Integration and alienation in ma’abarot, development towns

Short response I wrote that never got graded

kavafis enjoyer
5 min readOct 24, 2022

We were loathsome to you,
our impact was hard and strange
yet why did you cast us out upon our birthplace
why did you banish us to all the ruins…

— Erez Bitton, Something on Madness

This passage from Erez Bitton’s poem, Something on Madness addresses the power dynamic between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim (primarily North African immigrants) in Israel’s early years. In this, Bitton touches on the paradoxical situation of Mizrahi migrants to the state, who were treated as a material defense of Israel’s borders, while simultaneously loathed by the Ashkenazi upper class for their culture, rooted in the Arab world.

The process Mizrahim went through in the ma’abarot and development towns, uprooting and subsequent confinement to a “quasi-military environment” as described by Katz, had an enormous impact on their culture. Those moved to ma’abarot, and later development towns, were at the mercy of Israeli bureaucracy, yet isolated from it. Although attempts to change bureaucratic processes were futile, inhabitants resisted helplessness through attempts to influence the architecture of development towns and exert control over the new environment. Despite these attempts, the simultaneous lack of influence inhabitants had over forces affecting them, and influence that government planners had on them, resulted in socioeconomic differences between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim that still linger in the present day.

Before discussing the manner in which planning affected inhabitants, and how they responded, the inhabitants of these development towns should be defined. Although there existed Ashkenazi immigrants that ended up in ma’abarot and development towns, Mizrahim, primarily North African Jews, were disproportionately moved to these areas. As Avi Picard notes in The Reluctant Soldiers of Israel’s Settlement Project, Israeli authorities did not fear emigration from North African immigrants in the same way that they feared it from Eastern European immigrants, since “the road to Arab countries [was] closed.” This calculation, along with the assumption that being neighbors with Jews of Arab lands would disillusion new Ashkenazi immigrants with Israel, was a driving force behind government deprivation of the development towns. In 1957, half of public construction, intended originally for development areas, was diverted to central Israel to accommodate Eastern European immigrants. These policies resulted in the subsequent segregation of the new country along ethnic lines — in 1986, 38.1% of North African Jews lived in development towns, in contrast to the 8% of European Jews that did. The ethnic divide drawn between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi immigrants helped solidify the modern Mizrahi identity, which developed in an Israeli context as a result of oppressive structures and collective organizing by North African Jewish immigrants.

In her book The Common Camp, Irit Katz describes the ways in which planning affected newly arrived immigrants from primarily Muslim lands. She highlights that temporary nature, and lack of permanence of the ma’abarot, and the blending of civilian and military life, broke down the family unit. This tampering with the family unit was rooted in the “blurring ambiguity between private and public realms”. Although this is not limited to Jewish culture, the home and the family unit are looked upon as particularly holy in Judaism — many mitzvot are performed in the home by both men and women, and there is typically a separation between the home and the public sphere which is emphasized throughout Jewish halachic texts. The blurring of the private and the public in the ma’abarot dissolved this framework, as stated by Yeruham’s head of planning:

“[In] a traditional family, modesty is a very important thing, respect for the father and mother. And you find the father queuing for the shower behind his two daughters. This was a great humiliation for that father.”

Yeruham was established in January 1951, and is one of the more economically downtrodden development towns in Israel’s history. Katz notes that it was only in June of that year, five months later, until the inhabitants of the then-ma’abara were able to move into huts from the tents that they had been residing in until then.

Yeruham’s central plaza in 1968 (Moshe Milner/GPO)

As stated by head of the Jewish Agency’s Absorption department Giora Yoseftal in David Deri’s documentary The Ancestral Sin, Yeruham was to be built near a “passage for infiltrators and smugglers from Gaza to Jordan.” Thus, the camp, like most others, was military in nature.

Although inhabitants were treated as assets of the state and rendered almost helpless in a temporary environment as seen in Yeruham, they still organized in opposition to their treatment by the state. As development towns became more built-up, they began to even exercise control over their environment and the city’s structure. Before immigrants even left the bus that took them to a ma’abara, there were cases of rebellion and counter rebellion. A notable case was in June 1955, when a group of Moroccan immigrants who wished to settle in Israel’s central region were instead going to be taken to the south, near the Jordanian border. The group actively resisted being taken there, refusing to leave the port until police were called in after 24 hours. This is the only known time in which active coercion was used against immigrants in this context, according to Picard, but it is not the only time immigrants have resisted by refusing to leave a port, bus, etc. in the face of being moved to a ma’abara. Additionally, Yeruham residents threw stones at visiting Jewish Agency clerks, either demanding to leave or that the “camp be developed into a permanent settlement.”

Perhaps more notable was how Yeruham residents would attempt to shape their environments in the long-term, as an act of resistance against modernist, Bauhaus-style architecture. Moroccan Jews in the town would create makeshift structures, oftentimes around a frena, an outdoor oven, to create “the hybrid space of a common, semiprivate area, allowing women to gather in the traditional way,” according to Katz. This practice of negotiating and resisting parts of modern spaces allowed inhabitants to take parts of their culture and construct “visions of community and versions of historic memory” that allow for a sense of self-identification.

Although collective Mizrahi identity is not quite unified or distinct at this point in the source material, it is in its beginning stages. The development of the modern Mizrahi identity stemmed from both disproportionate physical and cultural isolation that Mizrahim faced from Israeli society, and their collective resistance to state attempts to further prevent this group from accessing power.