In the 1950s, the vast waves of emigration of Jews from Arabic-speaking countries to Israel created a need to house all the newcomers and impelled the new state to confront problems of infrastructure. Initially, the newcomers were housed in mahanot olim (immigrant camps) and later in ma’abarot (transit camps.)
Early on, permanent housing was offered to immigrants in Arab neighborhoods and towns that had been vacated after the 1948 war, and later, development towns were constructed to house them. The population dispersal policy aimed to build a series of development towns in peripheral areas in Israel that had been sparsely occupied by Jews; towns such as Be-er Sheva and Ashkelon were classified as development towns. In Acre, Beit She-an, Ramla, and Lod, immigrants were housed in Arab neighborhoods evacuated during the 1948 war; later these towns were also classified as development towns. Some transit camps were transformed into development towns, including Kiryat Shmona, Or Akiva, Kiryat Malichi, and Sderot; from 1955 on, new development towns were built, including Shlomi, Ma-alot, Dimona, Kiryat Gat, and Ashdod. Some immigrants were sent to settle there immediately upon their arrival in Israel. The population dispersal policy incorporated plans for expanding the economic infrastructures that were later deferred, however, due to the country’s economic crisis. As a result, the overall planning of the development towns was only partially implemented and although population planning was successful, the economic infrastructure was never put into place. Moreover, the small older communities adjacent to the development towns refused to collaborate. Thus, the dispersal of the population that should have resulted in integration led to its diametric opposite: immigrants found themselves stranded in outlying regions, without resources, with high unemployment rates, and few if any municipal services. The school system was less than perfect and the development towns failed to overcome their economic distress.1
The canonical Hebrew literature that revolved in the twentieth century around the creation of the “New Jew” and the Sabra image of the native Israeli—who was usually of Ashkenazi origin—chose to locate its protagonists in utopian spaces such as the kibbutz, the moshav, and Jewish cities.2 Israeli [End Page 1] spaces such as transit camps, downtrodden neighborhoods, and development towns were rarely mentioned.
In the 1960s, Shimon Ballas’s Ha-ma-abara (The Transit Camp; 1964)3 was the first to portray the transit camps. The novel describes immigrants from Iraq, living temporarily in the Oriya transit camp, who have no sense of belonging, and are plunged into helplessness. In addition to this novel, other literary works described the harsh conditions in the transit camps, including Sami Michael’s Shavim ve-shavim yoter (All Men Are Equal, But Some Are More So; 1974), and Lev Hakak’s Ha-asufim (Stranger among Brothers; 1977.)4 In Batya Shimoni’s study of transit camp stories, she presents the ma-abara (transit camp) as a liminal space, a location neither here nor there, where the traits of the past no longer exist but those of the future have not yet formed. She maintains that “the transit camp’s central, most prominent quality in all the literary works is that it is ex-territorial,”5 a space viewed as a “non-place,” detached and isolated, a place of mud, dirt, and death, that is often interspersed with a sense of entrapment; the feeling that there is no way out for the protagonists.
In recent decades, tension between the hegemonic-Zionist space and the peripheral space has become an integral facet of Mizrahi literature. The transit camp has given way to descriptions of a neighborhood or a development town. These describe the vibrant life in marginal and peripheral spaces that is engraved in the identities of immigrants as well as the identities of their children. As Batya Shimoni remarks:
As in transit-camp stories, there is a close affinity between the characters’ geo-social living space and their existential condition. But the transit camp was a liminal space with inherent hopes for change, though they were generally dashed, while the neighborhood or development town was usually depicted in literature as...