Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thoughts on Migration to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s

This new job I have at LeverEdge gives me opportunities to meet all sorts of interesting people. Last week I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Esther Meir-Glitzenstein of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. Dr. Meir-Glitzenstein focuses much of her attention on the story of the Jews from Arab states who came to Israel since the creation of the the state, and she's quoted in this article in Haaretz, about a conference on the subject. Her forthcoming book tells the story of the Iraqi Jews - something like 120,000 people most of whom arrived here at the very end of the 1940s, and once here did better than most of their brethren from other Arab lands, though not as well as most of the immigrants from Europe.

The single most important reason for the relative success of the Iraqis, so my understanding of her thesis, was their relative well-developed "human resources", by which I understood her to be referring to the comparatively modern education and training of the Jews of Iraq, which enabled them better to integrate into Israeli society which was essentially modern.

Yet there were also other things that influenced the outcome. One, which surprised me, was the timing. It turns out that arriving in Israel at the peak of the chaos of 1948-50 was ultimately better than arriving in the mid 1950s, counter intuitive as it sounds. The chaos, you see, was all-pervasive. A very bloody war had just been won, the state was broke, the national institutions were fledgling, and a large chunk of the population was destitute and effectively homeless. The Iraqis, in that context, didn't have it worse than anyone else, and were forced to use their wits to forge new lives, just like many of the people around them. So they did, as best they could.

A few years later the state had lifted itself by its bootlaces, and immigrants arriving were greeted by a bureaucracy that knew what it was doing, that had set itself goals and knew how to reach them. Many of these goals were plausible, such as the attempt to spread the population out of the center of the country, to reinforce the borders with population, to block the return of Palestinian refugees, and so on. So new immigrants were loaded onto trucks, sent away from the center to newly invented "development towns", and dumped off there. (As I've written here and here, this was reinforced by an almost super-human can-do ethos of the 2nd- and 3rd-Aliya immigrants, steel-hard people who had done the same a generation earlier to themselves, had watched their sacrifice succeed, and had no patience for anyone's weaknesses or human frailty). In the short term, achieving such goals was important, even if it wasn't helpful to integrating the immigrants into Israeli society, since they were shunted off to it's margins. In the long term, the marginalizing of the immigrants of the 1950s created issues that have yet to be resolved more than 50 years later.

Esther also made another comment about those development towns. Since some of them never did very well, the officials kept sending new immigrants to them each time there was a wave of immigration, even into the largest wave of them all from the disintegrating Soviet Union in the the early 1990s. In each case, strong immigrants either never asked the officials and went where they chose, or, if they were slightly less strong they were sent to the development towns but climbed out of them as soon as they learned the Israeli ropes. Meaning that the weaker development towns functioned (inadvertently and unintended) as negative filters. The only people left in them were the weakest of each wave of immigrants, until they became self-perpetuating reservoirs of some of the weakest elements in Israeli society, with no chance of improving themselves. A fact we can all attest to, in that we all know successful individuals who come from those places - and they live near us, in Jerusalem or in other flourishing cities, but not where they were born.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A very interesting blog about the Jewish refugees from Arab countries: