The Second Israel

The Second Israel

Before 1882 Sephardim or Oriental Jews were the majority, about 60 percent, of the Jewish population in Palestine. Although Oriental Jews did immigrate between this period and that of the British Mandate--more than 15,000 came from Yemen and Aden Protectorate between 1919 and 1948--they were a minority, about 10 percent of all immigrants. Thus, by 1948 Ashkenazim accounted for 77 percent of the population of the new State of Israel. But this was to change quickly in the period of mass migration that followed the establishment of the state. Between 1948 and 1951 Oriental immigrants accounted for 49 percent of all immigrants; in the Jewish calendar year 1952-53 they comprised 70 percent, and from 1954 to 1957 (following the Sinai Campaign and turbulence in North Africa), African-born Jews, the majority from Morocco, constituted 63 percent of all immigrants. By 1958 almost the entire Jewish populations of Yemen, Aden, Libya, and Iraq had immigrated.

The new state was barely equipped, and had few of the resources needed, to handle this influx. The immigrants were housed in tented "transition camps" (maabarot; sing., maabara); and then directed, often without their approval, to some cooperative settlement (immigrants' moshav) or one of the new development towns. In both cases, authorities wanted to disperse the Jewish population from the coast and place the immigrants in economically productive (especially agricultural or light industrial) settings. The results were village or town settlements that were peripherally located, ethnically homogeneous or nearly homogeneous, and the poorest settlements in the nation.

The lack of resources, however, was not the only obstacle to the successful integration of the Oriental immigrants. Although their intentions were noble, in practice the Ashkenazim viewed their Oriental brethren as primitive--if not quite savage--representatives of "stone age Judaism," according to one extreme phrase. Paternalism and arrogance went hand in hand; the socialist Labor Zionists, in particular, had little use for the Orientals' reverence for the traditional Jewish criteria of accomplishment and rectitude: learnedness and religious piety. In the transition camps and the new settlements, the old elite of the Oriental communities lost their status and with it, often, their self-respect. The wealthy among them had been obliged to leave most of their wealth behind; besides, more often than not, they had been merchants or engaged in some "bourgeois" profession held in low esteem by the Labor Zionists. The rabbis and learned men among them fared no better with the secular Zionists but they were often patronized as well by representatives of the Ashkenazi religious parties, who respected their piety but evinced little respect for the scholarly accomplishments of rabbinical authorities who did not discourse in Yiddish. The religious and secular political parties knew, however, that the immigrants represented votes, and so, despite their patronizing attitudes, at times they courted them for support. In the early years, the leftist predecessor parties to the Labor Party even tried adding religious education to their transition camp schools as a way of enrolling Orientals.

The transition camps were largely eliminated within a decade; a few became development towns. But the stresses and strains of immigrant absorption had taken their toll, and in July 1959 rioting broke out in Wadi Salib, a slum area in Haifa inhabited mostly by Moroccan Jews. The rioters spread to Haifa's commercial area, damaging stores and automobiles. It was the first violence of its kind in Israel, and it led to disturbances in other towns as the summer progressed. Israelis were now acutely aware of the ethnic problem, and soon afterward many began to speak of Israel Shniya, the "Second Israel," in discussing the socioeconomic gaps that separated the two segments of society. In the early 1970s, violent protests again erupted, as second-generation Orientals (mostly Moroccans), organized as the "Black Panthers" (named to great effect after the American Black protest group of the same period) confronted the Ashkenazi "establishment," demanding equality of opportunity in housing, education, and employment. Prime Minister Meir infuriated them even more by calling them "not nice boys."

This remark underscored the perception of many Orientals that when they protested against Israel's establishment they were largely protesting against the Labor Party and its leaders. Many Orientals came to see the Labor Party as being unresponsive to their needs, and many also blamed Labor for the indignities of the transition camps. These were legacies that contributed to Labor's fall from power in 1977; but, in fact, Oriental voters were turning away from Labor and toward Herut, Menachem Begin's party, as early as the 1965 national elections.

The Oriental protest movements, however, were never separatist. On the contrary, they expressed the intense desire of the Oriental communities for integration--to be closer to the centers of power and to share in the rewards of centrality. For example, some of the Black Panthers were protesting against their exclusion from service in the IDF, the result in most cases of previous criminal convictions. This desire was also reflected in the Orientals' turn to Labor's opposition, Herut and later Likud, as a means of penetrating power centers from which they felt excluded--by supporting the establishment of new ones.

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