The Kibbutz and the Ma’abara: The Case of the Upper Galilee Kibbutzim and Kiryat Shmona, 1949-1953

Amir Goldstein. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 35, Issue 1. March 2016.

The kibbutz and the ma’abara (transit camp) are two icons of Israeli society, each a code word for the identity of a sociocultural group. The kibbutz reached its zenith as a groundbreaking socialist Zionist creation even before the establishment of the State of Israel. The ma’abara came into existence as part of the young state’s attempt to deal with the waves of mass immigration. Despite the significant differences in the time and circumstances of their appearance, the two words kibbutz and ma’abara symbolize the powerful emotions and scars left by their historical encounter during the early years of the state. The time that has elapsed has not dulled the intensity of that clash. On the contrary, in many instances, the adversarial dimensions of the encounter have been amplified within the collective memory of each group and have found expression in the political arena. The changes that have occurred within and between these social and cultural groups over the years have had little influence on the interpretations given to the relations between the kibbutz and the ma’abara during the formative years of the state and Israeli society. Despite the problems faced by the kibbutz movement and its declining status within Israeli society, it remains a symbol of the Labor movement, of secular Ashkenazi Zionism, of the pioneer veterans who received the Middle Eastern and North African immigrants (along with refugees and Holocaust survivors from Europe). The ma’abara evokes discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization.

As a test case, this article examines the relations between the kibbutzim of the Upper Galilee and the Khalsa transit camp (later to become the town of Kiryat Shmona) in the early years of the state. Given the resentments and acrimony surrounding the subject, which tend to produce biased, accusatory, or apologetic descriptions of the relations, this article seeks to understand what happened by examining texts from that period and the historical context. Study of the kibbutz and the ma’abara in the Hula Valley touches on many areas of research: the study of Israel’s first decade; the mass immigration and the creation of the country’s periphery; the Labor movement and the kibbutz movement prior to and at the time of the establishment of the state; the relations between different ethnic Jewish groups in Israel; and processes of settlement and urbanization. This article constitutes an initial stepping stone in the longer and more complex research process that is required to undertake an in-depth analysis of similar instances of relations between development towns and the kibbutz movement within a broad range of social, cultural, economic, educational, political, and geographic contexts.

The northern Hula Valley region serves as a fascinating laboratory for our purposes owing to two distinctive features: first, its location, at the northern tip of the country, near the border and far from the central institutions that were set up during the early years of the state; and second, its population, which, following the War of Independence, became unusually homogeneous, consisting almost entirely of kibbutzim, with the Committee of the Upper Galilee Kibbutzim Bloc (which will be referred to as the Bloc Committee) exerting a powerful influence on the development of the area. The kibbutz’s influence was manifest in the processes of establishment of the ma’abara in the Galilee Panhandle that would, within a short time, become one of the largest ma’abarot in the country, despite its distance from the country’s center. Our test case represents a microcosm of the encounter between veteran pioneers and new immigrants, between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi ethnic traditions, between a group that regarded itself as the avant-garde of the Zionist Labor movement and immigrants who experienced the hardships of adaptation to a new environment.

The article will focus on the events that transpired between the spring of 1948, when the State of Israel was established and the Arab inhabitants of Khalsa fled their homes, until the spring of 1953, when Kiryat Shmona became an independent municipality, officially separate from the Upper Galilee Regional Council. It was during these formative years that the dilemmas and deliberations concerning the new Jewish settlement in Khalsa—which became Kiryat Shmona—were most intense and the major decisions made. The sources on which this study is based were gathered mainly from the small but rich archives of the Upper Galilee kibbutzim, along with some documents from Israel’s central archives. The culture of discourse and documentation characterizing the kibbutzim has left us with many valuable documents, such as kibbutz newsletters, letters, and protocols of meetings. These are open and frank, exposing the opinions, perceptions, and feelings of the kibbutz members. The discrepancy between the quantity and quality of sources for the Upper Galilee kibbutzim and the almost nonexistent corresponding documentation by inhabitants of the ma’abara represents a major methodological deficiency. In view of this gap, the focus on the kibbutz perspective on the ma’abara is complemented by an effort to extract the point of view of the inhabitants of Kiryat Shmona from the available documents.

Of course, for all of the location’s uniqueness, what happened in the Hula Valley in the early years of the state did not take place in a vacuum. It must be understood within the broader context of the dilemmas that faced the kibbutz movement in the transition from the Yishuv period to the state, and the processes that took place within it and between it and the young state and its leadership. The kibbutz movement was rgarded for many years as the spearhead of the Zionist movement, the Labor movement, and the Yishuv in general. It was viewed, by the Zionist leadership and by itself, as a “service elite,” active in different spheres: settlement of the land, agricultural development, and the nurturing of civil and military leadership. By the time the state was declared, not only were many of its members worn out by their years of intensive activity but there was also a deepening rift between David Ben-Gurion (and others among the national leadership) and the leaders of the major kibbutz movements on fundamental issues that had arisen in the course of the consolidation of Israeli statehood. Both the United Kibbutz Movement (Hakibbutz Hame’uhad) and the National Kibbutz Movement (Hakibbutz Ha’artzi) had remained affiliated to the left-wing opposition party Mapam, angered by the dismantling of the Palmach, the pre-state elite military force in which kibbutz members predominated. Another bone of contention was the question of Israel’s political orientation during the Cold War.

David Ben-Gurion was at the forefront of those warning against what he viewed as the waning of the kibbutz’s social role. For the prime minister, the growing barrier between the established population and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants entering the new state represented a real danger. He had hoped that the kibbutz movement would serve as a bridge between the veteran population and the new immigrants. However, while Ben-Gurion was busy adapting his personal and national vision to the changing circumstances in Israel following the War of Independence, the kibbutzim seemed, to some extent, to become more introverted. The pioneering ethos that had underpinned the kibbutz movements was marked by a salient elitist trait which overshadowed its egalitarian elements. The socialist Zionist pioneers were perceived as an exclusive avant-garde operating in the name of society and the nation, an elite cadre to which only the select few belonged, and not as part of the regular working class. Against this background, Ben-Gurion criticized what he regarded as an insular mindset and called on the kibbutzim to adopt a new model of integrated pioneering. The ethos of the socialist Zionist youth movements was alien to the immigrants who arrived in the wake of the establishment of the state, particularly those from the Arab countries and North Africa (Mizrahim), and the chances of absorbing large numbers of them within the kibbutz movement were minimal. Ben-Gurion rejected the kibbutzim’s tendency to show concern only for the few who became part of their communities, and not for the majority, who were concentrated in the cities and the transit camps. In what came to be known as his “Ashamed and Embarrassed” speech to the Knesset in January 1950, which became a symbol of the conflict between the prime minister and the kibbutz movement, Ben-Gurion reproached the pioneers who were “doing wonders on their moshavim and kibbutzim” but were not doing enough “for the great mass immigration.”

The Kibbutzim of the Upper Galilee: A Center within the Periphery

Until 1939 only two Jewish communities existed in the northern part of the Hula Valley: Metulla (established in 1896) and Kfar Giladi (1916). It was only during the last decade of the British Mandate that the Upper Galilee kibbutzim made their appearance. From May 1939 to the establishment of the state, thirteen new communities were established in the area, ten of them kibbutzim. These young communities consolidated themselves into an impressive, organized, and well-established settlement bloc. The great distance that separated them from the center of the country and the Yishuv’s central institutions of settlement activity forced them to organize themselves efficiently and provide their own infrastructure and services. The Bloc Committee, established with British approval, displayed leadership and organizational ability in responding to security, economic, and social issues. In other regions, these spheres were handled by the central institutions, but the geographic distance made the Bloc Committee of the Upper Galilee a sort of northern extension, with a relatively large degree of autonomy. By the time the state was declared, the population of the Upper Galilee kibbutzim had made an impressive contribution in the challenging northern region of the country. Nevertheless, after the years of struggle and sacrifice during the settlement period and the War of Independence, many members of the kibbutzim yearned for a normal life and the opportunity to turn their attention and energies inward to the welfare of their own families and kibbutz communities.

The dramatic demographic changes in the Hula Valley in 1948 had significant ramifications for the young kibbutzim. Just a few days before the declaration of the state, and in the wake of the fall of Arab Safed, the Hula Valley was emptied of its approximately 13,000 Arab inhabitants. This exodus, and especially the measures put in place by the Israeli administration and the local Jewish forces to prevent their return, fundamentally transformed the situation of the Upper Galilee kibbutzim. In the very first weeks following the Arab exodus from the valley, kibbutz members began cultivating their lands, and during the course of 1949 they were formally leased. Among the tracts that were distributed were those belonging to the village of Khalsa, the center of Arab settlement in the valley, totaling some 11,300 dunams (half of which was agricultural land), according to the British records. Against the background of the disorderly decision-making processes of the time, the Bloc Committee managed to assure itself a decisive influence in shaping the northern region of the country.

The Establishment of a Jewish Settlement in Khalsa

The decision to establish a Jewish settlement in Khalsa was taken in accordance with the policy of Israel’s first government and on the basis of the recommendations of the official Planning Division, but the particular circumstances in the Hula Valley demanded the support of the Upper Galilee Bloc Committee for this step. The opposition of the kibbutzim of the region would have doomed the endeavor to failure, or at least made it difficult to implement. The Bloc Committee leadership realized early on that Jews from the center of the country or new immigrants with the means to choose for themselves were not likely to come and settle the region, and those seeking to join the northern kibbutzim were few in number. In May 1949, representatives of the Bloc Committee therefore met with Ben-Gurion to request the establishment of two villages, in Khalsa and in Rosh Pina, which as a first stage would house a hundred laborers for the kibbutzim in the region. A short time later, Nahum Horwitz, a veteran member of Kfar Giladi, was summoned to Tel Aviv and asked to help prepare the ground for the settlement of Yemenite immigrants in the empty houses of Khalsa. Horwitz set off for Khalsa, examined the stone houses to see which were inhabitable, and was the liaison with the settlement institutions in preparation for the arrival of the first group of immigrants. The pressure exerted from below by the Bloc Committee to settle Khalsa was augmented by the demographic pressure on the authorities, demanding solutions for the growing wave of immigrants to the country.

On July 18, 1949, the first fourteen families of Yemenite immigrants arrived in Khalsa, and they were joined a month later by another group of similar size. The new community was first called Kiryat Yosef, in memory of Joseph Trumpeldor, the Zionist hero who had died defending Tel Hai in 1920. Kfar Giladi, the oldest kibbutz in the Hula Valley and the closest to Khalsa, supplied bread and milk for the first three months to the dozens of Yemenite immigrant families. In September 1949 Eliezer Krol, a member of Kfar Giladi and Hashomer (The Watchman, a Jewish defense organization in Palestine founded in April 1909), was dispatched to manage Kiryat Yosef. Until the end of that year, the various new administrative bodies pursued their goal of obtaining the tracts of land belonging to Khalsa from the Custodian of Absentee Property, for detailed planning and the possible transfer of the construction of an initial 250 housing units to Solel Boneh, the construction company of the Histadrut (Labor Union). In reality, the community at this stage was still a semi-agricultural village with less than 200 inhabitants.

At the end of 1949 and the beginning of 1950 there was lively debate amongst the Bloc Committee and the various kibbutzim with regard to the desired character of the new community in Khalsa. At the heart of the discussion was the question of the extent to which the northern kibbutzim were prepared to relinquish the homogeneity that had developed in the area. The opponents of the establishment of an urban center were mainly veteran settlers. Nahum Horwitz and Eliezer Krol, veterans of Hashomer, maintained that a cooperative agricultural community should be established in Khalsa because an urban community would spoil the special character of the area. Hillel Landsman, a member of Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar and chairman of the Bloc Committee, threatened that if the plan to create a town in the heart of this kibbutz region was pursued, he would appeal directly to Ben-Gurion, demanding his intervention. The demand that a small agricultural community be established in Khalsa expressed the separatist dimension of the pioneering ethos of the Upper Galilee kibbutzim. The presence of another small community would be convenient for the surrounding kibbutzim as it would enable them to retain both the tracts of land that they had been apportioned and the socialist Zionist homogeneity of the northern region of the country. However, such a decision would constitute a flagrant disregard for the national need to settle hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. Despite the esteem in which Horwitz, Krol, and Landsman were held in the Hula Valley as members of the region’s first generation of settlers, it turned out that the priority they accorded to homogeneity was not shared by most of the members of the Bloc Committee.

The acceptance of the establishment of an urban center expressed the willingness of most of the members of the kibbutzim to aid the national task of absorbing immigration and strengthening settlement, but the main consideration was the need for laborers for the anticipated development of the region. Shmuel Meiri-Schreiber of Kibbutz Dan, one of the leaders of the Bloc Committee, explained: “The realization of large-scale development plans, such as the drainage of the Hula swamp, irrigation works, road building and maintenance, the preparation of thousands of dunams of land, forestation of vast areas of hilly country, and intensified construction, all require the concentration of many laborers in the area.”

The involvement of the kibbutzim in the establishment of the transit camp and the final decision with regard to its future character was of decisive importance. Significantly, the resolution concerning the Bloc Committee’s support for the establishment of an urban center in Khalsa was eventually passed by means of a round of telephone calls among the kibbutzim. In January 1950, each kibbutz consolidated its final position on this issue, and thus it was possible to mobilize broad agreement and minimize the intensity of the opposition mounted by some of the kibbutzim. The decision was mainly of symbolic significance since the processes that were being carried out on the national level to transform Kiryat Yosef into a town were already well underway.

In early June 1950, the new community was given its new and official name—Kiryat Shmona (after the eight Jewish settlers, including Trumpeldor, killed at Tel Hai in 1920), although its inhabitants had had no part in this decision, not even via its community representatives. It was the Upper Galilee Regional Council that approved the proposal by the Names Committee, in a brief letter that testifies to its ambivalent approach:

We hereby inform you that at a meeting of the Council held on June 25, 1950, it was decided that your proposal for [a name for] the community of Khalsa—Kiryat Shmona—would be accepted. At the same time we note that the aforementioned community is not included within our area of jurisdiction. We discussed your proposal as neighbors, and with a view to the future.

While the first sentence expresses the decisive role played by the local kibbutzim in the process of the establishment of the new urban center in the Hula Valley, the second sentence reflects the pronounced insularity that would characterize this role. The transit camp remained an independent community with its own municipality, separate from that of the neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim. During this stage, between the autumn of 1950 and the end of 1951, the ma’abara underwent tremendous growth. Immigrants from Romania, Iraq, India, Persia, and Hungary, as well as relatively small numbers (at this stage) from North Africa, were being directed by the national institutions to the distant northern region of the country. In July 1950 the community numbered about 800 inhabitants; by October of the same year, the number had increased to 1,500, reaching nearly 4,000 by July 1951 and continuing to grow during the following months. All at once, the young Kiryat Shmona became the largest community in the Upper Galilee, and one of the largest transit camps in the country. Faced with the steep and sudden increase in the number of inhabitants, the national authorities, located far from the region, were hard put to provide an effective response, and the public services in the ma’abara collapsed under the strain. At this stage the kibbutzim in the area played a key role in easing the everyday difficulties of their ma’abara neighbors. Following the stormy winter of 1950, the Ministry of the Interior informed the Department of Immigrant Communities that the army would assume responsibility for the Khalsa transit camp (as well as five other ma’abarot), but with the conclusion of the “ma’abarot campaign” the army scaled back its involvement to a minimum, and it was the Regional Council that was left to shoulder the responsibility.

“We’re Not Philanthropists”: Adoption of the Ma’abara by the Local Kibbutzim

In contrast to the message expressed in Ben-Gurion’s “Ashamed and Embarrassed” address, the sources reveal an impressive mobilization on the part of the Upper Galilee kibbutzim to assist the Kiryat Shmona transit camp. The cooperative social and economic structure evidently made it possible for each kibbutz to free one or more members from its work roster for volunteering in the new community. Many of the kibbutzim faced problems of their own. Despite the gradual rise in the standard of living, kibbutz members were still living in fairly sparse conditions, and the kibbutzim were still being developed, which demanded their members’ time and energies. The burden that the veteran kibbutzim in the area took upon themselves in volunteering—at least for short periods—was a heavy one. Aside from Kiryat Shmona, the kibbutzim of the Upper Galilee Regional Council (and especially the more southern communities) also aided the Rosh Pina transit camp. The Regional Council tried to maintain a constant level of volunteering and involvement in these two ma’abarot which had been established in its vicinity. On January 7, 1951, the secretariat of the Regional Council appealed to the local committees of the communities that had “not yet fulfilled their elementary obligation to mobilize for the ma’abarot“:

This situation cannot continue. The kibbutzim must immediately send members to the Rosh Pina and Kiryat Shmona transit camps. The responsibility and concern for the new immigrants is too great for the matter to continue being postponed; bear in mind that each week more immigrants are arriving in the camps. The population of Kiryat Shmona is already around two thousand, and Rosh Pina stands at about 1,200. We demand an immediate response.

The efforts of the Regional Council and the sense of obligation among the kibbutz members bore fruit, at least for some periods, with some thirty volunteers visiting Kiryat Shmona on a daily or regular basis.

Women kibbutz members set up the first “infants’ house” in the ma’abara, followed by kindergartens for 150 children who, until then, had no educational framework. Similarly, a dining hall was built and equipped for 100 children, but the ma’abara very soon had 350 children lacking the most basic conditions, and the kibbutz volunteers had a hard time coping. Clothing, books, toys, and outdoor play equipment were transported each day from the kibbutzim to the ma’abara. In Kfar Szold, the carpenters got up early in the morning and went off to the ma’abara before the start of their workday in the kibbutz, to repair and improvise as necessary in the buildings that were collapsing under the load; Kibbutz Dafna sent swings that were hung in the recreation area that had been set up with the help of other kibbutzim. One of the most conspicuous manifestations of this volunteering spirit was the activities for the ma’abara children organized by young members of the kibbutzim. Early on, when the camp was still known as Kiryat Yosef, a group of young people came from Kfar Giladi and set up a framework for informal activity in the improvised synagogue that operated there. The activities, held mainly for the Yemenite children who populated the ma’abara at the time, included games, Hebrew songs, stories about the Land of Israel, and activities centering on festivals and holidays. During the summer vacation, girls from Kfar Szold and youth from Kfar Blum joined the effort, and together with the Kfar Giladi volunteers they organized a summer camp for dozens of the immigrant children in the nearby forest. Local branches of the Labor youth movements were also set up at the initiative of the kibbutzim.

Kibbutz members played a central role in building the infrastructure for social services in the ma’abara. For instance, Uri Sheffer was sent from Kfar Blum to serve as principal of the state school (Beit Hinukh B) in the ma’abara. Bella Sher of Kfar Giladi established the community’s welfare department, and doctors from Kfar Giladi and Amir paid regular visits. Some of the prominent nurses in the Kiryat Shmona health system were from the local kibbutzim. Tova Portugali of Kfar Giladi showed particular determination to help the inhabitants of the ma’abara to develop a sense of responsibility for their own conditions. Portugali devoted much time to activity in Kiryat Shmona during its early years, endeavoring to encourage the women of the ma’abara to assume active roles in the life of the community, inter alia by establishing a branch of the Organization for Working Mothers. Her aim was “to interest the inhabitants in becoming the leaders of the place themselves, instead of the temporary figures who are coming to their aid.” She felt that her efforts bore fruit: “In light of all this activity of the immigrant woman members, it became generally recognized throughout the camp that the women were taking the reins of leadership of the ma’abara into their own hands, and they themselves were very proud of this.” In addition to the evening Hebrew classes that she organized, she hoped to help artisans establish cooperative businesses in the ma’abara, but was unsuccessful in her efforts to coopt the kibbutzim and the Histadrut in support of this initiative. Nevertheless, the activity in Kiryat Shmona was presented as a social mission in a quest to create equality, not to perpetuate dependence: “We’re not philanthropists; we shall offer social aid to the weak in order to lift them up and place them on a par with us.”

The activists in the ma’abara found it difficult to serve as a bridge between the two worlds. They felt a need to share their experiences and impressions with their fellow kibbutz members, but often found themselves unable to convey the full extent of the difficulties that plagued the urban community that was being created, and the profound gap between the situation there and life on the kibbutz. Pnina Pfizer of Kibbutz Shamir wrote, in the kibbutz newsletter: “I have to tell you just a tiny bit about our children in the ma’abara. The questions raised by kibbutz members reveal how unfamiliar they are with the conditions of their lives.” She wrote about the injustice of the widening gap between the children of Kiryat Shmona and those of Kibbutz Shamir: “I know that one day our demands of them, these youngsters [of Kiryat Shmona] will be the same as our demands of our own children, because we’ll say ‘they grew up in Israel.’ But there is a great difference—an immeasurable difference—between the developmental conditions of the two groups.” In her conversations with fellow kibbutz members she was asked “how many children she took care of at the school,” with the questioners imagining a carer in charge of “a group of 20–30 children enjoying showers and a dining room.” The responses to her frank answer—that there were some 250 children aged 6 to 15—ranged from anger to disbelief, “but this truth is just an example of the general treatment of the inhabitants of the ma’abarot.”

The volunteers from the kibbutzim were exposed to the severity of the challenges faced by the ma’abara population, who hardly had enough money for food: “A day’s labor brings in less than 2 lira, and this has to suffice for a family of sometimes 8 members; the living conditions are therefore very harsh.” Indeed, they were unbearable:

The housing problem will grow worse, especially as summer approaches. The tin shacks are already suffocating, there is acute crowding (8 beds in a small room), and, especially as summer approaches, the poor sanitary conditions are likely to cause the spread of illnesses (there are already many cases of ringworm and eye infections).

They sought ways to convey the profound empathy that they felt towards the immigrants living with such hardship. Michael Bahat of Kfar Blum wrote of the distance between his kibbutz and the growing Kiryat Shmona transit camp: “The distance in space is very small. The distance in time is whole generations.” He described the inhabitants of the ma’abara: “Foreigners, foreigners, foreigners … neglected, neglected in every way, from birth, lacking the most fundamental necessities. There is some work, some Torah. They are all in need of a helping hand.” In the same article he wrote about the initiative of the youth to set up a summer camp for the children and thereby “to save 60 Jewish souls from this catastrophic neglect.” Writing with great pathos, he expressed his disappointment at the fact that out of a thousand or so children in the ma’abara, only a handful would be able to take part in this project:

Why only 60? What about the 940? “We don’t have the manpower for that,” is the answer. There is a shortage of counselors. All of them, all the children in the transit camp, want to play, to learn, to spend time with other children, but we’re unable to help. Sixty children will eat a hot meal. Sixty children—of whom 45 are completely, utterly neglected. The great majority of the children are hungry.

This young educator from Kfar Blum expressed with great clarity what he viewed as the huge disparity between the dramatic change that was taking place in Jewish history and in the Galilee region, and the partial and inadequate response of the Regional Council. Bahat and other activists were aware of the chasm that was widening between the different communities located in such close proximity to one another: “A quarter-hour journey away, new life is being built. The road is quite short; the time—generations. It’s all happening in front of our eyes, and we’re apathetic! What will our children say, in a few years’ time? Do we not care about that either?”

A variety of motives underlay the activity of the kibbutz members in Kiryat Shmona, reflecting a range of values, fears, and psychological needs, as revealed in the various documents. Most fundamentally, their commitment was prompted by the simple human desire to help new immigrants living in impoverished conditions. “Can we live in tranquility while just a few kilometers from us the residents of the ma’abarot are dealing with their afflictions?” a member of Kibbutz Amir asked. In addition, there was a sense of historic responsibility towards the new Israelis who had just arrived in the northern part of the country, and a sense of a social mission to aid the realization of the Zionist enterprise and the settling of outlying areas: “The people of Khalsa were brought here…. Those who directed them from overseas did not think through to the end what would happen with these people.” Hence their conclusion that the kibbutz movement was facing a real historic challenge that demanded intensive involvement and commitment. The great wave of immigration in general, and the transformation of the Khalsa transit camp into a permanent, growing community in particular, signaled the end of the period of “splendid isolation” whereby the kibbutz lived as an island unto itself. The kibbutz could no longer close itself off as it had during the pre-state settlement period. Now, with Kiryat Shmona developing just a short distance from the northern kibbutzim, the Zionist mission of these outlying kibbutzim assumed new significance, and a historical opportunity offered itself: “Our job is to go out to the people and join them.” Once it became clear that the new immigrants were not attracted to the kibbutz, there was no evading the new model of social responsibility. “The struggle for the character of the ma’abara is our struggle; the kibbutz’s struggle.”

A central motive for involvement in the ma’abara was the hope that its inhabitants could be drawn into the socialist Zionist camp by means of significant aid and ideological discourse that would illuminate their common destiny: aid activities “in the social and professional realms, and in acquisition of the language” were presented as being “likely to win the hearts and minds of the masses of immigrants—the advanced elements among them—to our struggle which is also their struggle, and our enterprise which is also theirs.” The kibbutz members were filled with a powerful sense that “we must direct them [the new immigrants],” in the spirit of the approach that Yosef Gorny has called “moral paternalism.” In addition, the documents indicate the fear that a chasm would develop between the kibbutzim and the growing town: “Khalsa will not remain in a vacuum. If we do not take care of it, others will. And this community, with its thousands of inhabitants—in the future, perhaps even tens of thousands—can turn hostile towards us.” Along with the understanding that, in this era of absorption of the great wave of immigration, the role of the kibbutz as a Zionist pioneering body was to break down barriers, utilitarian justifications were also invoked: “To the extent that we support the ma’abara, we will be serving ourselves, too. And if we do the opposite—we will harm ourselves.” In this context, efforts were made to keep the inhabitants of the ma’abara away from the influence of the religious parties (“the clericalism that demands a monopoly on souls”), the bourgeoisie, and—in the case of the Mapam kibbutzim—also the reformism of Mapai, “which established the state and provides housing” and controlled the administration of the ma’abara.

From Responsibility and Compassion to Arrogance and Aversion

The encounter with the inhabitants of the ma’abara produced not only empathy with regard to the immigrants’ absorption process and their struggle to adapt to the difficult conditions, but also an orientalist response. The profound gaps between the veteran population of the Hula Valley and the inhabitants of the new community, along with the prevailing modes of thinking, caused a transition from compassion to arrogance and aversion. The reports of activists in the ma’abara described its residents as “uncultured tribes” and “people who are detached from society.” Leah Tzur, of Kibbutz Dan, summed up this point of view in the kibbutz newsletter:

No kibbutz member, even with the wildest imagination, can conceive of the spiritual world of these immigrants, who are mainly from the countries of the East…. Absolute ignorance, superstitions, fear of devils and spirits, and faith in charms and various other amulets. The habits of a most primitive tribe, dirt and filth, the complete subjugation of the women; in this respect, the human aspect of Khalsa has not changed much since the time before it became Jewish.

The comparison between the Mizrahi immigrants in the new transit camp and the Arab inhabitants of the village of Khalsa is a recurring motif in the documents from the state’s early years. From the perspective of the neighboring kibbutz, there was clear similarity between the new residents of Khalsa and those who had recently abandoned it. The tension between Zionist-national discourse and orientalist discourse is manifest in the reports. The attempt by the Ashkenazi kibbutz society to embrace, within a short time, a population of immigrants from Asia and Africa highlighted the contrasts and deepened gaps that were difficult to bridge. The identification of the immigrants as primitive, and the desire to modernize them, revealed that the kibbutz members perceived themselves as representatives of the West. As in many other instances, the orientalist discourse played a role in identifying the pioneers of the Upper Galilee kibbutzim as belonging to the educated European world and thus as being conscientious and progressive by their very nature. In fact, many of the members of the northern kibbutzim had immigrated from eastern Europe. They belonged to communities that themselves had been labeled as “easterners,” in the sense of “less culturally developed.” By attributing to the residents of Kiryat Shmona certain characteristics that defined them as inferior on the modernization scale, the kibbutz members strengthened their own sense of belonging to modern Western culture. The reports by the volunteers in the ma’abara, published in the kibbutz newsletters, expressed a mixture of responsibility, arrogance, patronization, and disgust. For instance, the following report by a young volunteer, Asher Blumberger, which appeared in the Kfar Giladi newsletter in the fall of 1951, says less about the situation in the ma’abara than it does about the orientalist perspective of the writer:

The cultural situation of the ma’abara is poor. The most cultured ethnic group is the Romanians, whose culture finds expression in the fact that they can all read and write. The poorest cultural situation prevails among the Iraqis and Kurds. They live in their shacks and huts in great filth; their children go around selling sabras and dates. They are infested with lice and their external appearance is sometimes even worse than that of the Arab fellahin (90% of both of these groups cannot even sign their names).

The filth is conveyed, in this description, as being integral to the Mizrahi way of life, rather than as the result of the fact that thousands of immigrants had been crowded together in a remote northern town without basic living conditions. The paternalism and social commitment were intertwined, as exemplified by Blumberger’s conclusion: “The question is, who can take care of these Jews, bring them out of the filth and stench, and make them our equal citizens in the State of Israel? The answer is—the members of the kibbutzim here.” The sense of aversion did not nullify the powerful belief that the task of the Galilee kibbutzim was to redeem the new immigrants from their poor cultural state. With hindsight it is easy to point to the contradiction inherent in the desire to fulfill a social mission while attributing inferior qualities to the intended recipients of the aid.

The volunteers in the ma’abara were critical of the immigrants’ parenting methods which, in their view, reflected “an absence of the most elementary knowledge of child care.” Unlike the devotion that they attributed to European parents, the immigrant father and mother were described as putting themselves before their children when it came to ensuring that they would not go hungry: Shoshana Shamir, a member of Kibbutz Amir who worked in the Kiryat Shmona school system, wrote that “The parents have not yet recognized the child’s right to better quality food.” She described the immigrants as having difficulty understanding why so much fuss was made about the children: “They—the heads of the families—are used to having the best portions for themselves. ‘What about us; are we no longer important?’ They ask. ‘Why are we, too, not being given clothing, warm water, food?'”

The first group of Yemenite residents was presented in the Histadrut newspaper as being lazy and unsuited to construction work:

The Yemenite group in Kiryat Yosef is in need of intensive management to develop their initiative and independence, to introduce them to what is new in our country; not just to settle them, but to turn them into a lever for absorption. To this end, immigrants from a different ethnic group should immediately be added to them, to augment the willpower of the initial residents. The Yemenite community is psychologically prepared for labor, but they are not yet familiar with the pace of the country and the needs of the hour, and time is pressing!

The early residents of Kiryat Shmona were thus depicted as having a lazy nature that could be changed only by bringing them into contact with Jews from other parts of the diaspora—apparently an allusion to Europe. This approach demonstrates the tension between the Zionist-national discourse that emphasized national unity, the inclusion of Mizrahi immigrants within Israeli society, and the commitment and solidarity entailed in these goals, on the one hand, and the orientalist discourse that highlighted the differences and gaps between the veteran pioneers and the new immigrants and tended to present the latter as possessing characteristics inherent to their culture of origin, on the other. Newspaper reports about Khalsa, written by local journalists, express a similar attitude: “The entire population is Yemenite. To their credit, it must be acknowledged that they have taken well to the laboring life, but they lack initiative. If a hundred families of other immigrant groups were settled here, this community would progress with great strides, since it is located at a crossroads.”

The Immigrants’ Responses

The patronizing approach and the cultural gap led to actual clashes during visits by young volunteers from Kfar Giladi who organized activities for the children in the ma’abara. The goodwill and volunteering spirit of the kibbutz youth and the paternalism that accompanied their activities are reflected in a report that appeared in the Mapam newspaper Al ha-Mishmar: “The older youth from Kfar Giladi came to teach the immigrant children games, songs, and gymnastics; to restore their youth which had been senselessly lost, leaving them devoid of youthful joy. Laughter and new song emanated anew from the children.” The report described the stubborn opposition that arose in Kiryat Shmona from the perspective of the young volunteers, “who were pounced upon by God’s emissaries on earth.” The Kfar Giladi youth were exposed to a “wall of hatred of inciters, ‘ministering angels,’ for whom all means were acceptable.” The volunteers were forced to cease their activity, since “there arose incitement against these world-shatterers and soul-destroyers. Using threats and even blows, they prevented their children from visiting and meeting with the heretical children from Kfar Giladi.”

The attempts to absorb the young residents of the Kiryat Shmona transit camp into the Zionist melting pot were met with vehement opposition on the part of the adults. They were suspicious of the spirit of social volunteerism in the neighboring kibbutz, whether because they sensed the paternalism that accompanied it or whether they feared that the socialist Zionist culture might sever the ma’abara youth from their identity and heritage. In the same report, Al ha-Mishmar declared that the efforts of the kibbutz youth to mold the identity of the younger generation of immigrants in their own image would continue. The conceptual framework of the time did not enable any pause for reconsideration in light of the opposition that they faced. There is no evidence of any awareness of the value that the immigrants attached to their traditional culture, nor even any attempt to find a more gradual and respectful way of creating a new and common culture. The secular socialist Zionist melting pot had to be applied with speed and determination:

The kibbutz youth have not come to terms with this, and hope for a resolute return, to continue their fruitful work among the youth in Kiryat Shmona. The organized Galilee communities and their representative institutions must adopt an accurate perspective on future developments and take up the challenge, for only a healthy, organized, and deeply rooted community can serve as another strong link in the chain of outlying communities.

The “resoluteness” with which the kibbutz youth returned to the ma’abara was an expression of the determination with which the kibbutz pursued its activist paternalism. In this instance, this spirit was directed at immigrants who had just arrived in a new country, together with their children, and were wary of the speedy socialization offered to them. The encounter between goodwill and a high level of motivation, on the one hand, and the natural inclination to preserve the traditional identity, on the other, quickly became a bitter struggle, reflecting also the opposition of proud people who resented being viewed as profoundly inferior. In any event, the deep conviction of the kibbutz youth in the justice of their cause led to intensified efforts to transform the ma’abara‘s children, rather than an attempt to listen to the message that their parents’ opposition was conveying.

A later report in the same newspaper indicates that this was not the only stormy episode, and that wariness was not limited to the parents. Given the opposition within the ma’abara to the nature and content of the informal social activities that were being held, an attempt was made to draw the children towards secular Zionist culture by taking them into an environment outside their parents’ influence. The young kibbutz volunteers brought the Yemenite children from Khalsa to a Youth Corps (Gadna) camp on the Carmel, with the intention of making them part of Israeli life. Here again, lack of communication and distrust arising from cultural and identity gaps between the two groups became evident. The description below reflects not only goodwill but also the negative stereotypes that accompanied the attempt to transform the immigrants from Asia and Africa into “Israelis”—part of the secular, modern Israeli society:

These [people] are getting things done, while those are inciting and undermining every manifestation of public organization, development, and progress. Even Youth Corps education is no good in the eyes of the Yemenites. Local youth who were sent to a Gadna camp on the Carmel were used as material for incitement. Rumors were spread about them being “converted.” It so happened that one of the children at the Gadna camp fell ill (he simply caught a cold). There were immediately inciters amongst the community who sent the Yemenites to administer justice to the female counselor. It was only thanks to external intervention that she was saved from the throng.

The kibbutz youth counselors did not regard the opposition mounted by the immigrant youth themselves as a reason to rethink their methods or the assumptions that underlay their efforts to detach the children from their traditions, values, and identity—all of which had in fact brought them to Israel. Instead, the opposition was presented as the fruit of incitement and a desire to undermine the effort to advance the embryonic Israeli society.

Other sources point to a struggle by the initial residents of Kiryat Shmona to maintain their identity and to oppose the efforts to transform them speedily into “Israelis,” that is, to erase their traditional identity and their view of the nature of the community that they were building in the northern part of the country. As early as September 1949, just two months after the establishment of Kiryat Yosef, Davar reported on a protest by a group of Yemenite immigrants who had settled in Khalsa: “There is no synagogue to speak of. Our children are not studying Torah, and as for us—all we do is work, work, from morning until night. There is not a scrap of spirituality. Nothing at all for the soul. I swear—just like the Arabs.” These words, spoken to the visiting journalist, convey something of their feeling that no one cared about their desires and opinions or listened to their needs. Underlying these words was a difficult absorption experience, arising from the profound identity gap between themselves and the authorities and volunteers active in the ma’abara. At the center of the communal, cultural, and spiritual life of the Yemenite immigrants were the synagogue and Torah study. These could have been precious resources during the period of immigration and adaptation, helping them to build their new community and contributing to their resilience in the face of day-to-day difficulties. Instead, the community that was built around them was molded on an alien secular cultural model that weakened the Yemenites’ traditional identity and its ability to aid in acculturation. The secular socialist Zionist identity to which the kibbutz volunteers sought to direct the new immigrants was perceived by the Yemenites as erasing the foundations of their identity, faith, and worldview.

Pnina Pfizer of Kibbutz Shamir, who taught in the ma’abara, describes the bitter struggle between the teaching staff and the parents of the immigrant pupils over the kind of education that the children were receiving and the question of whom they would view as the role models guiding their new path in Israel. She mentions two strikes initiated by the parents’ committee at the school over a three-month period: “They convinced the children that the teachers were hooligans and heretics, that the army and the school were institutions that had been created to aid the kibbutz ‘abductors.’ Out of concern for their children they enriched their language with a new curse: instead of ‘go to hell’—’go to the kibbutz.'” The report suggests that the kibbutz was perceived as an alien, threatening, and dangerous body:

Because of them, I can’t mention the kibbutz explicitly. I may not bring the children here for an outing. I do tell at every opportunity about the kibbutz enterprises, but I am not allowed to even suggest that it may be good for them, too. Were I to do so, my job would be finished. The [parents’] committee would make sure of that; perhaps the school would even be closed down. They would say that I was luring them towards the kibbutz, and that the school was aiding me.

As an educator with social awareness, Pnina wanted to try to understand these parents who, “coming to Israel, had bravely skipped over hundreds of years of culture, and who were having a hard time coming to terms with the new reality. In desperation they hold onto their customs and their way of life, and want these to continue in the lives of their children.” She was convinced that the historical processes were deterministic and that the parents would not succeed in maintaining their influence over their children who had immigrated with them: “It’s clearly impossible, because the dynamic life in Israel washes away from them, piece by piece, all of the old.” She also wrote: “How can they go against life itself? Perhaps this [their opposition] is their subconscious awareness that eventually they will submit, and hence their struggle for their way of life, like a candle before it goes out.” In one instance, a boy approached the teacher from the kibbutz and told her that he needed shoes. Pnina visited his father and asked that he buy his son a pair of shoes. The father responded with a question that conveyed his great pain: “Why does the child come to you rather than to me when he needs something? It’s as if our children are yours more than they are ours.” The young teacher sums up the episode: “It’s true. They will be ours, and his heart aches.”

The period during which Kiryat Shmona was managed by Eliezer Krol of Kfar Giladi was characterized by tensions surrounding questions of education, culture, religion, and identity. The local committee set up by the Yemenite immigrants sent a letter to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, complaining that Krol “did not organize the sort of kindergarten we wanted; rather, he wishes to raise Yemenite freethinkers, and this we will not agree to or tolerate. We will not accept [non-kosher] cooked food. We want a religious kindergarten teacher and a Yemenite instructor—the Torah of the living God; we will accept nothing else.”

Krol might perhaps be regarded as the archetype of the kibbutznik who came to Kiryat Shmona brimming with good intentions, but arousing fierce antagonism among the residents. In the above-mentioned letter, the prime minister was asked to replace him: “We now request a different director, other than Eliezer Krol. Perhaps there is a different director who would have mercy upon us and upon our children, and upon our widows and old people.” The strongest opposition to the “melting pot” activities by the kibbutz volunteers appears in a different letter which is also extant; this one was written in protest against Bella Sher of Kfar Giladi, who was responsible for setting up the ma’abara welfare services. In a letter to Speaker of the Knesset Yosef Sprinzak, dozens of Yemenite immigrant families demanded that she be removed from the ma’abara: “Please take this cruel woman away from us.” They claimed that she showed disdain for the needy, the elderly, and the widows,

and also tells the heads of large families, shouts at them, that they should cease to procreate; that there is a shortage of money to give them as aid. This “witch” practices overt discrimination: she did not want to approve a kitchen for the children studying at the religious school, those who receive aid. But at the secular school … all the children receive food at the expense of the welfare [department], while those needing aid cry out but receive no response.

Here, again, we see a refusal to be reconciled with what the immigrants perceive as paternalism on the part of people who claimed to know better than they themselves what was best for them and their children.

Of course, this conflict was not unique to Kiryat Shmona; in fact, it was not even unusually intense in comparison with similar episodes that are described in the research literature. These conflicts certainly existed and clouded the relations between the kibbutzim and Kiryat Shmona, but they did not characterize all the interactions between kibbutz activists and residents of the ma’abara. In fact, in most instances, the volunteers were welcomed with open arms and with appreciation. The volunteers reported their satisfaction that “we have made considerable strides” and estimated that “with the help of people of goodwill, the face of Kiryat Shmona is slowly changing.” Was this wishful thinking or an accurate portrayal of reality? A member of Kibbutz Dan concluded her description of the ma’abara in the kibbutz newsletter with a report about the youth of Kiryat Shmona, who could be heard in the street singing Hebrew songs, including the quintessential Zionist slogan, “We have come to the land to build and to be built in it.” She stated that in Kiryat Shmona, “the younger generation is taking to the new [culture],” explaining that “they are aided in this by their natural intelligence, their great diligence, and their readiness to take on the yoke.” The kibbutz activists working in the new urban community had no doubts that “the youth could become a constructive element.” At the same time, they were convinced of their own role in this mission: “Who, better than we, can turn them into builders of the land?” Hence, they defined their main challenge as “breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of our reaching them.”


The encounter between the kibbutz and the ma’abara in the Hula Valley highlighted the fundamental differences between these two groups, separated by a generational gap, different cultural backgrounds, different definitions of Jewish identity, and radically different models of contact with authority and political representation. The disparate processes by which the kibbutzim, on the one hand, and Kiryat Shmona, on the other, had come to be established also affected the attitudes of the two populations. The kibbutzim were founded by groups that had undergone significant periods of consolidation on training farms or on temporary kibbutz sites in the center of the country and then proceeded, imbued with a common purpose and belief system, out of choice, to settle the outlying Galilee region. The new immigrants in Khalsa, in contrast, had chosen to come to Israel but found themselves relegated to this outlying area with no say in the matter and no preparatory period, and having had no opportunity to acquire the organizational, operational, and psychological tools that would allow them to become an active, entrepreneurial element within the challenging conditions of this remote transit camp. The mass immigration of the first years of the state took place without the support of any movement or institutions, nor any system of contacts with government institutions that could have eased the transition. In addition, the negative attitude of the kibbutz veterans to the immigrants’ traditional religious ethos also undermined their identity and their psychological resources during the critical period of immigration and acculturation. The remote geographical location had diametrically opposite meaning for the two groups. While the kibbutzniks were viewed, and viewed themselves, as pioneers who were carrying out an important task in the outlying regions of the country, the immigrants were not recognized as pioneers, and no recognition was given to their contribution to the development of the area.

The early years of the state presented the northern kibbutzim with an especially difficult challenge. Viewing themselves as the spearhead of the socialist Zionist revolution, they were required to remold their mission as a result of the dramatic changes in Israeli society. They made a conscious decision to come to the aid of the new community in Khalsa and to help the residents of the transit camp to cope with the many difficulties of their daily life, and expressed a clear desire to ensure that the northern kibbutzim would indeed meet the social challenge and not focus exclusively on their own well-being. The sense of responsibility and compassion and the genuine desire to help develop social and communal services were no less powerful than the trend towards insularity and isolation. The volunteer activity was not devoid of paternalism and mistakes, but—contrary to Ben-Gurion’s criticism in his “Ashamed and Embarrassed” speech—the scope of volunteer activity by kibbutz members in Kiryat Shmona during its early years was impressive.

The encounter in the ma’abara was accompanied by great hopes and aspirations, but the vision of those who were sent to develop Kiryat Shmona was different from that of the residents, as a result of the respective culture and ethos of each group. The Zionism that prompted the kibbutz members to mobilize for the task of absorption and setting up the new community was secular, socialist, activist Zionism. The faith that brought the Yemenite and other Mizrahi immigrants to Israel and to the Galilee was the product of a different mindset—religious and traditional—which generated a different vision of the new life that should be built in the abandoned village of Khalsa. The daunting task that the kibbutzim of the Upper Galilee took upon themselves required not only determination but also the ability to create dialogue with the local residents, and an attentive ear not only in the realm of physical, material needs, but also in terms of culture, identity, and the way in which the residents wished to mold their new community. This far from simple task was complicated by the conceptual system that they brought with them to the ma’abara. Paradoxically, it was the very attempt, motivated by the Zionist vision of national unity, to incorporate within the Labor movement workers who adhered to a very different cultural and religious tradition that highlighted the chasm separating the two groups, intensified the social tensions, and created a dynamic that made the rift difficult to bridge. The kibbutz members’ orientalist views undermined their ability to attain their objectives. Their fears that the mass of Mizrahi immigrants would change the character of the socialist Zionist society that had been built with so much effort in the northern Hula Valley may explain the sense of urgency that they felt in their efforts to transform the identity of the immigrants who had only just arrived in Khalsa. However, this explanation in no way mitigates the intensity of the crisis of confidence between the two groups, and the damage caused to the relations between Kiryat Shmona and the kibbutzim of the Upper Galilee for many years to come. In the eyes of the immigrants, the kibbutz represented alien values that threatened to undermine their traditional identity. The kibbutz members were regarded as outsiders who viewed the new community with a sense of superiority and attempted to interfere in its life, rather than being partners with it. The kibbutz was the “other,” against and in relation to which the Kiryat Shmona identity became consolidated.

Maybe the outcome could have been different, given the promise that was embodied in kibbutz society with its utopian aspirations. But the goodwill that found expression in the attempt to embrace the immigrants in the midst of their process of normalization and acculturation was not enough, and the relations between the two communities in the Hula Valley ended in failure, not in a model for emulation.

Nevertheless, the failure of the kibbutz volunteers to mold better relations with the residents of the ma’abara is only one side of the story. It was the founders of Kiryat Shmona, and especially the Yemenite immigrants among them, who emerge as a strong, united group, stubbornly faithful to their cultural communal agenda, and clearly aware that they deserved to receive better treatment and better conditions, and that they had the right to organize themselves and to demand a change in the absorption process. Their refusal to adapt and to submit to the powerful pressure exerted upon them to reconcile themselves to the “exigencies of the hour” and to abandon their traditional Jewish culture, is evidence of their resilience. Their repeated struggles to maintain their authority as parents and their autonomy in education—to create the climate in which their children would be educated, even in the midst of the hardships caused by immigration—indicate their determination and their loyalty to the set of values that was at the heart of their communal life. Their discourse with the authorities, their insistence on describing what was happening to them in the ma’abara from their own point of view, to protest injustice and to demand their rights all points to their own activism and initiative, in complete contrast with the passive, malleable, and childlike image that the orientalist stereotype attached to them. The Yemenites of Khalsa acted as a united community, giving strident political expression to their dissatisfaction with various aspects of their absorption process and the character of their town, which had been determined with no consideration for their culture and their desires. Indeed, the activism of the kibbutzniks, their insensitivity, and their determined effort to cause the Yemenite immigrants to shed central aspects of their identity may have served to intensify the latter’s organization and opposition. Moreover, the paternalism that characterized the establishment of Kiryat Shmona and the absorption of its early inhabitants may have also contributed to the resistance demonstrated by the early residents. The initiative, energy, and determination were first and foremost an expression of the culture and tools that the immigrants had brought with them from their communities in Yemen, and were evidence that they were not helpless even in the mist of their difficult process of immigration. At the same time, the determined behavior of the kibbutz volunteers may even have provided a model, for the new immigrants, demonstrating the power of organized action to create and affect reality. Nonetheless, as time elapsed, the kibbutz and the ma’abara increasingly symbolized two opposite directions in Israeli society.