Israel Spied on Mizrahi Jews, Then Tried to Hide It

Israel's security service tried to block the publication of classified materials with reports on surveillance, wiretapping and counter-operations against politically active Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin

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The Haifa neighborhood of Wadi Salib.
The Haifa neighborhood of Wadi Salib. Date unknown.Credit: Boris Carmi / GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In the 1950s, Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, was spying on immigrants from North Africa. A document in its archive, recently released for publication, may explain why. It hints that the espionage was driven at least partly by fear that political leadership would emerge in the Mizrahi community: Jews originating in the North Africa and the Muslim countries.

Dated July 21, 1959, the document contains the minutes of a meeting chaired by Shin Bet leader Amos Manor, held in the context of disturbances in the Haifa neighbhood of Wadi Salib. That was the first revolt by members of the Mizrahi community against the establishment and against the rule by Mapai: the Land of Israel Workers’ Party, on the basis of which today’s Labor Party arose. The disturbances were led by immigrants from North Africa protesting against deprivation and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity.

Manor is quoted in the document as saying: “There will also be disturbances in the future, under the leadership of criminal elements. They can be broken quickly. However, leaders who want to take control are liable to emerge. This is liable to lead to a different form. In addition to the official leadership that exists at present, there are all kinds of leaders who hold positions abroad, who feel themselves to be discriminated against and are seeking release and revenge.”

Golda Meir addressing a Mapai election rally in Rishon Lezion, in 1959.Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO

Dr. Shay Hazkani, a historian at the University of Maryland who researches the integration of Jews from the Arab countries and the East in Israel, believes that the document “more than hints at what historians have called ‘fear of Levantinization,’ that is: a reversal of the power relations in Israel between Ashkenazis and Mizrahis, the rise of Mizrahi soft power.” However, he qualifies that one should be cautious about reaching categorical conclusions,” including because the document “has so many holes in it.” In other words, parts of it have been censored; and it lacks a broader context.

This document is part of four pages Hazkany received recently from the Shin Bet following his petition to the High Court of Justice for the release of censored archival material about the organization’s activity in the ma’abarot – the transit camps for new immigrants. The material is still sparse, censored and lacking context but between the lines one may discern a number of interesting aspects that merit further study. One of the documents that have now been released is a report dated September 15, 1959, headed “Service Activities with Regard to the Ethnic Disturbances.” The document indicates that that the Shin Bet had begun “intelligence activities in connection with the ethnic disturbances by immigrants from North Africa” in late July that year.

The background to this, according the document, was “disturbances” in Wadi Salib, Migdal Ha’emek, and Be’er Sheva. It states that it was Minister David Ben-Gurion who asked the Shin Bet to help the police “prevent terrorist actions and hooliganism.” Avraham Ahituv, later head of the Shin Bet under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, was put in charge of this activity. In this context, the Shin Bet did a survey “in order to learn and examine the structure and mode of action of the ethnic activism in places where there are concentrations of North African immigrants in the cities and the immigrant towns.” Following this examination, the document states, “we have found the extensive presence of ethnic organizations among North African immigrants” and “it emerges that it is only from some of them that acts of hooliganism are liable to come.”

The Shin Bet also recommended monitoring certain elements in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Acre in this context. It stated that there were no political or public elements backing the violent actions, “apart from heads of Likud, who have just now submitted their slate to the Knesset, and some of whom are facing trial for incitement.”

The reference was to a movement called “North African Immigrants’ Likud,” led by David Ben Haroush, one of the leaders of the Wadi Salib protest.

Former head of Shin Bet, Amos Manor, in 1998.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

The Shin Bet justified the continued surveillance of the Mizrahi activists by saying: “The election period must still be seen as another period for oversight until things settle down.”

The election for the fourth Knesset took place in November of that year. The head of the Shin Bet assessed that the elections would mark the end of the protest. “When the elections are held, the sting will be removed from this whole operation,” he said at the meeting. He also mentioned a Shin Bet “mission” that was assigned to two agents. “What exactly this mission was, we can only guess,” Hazkani remarks.

As for the role the Shin Bet played in “thwarting” Mizrahi protest activity, one member of the organization defined the objective as follows: “Preventing more serious things that could happen in the future.” The details of this, further down on the page, remain censored.

Interestingly, within the agency itself at the time, there was criticism about the Shin Bet playing any part in “thwarting” the Mizrahi protest, Hazkani says. In the minutes, someone from the Shin Bet says: “The question is whether we should be assigned this role at all,” after earlier commenting that “our role must be clarified.”

Hazkani received the material following a High Court of Justice ruling in April on his petition asking to view classified Shin Bet materials, including reports on surveillance, wiretapping and counter-operations against “political subversion,” in the agency’s parlance. The Shin Bet rejected his request to look at the material, citing national security.

The High Court sided with the Shin Bet and ruled that releasing material about the agency’s activity in the transit camps in the 1950s could “damage national security.” Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote in the ruling: “These are sensitive materials whose publication even now, 60 years later, has the potential to harm national security because they could reveal methods and means of the agency’s operation.”

However, in the course of reviewing its archival material, the Shin Bet informed the High Court that it had located “a number of documents whose publication could be approved,” subject to censorship. The court ruled that “this publication should occur soon.” The justices also ruled that the Shin Bet must “conduct a new examination from time to time of the various details of information, in order to release those materials that, with the passage of time, may be revealed without cause for concern.”

Hazkani says that the four pages he received are “a real mockery” and that “given the Shin Bet’s announcement that it had ‘many documents’ related to the Mizrahi matter, what was provided is obviously anecdotal, and of minimal scholarly value.”  

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