This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Gathering the Dispersed of Israel*

More than any other contemporary, the State of Israel has been a nation of immigrants. The very first law enacted its the fledgling parliament was the Law of Return that guaranteed Israeli citizenship to any Jew who sought it. Although we are accustomed to measuring periods of Israeli history in terms of wars, it would provide a more revealing evaluation of the national spirit if we were to enumerate instead the many waves of Jewish immigration that have left their imprint on the country’s cultural diversity.

At the beginnings of the Zionist movement and in the early years of the State of Israel, the chief objective of Jewish nationalists was to provide a sanctuary for persecuted Jews of the Diaspora. Such situations, however, have been the exception and not the rule through most of our history. In contrast to the security and comfort enjoyed by Western Jewish communities, then as now, there have not been many occasions when Jews would choose to settle in the promised land for the sake of ease or tranquillity. On the contrary, those who took upon themselves the commitment to "go up" to the holy land were aware that they were also being called upon to accept a lowering of their material standards of living in order to fulfil ideological and religious goals.

In spite of this, there have always been Jews who were prepared to accept those hardships for the sake of the privilege of dwelling upon their ancestral soil.

We might expect that the spirit of dedication and sacrifice demonstrated by those new immigrants would have been appreciated by the beleaguered populace of Israel.

However, appreciation is not always forthcoming. The Jews of the holy land have not always been overwhelmed with admiration for their cousins who had chosen to join them from more affluent communities abroad.

There have been several examples of frictions and prejudices between the assorted ethnic groups that compose the Israeli Jewish community. One can cite many examples of intolerance directed against new immigrants.

Jews hailing from Iraq were stereotyped for the coarseness of their manners, while those from Egypt were mocked for their pride and arrogance. And there was the lamentable case of those hapless Turkish Jews who had settled in a Galilean town, who were moved to lament to their rabbi about their social isolation: Nobody would even extend them a simple "hello."

To be fair, immigrants from these distinguished diaspora communities were slow to assimilate into the local culture, maintaining their own synagogues, customs and landsmanschaften long after settling in the homeland. One nationalistic Israeli rabbi lost his composure when he encountered a clique of immigrant Jews congregating together in the street. He began chasing them away, while castigating them viciously for the failure of their families and former-countrymen to immigrate to Israel en masse, rather than in a slow trickle! To hear the rabbi rant, these newcomers were to blame for all of Israel’s troubles!

Sometimes the treatment of the immigrants has degenerated into cruelty, as in that unpleasant reception that awaited one Iraqi rabbi shortly after his arrival in the promised land. When the rabbi, a frail and diminutive individual, entered a local butcher shop in search of a cut of meat, the proprietor seems to have taken offense at the idea of this little foreigner’s self-importance, and decided to play a mean trick on the arrogant greenhorn, whose strange accent and outlandish dress betrayed his foreign origins.

When the rabbi inquired about the price of his purchase, he was told that it would come to "fifty liras and a smack." In vain, the rabbi ventured to offer to raise the monetary price in hope that the butcher would relinquish the smack, but ended up with a bill for "a hundred lira and the smack." The bewildered sage was forced to submit to the humiliation, and left the shop muttering about the peculiar customs in the new land.

Before we go too far with this scathing indictment of Israeli xenophobia, one small detail should be made clear: All of the stories related in the preceding paragraphs were quoted from the pages of the Talmud and Midrash, and occurred more than 1500 years ago. The names of the lands of immigration were modernized, of course, so that "Babylonia" became "Iraq" and "Cappadocia" "Turkey," but the stories themselves were otherwise unchanged.

Modern Israel has been characterized as a society that "loves immigration, but hates immigrants." From the perspective of history we can see that the same fundamental human attitudes have remained constant over the generations. Similar anecdotes could of course be told about the experiences of newcomers to Calgary, Toronto or Los Angeles.

And yet, strengthened by their dedication, persistence and resilience, as well as by the fundamental decency of the veteran citizens, most of those immigrants have ultimately succeeded in being absorbed into their intimidating new surroundings.

Of all the manifold accomplishments in which Israel can take pride on her fiftieth anniversary, this surely ranks among the most miraculous.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, May 7, 1998, pp. 10-11.

  • Bibliography:
    • S. Lieberman, "’Thus it was and thus it shall be’--Palestinian Jews and world Jewry during the era of the Mishnah and the Talmud," Cathedra 17 (1981), pp. 3-10.