Zionism’s Dark Secret: The Tale of the Jews Who Left Pre-state Israel During the British Mandate

Meir Margalit studied Jewish emigration from Palestine during the British Mandate. It had numerous causes — economic distress, the precarious security situation and even the Zionist movement’s cruelty toward the sick and the old — but its effect on the Zionist project at the time was minimal

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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The Tel Aviv port, 1938. Those who stayed behind were often more miserable than those who left
The Tel Aviv port, 1938. Those who stayed behind were often more miserable than those who leftCredit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

“Hashavim Bedim’a: Hayerida Bitekufat Hamandat Habriti” (“Returning in Tears: Emigration During the British Mandate Period”), by Meir Margalit. Carmel, 379 pages, 94 shekels

Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda — the “father of modern Hebrew” — and an important journalist in pre-state Israel, traveled abroad frequently, including to the United States a number of times. Before leaving for America in 1942 he wrote: “Who knows whether I will ever look again upon my country, to which my heart is so attached?” Ben-Avi noted that his eyes were red and tear-filled, his heart torn. Meir Margalit, the author of “Returning in Tears,” sees Ben-Avi as a “notable example” of the sabras who left the country, never to return. Margalit writes that Ben-Avi suffered an economic crisis “that left him emotionally broken, to the point where he was forced to leave the Land of Israel.” Margalit’s source is Ben-Avi himself: “All my childhood friends found themselves a nest... and only we remained homeless and penniless.”

>> The untold story of the Jews who left Mandatory Palestine

Perhaps this was indeed the case, but it’s doubtful that it was Ben-Avi’s departure that turned him into a symbol: That same year, 4,000 Jews settled in Mandatory Palestine and around 450 left, the great majority of them immigrants who had arrived less than two years before. Only a few of those who left had been born in pre-state Israel. Ben-Avi, then, belonged to a tiny minority and he was not a symbol of anything. But he had a need to explain to his acquaintances why he left to try his luck in America. He made the decision after great suffering, hesitation and doubt, writing and expressing the hope that he would only be gone for “a while.” A few months after arriving in the United States, he died of a heart attack, at age 60.

Margalit, too, thinks this period of emigration is in need of explanation and even justification; he also sees a need to justify studying the topic, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Haifa. His tone is almost apologetic, as if this were a dark secret, a terrible taboo that lay nearly undisturbed until now. As a result, the emigrants are portrayed as the victims of Zionist historiography, which excluded and erased them, and Margalit himself as the white knight who has come to “give them a voice,” as if they were another link in the long chain of the oppressed victims of the evils of Zionism, from the new immigrants who were sprayed with DDT to kibbutz members who moved to the city.

In fact, it’s harder to explain why so many people came to settle in pre-state Israel and stayed, for the most part. Either way, among them were provisional immigrants, not “olim” in the Zionist sense and thus also not “yordim” when they left. People brought with them certain expectations, and if they were disappointed and they had the means, they went to live in other countries. When they left, they supposedly challenged the Zionist vision, but according to Margalit himself this emigration barely affected the Zionist project. That also explains, presumably, why so few historians have bothered to study this marginal phenomenon: It is deserving of a footnote, at most.

It’s difficult to determine how many people came to settle in Mandatory Palestine and how many left it. The figures are incomplete and there are various ways to calculate them. There were “olim” who were not registered as immigrants because they arrived as tourists, and there were “yordim” who left for only a year or two before returning. The overall picture is this: During the period of the British Mandate, some 500,000 immigrants arrived and between 37,000 and 60,000 people emigrated, depending on the method used to count them — in other words, around one of every 10 immigrants. Margalit specified a number of causes for leaving, starting with the most common one: economic issues. The economic crisis in pre-state Palestine in 1926-27 drove out the majority of immigrants from the Third Aliyah and the Fourth Aliyah. The emigrants he describes suffered above all from unemployment. There was also a shortage of housing: In the 1920s, there were 300 families living rough in Tel Aviv, without access to toilets, Margalit reports, and135 families lived in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Shapira, without running water and without city sanitation services. As a result of these substandard conditions, infant mortality increased steeply and the authorities issued warnings regarding the spread of disease. Some emigrants claimed they had been lured to Palestine with false depictions of a paradise on earth; a few demanded that the Jewish Agency for Israel pay for their return journey.

Pre-state Israel certainly was not kind to everyone, and did not always promise a better life than the one left behind. Many immigrants were victims of the cruel bureaucracies of the absorption institutions, many were met with indifference to the difficulties they suffered. Many suffered from loneliness, even depression. That apparently had a greater impact than the Arab threat: Margalit did not find a direct correlation between the security situation and emigration. He did, however, identify a major wave of emigration between 1945 and 1948, when people discovered the possibility of returning to their countries of origin. Many feared the anticipated war in Palestine, many were simply homesick.

Objected to Zionism

Any number of intellectuals left because they did not believe in, or actively objected to, Zionism. There were emigrants who never planned to remain in pre-state Israel in the first place, and had come only in search of a temporary shelter. This was nothing new: Most of the immigrants of the Second Aliyah did not remain, and after the state was founded many olim left. Margalit’s book is concerned almost entirely solely with the period of the British Mandate. It is a slow read, but the information it conveys is fascinating.

The Hebrew-language press of the time tackled the subject of emigration from Mandatory Palestine only sporadically. The articles reflected internal contradictions: Life in the Land of Israel was supposed to provide Zionist redemption to the Jewish nation, but the calls to immigrate that went out from it often sounded more like desperate cries from a community in danger of extinction. There was a time when Israelis consoled themselves with the belief that the emigrants would return, and when they did they were sometimes greeted with a kind of “we told you so” schadenfreude. Yitzhak Rabin famously characterized the Israelis who emigrated in the 1970s as a “fallout of cowards.” According to Margalit, most of those who remained were indifferent to emigration.

In the most surprising chapter in his study, Margalit relates that candidates for immigration were not always wanted in Mandatory Palestine. The economic crisis even led the Jewish Agency to limit immigration: One of the heads of the agency informed his colleagues in 1927 that he had 500 immigration certificates that he had decided not to issue for the moment, due to the crisis. Margalit even uncovers attempts by the Jewish Agency to encourage immigrants to return to their countries of origin. In Jerusalem’s Central Zionist Archives, he found copies of recommendations sent by the agency to foreign consuls in pre-state Israel, asking them to issue visas to emigrants. It wasn’t always possible for immigrants to return to their home country, necessitating a search for a “third country” — the term was already in use — to accept them.

Author Meir MargalitCredit: Emil Salman

There were those who were in effect forced to leave, including old people and people with chronic disease. They were considered a burden on the community. To get rid of them, they were threatened with the loss of official support, including medical services. At most a few hundred people were affected, apparently, but the practice shows the Zionist movement’s willingness to be cruel toward those who did not contribute to its national goals. The “third country” to which emigrants were sent was sometimes Austria or even Germany, even in the first years of the Nazi regime; the practice ended in 1936. David Ben-Gurion ruled out this policy as a matter of principle.

Margalit, a former member of the Jerusalem city council, representing Meretz, teaches at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono. He sees himself as a successor to the “new historians” of the 1980s. “Perhaps I was attracted to the subject of the emigrants because their story is always current,” he writes, meaning that like the dream of the emigrants, “time after time, our dreams, too, are smashed in the face of reality.”

That is a legitimate value judgment, but it’s not entirely relevant to Margalit’s research topic. Those who stay in Israel are often more miserable than those who leave. Israelis who made it abroad sometimes earned admiration and occasionally were the object of jealousy: When they said “abroad,” they often meant something that was better; for years, it was an important component in Israelis’ attitude toward their country. That too has changed; it’s doubtful that there are many families in Israel today that do not have relatives living overseas. The main question is who made the better decision, those who stayed or those who left. It was never an easy question to answer, and today it is less relevant because the concept of borders has changed: Growing numbers of Israelis travel back and forth, neither here nor there, if not in reality then at least online.

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