Immigrants in Turmoil: Mass Immigration to Israel and Its Repercussions in the 1950s and after, by Dvora Hacohen

Article excerpt

Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003. 325 pp. $49.95.

This book is a slightly revised English translation of an earlier book which appeared in Hebrew in 1994. It is one of the only historically oriented analyses of the mass immigration to Israel during the first years of the new states existence: 1948-1951. During this period 685,761 immigrants arrived in Israel, more than doubling the Jewish population. On the whole the English version is of high quality and is comfortably readable. Inevitably there are a few bloopers which reflect the Hebrew original: "Jews of the East" (p. 4) rather than "Jews from the Middle East and North Africa"; "American capitalists" (p. 235) rather than American "contributors."

The substance of the book may be gleaned from its eight chapter tides: policy in the making; policy put to the test; financial crisis and policy implications; from immigrant camps to ma'abarot; the conflict over education; confronting the old-timers; changes in immigration and absorption policy; immigration during 1948-1998 and its ramifications on Israeli society. The text is enhanced by selected black-and-white photos which enliven the presentation and give the reader a sense of what life in situ looked like.

The principal theme of the book is the on-going tension between the official policy of open, unselected immigration and the desire of some policy makers to introduce selection criteria. In the face of a strong ideologically oriented mythology, the latter views were expressed only in restricted political contexts and were hardly aired in the public domain. It is the author's goal to demonstrate that there were many dissenting views to the overall policy of open, unselected immigration during the first years of the state's existence. The reservations were expressed by pragmatists, most of whom were involved in the practical, almost impossible tasks of immigrant "absorption" in a society with an undeveloped infrastructure, limited economic resources, inadequate health care personnel and facilities, a multitude of competing organizations with undefined responsibilities, and the need to develop and maintain an army in the face of ongoing hostility from neighboring countries. The reservations took the form of uncertainty as to whether the newly established state could cope with thousands of immigrants, many of whom were sick, disabled, and aged and who required a tremendous investment in health care as well as economic and social support before they could become productive members of the society.

However, the single-mindedness of the leadership and principally the unshakable stance of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who was convinced that without immigration Israel could not exist, determined the unswerving policy for open, unrestricted immigration -- despite tremendous hardship for the immigrants. …