Thursday, August 8, 2013

On the Chaos of Mass Immigration - Updated

During Israel's earliest years, the number of new immigrants, most of them nearly destitute refugees from Europe (Holocaust survivors) and Arab lands, was greater than the total number of Israelis - and many of the veteran Israelis hadn't been there more than a few years themselves. A few months ago, we even posted a statistical summary from 1952, and our "Immigration" label will show you other posts we've done on the topic.

Today we're presenting two reports from the end of October 1950. The first was submitted on October 29, 1950 by Captain Dr. H. Shkedi, Acting Medical Officer of the Southern Command, to the CO of Southern Command; it contained his description of a visit he and a number of his fellow physicians had just made to the ma'abara (immigrant camp) of Ajour:

Our first impression was bad. The camp is filthy, crowded, each tent is shared by two or three families, they do their cooking in the tents, there are no sidewalks, and skinny and undernourished children wander about.

The public toilets are a disaster. The showers seem alright, but there's no hot water. There are 250 families, about 900 people, but there's only one doctor. He himself is sickly, he lacks adequate medications, has no support staff, and is overwhelmed.

The camp is about four months old. There is known to be malaria in the area, but no one has done any disinfection.

We examined 100 people to gauge the frequency of sicknesses. All were unhealthy, many with symptoms of long-term malnourishment, along with skin and eye diseases.

We instructed the doctor how to treat the most common ailments we identified, but he doesn't have the medications anyway. We sprayed the entire camp, all its tents, and the people in it, with DDT. (This was standard in those days, before the dangers of DDT were understood).

Our recommendations: more medications, more medical staff, regular disinfections, hygiene instruction for the immigrants, construction of proper toilets and facilitating hot water, construction of a clinic for sick children, improvement of the tents.

The general apparently received the report in the morning, because the very same day he sent a team of logistics officers, this time headed by a colonel, to fix things. Colonel Israel Mintz submitted his report two days later:

1. Food:
1.1. There are sufficient basic, rationed, foodstuffs.
1.2. Unrationed foodstuffs: there aren't any. The owner of the store says he can't bring in additional supplies because the tires of his truck won't bear the unpaved road.
1.3 Clearly, no-one can survive on the basic, rationed foodstuffs alone; in Ajour the situation is even worse as the Yemenite immigrants are unfamiliar with some of the types of food and don't know what to make of them. The men are employed at hard physical labor. It's unacceptable that the Histadrut is paying so little for their labor; a Histadrut company needs to think about more than the bottom line.

2. Housing: The immigrants live in American military tents. They don't know how to maintain them, and with the arrival of the first winter storm the camp will be a disaster. Either better housing must be found, or at very least the men must be instructed on how to maintain the tents.
Someone needs to deal with the lack of hot water, the construction of public toilets, and the construction of separate shower stalls for men and women.

3. Clothing: the immigrants are clothed in rags. Margulin told me that he hopes they will soon be given ration cards for clothes, but I don't see where they're expected to buy the clothes.

Given an adequate budget, I don't see why the army shouldn't be able to resolve most of the issues.

On the margins of both reports, an unidentified Moshe scribbled that the local physician has been instructed, and we'll deal with the hot water and showers. We haven't yet solved the matter of the food. This was on October 31.

Is this a success story? A disaster? A tale of indifference, or of inadequate good intentions? Tellingly, no-one thinks the United Nations or any other external agent needs to be involved.

Update: A well-informed reader writes to tell us that since at the time the commanding general was none other than Moshe Dayan, he's probably the unidentified "Moshe" scribbling in the margins. After all, he would have been scribbling for some immediate purpose, not for posterity (that's us), and all the immediate actors would have been quite clear who the boss was.


  1. Thank you for posting the history of Israel. This is great reading material. I was turned onto the site from Freakonomics and have been reading ever since.

  2. Would the UN have gotten involved even if they had been asked, I wonder?