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Reviewed by:
  • Immigrants in Turmoil
  • Rita Simon
Immigrants in Turmoil, by Dvora Hacohen. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003. 325 pp. $24.95.

Israel's absorption of more than 600,050 immigrants in the first three years of its existence is one of the miracles associated with the establishment of the Jewish state. Between 1948 and 1950 most of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe (Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria especially). In 1951, over 100,000 immigrants came from the Middle East, primarily Iraq, as opposed to less than 50,000 from Eastern and Western Europe. By 1952, the mass "aliyot" dropped drastically to less than 25,000 in 1952 and to only about ten thousand in 1953. Indeed in 1952, 13,571 and in 1953, 13,015 emigrated from Israel as compared to the 10,347 who arrived. The author explains this shift in the numbers arriving as opposed to those departing as a result of the exhaustion of Holocaust survivors and of Jews living in Arab countries between 1948 and 1951.

The major thrust of Dvora Hacohen's analysis is a discussion of the policies, practices, and debates within various units of the Israeli government, vis a vis the absorption of immigrants to the newly established Jewish state. The author gives special prominence to the dreams and aspirations of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. Ben Gurion called upon Jews all over the world to immigrate to Israel as soon as possible. In 1950 the Law of Return was adopted which granted every Jew, living anywhere, the right to "return" and gain immediate Israeli citizenship. Hacohen quotes Ben Gurion "This is not a Jewish State simply because Jews constitute the majority of inhabitants; this is a state for Jews wherever they be, for every Jew who may deserve it."

Immigrants in Turmoil details the policies and treatment vis a vis each cohort of immigrants as they arrived in the newly established state between 1948 and 1953. It examines the relative treatment the holocaust victims, the Jews from Eastern Europe, the Jews from Arab lands, especially Iraq and Yemen, received during those years. Were [End Page 184] some immigrants treated better than others? In Hacohen's view the answer is clearly yes; and it is the European immigrants as opposed to the immigrants from Arab countries who were given preferential treatment.

By the end of 1950, nearly 100,000 immigrants were living in camps, and in 1951 the numbers rose to 250,000. Much of the author's account of the miracle of Israel's immigration absorption in the first three years following independence focuses on the establishment of immigration camps (Ma'abarot) in which immigrants mostly from North Africa lived for years.

The Jewish agency had not anticipated having to establish such camps because they greatly underestimated the number of immigrants who would arrive in Israel immediately following the establishment of the state. Health problems grew more and more serious as the number of persons living in the camps increased and the number of nurses and doctors, especially pediatricians, declined. Infant mortality rates rose dramatically from 29 deaths per thousand in the years immediately proceeding statehood to 52 per thousand in the camps in 1949.

The health problems in the camps became so severe that public opinion favored restrictions on immigration. In addition to the severe health problems there were other problems, such as controversies between the religious parties and the labor movement over education. The religious parties sought and finally won the battle to establish religious school in the Yemenite camps. Hacohen estimates that as late as the middle of 1952, 250,000 people, one sixth of Israel's Jewish population, were still living in the camps. By the end of 1954, the number dropped to 88,000.

In the last chapter the author updates the immigration story with an account of the immigrants who came to Israel from the then Soviet Union in the 1970s and then later in the 1990s. These immigrants included a large population of professionals and academics (doctors, scientists, musicians). A brief account is also provided of the 25,000 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived, first in 1984, and then in 1991.



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