Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Sivan 5762 - May 22, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








New Study Reveals Government's Stance on Amka Scandal

by N. Ze'evi

Recently, more information has come to light about the government's treatment of Yemenites, and religious immigrants generally, in the first years of the State. This report tells about one famous incident, and the new perspectives that have come to light as documents from those times are released.

A historic study slated for publication chronicles a process of anti-religious coercion of Yemenite immigrants 52 years ago who wanted to provide their children with a Torah-based education. The study was written by Tzvi Tzameret, director of Yad Ben Tzvi, which investigates the history of the education system in the State of Israel, and is scheduled to appear in an academic journal called 2000 published by Am Oved.

Chronicled in chareidi newspapers in 5710 (1950), the events at Amka, an immigrant moshav in the Western Galilee, sent storm waves throughout the chareidi world. The new study-- based on painstaking analysis of internal documents unknown at the time--confirms serious allegations lodged by the chareidi community and exposes the hypocrisy of political and Establishment figures.

The scandal concerning the education of Yemenite children at Amka, Tzameret writes in his introduction, is one of the grimmest examples of the absorption of Sephardic immigrants within the Moshav Movement during the country's early years. At that time, Amka was cited by the religious press and religious MKs as proof of the violation of the Compulsory Education Act of 5709 (1949), which gave parents the right to choose whatever type of educational program they deemed appropriate for their children. The events there also epitomized the process of anti-religious coercion on the part of the homogeneous faction that formed the Israeli Left.

Yet at the time prominent Mapai figures, headed by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and the first two education ministers, Zalman Shazar and David Remez, brazenly -- it is clear in retrospect -- denied all such allegations outright and repeatedly dismissed them as malicious libels.

Tzameret's study presents documents that show that Mapai was well aware of the violations of the Compulsory Education Act by the Moshav Movement and of the secular coercion at Amka. Furthermore it now appears the party was generally divided over how to absorb Yemenites and other Sephardic immigrants at Amka. Some held that anti-religious coercion in schooling must be avoided, but heads of the Workers' Stream, including Yaakov Sarid (Yossi Sarid's father), as well as heads of the Moshav Movement, believed their foremost mission was to use all means at their disposal to increase enrollment in Histadrut schools.

"They decided that moshavim belonging to the Moshav Movement would only accommodate educational institutions under Histadrut oversight. With the aid of counselors and volunteers from veteran moshavim they used public and movement institutions to force children of immigrant parents to enroll at the Workers' Schools. Parents who refused were expelled from the settlement."

Ben Gurion acted -- so to speak -- as an intermediary between the two sides. He publicly defended the Workers approach and determined they were acting legally. But at internal Mapai meetings he admitted that the Moshav Movement was violating the law and that it would be dangerous to back them. In a closed party session he said his fellow party members were "robbing" the new immigrants, a wrong for which Am Yisroel and the party would eventually pay the price. Furthermore, claims Tzameret, the failure of the Prime Minister and all of the other government ministers to demand that the illegal anti-religious coercion cease immediately effectively fostered its continuation.

What took place at Amka?

According to Tzameret the Moshav Movement arranged to have counselors from veteran Workers settlements ready to receive the Yemenites--standard practice in every new community. The counselors had a twofold task: first, to provide the immigrants with cultural and educational guidance and instruction in agriculture, finance, bureaucracy, hygiene, etc. and second, to direct them to the "correct" ideology and the "correct" political party.

The head counselor sent to Amka was Yosef Lukov of Kfar Vitkin, a Mapai member who effectively became the director of the settlement. Representatives of the institutions that served the settlement and the Yemenites there took orders from him. Loyal to movement and party, he ensured that the only school at Amka was one run by the Workers' Stream and that all the children on the settlement were enrolled there.

At Lukov's initiative, in early January 1950, a Workers' Stream teacher was brought to Amka to teach the boys there. A secular woman, she was expected to take charge of the education of dozens of Yemenite children. Parents were dissatisfied with her, resentful over the facts that she was not traditional and also that a woman had been assigned to teach boys.

Meanwhile Achiezer, a Haifa-based organization chartered "to set up schools and programs for teaching Torah to children of immigrants," set up a chareidi school in Amka with three chareidi teachers. The school's founders said 64 students (a large majority of Amka children) enrolled, but settlement counselors from the Workers' Stream made every effort to banish the school.

According to a letter Achiezer sent to Education and Culture Minister Z. Shazar and to various religious figures, Lukov acted violently, physically obstructing the school's operation. The letter describes blows as well as intimidation and threats by Lukov and his colleagues: "This magnificent `operation' was organized in clear military fashion. All of the surrounding kibbutzim were ordered not to allow passage [to and from Amka] to anyone whose appearance indicated he was a religious Jew."

The letter also recounts how a Yemenite immigrant living in the immigration camp in Ein Shemen happened to come to the beis knesses while a class was being held there and "was brutally beaten inside the beis knesses by Settlement Director Yosef Lukov and thrown out." According to the letter, Lukov "threatened to deprive residents who sent their children to the religious school of their right to work" and "ordered the co-op not to sell goods to religious teachers."

The letter also recounts an incident on the 25th of Teves in which shots were fired while shiurei Torah for adults were being held in the beis knesses to give the impression of an Arab attack "in order to alarm the teachers and the students and to cancel their study session."

That same morning, says the letter, during class time, Lukov burst into the beis knesses and "shouting wildly, physically removed the students from the beis knesses thereby halting studies at the school."

All of these claims -- Tzameret reveals that Ben Gurion attested to their factual basis-months later -- were sent to the Education Minister in writing and forwarded to numerous religious leaders, including the Sephardic Chief Rabbi. A letter to Rav Uziel describes "the Inquisition waged against the religious school in the Yemenite settlement, Amka."

Shocked by the letter he received, the Chief Rabbi contacted Shazar immediately and implored him to defend "the honor of the Torah and the honor of the State of Israel by investigating and reprimanding those who had a hand in this deed, and in any case, to put an end to these deeds." Tzameret suggests that Rav Uziel, who had been involved years earlier in the Children of Teheran Scandal, was apparently concerned that a similar scandal was brewing.

At the same time, following a wave of public outcry and pressure from the religious camp in the winter of 5750, the government was forced to set up the Frumkin Committee to investigate whether the educational system forced anti- religious schooling on children of new immigrants.

Two weeks after the Frumkin Committee was set up, Shazar received the harsh letter from Achiezer activists recounting the events at Amka. He immediately assigned his top aides to investigate what had transpired at the settlement. A two-man investigative committee appointed by the Education Ministry and comprised of Rabbi Dr. Avraham Deutsch, chief inspector for Agudas Yisroel, and Yaakov Halperin (Niv), chief inspector for the Workers' Stream, set out for Amka. The internal report Deutsch and Halperin prepared has never been published. Agudas Yisroel MK Rabbi Meir Dovid Lewinstein revealed at the time that Lukov told the committee "even if orders are received from above, they would not allow a religious school to open there because this is their family [i.e. the moshav belonged to the Moshav Movement family]."

Despite the visit by the two inspectors, many in the chareidi sector accused Shazar of neglecting his responsibilities, saying the Yemenites were not being allowed to educate their children according to age-old custom. Tzameret says that Shazar eventually spoke out against the Moshav Movement for violating state education laws, but this confession came only two months after he had left his post. In a closed Mapai meeting he said candidly, "Regarding the pressure [on parents at moshavim] and regarding education at the moshavim I was always at a loss."

MK Lewinstein, who led the political fight over the Amka Scandal, was the first to report to his party leaders. "There are religious families living near Akko who have requested a religious school. Due to the fact that the place was organized as a Workers moshav, the school could not be set up." Lewinstein stood his ground against Mapai. "We must come to a firm decision to make war on the entire front [i.e. against the entire coalition and against Mapai]. Current relations among the parties of the Yishuv work to our advantage. If we stand firm they will surrender, for they are in a weaker position than we are."

He showed no favoritism and did not balk at attacking Mizrachi leaders. Lewinstein's relentless battle over Amka led to a paradoxical situation in which he tabled a question against his partner in the leadership of the religious camp, Hapoel Hamizrachi head Moshe Shapira.

Only after a month had gone by did Shapira, then Interior Minister, respond to the question. "There is no law denying or preventing access to any residents . . . to the Amka settlement," he said. "Residents of said settlement are free citizens in a free state . . . Counselors working at the settlement must guide the residents of the settlement in agricultural living and employment. But they definitely have not been granted the authority to coerce and overlord as they see fit." He claimed that the Agudas Yisroel teachers and the school principal should have simply "contacted Israel Police to demand protection, which the police must provide every citizen in the country."

Tzameret writes that this unusual dialogue between two public figures in what was still a single (religious) faction at the time "points to two distinct approaches within the religious camp in relating to the Amka problem and similar problems in other settlements. MK Lewinstein did not stop railing against the partnership with the Mapai government, whereas Shapira, who knew Lewinstein was essentially right, defended both the government and the Moshav Movement in order to preserve the coalition. Shapira and his colleagues seemed content with the Frumkin Report and its conclusions, which included a demand for the Workers' Stream to stop its coercive policies toward new immigrants. They did not want to strain relations with Mapai, and therefore honored the agreement according to which they would have only `their' immigrants [approximately one- fifth were aligned with Hapoel Hamizrachi moshavim]."

Yet Rabbi Lewinstein did not slacken regarding the Amka Affair. In July of 1950, although the Aguda school was about to close its doors, he once again asked the Knesset to review the educational arrangements at Amka and said all of the parents at Amka sent their children to the Agudas Yisroel school, which had Education Ministry approval. He reiterated his claims against the settlement counselors who had decided to wage a battle against the school, this time adding, "Particularly proficient at this is Counselor Lukov, who has threatened the teachers with a pistol on several occasions and promised they would meet the same fate as DeHaan [who was assassinated by Workers movement thugs 25 years earlier]."

Rabbi Lewinstein said Shazar appointed an investigative committee that came to the conclusion Lukov was leaving the settlement. Yet even after his departure no improvement took place. Parents who wanted to educate their children in Agudas Yisroel schools still faced sanctions. Furthermore, the Moshav Movement representative issued instructions to expel six settlement residents who testified to police regarding the injustices that had taken place at Amka.

Rabbi Lewinstein notified the Knesset that he had discussed the matter several times with David Ben Gurion, who clearly stated he would send "a special delegate to Amka to rectify the matter." But the Prime Minister failed to carry out his promise. Rav Lewinstein demanded that the Knesset review what had taken place at Amka, and went one step further by proposing that legislation be enacted to ensure that "anyone who tries to force parents through coercive means to educate their children against the dictates of their free will would be seen as having violated human rights and committed a criminal act. Preventing others from working would be considered coercive means."

Ben Gurion responded one week later. "His reply was aggressive and surprising," writes Tzameret. First of all, he said, he had replied to complaints that in fact he had never heard nor read. Second, he admitted that he could only offer a partial reply. Nevertheless he stated, "I must express my regret that MK Lewinstein related here deeds that I am sure he cannot swear to be true . . . Some of the deeds I know to be untrue, although I, too, cannot swear they are untrue since I was not an eyewitness."

In essence, Ben Gurion was evading the issue by saying that neither he nor Rav Lewinstein really knew what happened since they had not been there.

Despite his careful sidestepping, Ben Gurion was well aware of what took place. Tzameret reveals that in closed Mapai meetings he expressed very different views from those he voiced in the Knesset. In these internal party meetings he attacked the acts of coercion at Amka, not so much because of the nature of the incidents but because of the possible future repercussions for the party. During a meeting of the party secretariat he stated unequivocally, "Settlement members are latching onto the Yemenites who wanted an Agudas Yisroel school and starving them and threatening them and are trying to force them to close this school. Is this the way we want to receive the Yemenite tribe? Cannot the Yemenite who wants to live on the moshav maintain a school according to all of the details of the Shulchan Oruch? Must you incite this entire tribe to rebel against us? I do not understand this thinking. I do not understand the movement's calculations."

Tzameret quotes another internal meeting, held by Mapai's platform committee, in which Ben Gurion's views were far from the official position he presented in the Knesset. He admitted knowledge of many acts of anti- religious coercion against the new immigrants and that he was backing them through his silence. "The State of Israel," Ben Gurion said at the meeting, "particularly during this period, cannot take religious children who can be given a decent religious education and place them in liberal schools . . . I would like the Workers' Movement to hold power in the State of Israel but not through dictatorial means, but through the power of the faith of the people. I think that in many locations our members utilize coercive acts, threats regarding work and threats regarding living accommodations [to `encourage' new immigrants to register with the Workers' Movement]. I know of such cases because party members have told me they have done so."

Ben Gurion noted that these were "good party members, honest and decent and very dedicated settlers who did this out of a sense of loyalty," adding that had members of other parties done so he would have taken strict measures against them. However, "with our members it is unnecessary to prevent this by force, but rather it should be done through internal pressure.

"In my opinion this is a serious matter for the State of Israel," warned Ben Gurion, "for if it relies on robbery from its inception -- and this is robbery: exploiting the weakness of others -- if that does not destroy the State of Israel it will ruin the possibility of a hegemony of workers of Eretz Yisroel in the country."

Tzameret notes that Ben Gurion was the last speaker at the meeting and that it ended without a resolution. Ben Gurion's final words at the meeting were "for me the rights of the parents and children come first. I can argue with Mizrachi or Aguda, but if we do not guarantee Jews in this country the freedom to educate their children as they choose, then this is a nation of Inquisition, deception and coercion. Freedom is only freedom when I give it to he who opposes me."

"Despite Ben Gurion's forceful wording," writes Tzameret, "his remarks remained largely theoretical. Members of the Moshav Movement and the Workers' Movement did not alter their practices."

Tzameret points out that Ben Gurion was not the only one to permit the injustices to be perpetrated against the Yemenites by turning a blind eye. "Unlike extreme chareidim like MK Lewinstein, the stance adopted by the heads of religious Zionism was much more forgiving . . . They were stuck between the hammer and the anvil. On the one hand, some of them issued calls not to remain silent, but on the other hand the majority were more concerned about the risk of demolishing the government in which they were members. Presumably, in the end they leaned more in the direction of ignoring the affair since the Yemenites were not a part of their focus of interests."

Tzvi Tzameret concludes that despite the efforts the Workers' Movement made for years to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants, "it was also an aggressive, scalding absorption. The process involved a severe blow to the identity and honor of the immigrants, and injustice stemming from efforts to uproot religious and traditional values. We may continue to pay a heavy price for years to come for an approach to education and cultural indoctrination that was sometimes shortsighted, and widespread among political figures, counselors and teachers."


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