected the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews who dreamed of realizing the return to Zion:

1. Eighty percent of immigrants from these lands had to be selected from among candidates for Youth Aliyah, pioneering movements, those who belonged to groups planning to found agricultural settlements, professionals up to 35 years of age or families in which the breadwinner was up to age 35.

2. The aforementioned candidates would have to commit in writing to a period of two years in which they would be engaged in agricultural work.

3. Authorization would be granted to the aforementioned candidates only after a full medical examination supervised by a physician from Israel.

4. No more than 20 percent of the immigrants from the countries in question could be over the age of 35.

5. Recommendations of [potential] immigrants by their relatives in Israel would be accepted only on the basis of a declaration of the relative’s willingness and ability to absorb the newcomers.

The decision to be selective regarding which would-be immigrants could come to Israel became official government policy, to which the aspiration to return to the homeland was now subject. “This policy was at variance with the raison d’etre of the State of Israel,” writes Picard, “and its being a sanctuary for the Jewish people, and open to immigration.”

Numerous aliyah and Mossad emissaries shuddered at the sight of the deplorable state of the Jews they encountered in the Atlas Mountains. In the course of my own visit there in recent years while I was a Haaretz correspondent, I stopped at a few exotically named villages where Jews had lived for centuries: Ait ben Haddou, Tinghir, Ouarzazate, Chichaoua, Taroudant. There I was told by local Muslims about a certain dark night in 1952 during which hundreds of Jews from the villages vanished. They lived in huts and in pits and maintained the Jewish traditions, while coexisting with their Arab neighbors.

“We woke up in the morning and Ben-Sheetrit had vanished and also Ben-Hamo had vanished and also their rabbi had vanished. All of them disappeared,” a resident of Tinghir, Morocco, told me. He took possession of the hut belonging to one of the vanished Jews. He also told me about others who were left behind; those who did not receive a permit to immigrate to Israel, including some who suffered from trachoma, ringworm or other diseases common in the Atlas villages.

The emissaries filed reports back home, sometimes strongly worded, about what they were seeing. When making the choice between saving Jews and building up the young country, on more than one occasion the salvation effort was relegated to second place.

Picard shows no sympathy for the considerations of the fledgling state. He argues that restrictions on immigration were directed toward North African Jews more than toward those from other regions. He quotes Giora Yoseftal, who headed the Jewish Agency’s absorption efforts and was a key proponent of the policy of undertaking a “selection” among the aspiring immigrants. He contended that until 1951, the absorption department believed that Israel could contain only a certain number of immigrants. “When did the breakdown occur? The breakdown came with the last arrivals of the Moroccan and Tripolitanian [Libyan] immigration wave in ... 1951. They were a lumpenproletariat ‏(a term coined by Karl Marx to describe a ragged proletariat that was of no use to the revolutionary struggle‏), people without a future,” Yoseftal argued at a discussion among the Agency management.

Apparently, the process of limiting immigration was in force beforehand, but became more acute in the case of Jews from North Africa. Indeed, Picard asserts that the colonialist legacy that the state’s founding fathers brought with them trumped the push toward integration that was so important to the national ethos. This was especially the case when it came to the North African immigrants − especially, the author notes, those from Morocco. Of all the groups immigrating, the Moroccans seem to have terrified Israel’s founders more than any other; they simply did not know how to contain them. It was said about the Yemenites that they were obedient and sweet-natured, and about the Iraqis that they were diligent and serious-minded − which was also the perception of Iranians and other groups. But with the Moroccans, every possible disgusting term was applied. It was as if 10 measures of abhorrence and fear descended on the world, and nine were taken by the Moroccans.

‘The Moroccan psyche’

Picard offers abundant evidence of the fear that the Moroccans induced in the society that was taking them in. For example, the statement by Alexander Bin-Nun, an educator who attempted to verbalize the primary characteristics of what he termed “the psyche of the Moroccan child.” He suggested three: primitive, brutal, exaggerated self-respect.

While it is true that the harsh economic situation in Israel factored into the decision to apply a selection process, Picard explains, no less serious is the question that occupied the heads of state: What would happen to the image of Israeli society as the percentage of Moroccan-born citizens grew?

The state’s image took up a lot of officials’ attention during these early years. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the immigrants from Muslim lands cast a giant shadow over the aspiration to found a Western-style society here that would be based on the values brought with them by the pioneers of the early decades of Zionism. They expressed themselves loudly and in garbled speech, used their hands a lot while talking, tended to get angry easily, relied on the family values on which they’d been raised, and more than anything else, they communicated in
Arabic, the language of Israel’s enemies. What could be done with them? How could Israel avoid sinking in a sea of Levantinism?

The melting pot was intended to free the immigrants from the baggage of exile. Academic researchers eased Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s anxieties, saying that within a short while, the second and the third generations of these immigrants would be legitimate “sons and daughters of the land,” and would tread the cultural and ethical path paved by the European-born founders. “Once the desert generation is gone,” writes Picard, reflecting the prevailing belief of officialdom at the time, “Israeli society will be uncontaminated by Levantine culture.”

In the meantime, the “selection” procedure was put into place. There were 250,000 Jews in Morocco alone, and their initial arrival in Israel generated an anxiety that the flood might alter the face of Israeli society. Limiting the immigration of North African Jews seemed to be a good solution. “There was concern that the country would deter immigrants from the West due to its being too Mizrachi,” he adds.

Picard devotes much of his research to the reasons and motivations for selection. His findings tell a different story than the establishment version. In particular, he focuses on the medical examinations given to the immigration candidates. He tells the story of Dr. Eliezer Mattan, the Health Ministry official responsible for immigrant transit camps, who was dispatched to Casablanca in order to enforce a tougher selection policy.

Mattan was apparently a suspicious person by nature. He did not believe the candidates’ age declarations, and he extended the physiological exam to include a psycho-social assessment. At his initiative, the lexicon of diseases that could disqualify potential immigrants was expanded to include “mentally handicapped,” a term by means of which young people judged to be hot-tempered were invalidated. In Mattan’s opinion, they would introduce a psychologically unstable element, and he thus invalidated them from immigration to Israel. At a professional meeting with the mental hygiene committee ‏(yes, such a committee did exist‏), he referred to the high percentage of “defective individuals” among the Jews of Morocco. Committee members explained to Mattan that these were young people who were experiencing social instability due to having been rudely separated from their parents.

I must admit that even with the passage of so many years, I find these texts oppressive; they make me very uneasy. The studies prove that the fledgling state permitted itself − in the name of the supreme effort to create a state − to do anything it wanted to. It dismissed human beings as if they were nothing more than dust from a far-off desert; it expunged identities, humiliated immigrants, separated parents from children. It may be that in those days of nation-building, that compassion and sensitivity took a temporary recess, but it is still hard not to be filled with sadness in the face of the human cost paid by hundreds of thousands of people who wished to be united with their own people.

More than once, I shed tears as I read horrifying descriptions of 6-year-olds or 8-year-olds or 10-year-olds who were separated from their parents on the way to the ship that was about to set sail for the Land of Israel. Immigrants spoke of heartbreaking scenes at sea, of children who were desperately homesick for a mother, father, brother or sister. Many of them, participants in the Youth Aliyah program, had no idea that it would be years before they would see their parents again, if at all, in their new country.

The environmental conditions faced by the initial builders of this country were extremely harsh, but their struggle was considered a pioneering achievement, and the entire act was swathed in a glow of patriotism. Anyone who took part in creating a kibbutz felt that he was a partner in state-building. And justifiably so. Conversely, anyone who established a development town felt he was a feeble link in a chain of failures. Such people were forever being compared with the kibbutzniks.

On the one hand, the sacrifice made by the kibbutzniks and natives of the land was praised to the skies, but on the other hand, there was a resentment of the parasitic nature of the development-town dwellers, who never ceased complaining. Is it any wonder that 60 years on, we are still mired in the muck of that first stage of immigration and absorption?

Picard’s research focuses on a specific period of the wave of immigration from North Africa, from 1951 to 1956. His academic prose and the scholarly nature of his narrative make for dry reading. He keeps his distance from sentimentality, and relies solely on the facts, written accounts and official descriptions that were at his disposal. A good journalist would have taken this material and gone wild with it, as did Tom Segev in “1949: The First Israelis,” about the first generation of leaders in the state.

Yet, in spite of the academic posture he adopts, it is hard not to discern that Picard is incensed by the harsh reality he is depicting. He has a very hard time accepting the idea of selection and is pained by the policies in general that were adopted toward immigrants from North Africa, a group that includes his own parents. It is only natural that he dedicates the book to one immigrant in particular − his father, Baruch Picard: “A Zionist, an immigrant and a pioneer, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War, only four years after he was privileged to realize his dream and immigrate to Israel.

Immigration posters. Sixty years on, we are still mired in the muck of that first stage of immigration and absorption.Credit: Daniel Bar-On, from the 2010 "Zionism 2000 Collection, 1920-1960" exhibition

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