Ingathering and the Struggle for Economic Survival, Excerpt from Howard Sachar, A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, Second Edition, 1996.
Returning and Redemption
The Gates Open
In the eighteenth months following the Declaration of Independence, 340,000 Jews arrived in Israel. They came by passenger liner, by rickety dormitory steamer, by plane, and in some instances by clandestine land routes. Even as war still raged and the little state faced possible destruction or bankruptcy, the newcomers continued to pour in. During the mandate, the rate of immigration had averaged 18,000 a year. During the first three years of statehood, the average reached 18,000 a month, and in some months the figure exceeded 30,000. Between May 15, 1948, and June 30, 1953, the Jewish population of the country doubled. No influx like it had been witnessed in modern times. It was an “Open Door” from which older and vastly wealthier nations would have recoiled in dismay. Emotionally, the policy was dictated by the most fundamental of Zionist tenets, extended back to biblical promises and forwarded to the commitment in the Declaration of Independence that Israel “will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion.” Indeed, the very raison d’ etre of statehood, as the 1950 Law of Return made clear, was to provide a homeland for all who wished to forsake the Diaspora and “come home.”
But there was another, no less, valid, explanation for the unprecedented ingathering. It was the government’s acute recognition of the need for an instant population- for inhabitants to deepen the nation’s military manpower reservoir, to preempt the vulnerable empty spaces in the land, to garrison the new agricultural colonies and the border settlements girdling the exposed frontiers, and to create the modernized economy that was indispensable for achieving a Western standard of living. Although never stressed in public, it was essentially this military and economic factor that persuaded Israel’s leaders to run the risks of virtually uncontrolled mass immigration. Moreover, the decision to swing open the gates was all the more unchangeable as dispersed communities of Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa launched a rising clamor for transportation to safety in Israel. No sooner was one crisis of “reputation” met and resolved than it was overtaken by a fresh one.
Upon the establishment of the state, therefore, the first priority for the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency was to empty the displaced persons’ camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Thereupon, between September 1948 and August 1949, fifty-two refugee centers were closed in Europe and their inhabitants shipped on to Israel via Marseilles and Bari; even as 25,000 internees similarly were removed from the Cyprus detention camps. At almost the same time, a full-scale transfer of Bulgarian Jewry was set in motion, paralleled by the immigration of large numbers of Yugoslav and Turkish Jews. Between spring of 1948 and autumn of 1950, meanwhile, the Communist regimes of Poland and Rumania allowed a sizable, if intermittent, Jewish departure. Eventually, under Soviet pressure, Warsaw closed off further Jewish emigration in September 1950; while Bucharest denied additional permits in February 1952. Yet by then fully 100,000 Polish and 120,000 Rumanian immigrants were already in Israel. During the next four years their numbers would be augmented by another 48,000 Jews from eastern and western Europe.
The tidal wave of immigration was by no means animated by pioneering élan. In truth, the newcomers had undergone little scrutiny or screening. The aged and the infirm, the wary and the disillusioned, flooded in indiscriminately, seeking peace and security, not creative adventure. Most of the Europeans among them had lived through war, many had survived death camps and crematoria. They had little stomach for the rugged challenge of frontier agricultural outposts, and even less for the grim economic and bureaucratic obstacles that confronted them upon arrival in Israel. Their misgivings were compounded, too, not alone by the circumstances of immigration and transit camp life, but by their encounter with a simultaneous avalanche of Jews from Moslem nations whose frequent lack of commitment to a progressive, dynamic Zionism infected even the idealistic minority among the “Westerners.”
The Oriental Immigration
The arrival of these Oriental Jews was for the Europeans a belated reminder of a “world passed by” in the Jewish hinterland. That world was an ancient one, as it happened, and in many cases older than the Ashkenazic Diaspora. Not a few of the Orientals had settled in Babylon and the Levant in pre-exilic times. Others had made their way to the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa as refugees during the early centuries of the Common Era. By far the largest numbers of them, however, had journeyed through the Near and Middle East in the wake of the Arab expansion, settling in lands conquered by the armies of the prophet. From the seventh century on, then, until the rise of European imperialism in the nineteenth century, Oriental Jews experienced virtually no first-hand contact with Western peoples or cultures. Their outlook and cultural surroundings were almost entirely “Easter,” and as the Islamic Renaissance faded in the late Middle Ages, they became increasingly attuned to the passivity and torpor of the middle East.
The numbers of Jews living in Islamic countries reached 1,700,000 by 1939. At a time when the Ashkenazim totaled some 15,000,000 this figure represented barely 11 percent of the world Jewish population. Moreover, with the power centers of Jewish life concentrated in the Western world, it was hardly surprising that the ideologues and pioneers of Zionism gave only fleeting attention to the remote and impoverished Oriental hinterland, or even to the driblets of Sephardic and Oriental Jews who had been attracted to Palestine throughout the centuries for reasons of economic compulsion or religious messianism. As late as the outbreak of World War II, European Jews comprised the bulk of the Yishuv, approximately 77 percent. In the end, of course it was the Nazi Holocaust that revolutionized the demographic basis of Jewish life in Palestine, as elsewhere. Within a period of five years, the Final Solution in Europe nearly doubled the Sephardic and Oriental component of world Jewry, and increased it to 45 percent of the reservoir of likely immigrants to Israel. Only then did the Zionist leadership awaken belatedly to the role to be fulfilled by the denizens of these Eastern backwaters in populating and building the Jewish state.
The Yemenites were the first to reinforce their numbers in Israel. The Imamate of Yemen, lying at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, could hardly have been more veiled from Western eyes than the Tibetan fastness of the Himalayas. At the beginning of the twentieth century some 30,000 Jews lived there, and by 1945 nearly 50,000. Concentrated in and around the capital city of Tsan’a, they traced their presence to the mass dispersion from the Holy Land after the Roman suppression. Their status as dhimmis – that is, as a barely tolerated minority – was the result of the Moslem conquest in the seventh century. Thereafter, under the narrowest of legal protection, the Jews were restricted to their own ghetto quarters, and earned a meager livelihood as artisans for the Arab peasantry. As late as the twentieth century they paid special Jewish taxes, wore distinctive garb, and were forbidden to ride horses or camels or to leave their neighborhoods after dark. It was the more remarkable, under these galling limitations, that the little Arabized group somehow held fast to its Jewish traditions and continued to live in an unshakable, if touchingly naïve, expectation of the arrival of the Messiah, who would surely lead god’s People back to the Land of Israel.
In 1880, the vision of Return suddenly assumed tangible contours. By ship and caravan, accounts reached the Imamate that large numbers of European Jews had settled in Palestine to lay claim to an ancient dream. Perhaps the tales were exaggerated, but even the slightest hope of redemption dared not be overlooked. In the grip of a messianic delirium, a hundred families from Tsan’a promptly disposed of their homes and set out for the Holy land. Making their way on foot to the ports of Hudeida and Jidda, they traveled up the Red Sea by dhow to Suez, from there by land to Alexandria, then by ship to Jaffa, and once again by land to Jerusalem. Fully a third of them perished en route. Nevertheless, the survivors were joined each year by additional hundreds of their kinsmen, until by 1914 no fewer than 7,400 Yemenites had arrived in Palestine. Three decades later, swollen by immigration and natural increase, their population in the country totaled nearly 40,000. They were poor, among the poorest of all the Yishuv’s inhabitants. A few labored in the citrus groves. Some were artisans. Most lived in slums, and did the hardest and least rewarding work in the Jewish community. Their wives hired themselves out as maids. Few of them complained. They were in Zion.
Then, with Israel’s independence in 1948, Zion was the only world that mattered. Nor was it a question now of messianic portents alone. Life in Yemen suddenly had become physically precarious. Chagrined at the defeat of Arab forces on the battlefields of Palestine, and aroused by the opportunity of loot, bands of Moslems swarmed through the Jewish quarters of Tsan’a and other towns, plundering and burning. Departure now became a matter of survival. The Imam put few obstacles in the way – not as long as the Jews left all their property to the Crown. The Jewish Agency in turn reached an understanding with the sheikhs whose territories lay between the Imamate and the British Crown Colony of Aden. For an agreed sum, the rulers consented to let the Jews pass through their domains. Across this bleak and rugged terrain, then, the largest numbers of Yemenites made their way on foot southward to the coast. By the time they reached the Joint Distribution Committee camp in hashed, adjoining Aden, most of them were reduced to waling skeletons.
Transportation across the Red Sea no longer was possible once Egypt closed the Suez Canal to Israel-bound shipping. Instead, by contract with a group of chartered American air transport firms, the JDC swiftly organized an alternate method of departure – “Operation Magic Carpet.” The emaciated little Yemenites, some adults weighing barely eighty pounds, were loaded on the American DC-4s, up to two hundred at a time. At the peak of the airlift, panes were flying round-the-clock schedules to Israel, seven and eight flights a day. Their route crossed Yemen but skirted the other Arab countries, flying a narrow corridor with uncertain instruments at night, and deprived of radio guidance. Forced landing anywhere would have meant disaster. Remarkably, no mishaps occurred. By the time the airlift ended in September 1950, 47,000 people, the bulk of Yemen’s Jewish population, had been carried to Israel, together with some 3,000 Aden Jews.
The emigration from Yemen was soon followed, and ultimately surpassed, by a massive airlift of Jews from Iraq. Here was the largest, oldest, and most distinguished of all Eastern Jewish communities. Numbering approximately 130,000 in 1948, its inhabitants traced their origins to the famed pre-exilic Jewish settlement of Babylon. In ancient and medieval times, this was a Jewry unsurpassed in wealth and culture. Baghdad was the seat of the Exilarch, the Prince of the Captivity, and of the venerated academies of Sura and Pumpedita. From the middle of the eleventh century, however, successive invasions of Mongols and Turks ravaged Iraq’s economy, undermining the security of Jews and Arabs alike. The next several hundred years were precarious ones. During the latter Ottoman period the Jews finally managed once again to resume a quiet, if stagnant, life; a few of them even achieved a certain prosperity. Yet their major recovery awaited the end of World War I. It was then at last, under the British-sponsored Feisal government, that Iraqi Jewry experienced its most dramatic revival. Indeed, its members soon played a key role in the largest business establishments of the nation, and not a few of them occupied important positions in government service.
The first intimation of change for the worse came with the penetration of German agents in the 1930s and a rising swell of Arab right-wing nationalism. The xenophobia first crested in 1941, during the Rashid Ali uprising, when mobs attacked Jewish homes and shops, inflicting hundreds of casualties. Although the pro-German regime was soon overthrown by an invading British army, the Jews were shaken by the evidence of their new vulnerability. A small number of departures for Palestine followed and continued intermittently until the birth of Israel. It was in 1948-49, however, during the Palestine war, that Iraqi Jewry entered its darkest hour. Under the cloak of martial law, the Baghdad government subjected the nation’s Jewish citizens to organized persecution. Jewish homes were searched, often pillaged. Hundreds of Jews were arrested and imprisoned under charges of treason. Jews were expelled from government, Jewish doctors and pharmacists barred from practice, Jewish students expelled from the university, Jewish banks ordered closed, Jewish merchants denied their import licenses. The community faced economic ruin.
Since the outbreak of fighting in Palestine, emigration to Israel had been declared a capital offense. Nevertheless, the government was soon intrigued by the prospect of inheriting large quantities of abandoned Jewish property. In March of 1950, therefore, the Iraqi parliament gave official sanction to Jewish emigration, on condition that Jews applying for exit permits relinquish their Iraqi citizenship. As an inducement for departure, the government assured prospective emigrants that the homes, businesses, and bank accounts they left behind would be disposed of legally, and that eventually they would receive the proceeds. Yet on March 10, 1951, one day following the deadline for exit registration, the government suddenly announced that the property and bank accounts of emigrating Jews henceforth were forfeited to the government.
By then, in any case, Iraq’s Jews had applied for emigration by the tens of thousands. Their immediate problem was transportation. The Jewish Agency’s original plans had been to send them by ship from Basra to Eilat. These soon had to be abandoned due to Iraq’s continuing state of war with Israel and the tightening Egyptian blockade of the Strait of Tiran. Nor was overland travel possible through Syria and Lebanon. Eventually the Baghdad regime granted permission for air transport. Its condition was simply that the planes should not fly directly to Israel, but rather land first in neutral Cyprus. On that basis the great airlift transfer, known in Israel as “Operation Ali Baba,” was launched in May 1950. By the time it ended in December 1951, 113,000 passengers had been flown to the Jewish state. Afterward, smaller numbers of Jews reached Israel via Iran, bringing the total Iraqi immigration to 121,000. In 1955, the number of Jews remaining in Iraq was estimated at less than 4,000.
Even the Yemenite and Iraqi airlifts, however, did not exhaust the wave of Jewish emigration from Moslem lands. Libyan Jewry soon joined the exodus. This was an indigenous community, extending back to Berber tribes that had been proselytized by Jewish traders and refugees in Carthaginian times. While not a prosperous or a notably cultured minority the Jews or Libya had enjoyed a reasonable dhimmi security under both Arabs and Turks, even under the Italians, who protected them from physical persecution. Numbering 23,000 by 1945, they earned their livelihoods as merchants and artisans in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other, smaller communities; while yet another 7,000 Jews lived a primitive, Berber-like existence in the desert interior. In 1945, too – ironically, under British occupation – an eruption of anti-Jewish riots left several hundred Jews dead and wounded and destroyed over a thousand Jewish homes and shops. The outburst was linked to the emergent Libyan nationalist movement; the Palestine issue simply exacerbated the unrest. In June 1948, a renewal of violence inflicted additional Jewish casualties. By then few Libyan Jews believed that it was possible to remain on in the country. Fortunately for them, in 1949 the Jewish Agency succeeded in organizing direct sailings from Benghazi to Haifa. By the summer of 1951, as a result, virtually the entire Libyan Jewish community had sold its property at distress prices and embarked for Israel. The newcomers arrived in a state of destitution.
If the Jewish minority of Syria-Lebanon was as old as Libya’s, it was considerably more advanced and affluent. For centuries, under Arabs and Turks alike, Jewish traders in the littoral cities had played a decisive role in the Mediterranean import-export trade. Under the French mandate, too, Jews had occupied eminent positions in the civil service, and even the brief Vichy interregnum did not threaten their essential physical security. By 1943 approximately 20,000 Jews lived in Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, and other cities, practicing their trades and maintaining their Jewish religious and cultural traditions. Yet in the Levant, more than other Middle Eastern nations, the pattern of emigration for both Christians and Jews had been established long before the rise of Israel. Throughout the twentieth century, until 1945, not less than 40,000 Syrians and Lebanese had departed for Europe, for North and South America, and for Egypt and Palestine. In the case of the Jews, the birth of sovereign Arab regimes after World War II merely intensified the emigrationist pressure. Thus, in Syria, independence was accompanied by the gradual eviction of Jewish employees from the civil services and banks, and by outbreaks of mob rioting against Jewish homes and businesses. It was the UN Partition Resolution, however, that ultimately signified the beginning of the end for Syrian Jewry, as for Jews elsewhere in the Arab world. After 1948, the Damascus authorities froze Jewish accounts, blocked the liquidation of Jewish property, and eventually subjected Jewish residential neighborhoods to nightly curfews. Large numbers of Jews fortunately managed to cross the border to Lebanon, and from there (with the unofficial acquiescence of the Beirut government) proceeded to Israel. Between November 1947 and February 1949, 14,000 Syrian and Lebanese Jews reached Israeli soil. The 3,000 of their kinsmen who remained behind in Syria, a cowed and impoverished minority, lived from day to day in tremulous uncertainty even of physical survival (Chapter XXIII).
Egyptian Jewry, by contrast, was distinguished from other Middle Eastern communities in the brevity of its history and in the more prolonged agony of its dissolution. Nearly all of the 75,000 Jews registered on the Egyptian census in 1948 considered themselves “Europeans,” integral members of that elite social and economic circle that included 350,000 Greeks, 200,000 Italians, and 40,000 English, French, and Armenians. Except for a minuscule group that traced its lineage to the Alexandrian community of antiquity, and a scattering of refugees from the Ottoman Levant, the country’s Jewish population had been almost negligible before the end of World War I. The largest migration wave of Jews arrived in the 1920s and 1930s, most of them Near Eastern in origin, and drawn to Egypt specifically to shed their Asian inheritance. The country offered Jewish newcomers the cherished opportunity of European status under the protection of Western consuls. By 1939, as a result, perhaps 80 percent of the Jews residing in Egypt were foreigners who nevertheless enjoyed European consular solicitude.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Egyptian government lost no time in ending this capitulatory relationship. At fist, to be sure, the change created few problems. As loyal “subject,” if not citizens, Egypt’s Jews continued to enjoy full legal citizenship. And they prospered mightily. Belonging almost exclusively to the middle class, they served as the leading business executives, cotton brokers, bankers, financiers, and professionals of Egypt. Rarely if ever did they encounter prejudice. The first indications of native animus surfaced only after 1945, as Egyptian nationalism burgeoned – against the British, and later against he other minorities that dominated Egyptian economic life. In the case of Jews, of course, local resentment was exacerbated soon afterward by the Palestine issue. Thus, following the birth of Israel, a number of leading Egyptian Jewish companies were sequestered. Egyptian nationality later was required for the practice of medicine and for membership on the cotton exchange. The cumulative effect of these measures was gradually to undermine the structure of Jewish economic life in Egypt.
For many thousands of Egyptian Jews the logical solution was emigration. Yet the decision was not lightly carried out. Although the government lifted its ban on departure in August 1949, it imposed penalties that ultimately inflicted the kind of financial loss suffered by Jews in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Homes, chattels, businesses, all had to be disposed of on a distress basis, and in a majority of instances property reverted to the state. The 20,000 Jews who managed to flee in November 1949 left as declassed relics of a once affluent bourgeoisie. Many remained in Europe to begin anew, but in 1950 approximately 7,000 of them proceeded on to Israel. For a while at least, this appeared to be the crest of the Egyptian aliyah. Later that year a new Wafdist government in Cairo eased the harshest of the restrictions, canceled the sequestration measures, even handed back a portion of the confiscated property. The exodus slowed, as the remaining Jewish population of 55,000 anticipated a gradual return to normalcy. They were wrong. Their attempts to recoup their fortunes soon collided head-on with the emergent chauvinism of the Nasser government. By then, the fate of Egyptian Jewry was sealed (Chapter XVIII).
The emigration of Jews from Turkey and Iran shared less of the draconian compulsion of other Middle Eastern nations. In 1948, 82,000 Jews lived in Turkey’s principal cities. A tolerated, even favored, millet under the old Ottoman regime, they did not experience the cutting edge of Turkish nationalism until the early Kemalist republican period of the 1920s. Pressure then intensified for Jews and other minorities to adopt the Turkish language and Turkish names, to enroll their children in Turkish schools, to hire Turkish business partners. During World War II, as the Ankara government maintained a circumspect friendship with Nazi Germany, national policy toward the Jews approached a thinly veiled anti-Semitism. The harsh capital levy that was imposed upon all the nation’s minority peoples represented nothing less than an economic disaster for Turkish Jewry. Uncomfortable in any case within this tough Moslem warrior nation, many thousands of Jews greeted the birth of the Zionist state in 1948 with urgent petitions for departure. The government interposed no serious obstacles. By 1950 fully 33,000 Turkish Jews had arrived in Israel. Most came from the poorer strata, and of these, thousands were the ruined victims of Ankara’s wartime taxation laws. In the early years after their arrival, they shared with other immigrants the crudest ordeal of settlement in Israel, and in their poverty added to the nations economic woes.
This was essentially the pattern, too, of the Iranian exodus. Like the Jews of Iraq, those of Persia represented one of the most venerable of the Middle Eastern minority communities, dating back to the pre-exilic era. Yet no Jewry in Asia or African was ever more wretchedly impoverished. Numbering close to 80,000 in 1945, the largest numbers of them were impacted into the fetid mellahs of Tehran and Isfahan, where they barely subsisted as petty traders and hucksters. Indeed, of the 25,000 Jews residing in Tehran at the end of World War II, fully half were supported by Western Jewish charities. There were, as well, some 18,000 Jews dwelling in Iranian Axerbaijan and Kurdistan whose backwardness was comparable to the most primitive of their Moslem neighbors. In their lifetime, they had experienced not only economic duress but the chauvinism of the Reza Shah Pahlavi regime and assaults and pillage carried out with the tacit connivance of the government.
Several thousand Iranian Jews had fled to Palestine as early as the turn of the century. Most, however, preferred to wait until they could be assured subsidized transportation and welfare guarantees. Israel was prepared to offer those opportunities, even as the Tehran government was frankly relieved to have the Jews depart. Between May 1948 and October 1956, therefore, the number of Iranian Jews reaching Israel mounted to 39,000 – nearly half the Jewish population of Iran. Not all arrived as mendicants; there were a few businessmen among them with capital to invest. But the majority, like the majority of immigrant Jews from other Islamic communities – from north Africa and Iraq, from Turkey and the Levant, from Yemen and smaller, forgotten Jewish enclaves in Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and Cochin – poured into Israel on a wave of destitution. Even more than the hostility of the neighboring Arab states, it was the influx of these rudderless derelicts that threatened to engulf and overwhelm the Jewish republic from the very moment of its birth.
The demographic impact of the immigration was profound. Fully 7 percent of the entire Diaspora arrived in Israel between 1948 and 1953 alone. The number of Israel’s Jewish inhabitants accordingly rose from 6 percent of world Jewry at the founding of the state to 13 percent by the end of 1953. During its initial four and a half years, Israel’s population doubled. By the end of 1956 its population had nearly tripled, reaching 1,667,000. by then, too, the ingathering had slowed, although it would soon regain momentum. As events developed, immigration, far more than natural reproduction, accounted for the largest share of Israel’s population increase. And the growth would become increasingly Oriental. In 1948 Jews from Moslem lands accounted for 14 percent of the immigration, in 1949 for 47 percent, in 1950 for 71 percent, in 1952 for 71 percent, in 1953 for 75 percent, in 1954 for 88 percent, in 1955 for 92 percent, and in 1956 for 87 percent. In 1948 Jews of European ancestry comprised 75 percent of Israel’s Jewish inhabitants; by 1961, the ratio had fallen to 55 percent, and it would continue to decline in later years. This constituted an ethnic revolution for the Zionist state, one that none of its leaders had anticipated even after the Holocaust, nor as late as 1948. Far from serving as an outpost of the West in Asia, Israel itself appeared to be undergoing orientalization, both in its human resources and to some degree in its way of life.