by: Janet Aslin, BFP Staff Writer
“I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God. (Amos 9:15). Aliyah, or immigration to Israel, is a familiar word to most of us. In the verse from Amos, the prophet is speaking about a second and equally important part of the aliyah process, which is klita, or absorption. Our last issue featured “In Search of a Safe Haven: Jewish Aliyah after World War II.” Now let’s take a look at the incredible effort involved to “plant them in their land.”
During the British Mandate for Palestine (September 29, 1923–May 15, 1948), quotas were imposed on Jewish immigration. The new state instantly abolished them. David Ben-Gurion, during his declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, proclaimed: “The State of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles. It will devote itself to developing the Land for the good of all its inhabitants.” Two years later, Israel’s “Law of Return” was passed. It begins with these words: “Every Jew has the right to immigrate to this country…”
And immigrate, they did. When statehood was announced, Israel had a Jewish population of approximately 650,000. Three and a half years later, that number had doubled with the arrival of 688,000, primarily from Eastern Europe and the Muslim nations that surround Israel.
Today, visitors to Israel find all the amenities of a first-world nation: modern cities, a well-developed transportation system, high-speed internet facilities—the works. Israel is also a land of beauty with green spaces and parks in her cities and smaller, rural communities. However, this has not always been so.
Many immigrants came during Israel’s War of Independence, which began on May 15, 1948 and continued until March 10, 1949. Some went straight from the boats that brought them into combat. One such account involves Negba, a kibbutz (collective community) in southern Israel, whose members single-handedly stopped the Egyptian advance toward Tel Aviv. In his article, “How Israel Won,” George Herald writes: “What he [the Egyptian tank commander] didn’t know was that many of the Negba pioneers were former inmates of Nazi concentration camps who had just arrived there a few weeks before. They had no plans whatsoever to change their address again.”
Once the immediate threat of annihilation at the hands of the Arab armies was gone, there were other challenges to face. Basic needs such as food, housing and a job topped the list for the new immigrants.
The housing challenge was a serious one. It must have seemed like a flood of people—averaging 200,000 a year between 1948 and 1951—that threatened to overwhelm the tiny nation. Ma’abarot, or transit camps, were quickly built around the country. Living conditions were quite harsh as families were housed in tin dwellings or tents. Showers and toilet facilities were shared by the residents. At the end of 1949, there were 90,000 people living in transit camps. By the end of 1951, 220,000 people were living in 125 separate communities. Numbers began to decline in 1952 and the last ma’abara (camp) was closed in 1963.
Finding food for the rapidly growing population was another challenge. Israel was not yet the land of bountiful provision it would later become and was initially unable to feed everyone. The program of austerity (tzena) that was introduced by the government affected everyone—veteran Israelis and new citizens alike. Through rationing and coupon books, the available food was shared among the population. While people did not receive enough to satisfy their hunger pangs, no one starved.
By 1952, Israel had signed a reparations agreement with Germany, designed to repay the state for Jewish property confiscated during the Holocaust. The influx of cash made it possible to lift many of the rationing restrictions. However, it was 1959 before rationing finally ended.
Employment was the third basic need faced by the new immigrants. While it was possible to receive food and housing without speaking Hebrew, one was less likely to find meaningful employment without the ability to communicate verbally. Israel developed the ulpan system—an intensive learning environment designed to teach both language and Israeli culture.
Once the language barrier had been overcome, it was time to find jobs for the immigrants. Prior to the establishment of the state, most immigrants were young; many joined agricultural kibbutzim or had professional skills. In this new wave, the immigrants were older, especially in the case of Holocaust survivors, or came from developing countries and lacked professional or agricultural skills. This was a formidable challenge that took time to overcome.
How did the massive wave of immigration impact those already living in the Land? Welcoming returnees from around the world has turned Israel into a veritable melting pot of cultures. Although the immigrants were Jewish and therefore had much in common with native-born Israelis, there were significant differences. The Jewish Agency writes on its website: “The immigrants carried with them their own social and cultural conventions, which had been influenced by the surrounding culture of their former host societies.” Modern Israel is a blend of these traditions while retaining its identity as the Jewish state.
In a speech he called, “Fear Not Zion,” David Ben-Gurion addressed the nation: “With feelings of deepest joy we celebrate the second anniversary of our independence. Already we have seen great things but the most difficult and fateful test of all awaits us. The ingathering has begun: can we of this new State receive it wholly?”
Today, we can see that, with God’s help, both aliyah (immigration) and klita (absorption) have stood the test of time. Our answer to Ben-Gurion must be a resounding “Yes!”
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