Absorbing the Exiles

Israel worked to absorb massive numbers of Jewish immigrants during the 1950s.

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Israel, on the other hand, was a modern, industrial society. The smaller, nuclear family functioned as the dominant social unit and the father exercised less control over the members of the household. While women still tended to play a greater role than men in the home andin raising the family, it was common for Israeli women to work outside the home and some pursued their own professional careers. The more modern technologies and lifestyle in Israel required a greater degree of skilled workers.

No less important was the primarily secular character of Israeli society. Social, political, and cultural life in Israel was modeled primarily after European patterns. Due to a lack of marketable vocational skills and a greater difficulty (compared to the children) in adapting to the new surroundings, the immigrant father lost much of his former prestige within the family. The large family itself became an economic liability, and the traditional role of women as housekeepers limited their participation in the paid work force. The secular lifestyle of the country seemed to negate many of their traditional values. Israeli authorities often made no secret of their low regard for what they viewed as the "backward" or "primitive" culture of the immigrants from developing countries. The general Israeli expectation was that these newcomers would modernize and assimilate into the new society.

As the majority of veteran Israelis who held positions of authority came from Europe, immigrants from Asian and African countries were at a considerable disadvantage. Housing, food, and employment were often secured through personal connections, which were sorely lacking among the Jews from Moslem lands. In their treatment of the new immigrants, Israeli authorities reflected a genuine though often patronizing concern for the welfare of the newcomers and a desire to absorb them into Israeli society, together with a certain degree of prejudice and, in some cases, a desire to exploit the situation for political gain. It was an experience that would not be soon forgotten by either the newcomers or the veteran population.

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Jonathan Kaplan is administrative director at the Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.