The need to apologize
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 28, 1997
Ehud Barak's recent apology for 'the pain and suffering' caused immigrants from Arab lands by the Labor party in the '50s ignored one critical issue: What exactly was he apologizing for?
Some critics have focused on Barak's transparent political motivation for the 'apology.' Others have denied that there is anything for which to apologize. If the refugees were housed in tin slums, they maintain, it was only because the country was too impoverished to do any more.
The debate is thus reduced to one over the quality of the accommodations provided the new immigrants. Ignored is the real sin of those years and beyond: The systematic attempt to destroy the religious beliefs of the newcomers to Israel.
In this respect, at least, there was no discrimination between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The ruling Zionist elite was equally eager to destroy the religiosity of Ashkenazim when the opportunity presented itself, as it did with the 1,000 Polish orphans who gathered in Teheran between 1939 and 1942.
Over 80 percent of these children came from religious homes. In Teheran, the children were prevented from saying Kaddish for their parents and punished when they persisted. Refugee rabbis in Teheran were denied access to the children. The Jewish Agency informed the Polish government- in-exile, which was paying for the camp in Teheran, that it would forgo all funding if the Polish government insisted that the children be provided with religious instruction.
When the head of the camp, a member of Hashomer Hatza'ir, was told that the children were refusing to eat non-kosher food, he replied, 'Let one or two die of starvation and they will soon forget about kosher food."
Once in Israel, few children were placed in religious institutions, despite the promise of Youth Aliya head Henrietta Szold that placement would be in accord with family background.
Agudat Israel, the party to which the parents of over 60 percent of the children had belonged in Poland, prepared hundreds of places for them in Israel. Yet only 30 out of 1,000 children were placed in Agudah institutions. In one camp, Szold herself did the selection. Though 21 of the 29 children had learned in hadarim or Bais Yaakov schools, not one was placed in an Agudah institution.
The 'soul-snatching" of the Children of Teheran, in the words of a contemporary columnist in Ha'aretz, was thus a prelude to the deliberate efforts to extirpate Judaism from the younger generation of immigrants from Arab lands.
A government commission established in the '50s to study the absorption of the Yemenite community found that the prime objective of the government's absorption policy was 'adaptation of the child to the mode of living expressed in the community at large,' a euphemism for uprooting their religious identity.
That same commission found that the shaving of sidelocks, an important symbol of religious identity for Yemenite Jews, was a 'methodical practice.' So too, the commission found, was 'the disturbance of traditional religious study.' The tents for prayer were locked to keep children from gathering for religious instruction and holy books removed and strewn on the ground.
Yemenite teachers were forbidden to teach the children. Anyone religious was barred from the refugee camps. When the Yemenite Jews protested this policy in the Ein Shemer camp, one was shot dead by the authorities.
The children were forced to live apart from their families in central children's houses, where the guides told them 'Shabbat does not exist in Eretz Yisrael' and took them on Shabbat hikes, during which they were encouraged to pick oranges in imitation of their counselors.
Parents who wanted to send their children to religious schools were threatened with eviction from their homes and the loss of their Histadrut work permits - a virtual sentence of starvation in those days.
All this was possible because the Yemenite Jews were subhuman primitives in the eyes of those charged with their absorption. Their fervent religious belief was simply one more proof. The absorption authorities considered it an act of mercy to remove the children from their parents.
A Mrs. Tanani told a Ma'ariv reporter of approaching the hospital bed of her child one day and finding two women arguing over who would get him. She overheard the nurse say, 'What does it matter? They have such big families anyway.'
The next day she was told the boy had died.
When a government inquiry was set up to investigate charges that Yemenite children had been kidnapped, 342 complaints were filed by parents who were told that their children needed hospitalization, and never saw them again. In many cases, the parents were never even informed of the 'deaths' of their children, and when they inquired, they were told that they had been already been buried, often in unmarked graves.
The story of the kidnappings will not die in the Yemenite community because every family has such a story. One man with whom I pray told me how his mother found him as a toddler being herded onto a Jewish Agency plane from Aden. Later he was removed from the children's house in Rosh Ha'ayin, without his parents' knowledge. It took them two years before they found him on a secular kibbutz and reclaimed him.
The focus of the North African aliya, too, was on separating children from parents. Parents were encouraged to send their children alone, and those who refused remained stranded in transit camps for much longer periods.
To encourage parents to allow their children to go alone, Youth Aliya promised that they would be placed in religious institutions. Most were sent instead to secular kibbutzim.
A 1956 counselor's manual from one such kibbutz emphasizes that the children are to be taught that 'belief in God is a reactionary doctrine that has no place among mankind's progressive fighters.'
The bright thread running through all Israeli absorption efforts is the arrogant contempt for Jewish religion. Those who complain loudest of religious coercion today were themselves perpetrators of deliberate and systematic coercion of hundreds of thousands of children to shed their religious upbringing.
Yet rather than apologizing, the perpetrators continue to boast of it. After Operation Solomon, Jerusalem's Kol Ha'ir wrote: 'So it was with the Jews of Yemen, so too with those of North Africa. So that the young at least would have some chance, the tradition had to be destroyed, the family had to be destroyed.... Better the salvation of the young so that at least they can integrate.'
It is that paternalistic contempt for our own religion for which Ehud Barak should be apologizing.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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