Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Adar II 5760 - March 29, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Only the Young and Healthy Were Invited

By S. Fried

A new study exposes more chapters of the selection policy in Zionist immigration to Israel. The endless debate of whether "professional considerations," ideological grounds or mere arrogance motivated the selection conducted by the establishment has not reached a consensus. One investigation after another -- but the wound has not healed until this very day.

The debate about the early stages of Zionist immigration turns about the issue of the motive of the Zionist enterprise. Was the movement to establish a state driven by a desire to somehow benefit the Jewish people -- or were the Jewish people merely seen as a means to establish a state? The practice of selective immigration suggests the latter.

"We create severe problems in the country because there is no investigation of the background of the immigrants. All of us clearly understand that during wartime, we need immigrants whom we are able to absorb into Eretz Yisroel, into the army or the work force. We are not able to open old age homes and homes for the crippled. What did they do? They took the weak and elderly and flew them to the country in airplanes, because it is hard for them to travel on ships . . . What will we do with these people without taking care of them? Is this absorption, bringing them to the shores of the land and abandoning them to their fate?"

Minister of Treasury of the new government of Israel in about 1950, Eliezer Kaplan, was worried about the young country's inability to absorb problematic immigrants and provide for their special needs. In a government discussion, he brought up the possibility of selection for prospective immigrants and allowing in only those who could contribute to the country and not those who would need immediate care.

"It was very logical, considering the conditions of those days," Dr. Shifra Shwartz, who investigated health policies of the country's early years, told Yated Ne'eman. Her book, Kupat Cholim, Histadrut, Government: Factors in Molding the Israeli Health System in its Early Years, 1947- 1960, contains a few chapters on the medical selection policies of immigrants.

Dr. Shwartz lectures in the department of medical policy in the Ben Gurion University Medical School in the Negev, and has published a book about Kupat Cholim Clalit, the largest national Israeli health management organization. She recently investigated the Israeli health system in its early years, going as far back as the twenties and thirties. "I have concluded," she told us, "that already in the twenties there was some kind of selection of immigrants according to their health conditions."

Send Them Back

Many youth who came to the country as chalutzim, pioneers, for individual or Zionist reasons, collapsed physically or emotionally here, due to the difficult conditions, loneliness and separation from the family abroad. "It is enough to see," Dr. Shwartz says, "that a number of graves of those youth say that they committed suicide."

In order to save other youths from a similar fate, the Jewish Agency sent them back to their country of origin. In 1930 one of the Jewish Agency members wrote, "We are of the opinion that from all aspects, it is advantageous to enable all kinds of invalids to leave the country. The 240 infirm whom we sent back in the past years, which cost us about 1000- 1500 lira, would have cost the public 1000 lira a month [in care]."

Dr. Shwartz determined, "The policy of an organized return of sick immigrants to their country of origin was accepted by the Right and Left in the Jewish Agency [Sochnut] and in Zionist institutions. National consensus supported them."

In 1952, six children from Casablanca immigrated to Israel in a "youth aliya." In those days, Morocco was under French control and its gates were open. Many families preferred to remain in Morocco, due to fear of harsh conditions in Israel or from a desire to liquidate their businesses slowly. But the Jewish Agency agents feared a slowdown in aliya and convinced parents to send their children ahead in a youth transport.

Armand Dayan, Armand Cohen, Chaim Ozer Zor, Solomon Rebibo, Albert Amor and Yaakov Sabach, all aged 13-15, were unable to adjust. They repeatedly ran away from the camp and were caught stealing small items and picking pockets. The official consensus: Send them back to Casablanca. According to documentation, the parents had no choice but to agree to accept them.

The boys' return to Morocco aroused a public storm. A committee of Moroccan immigrants wrote to the prime minister then, David Ben Gurion, "We remain full of wonder and astonishment. Six boys triumphed over an entire country and its institutions. Six twelve- to thirteen-year old Moroccan boys conquered the state of Israel, which did not surrender to seven Arab countries. The question is how did those who sent them back take upon themselves the responsibility to send them to a life of exile, to ruin and destruction . . . Did they send back all sick and psychopathic immigrants from all different countries since the State was established?"


Chaim Malca, in his book The Selection: Selection and Discrimination in the Immigration and Absorption of Moroccan and North African Jews in 1948-1956, cites the sad story of the six Moroccan boys as proof of the systematic discrimination against North African Jews. Dr. Shifra Shwartz thinks that he is mistaken: There were people sent back before that too.

"Chaim Malca," Dr. Shwartz told us, "took the documents and quoted them selectively. It is very easy for him to disclose the documents that suit his purpose and ignore the rest."

Dr. Shwartz said that she read 5000 documents and it comes out that discrimination on a health basis, at least, was not at all initiated by the government or Jewish Agency or any other Zionist cause. The initiative was completely medical, promoted by Dr. Meir and Dr. Sheba (there are hospitals named after both of them today), who had been directors of the Ministry of Health. According to her, there was no differentiation between European Jews and Asian and African Jews. The selection was only a practical one and was based on the degree of danger in the country of origin.

The words seem to be a post facto defense of the Zionist establishment, which contradicts all the "new historians," but Dr. Shwartz's opinion should definitely be heard because it is also based on many documents.

Displaced Persons

The first significant selection took place before the country was established and dealt specifically with European Jews. Holocaust survivors, broken in body and spirit, were gathered in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Rumania and wanted to build new lives in Eretz Yisroel. The British still ruled the country and allotted a scarce amount of certificates for immigrants.

"The British did not mix in the Zionist institutions' deliberations," Dr. Shwartz quotes. But, because of the limited budget, it was logical that the right of immigration was first given to the young and healthy. According to her, the country's medical infrastructure was not equipped to absorb thousands of severely ill and emotionally weak Jews. It was better to obtain medical care abroad and then bring them up to Eretz Yisroel, as was actually done.

The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or simply "Joint"), which was in charge of the camps then, gathered money to send the ill, especially those with tuberculosis, to medical facilities in Colorado, U.S.A. and Davos, Switzerland, and planned to bring them to Israel after they recovered.

After the State

The selection forced by insufficient immigration certificates soon became a selection based on the pitiful financial situation of the young country after independence was declared and the gates were legally open. A memorandum that Dr. Grushka sent to the Joint said that the medical expenses, until the end of 1950, for a quarter of a million immigrants will amount to about two and a half million lira, while the medical budget of the entire country was only 700,000 lira. The unofficial conclusion was that the Joint should distinguish between the sick and healthy. They were especially concerned about those sick with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, and the mentally ill.

Rumors about the medical information that the Joint sent to medical authorities in Israel aroused terror among the holocaust survivors. Whereas previously they had been happy to pour out their problems to the medical service of the Joint, now they began to hesitate about divulging their problems and even to avoid treatment.

Dr. Chartok, who worked in the DP camps, wrote that "a small amount of ill, fearing their lot on German land, managed to make aliya without a license from the immigration department. Feelings of terror are so pervasive among the camp members who had been in concentration camps that it supersedes all logical considerations, and the immigrants are not taking into consideration the possibility of infecting others."

Meanwhile, the focus turned towards North Africa. The enthusiasm for the possibility of "free immigration," "The Law of Return," (the first one) and "a country for all Jews" turned into a type of feeling of capitalism, protection of the existing, and a fear of changing the image of the young country due to many different types of immigrants. The country's leaders and doctors who controlled the health policies were overcome with fear of North African immigrants, but meanwhile blamed it on medical considerations. It was very hard for the government to speak openly about limiting immigration, for any reason, but private conversations contained harsh words with this implication.

Moshe (Chaim) Schapiro of the "United Religious Front," who was Minister of Health, already said in the government's assembly, "There is another serious matter -- selecting among immigrants . . . There is too high a percentage of elderly and sick immigrating who are not fit for war nor work . . . Instead of a weak Jew, we can bring in a Jew who is capable of working or fighting."

War or work. It was for this that they needed immigration.

Taking into consideration that the elderly were mainly from North Africa (only the young and healthy survived the Holocaust, Dr. Shwartz points out), it is likely that they were already suspicious of these immigrants then, who did not appear to be fit for war or work.

Minister of Interior Yitzhak Greenbaum, infamous for his attitude towards chareidim as well, suggested a categorical ban on the immigration of the sick and elderly, with no exceptions. As an example, he cited rumors of a profusion of harsh, contagious diseases among the Casablanca immigrants and called for stopping their immigration. He added righteously, "I am saying this name only as an example, but it is not only applicable to the Casablanca Jews." With these words, he continued and revealed his inner thoughts: We must also examine the ideological affiliation of the immigrants, not only their health, and prevent immigration of those who are far from Zionism before immigration.

Then Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who had been such an enthusiastic advocate of free immigration when it was restricted by the British, did not hesitate to say in a meeting of "Coordination Committee" (the body that coordinated between the government and Jewish Agency on matters of immigration and absorption) that "there are many sick immigrants and we must prevent that. We must prevent harsh diseases."

At the same time, he said that "we are on the threshold of a different aliya, not only in its quantity, but in its quality, than the last aliya [from Europe]. The masses of immigrants who will come now . . . will come mainly from Jewish centers that are weak in material and spirit . . . The nature of the settlement may be damaged and the pioneering image dimmed."

Dr. Shifra Shwartz cites these quotes in her book (chapter four), which prove that there was indeed discrimination against North African Jews as Chaim Malca points out. In conversation with us, she maintains her opinion that there was selection only in cases where the Jews did not appear to be in danger in their country of origin. When there was a suspicion that the gates would be locked, the Jews were brought up to Israel without discrimination.

A plague broke out among Yemenite immigrants in a camp in Aden in September of 1948, she relates. Dr. Meir went there to treat them with onsite primary care. After they all immigrated, they continued treatment in Israel. Ben Gurion also authorized a special camp under army supervision for youth from North Africa who were plagued with ringworm and trachoma.

In addition to the public and private controversy over the attitudes towards immigrants, realization of the slogan of free immigration versus financial difficulties and changing the image of the country's population, battles were waged over the status of Kupat Cholim and the Histadrut. Even then, the general Kupat Cholim feared it would lose its monopoly. Even then, Dr. Sheba, who wanted to establish a military medical service in Tel Litvinsky camp [Tel Hashomer, which is also named Sheba Hospital after him today], spoke about the necessity of a mandatory government health law.

In the beginning, members of the "medical service for immigrants," established by the Jewish Agency in 1944 on the recommendation of Dr. Meir, then director of the general Kupat Cholim, treated the ill. The men of Kupat Cholim, however, were not happy to relinquish the key to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

"During 1946-1948, Kupat Cholim in conjunction with Hadassah helped the organization for health services for immigrants who were sent to Cyprus and even hired professional doctors for immigrant camps at the fund's expense. At the beginning of 1948, when the immigrants were promised to be freed from Cyprus, Kupat Cholim sent a special group of doctors who conducted medical examinations on 25,000 immigrants in preparation for aliya." [These were immigrants from Europe, it should be emphasized.]

Dr. Shwartz relates that after the Israeli government was established, Kupat Cholim tried again and again to take control of the medical service for immigrants. "Kupat Cholim understood," Dr. Shwartz said, "that treatment of the immigrants is a powerful political tool that would ensure the fund's status in the country's health system. Soroka (chairman of Kupat Cholim who also has a hospital named after him today) wrote a letter to Dr. Meir on October 17, 1948, in which he emphasized that the question of treatment of immigrants and future government workers would determine the fund's status as well as that of the Histadrut, the Israeli workers' union.

For the first time, Soroka depicted the opposition and contradiction between the Histadrut's interests and fund's: "If medical assistance will be arranged straight from the government," he wrote, "this will be a harsh blow to Kupat Cholim. If [treatment] is entrusted to Kupat Cholim, the country will demand that all those receiving help will not be required to become Histadrut members which will be a harsh blow to the Histadrut, which does not want to agree to it. The very care of the immigrants is controversial -- if it should belong to the Jewish Agency or the Israeli government. Each side explains that the responsibility must lie on the other side."

Indeed, exemplary concern. Pinchas Lavon, then secretary of the Histadrut, cites an extreme example of concern for immigrants that was actually concern for the Histadrut's status. According to Dr. Shwartz, Lavon publicly called for limiting immigration from eidot hamizrach who were ideologically opposed to the Histadrut's outlook, but they did not refuse them as members of the Histadrut. He proposed to Yeruchom Mashal not to prevent immigrants from joining the Histadrut. Anyone who wanted to join the Histadrut was accepted, under the assumption that a larger membership would strengthen the Histadrut's status, even if the members were immigrants who lacked ideological connections to their principles.

Genetic Engineering

Dr. Shwartz emphasizes that Ben Gurion and Lavon's doubts pertaining to the selection of immigrants remained ideological and it was the doctors who advocated medical selection. And perhaps post facto it became clear that the two areas were interrelated.

Even the medical considerations were not so unambiguous. Whereas in the beginning, deliberations were based on lack of money and inability to quickly expand the hospitalization and treatment services that were built for the small Jewish population present before the state of Israel was established, afterwards medical considerations multiplied as everyone added his own reasons.

We already saw that there was a fear of contagious diseases, especially open tuberculosis, turning into a plague in the country, but the doctors probably did not think they were overreacting in the "protection" of the settlement when they starting getting involved in genetic topics as well. Dr. Sheba, who was the director of the Ministry of Health and had a major influence on Ben Gurion, did not hesitate to disqualify an entire congregation and abandon it in exile because of a fear of genetic disease. He knew that the community of Kosan was prone to the elephantiasis disease, which causes an enlargement of the hand and feet of adults aged 45 and turns them into cripples who are unable to work, in addition to its being contagious. Only after it was proved that the disease was eradicated from this community and there is no reason to fear bringing them up to Israel, did Sheba withdraw his active opposition, but he did not back down from his opposition in principle.

"He cited examples of various genetic theories that proved that nations who did not prevent independent selection were flawed in their national quality." If one may say so, we might say that Sheba certainly supported the Nazi theory, but in any case he definitely crossed the fine line between scientific genetic theories and racism.

A proof that the medical selection was to a large degree an ideological one can be found in the later years of aliya. In 1953, when it became clear that the scope of immigration was significantly small and many Jews from North Africa were refusing to immigrate, the country suddenly began to court these Jews. (Perhaps it was to justify the intensive fundraising among the established western Jews.) Those who opposed selection, like Yitzhak Rafael, maintained that selection caused a standstill in immigration.

Natan Alterman, who was the "national poet" and expressed his opinion on practical matters in his column in the newspaper The Seventh Column, told about a girl who refused to leave because her parents were not permitted to immigrate. "That girl, who crouched everyday from morning until evening / On the entrance steps of the office of immigration / Unmoving because the office announced / That she was going to depart on a ship / If she abandons her father or her mother / So they say, she crouched quiet and shrunken / And probably thus she remains crouching / And probably thus, as she waits until embarrassment / And does not go in a ship to the sea / She fought with us on the commandment of human dignity / And perhaps, somewhat of the dignity of the nation."


It seems that something penetrated into the consciousness of the nation's leaders. In light of Ben Gurion's assessment, Dr. Shwartz relates, that the medical selection, and to a much larger degree the social selection, had a negative effect on the desire to immigrate, especially among North African Jews, Dr. Sheba proposed adopting much more liberal criteria for the health of immigration candidates. The general proposal was that there would be a "family selection." If the whole family wanted to immigrate and only one of them would be a financial burden, the entire family would be allowed to come.

In 1954 conditions became even more lenient and it was decided that those sick with trachoma and ringworm, relatively easy diseases to treat, may immigrate if they had a means of livelihood.

This did not significantly change the picture of immigration. The disappointment the North African immigrants feel today stems from the absorption conditions in Israel and a feeling of discrimination by the Ashkenazim and it then caused the more established Jews to remain in Morocco and Tunisia. Some of them immigrated a few years later, when Morocco became independent (and Arab). A few remain there until today.

It is interesting that in 1956, when Morocco started closing its gates and immigration from there became a matter of rescue, once again European immigrants were openly favored over Eastern ones. In that year, there was a political chance that gates of the Iron Curtain would open, and the country's leaders were very happy as they feared that Israel was becoming a "Levantine country" due to excess immigrants of Eastern origin.

Chaim Malca, in his book The Selection, quotes Zalman Shazar, then chairman of the Jewish Agency and later president of Israel. "I would say that we must prevent immigration from the rest of the countries and enlarge immigration from Europe . . . This immigration is necessary to enact a change in the entire framework of our settlement and to bring in elements other than that which we had until now. The matter is also desirable from a demographic perspective of the country."

Malca proves that Polish and Hungarian immigrants immediately received superior conditions. They entered houses that were intended for veteran immigrants from North Africa who waited years for human housing. The head of the Absorption department, Yehuda Bargonsky, clearly explained, "We'll also send the Polish to Zichron Yaakov and Binyamina because we can't send the Polish to tents and shacks. For them, we need lodging that they will accept."

Even more: For these immigrants, no medical selection was conducted at all. Yisrael Barzilai, Minister of Health, said openly, "One must know that the immigration from Poland and Hungary is not easy as far as health is concerned, and all the improvements in tuberculosis morbidity will be destroyed. If I had plans to cut down the department of tuberculosis by a third . . . it is clear that this aliya will not allow this, but in spite of everything, I accept this aliya with love."

Or perhaps the country simply matured since the days of the Selection.

And how history repeats itself. The same feelings of the country's founders of superiority over the eastern immigrants continues to penetrate into the next generation of Mapai, it seems. The enthusiastic welcome of Russian immigrants, without any selection regarding the immigrants' Jewish origin, arouses more than just a feeling (which is validated from time to time by the men of the establishment) that it does not stem from a sense of responsibility for our brothers in Exile, but rather from a desire to mold the country's image into a Western, secular and modern country.

The tension that sparks up between Moroccan and Russian immigrants proves that discrimination against Moroccan immigrants during the years of the great aliya left its mark on the later generations. Today, as then, it seems that Western immigrants receive better absorption conditions, permanent housing, medical aid and appropriate job placement a lot faster than Moroccan immigrants. Perhaps the assumptions are mistaken; perhaps things are not what they seem. But the wound that Dr. Sheba, Ben Gurion, Greenbaum and others inflicted into the hearts of North African and Eastern Jews -- has still not begun to heal.


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