The city of Sderot (Photo: KRifkind Photography)

The Neglected Zionists


Approximately half of the residents of the Region of Revival (formerly known as the Gaza Envelope) live in Sderot, with a population of some 35,000. Along with Ofakim, Netivot and Ashkelon, among others, these towns were founded in the 1950s to house the hundreds of thousands of Sephardic immigrants then coming to Israel. Typically, these cities, known as עֲיָרוֹת פִּיתּוּחַ (development towns), have been overlooked and considered the periphery of Israeli society. In a 2018 article, Dr. Avi Picard offered a fascinating new look at these towns and the critical role they have played in the Zionist story.

At the beginning of its journey, the Zionist movement had two main tasks: the immigration of Jews to Israel, and the settlement of the entire Land of Israel. In the first waves of Aliyah, when the immigrants were young people imbued with idealism, the connection between the two parts of the Zionist mission was obvious, with olim moving to new settlements all over the Land of Israel. But as the Jewish national home became more established and Israel became a place of refuge for Jews who were suffering and persecuted, the connection between these two ideals became less natural. The suffering and persecuted who arrived in Israel wanted peace and quiet, not additional tasks and challenges of settling new places. Indeed, many of the immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s – the fourth and fifth Aliyot – settled in the big cities, rather than in the periphery of the land.

In 1948, when the great immigration began from the displaced persons camps, Eastern Europe, Iraq and Yemen, they were also settled in ma’abarot and refugee camps close to the populated areas of the country. The peripheral areas of the Negev and central Galilee remained largely empty of Jews.

The mass Aliyah from French North Africa, mainly from Morocco and Tunisia, began in 1954. At that time, a policy was adopted that created a more direct link between immigration and settlement – a “from the ship to the village” policy. This policy resulted in almost all immigrants from North Africa being sent to the periphery, to cities like Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and many more. The 1961 census indicates that immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, who were 13% of the population in Israel, made up 50% of the Negev’s Jewish population but only 3% of the population of Tel Aviv.

Life in the periphery, in the immigrant settlements and the development towns in the north and south, contained many challenges: employment difficulties, few opportunities for high-level education, and above all a negative image. Nevertheless, those who chose to stay in these towns did not feel that they were being punished.

Many Israelis who worked in absorption viewed these people as pioneers. Unwitting pioneers, perhaps, who did not choose this mission, but pioneers fulfilling a national mission nonetheless. Yehuda Berginsky, one of the heads of the absorption department [of the Jewish Agency], said of the Jews of North Africa: “We placed a yoke of mitzvot on them… We told them to be pioneers.” On another occasion, he noted that North African Jews are an asset to Israeli society, due to their great contribution to the settlement of the country. 

The story of the development towns has often been simplified, such as in a 2018 series Sallah, This is Israel, which paints their story more negatively. He portrays the development towns as a form of punishment imposed on the Jews of North Africa in order to keep them away from the veteran Ashkenazi immigrants, and tells the story as if everyone in Yerucham just wanted to escape it. A television series is very powerful in its ability to tell a story and create drama, but often does so at the cost of deviations from the truth. The director’s desire to create drama also led him to rarely mention the great love that the first generation of North African immigrants had for the Land, nor the great dedication of the absorption workers. 

Lova Eliav, the head of the team that established Chevel Lachish, aggressively forced the new immigrants to get off the truck that was taking them to Moshav Otzem – but he also stayed with the immigrants that entire night. The immigrants talk about the difficulties, shock, and manipulations they were subjected to in order to convince them to travel to those distant places – but they also describe how their parents warned them not to speak badly about the Holy Land. Bina Katsover, who moved to Yerucham with her family, relates: “We drove and drove, and early in the morning they dropped us off. [All we saw was] sky and sand. I said to my father: ‘What is this? Is this the Jerusalem you wanted to bring us to?’ He responded: ‘You will not speak slander about the Land of Israel!’” The actress Ruby Porat-Shuval, who also grew up in Yerucham, quotes her mother who said: “This yellow will become gold.”

The development towns were not the penal colonies of Israeli society. They were part of a large state program to spread the Jewish population throughout the country. This plan, which due to its enormous dimensions could not rely solely on the inclination of the hearts of young idealists and the country’s veterans, forced those dependent on the state’s resources to respond to its demands. Indeed, over the years the development towns suffered from many problems. Many of the residents, whose dependence on state resources diminished over time, left the towns.

It is important to understand something else: any criticism of Israel’s policy to move North African immigrants to the periphery can only come from a Zionist point of view, from those who accept the thesis that the State of Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people and not a country of immigration like the USA or Australia. In countries of immigration like the USA, an immigrant arrives at his own expense, and in the best case scenario, the receiving country gives him a work visa. He must find housing and a livelihood on his own. He must come with a certain amount of money in his pocket, or otherwise he will not be allowed to enter. No country of immigration brings in destitute people at its own expense, takes care of housing for them (which may be problematic, dilapidated, or temporary – but at least it takes care to do so!) and feels an obligation to take care of their livelihood. Only in this context – the fact that Israel is the home of the Jewish people and not a standard country of immigration – can the Zionist act be criticized. The first generation of immigrants understood this, and felt that they had arrived home.

Today, after more than sixty years, it is difficult to continue to look at the development towns as fate-stricken places that one should stay away from. [Former] Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri argues that the presentation of the southern development towns in the Sallah series is a heinous injustice. He himself witnessed the enormous change in these towns. In the 1980s, when he was the director of the Ministry of the Interior, he met with the mayor of Dimona, who asked him to demolish buildings where most of the apartments were abandoned and used as drug dens. Today, Deri pointed out, not only are those apartments full, but in all the towns new agreements are being signed to build tens of thousands of new housing units.

Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants, pioneers that Israeli society should recognize and cherish, enabled the establishment of these towns during difficult and challenging years. Negev towns are much more attractive today. They are not filled with new immigrants who have no choice, but with people who choose to come there of their own free will. Young people who grew up in these towns choose to return there to build their own homes, and many others are also choosing to relocate there. 

The major correction that Israeli society must make is to properly acknowledge and respect the pioneering work of the residents of the development towns. The initiative to establish museums about the foundation of the development towns is an important corrective step. The pioneers who built the Land without fanfare deserve to be added as pearls in the crown of Israeli pioneering. 

The poet Erez Biton beautifully captured the feelings of the first generation of immigrants, quoting his father: 

“Better half a house in the Land of Israel
Than many good and beautiful houses in the Diaspora…”

● Originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon, April 2018 


Dr. Avi Picard is a lecturer in the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a resident of Yerucham.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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