Commentary Magazine

Israel's New European Immigrants
"Not a Burden, but a Stimulus"

As a result of the Hungarian revolution, which swept many Jews out in the stream of refugees that it created; the Sinai campaign, which forced Egyptian Jewry to leave their homes; and, above all, as a result of the opening of Poland’s doors to Jewish emigration, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 new immigrants came to Israel during the year ending September 1957. The number of arrivals at Haifa varied from day to day, sometimes reaching the thousand mark, rarely falling below five hundred; only in the last few weeks has the stream begun to dwindle. Since this new mass immigration has certain economic characteristics that distinguish it from the large-scale influx of Jews transplanted from the Moslem countries to Israel in the preceding six years, the Israeli government regards it not as a burden but as a stimulus to the country’s economy.

The Jewish Agency—responsible for organizing the transport of immigrants, distributing them throughout the country upon their arrival, and looking after them during the first year of their stay—faced the new influx with a greatly reduced staff of only six hundred officials; there had been three thousand during the 1950-55 peakperiod of immigration from the Moslem countries. But the comparatively small staff was armed with experience and a notable gift for improvisation.

In Europe, the Agency set up several collecting centers to handle the Jews coming out of Russia via Poland and out of Poland itself, as well as the Jewish refugees from Hungary who wished to settle in Israel. The principle of “selective immigration”—allowing only those who could work to be admitted into the country—went by the board, but some attempt was made to fit the numerical size of each transport to the amount of shelter immediately available in Israel.

On board the transport vessels, Agency officials, equipped with lists of the available housing, attempted to persuade the immigrants to stay away from the big cities and try their luck in “development areas”—that is, the outlying regions where agricultural labor is in demand, or the newly founded towns in the Negev. A cable sent ahead to the Agency in Israel specified the number of immigrants aboard, and their individual inclinations and professional skills; by the time the newcomers landed at Haifa, a plan for their geographical distribution was ready.

The men, women, and children of the 1950-55 mass immigration had been crowded into the abandoned Arab towns and villages, into camps and the ramshackle temporary dwellings known as ma-abarot. When the wave subsided, a determined effort was inaugurated to do away with the ma-abarot and transfer as many people as possible to permanent housing. Now again, ma-abarot began going up, but more sturdily built and better equipped than the old ones; indeed, to dissociate them from the dilapidated wooden and aluminum huts of the past, the designation ma-abarot was dropped. But even these new quarters offered no more than the barest necessities: water in the tiny kitchen of the two-room flat, an inside shower, a minimum of furniture; food for the first few days was also provided, and a little cash. The immigrants had, of course, no ready money of their own, but many of them had managed to carry along all their possessions (including articles bought with the idea of selling them in Israel), so that the tiny houses were soon crammed with packing cases and furniture, with books, radios, even sewing machines and pianos.

Permanent housing schemes were soon being pushed by the Jewish Agency and the Labor Ministry (the government department in charge of public housing), who began whipping up public, semi-public, and private building societies to furious activity. No sooner was a new dwelling completed than someone moved into it, often with the plaster still wet on the walls. Despite all this activity and despite the attempts to fit the size of transports from Europe to housing capacity in Israel, there was more than one case of families having to double up in a single asbestos hut. Gratifyingly, such cases have been the exception.



The immigrants can be divided roughly into three categories. There is, first, the upper layer of scientists, members of the professions, highly skilled technicians, journalists, artists, and a few army officers. The second category consists of people who are either altogether unskilled or experienced in trades already overcrowded in Israel—cobblers, tailors, peddlers. These immigrants will have to be trained for factory or agricultural work. And finally, among the new immigrants there is a considerable number of social cases—widows with small children, invalids, and helpless elderly folk. This means additional burden for the Ministry of Social Welfare, and for the Municipalities and local councils. The concessions for the various shops needed in the new ma-abarot have been reserved for this third class of immigrant, and provision has been made for care of the children.

Israel, however, long starved for skill owing to the relatively primitive character of the immigration from the Oriental countries, badly needs the kind of trained personnel who make up the first category, and they have accordingly received special treatment. The densely populated coastal belt—virtually closed to new immigrants for years—was again thrown open; obviously, scientists and doctors, artists and industrial experts would appear to belong in the big towns. Temporary housing was erected near Tel Aviv and provisional quarters for members of the professions began going up alongside the fashionable hotels of Herzliah. To coordinate housing with employment, one survey was completed of opportunities for skilled workers in the various fields, and another (of jobs opening up in the near future) was undertaken.

Many of these immigrants from Europe could go to friends and relatives in Israel for advice or help, and the all-important “protektziah” (contact with the right people). But the scientists or members of the professions would turn also to the rapidly expanding “Anglo-Saxon” department of the Jewish Agency. This department was founded some years ago for the purpose of guiding immigrants from English-speaking countries whose occupational qualifications were higher than those of the Oriental Jew’s, but who—having been used to a comfortable standard of living and having generally been free to return to their country of origin if they felt dissatisfied with Israel—also made much greater demands. Three steps were taken by the Anglo-Saxon department to meet this situation: it created “Patwa,” an employment agency for highly skilled people; it opened a chain of hostels to provide comfortable and not too expensive housing; and it organized ulpanim, schools to teach Hebrew. All three enterprises have gained in importance as a result of the new wave of European immigration.

“Patwa” recently moved to spacious and well-appointed offices where its personnel began dealing with long queues of people who no longer spoke only English but a bewildering variety of languages, with Polish easily topping the list, followed by Russian, Yiddish, and Hungarian. Many of the immigrants were advanced in years, and often they showed up with whole sheaves of documents—certificates from high schools, universities, scientific institutions.1

Occasionally, it was easy to find jobs for them, since there were plants which had been crying out for expert technicians. But in the majority of cases, a period of looking around was necessary to avoid fitting square pegs into round holes. In the 30’s, when German Jews were fleeing from Europe into Israel, a good number of the doctors, scientists, teachers, and writers among them—in deference to economic necessity and Zionist doctrine—had to become raisers of poultry and vegetables and founders of settlements. (Many of these “square pegs” returned to their former callings as new opportunities appeared with the doubling of the population over the last ten years.) Today wasting the knowledge and training of a doctor or a physicist would be inconceivable; Israelis have learned what it costs to raise a new generation of professional men and to safeguard a high standard of skill.



But preferential treatment in housing or loans, and even the prospect of a job, are useless if the newly arrived teacher or physician knows no Hebrew. And here the ulpanim take over. Six of these institutions operate as boarding schools and several others as day schools. About thirty more are located in kibbutzim, where young immigrants spend four hours a day working and four studying Hebrew.

The ulpanim, however, teach not only Hebrew, but Zionism and the history of Zionist settlement, Hebrew songs and the secrets of Israeli politics. In effect, they are centers of indoctrination for people who come from a completely different world; about 20,000 pupils have passed through them in the last eight years. Living conditions in the boarding school ulpanim are tolerable but by no means luxurious, and the course of study is intensive and hard. The course takes between four and five months to complete; for each full session, the six boarding schools between them have room for more than a thousand pupils. Only those for whom the language constitutes a necessary qualification for work are supposed to be admitted. Yet every vacancy is fought over, for a mastery of Hebrew means the sole approach to a steady job in his own field for many an immigrant.

The kibbutzim which serve as ulpanim cater mainly to immigrants who are between eighteen and thirty years old, and they hope to attract a certain percentage of the pupils to permanent kibbutz life. New economic opportunities and a certain mistrust of ideological propaganda have worked together in recent years to diminish the number of young Israelis willing to enter a kibbutz, while the University in Jerusalem and the Technion in Haifa have been drawing many kibbutzniks away to study. The kibbutz movement, which saw in the new immigration an opportunity to replenish its dwindling supply of members, sent representatives to Europe last year to do recruiting work. On the face of it, the kibbutzim had much to offer: a place to live, an education for the children, economic security. But despite these attractions, and despite the fact that the government and the Jewish Agency allocated a considerable sum for setting up new housing in the settlements, promising the immigrants an opportunity to leave the kibbutz after a year or two without losing their rights to employment and housing outside, the results were not encouraging. The new immigrants, especially those from behind the Iron Curtain who remember the kolkhoz, proved deeply suspicious of anything communal.

Unlike the academically trained professionals, the skilled industrial worker can often be fited into a job even with a superficial knowledge of Hebrew. But the interests of these immigrants frequently clash with those of old-timers who are also in the market for the better jobs. There have, indeed, been cases in which the Jewish Agency found a job for a new immigrant in a factory only to have the local labor exchange protest violation of tor—the regular order of job precedence.



In sum, the present immigration has been better cared for than any previous; it was almost inevitable that the cry of discrimination would be raised. Why should Europeans get better houses than were provided for Orientals? Why has the coastal belt suddenly been opened? Why should officials high up in the government go out of their way to help this or that individual?

The Jewish Agency indignantly denied that discrimination was being practiced. In answer to the charge that newcomers from Europe were given houses originally earmarked for people who had been living in nearby ma-abarot for years, Agency officials pointed out that in many cases these people preferred to stay in their rent-free dilapidated wooden huts. But both the complaint of discrimination and the Agency’s answer seem odd, based as they are on the concept of absolute equality which underlies political thinking in Israel. In most countries it would appear perfectly natural for a physician to be granted a larger housing loan by the government than an unskilled laborer, since his greater earning power makes him a safer risk. And it would also appear justified for him to get a better house, since he needs light and running water to do his work. Israelis do not easily accept such considerations. Moreover, the heat of the charges was perhaps partly due to the fact that there was a question here of a different treatment for Europeans as against Orientals.




The immediate effect of the new mass immigration on the economy has been to create a boom. An influx of 100,000 people means full employment for the building trades, including the many factories which produce materials and accessories; it means increased sales of furniture, food, clothing; it means an expansion of the public social services, and therefore new jobs. The many millions of dollars poured in various forms into the country by the Jewish Agency began circulating quickly, and consumer demand has been rising proportionately. As long as this increased demand only stimulates a more intensive exploitation of existing production facilities, it can be of great benefit to the economy. But as soon as demand comes to exceed supply, inflation must result. Some economists believe that an inflationary condition has already set in. Six months after the new immigration began, a rise in the cost-of-living index (which is linked in Israel to wages) caused wages to go up again in July.

Another danger point will be reached, paradoxically, when the majority of immigrants finally are employed. For as a consumer supported by the public purse, the immigrant acts as a stimulant on the economy, but the moment he begins to produce, he becomes a competitor, since he has to sell his product in a market. That is not expanding quickly enough. The main problem now bothering the government and Israeli economists is how to prevent duplication of economic function and consequent waste of manpower in the employment of the new arrivals.

The obvious method is to put the immigrants to work on development projects, and this is why the Jewish Agency adopted the policy of transferring many of them directly from their ship to the Negev, to border settlements, or to hill regions. But even in such areas employment possibilities have lagged behind the number of job-seekers. This is not surprising, for, following the usual practice, the government has populated the areas to be developed before factories and farms are quite ready to provide jobs. The town of Dimona, located at a fork in the road from Beer Sheba to Sodom and Eilat, is a case in point. It was planned as a residential area for the potash workers in Sodom (where the climate is intolerable), but situated in a desolate desert, without water, this town has been struggling along painfully. Now the Minister of Industry has proposed a plan for building textile factories in Dimona, and entrepreneurs are being encouraged, with promises of roads, water, electric power, big loans, etc., etc., to cooperate with the scheme—which is one of the many signs that the government is trying desperately to shift the economic center of gravity to the South.



But the present boom is only a thin veneer overlaying the deep-seated problems of the Israeli economy, and these cannot be solved by plans for developing the South—plans which are themselves economically risky. The main trouble is Israel’s inability to compete on the international market. Israeli goods—due to excessive costs of production resulting from the disparity between high wages on the one hand and low output and efficiency on the other—are far too expensive. The whole economic system, in fact, is kept going by a complicated arrangement of open and disguised subsidies, all backed by aid from America and other sources. Many economists believe that reform of the system is necessary to make it possible for Israel to achieve “economic independence”—that is, to liberate herself from outside help by standing on her own feet in international competition.

Recently Prime Minister Ben Gurion declared that Israel would have to sacrifice economic independence to immigration. If this implies only that Israel under present conditions cannot finance the absorption of 100,000 immigrants without outside help, then it is no more than a truism. But if Ben Gurion intended to say that Israel cannot become independent as long as immigration continues, then the outlook for economic reform seems very dim indeed.

Reform will, however, be forced on the Israeli economy sooner or later. In agriculture, the pressing need for changes has already become obvious. Now that eggs, vegetables, milk, and fruit are being produced in great enough quantities to saturate the domestic market, new crops must be introduced, demanding new systems of management and bigger farms. This means that agricultural settlement in the traditional form of moshavim and kibbutzim will no longer do. Both the kibbutz and the moshav developed out of ideological considerations under the British Mandate when land was at a premium, and when the Palestinian Jews concentrated mainly on the protective foods like eggs, milk, and fruit—relying on the Arab fellah to produce the grains and basic foods, and on their own position as members of the sterling bloc to dismiss any worry about currency or export.

All this changed with the establishment of the state. Land became abundantly available as a result of the flight of the Palestinian Arabs and the extension of irrigation; the Israeli farmer, moreover, could no longer depend on imports and on the Arab fellah to feed the population. Increased agricultural production became the major aim, but since the hungry market snapped up everything provided, no heed was paid to costs of production.

The first important change in the agricultural system came with the introduction four years ago of industrial crops—cotton, sugar beet, and peanuts—which led to the creation of the so-called administrative farms. These are owned by a company founded by the Histadrut and they are managed by expert foremen; it may well be that they will eventually force open the rigid pattern of collectivism of the kibbutzim and moshavim, which has, up to now, served as the organizing principle for cultivating the land.

While the cry for additional collective settlements is still strong and echoed by many who continue to believe that the farmer is the embodiment of the new type of Jew created in Israel, it is widely recognized that additional employment possibilities on a large scale can be found only in industry. But what sort of industry should be fostered? As far as the Negev is concerned, the exploitation of its minerals is the obvious center of interest. The Minister of Development recently outlined a plan to make the minerals of the Dead Sea (potash, phosphates, flint clays, copper) the basis for settling 100,000 people in the “Far South.” Others pin their hopes on the development of industrial production in the South aimed at export markets in Africa and Asia. Though all these plans and hopes are still rather vague, they embody the growing awareness among Israelis that development of the economy must be planned in accordance with the principle of profitability, that Israel must aim at earning her own keep. The temporary boom arising from the new immigration has caused many in Israel to forget the basic economic problems of the country, but in the long run it will be seen that the exciting possibilities opened by this influx can only be exploited by a wise policy of economic expansion.

A word must be said about the prospect of assimilating the new immigration into Israeli life. Few of the newcomers are Zionists, and most of the young people among them—particularly the ones from Hungary, Russia, and Poland—have had very little to do with things Jewish. There are those who have seen their world crash in ruins twice in a lifetime—first when they had to flee from the Nazis, and then when unexpected political changes in Egypt and behind the Iron Curtain convinced them that they would be safe only in Israel. They have few illusions and will struggle fiercely to regain the status and material comfort they enjoyed in their countries of origin. Some of the officials who have been dealing with them fear that they pose problems to the state as grave as those posed by the displaced persons who were brought to Israel in 1949-50. Others glory in the knowledge that Israel is once again being settled by Europeans, people, who know how to work and many of whom represent a high level of civilization. Both the fear and the exaltation appear to be justified.



1 During the winter months of 1956-57, for example, no less than 270 physicians arrived in Israel.


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