Still Sore From the Canker of Amka

Fifty years on, Yemenites continue to debate `good guys' and `traitors.'

Even today, some of the older Moshav Amka residents can still point to their neighbors of the same age and tell you with certainty who, back then in 1950, was one of the "good guys" - who rebelled against Mapai and were ready to sacrifice all to preserve the lifestyle they had brought from Yemen - and who was one of the "traitors" who succumbed to pressure and accepted Mapai's efforts to sway them from their faith.

It may be 52 years since that uproar surrounding the Yemenite immigrants, but Zecharia Yehuda and Yosef David lump their neighbor, Yosef Sa'id, with the traitors. Sa'id dismisses this with a contemptuous wave of his hand, and fires back that Yehuda and David didn't really belong to the rebel camp. Sa'id says that Yehuda, who was 18 years old in 1950 and free of any family obligations, joined the rebels only toward the end of the whole affair, and that his motives, which Sa'id did not care to elaborate on, "were not totally based on principle." Sa'id also points out that David was just 17 at the time and still lived with his parents "who actually supported Mapai."

"It's easy for them to talk," the 74-year-old Sa'id says of his neighbors, who are 69 and 70. "They were young and single and they didn't have to worry about anyone. I was 22 and already married and the father of a child. And I had to worry about supporting the family. So it's true that I didn't go with [ultra- Orthodox] Agudat Israel, but I also didn't support the Mapainiks and I certainly didn't stop being a Jew."

Even a brief conversation with the Yemenite old-timers on Amka, a remote moshav in the western Galilee, is enough to make one realize that the traumatic events that took place there during the first half of the year 1950 have remained deeply etched in the consciousness of those who experienced them.

Yosef Sa'id, Zecharia Yehuda and Yosef David are three of the dozens of immigrants from Yemen who were brought to Israel in 1949, initially housed in transit camps, and then transferred several months later to the ruins of Amka, a Palestinian village about 10 kilometers southeast of Nahariya, which had been abandoned during the battles of 1948. The government and the Jewish Agency, which divided the abandoned lands among the settlement movements, decided that the lands and homes of Amka would go to the Moshav Movement (of communal agricultural settlements), which was affiliated with Mapai (the Labor Party). Other lands were distributed to the kibbutz movements of Mapai and Mapam (Zionist-Socialist Party), and to the moshav movements of Hapoel Hamizrahi (the Religious-Labor Party) and Agudat Israel.

The new immigrants were also "apportioned out" more or less in the same manner. Despite all their long-running disputes, Sa'id, Yehuda and David agree on one thing: All three say that no one asked them or their parents if they wanted to be part of a secular Mapai moshav, a religious-Zionist Hapoel Hamizrahi village, or an ultra-Orthodox settlement set up by Poalei Agudat Israel. The establishment that absorbed them decided that they were to be turned into farmers and that this should occur on a Mapai moshav. In November 1949, they were put on trucks and brought to Amka, without a word of explanation.


"The Amka affair," those dramatic and traumatic events that even the second and third generations on the moshav can describe in great detail, began a month later, when many of the immigrant families asked to have their children educated in a school affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel movement. The affair lasted about six months, during which representatives of Mapai and the Moshav Movement in Amka went to extreme lengths to compel the Yemenites to take their children out of the ultra-Orthodox school. In May 1950, it culminated with the expulsion of about 20 families who refused to give in to their demands.

Dr. Zvi Zameret, whose article on the subject appeared in the latest issue of the Hebrew journal Alpayim, believes that the expulsion of the Yemenite families from Amka - an event that most people today are unaware of - is of much greater importance than the expulsion of Yemenites from Kvutzat Kinneret [which later became Kibbutz Kinneret], which occurred 20 years earlier and has received extensive publicity over the last decade.

Zameret, the director of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem and a veteran educator whose research has focused on the history of education in Israel and the relationship between religion and state in Israel's early years, feels that the Amka affair is more significant than the Kinneret affair, for one, because it took place during the period of mass immigration following the establishment of the state, and because: "All the elements that characterized the traumatic encounter between the new immigrants of Sephardi background and the Labor Movement and the absorbing establishment converged here. Ever since I became familiar with the details of this affair, I've had a much better understanding of Shas and of the complaints and distress of its activists and supporters. The Amka affair is a striking example of how the wound that still festers to this day was created."

The settlement of Yemenites in Amka began in November 1949, with the arrival of a few dozen families. In his article, Zameret quotes a report on the condition of the community, which was written several months later by Yehuda Nini, then a worker in the Moshav Movement, and today a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and the author of a book about the expulsion of Yemenites from Kinneret.

"The village currently numbers 102 families, who come from the Ahdouf and Jabala districts. They have about 2,000 dunams [500 acres] of land as well as many olive orchards, a tractor, a truck, cows and donkeys. The villagers are employed in working their land and tending to the olive groves," Nini wrote to his superiors.

Sa'id and his friends have a different recollection. "There was nothing here," says Sa'id. "They brought us to an abandoned village that didn't even have water. In the beginning, we drank water from the wells that the Arabs left. We only got a tractor after a few months. Every day, it would bring a tank of water from Kibbutz Regba. We would stand in line all day just to get a little water."

"At first, we lived in tents, and there were a lot of snakes around," adds Rabbi Binyamin Shapira. He was also born in Yemen and came to Amka during the same period. In Yemen, his name was Binyamin Malihi, but since coming to Israel, he has used the surname his father decided to adopt then. "We couldn't even see the houses in the abandoned villages, because they were covered with tall thistles. There wasn't any work and we didn't have any money. We got food at the general store, according to the allocation."

Like everything else on Amka in those days, the amount of the allocations was determined by Yosef Lukov of the Moshav Movement, whose official title was "chief absorption instructor" of the community. Lukov was born in Russia, immigrated in 1922 and was one of the founders of Kfar Vitkin. He came to Amka on behalf of the Moshav Movement, but he effectively functioned as a Mapai representative as well, and as a representative of all the branches of the state.

"To us, every Ashkenazi was a boss, but Lukov was practically a king," Yehuda recalls with a smile.

The transformers

"The story of the Amka affair is Lukov's story," says Dr. Zameret. "Lukov was a real Ben-Gurionist who enthusiastically answered David Ben- Gurion's call to veteran moshavniks to pitch in and help absorb the new immigrants on new moshavim. He was a fervent believer in the melting pot and felt that his role was to transform the Yemenite immigrants into Israelis - according to his version of the pioneer model, naturally.

"Thanks to his job as the Labor Movement's representative in the place," Zameret continues, "Lukov was authorized to decide about everything that was done in Amka. He had the final say at the Hamashbir general store and at the Kupat Holim clinic, on whether Bank Hapoalim would extend credit to immigrants for the purchase of farming equipment, on the marketing of their produce, and on the allocation of houses in the village. In short, he controlled everything - including education, of course. Some of the Yemenite immigrants told him that they wanted to give their children a religious education, but Lukov declared that: `On our moshav, they will only learn in our schools.'

"In early January 1950, at Lukov's initiative, a female teacher from the Labor Movement was brought in to teach the local children," Zameret writes. "The woman, a secular Jew, was expected to take responsibility, single-handedly, for the education of dozens of newly arrived Yemenite children. She was, however, far removed from the parents' expectations. We may assume that the Yemenites were angry on two counts: one, the teacher did not observe Jewish religious traditions; and two, she was female."

Zameret learned about this teacher's arrival from a letter that was sent in February 1950 by two leaders of the Ha'oved Hadati (Religious Labor) movement, which was affiliated with Mapai and the Histadrut (the Labor Movement's trade union), to Zalman Shazar, the minister of culture and education. Ha'oved Hadati was led then by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who, just a few years later, would become a sharp critic of Mapai and its dominance.

In this context as well, the Amka old-timers remember things differently. Yosef Sa'id is adamant: "There wasn't any teacher here and there wasn't any school here, either. One of us, who had taught in a Talmud Torah school in Yemen, tried to teach some children. That's all there was, until the Agudat Israel people came here."

"Only after the Agudat Israel teachers came, did Mapai suddenly decide to open a Religious-Labor school here," Shapira adds.

Only a few of Amka's Yemenite residents agreed to send their children to this school, which they felt was really a secular school in the guise of a religious institution. Zameret writes that they were correct in this assessment.

Threatening the ultra-Orthodox

The opening of the ultra-Orthodox school was coordinated by the Ahi'ezer organization (a Haifa-based, Agudat Israel-affiliated organization dedicated to providing religious instruction to immigrant children). Sixty-four families wished to send their children to this school and, in accordance with the usual procedures, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox education movement received a permit to open the school from the Ministry of Education.

Three young ultra-Orthodox men ("All three were Ashkenazi," Yosef Sa'id recalls) were sent from Haifa to teach the children. The lessons, which were held in the moshav's synagogue, started in December 1949. The Amka affair erupted several days later, when Lukov learned of the ultra-Orthodox school's existence.

In their letter to Shazar, the heads of Ahi'ezer explained the ways in which Lukov had tried to close the school and get rid of the teachers. They said that Lukov threatened them, frightened the residents, and even resorted to physical violence.

"I came to Amka with the three teachers," Rabbi Avraham Winkelstein of Ahi'ezer attested, "and the next day, Lukov informed me that he wouldn't let them teach. I asked him what he was talking about and pointed out that we'd received permission from the government and that the Yemenites had requested this. I asked him why he was making trouble. I pleaded with him, and he replied that if I didn't stop, I'd end up just like de Haan." Yaakov Yisrael de Haan, the Dutch-born leader of Agudat Israel in the 1920s, was murdered in Jerusalem by members of the Haganah pre-state militia.

"The next day, when the Yemenites sent their children to the synagogue, Yosef Lukov and an employee from the general store came in and forcefully sent the children outside," Winkelstein continued.

In their letter to the education minister, the Ahi'ezer people alleged: "These heroic `deeds' were carried out in a blatantly military manner and all of the local kibbutzim were ordered to block movement to or from Amka of anyone whose external appearance implied that he was a religious Jew."

The students' parents, who were outraged by Lukov's behavior, decided to come to the synagogue in the evening to participate in a Torah class given by the Aguda teachers. Winkelstein, in the letter: "In the evening, we started to learn with 30 Yemenites and then we heard shots outside. An armed Ashkenazi man burst into the study hall and shouted that Arabs had taken over the camp. He ordered us to lie down on the floor and turn off the lights ... I went outside and to my great astonishment, saw that all the houses in the camp were illuminated and only the synagogue was dark. The guards who were around assured us that the whole thing was made up - apparently, because they wanted to scare us so we'd stop studying Torah."


Lukov enlisted IDF soldiers in his war against the ultra-Orthodox. On March 17, 1950, the daily newspaper HaKol (which preceded Hamodi'ah as the Agudat Israel bulletin) published a letter signed by Salem David Yihya, Hassan Avraham and Salam Hassan, three residents of Amka. "We hereby bring a complaint against the soldier Ze'ev Shapira, who presents himself as the commander of the place, because of threats that he made to the Agudat Israel teachers," they wrote. "On Monday morning, the 24th of Adar 5710, Ze'ev Shapira said to us that he would forcefully remove the Agudat Israel teachers from the village, and that if they did not obey his orders, he would give them a bullet from a gun ... Is this the action of a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces?"

When Lukov saw that Ahi'ezer activists and the schoolchildren's parents were not about to give in easily, he decided to bring all of his authority to bear. First, he instructed the general store to stop selling to those residents who continued to send their children to the ultra-Orthodox school. Then he stopped supplying the recalcitrant families with tools for their agricultural work, barred them from going to organized work off of the moshav, and even prevented them from receiving medical treatment at the Kupat Holim clinic.

"At first, we couldn't understand what the problem was," Yosef David recalls. "We were naive. They told us that in Israel, everyone is a Jew, so we couldn't understand why the director of the village was opposed to religious teachers. I remember that we suddenly saw the director and the rest of the counselors taking the teachers out of the study hall and dragging them along the ground all the way to the general store, like a dead body would be dragged behind a horse. We were horrified."

"When I saw these things, I remembered what the Arabs in Yemen had told us before we left. They said: `When you get to Palestine, the Zionists will take your women and throw you into the sea,'" Zecharia Yehuda adds.

Lukov announced that whoever refused to send his children to the Labor Movement's school would not be eligible to receive any services from the moshav administration. Several dozen families decided not to give in. "Their situation grew worse every day," Sa'id says. "In the morning, they'd go to Safed or Tiberias to look for work. Sometimes they'd find something, sometimes they wouldn't. They'd come back in the evening and they didn't have anything to eat. It reached the point where people were on the verge of starvation."

By May, the number of defiant families had shrunk to less than 20. One morning, toward the end of May, three trucks arrived at Amka and instructors from the Moshav Movement, armed with lists of names, ordered the rebels to get on the trucks and load their meager possessions on as well. The trucks transported them to the Rishon Letzion transit camp and the ultra-Orthodox school affair at Amka came to a close.

"Today, it's hard to understand it, but the people got on the trucks without resistance," relates Zecharia Yehuda, who decided to join the exiles, even though he was single and not connected with the school. "It was a different time. Nowadays, you couldn't banish one person without it being all over the radio and television. Then, not only was there no media, there wasn't even a telephone to call for help. We also didn't know whom to turn to - there was nothing between here and Nahariya. It was all empty. So we got on the trucks and went to Rishon Letzion."

After serving in the army and getting married, Yehuda decided to return to Amka.


The 1949 Compulsory Education Law recognized four education systems (Labor, general, religious and ultra- Orthodox), and granted every parent the right to choose the system in which his children would be educated. The only parents who were denied this right were the new immigrants who still lived in transit camps. The law stipulated that, in these places, "uniform education" would be given.

In 1950, the nation's first coalition crisis erupted around the question of what the content of this education should be. The religious parties claimed that anti-religious coercion was being used in the transit camp schools, particularly against the Yemenites. The coalition crisis led to the formation of a commission of inquiry headed by Judge Gad Frumkin. The commission found that some of the complaints of the religious parties were justified, but also said that the school system in the camps was being run in accordance with the law. But Amka was not a transit camp, and it was clear to all that what was going on there was in violation of the law.

Dr. Zameret's study shows that this blatant contravention of the law, which was publicized in the ultra-Orthodox press and even mentioned twice before the Knesset plenum, did not arouse much interest in political circles, even among the religious parties. The lack of interest derived from the tacit agreement among all parts of the political sector about the division of immigrants among the various settlement movements. All of the political parties, including the religious ones, accepted the principle that each settlement movement was entitled to determine the nature of the education system in its communities. The religious parties agreed that, on the Mapai moshavim, the only schools would be run by the Labor system, while the Labor Movement agreed that only religious schools would be built on the moshavim allocated to the religious settlement movement.

The opening of the Agudat Israel school in Amka, which went counter to this agreement, also stemmed - perhaps primarily - from internal-religious political considerations. In 1949, four of the religious parties (Mizrahi and Hapoel Hamizrahi, which would later fuse into the National Religious Party, and Agudat Israel and Poalei Agudat Israel) ran on a joint list, known as the "Religious Front," in the elections for the First Knesset, and even joined the government coalition that was subsequently formed. Agudat Israel leader Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin served as minister of welfare in the government.

Agudat Israel also had a more radical branch, which was opposed to joining forces with the religious Zionist parties and objected to Agudat Israel's participation in Ben-Gurion's government. This branch, which was led by MK Moshe Levinstein, energetically and persistently worked at dissolving the coalition's stability, with the aim of spurring Agudat Israel's departure from the government. Moshe Levinstein, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was also Agudat Israel's main advocate on behalf of the Yemenites' struggle in Amka. Less than a year after the Amka affair, Levinstein resigned from his party and retired from political life.

Although the Mapai people in Amka gave the Agudat Israel supporters very rough treatment, Dr. Zameret does not attribute malicious motives to them. "Terrible things were done at Amka, things that were even renounced by Ben-Gurion in closed party forums," he says. "Still, I am convinced that there was a positive side to the way the Mapai people behaved. Their intention was to quickly convert the Yemenite immigrants from the environment from whence they came to the modern life that they, the people of the Labor Movement, sought to build in Israel. The Lithuanian outlook with which Agudat Israel sought to appeal to the Yemenites in Amka would not enable these immigrants to become integrated into this modern society. Even today, I think that, all in all, Mapai was right."

Prof. Nini, who, in 1950, was one of the primary activists on behalf of Yemenite immigrants in the Moshav Movement, thinks so, too: "I thought then, and I still think, that our activity in the immigrant moshavim was meant to enable the Sephardim to get to the point where they could contend with the Ashkenazi population and become a part of what was being done in the country," he says. "Agudat Israel symbolized the opposite of this."

Today, 52 years after the Amka affair, things appear to have come full circle. The Yemenite families that were expelled from Amka to Rishon Letzion were taken care of by Agudat Israel, which absorbed their children in its educational institutions. Some of the descendants of these families studied in Lithuanian yeshivas and attained senior positions in the ultra-Orthodox world. The vast majority of them are now Shas supporters. The Yemenites who stayed in Amka educated their children in schools of the Labor stream and then in state public schools. Most of them still live in Amka, along with their children and grandchildren. In the last Knesset elections in 1999, Shas received more votes in Amka than any other party.