By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Features  | 

The Jewish Naqba: The Forced Urbanization of Mizrahi Jewish Refugees

While recently on a long trip (by Israeli standards), I sat on a train as it carried me through Israel’s periphery, en route to the metropolitan Mercaz. As we passed through the ancient cities of Ramle and Lod, I sat and read chapter 27 of Marx’s “Capital.” I don’t usually spend my free time reading archaic historical accounts of land-theft, but, on account of the tedious boredom of a long journey and a desire to better understand the impurities of postmodern Capitalism, I found myself enthralled in the dark history of land enclosure, theft and criminal privatization.

Marx, in his attempt to personalize the crimes of the proto-capitalists, turns to historical databases to argue his point. He describes in detail the individual perpetrators and victims and the circumstances that allowed for the utter destruction of the English middle class prior to and during the Industrial Revolution. I won’t bore you now with the entire corpus of evidence and testimonies that he cites. Instead, I’ve chosen one excerpt that illustrates well the calamitous effect that land enclosures and forced evictions had on the Scots.

As an example of the method obtaining in the 19th century, the “clearing” made by the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore — 2 acres per family … In the year 1835, the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep.

As Marx tells it, the Scots of Sutherland, as a result of a capitalistic government plot, were violently forced off their land, upon the penalty of death, and reimbursed with tiny parcels, far away from their ancestral holdings. Additionally, the forces that conquered their land and villages did not repopulate the vacated region. Instead, they converted the fields and villages into pastureland for the myriad sheep, leaving the homes of the expropriated Scots destroyed and unmaintained. Historically, a victorious army takes advantage of all the human advantages of conquered territory. They send colonists to live in and populate the territories. The Capitalist invasion, however, never showed much interest in such an enterprise. Efficient capital production, not tending to the land or its inhabitants, has always defined Capitalist expansion, and the Scots irreparably suffered.

Reading such an account while traversing Israel’s near-vacant, undeveloped, southern periphery, I began to ponder the political and social factors that led to the suffocating, highly-dense and geographically unsustainable reality of Israel’s urban core. Israel, unlike what you may have heard, does not, at first glance, strike one as a land-deprived country. Israel’s population, while still growing, does not make efficient use of its resources. The Mercaz, an agglomeration of around twenty urban centers and suburbs, represents around 24 percent of Israel’s entire population. Even after accounting for the vast areas of desert that remain understandably uninhabited, a quick drive through Israel’s heartland, the Sharon Plain, can give you an idea of the problem at hand.

Instead of properly designing cities along with their public-utilities, transport and other modern amenities, many Israeli cities have grown lazily. High-rise apartments, irritating to the eye and disturbing to the surrounding cityscape, sprout up randomly, as contractors find and exploit lucrative plots of land granted to them by a notoriously unreliable public bureaucracy (Israeli Land Authority and the JNF). Instead of investing in natural growth and sophisticated expansion, Israel’s cities, once the rallying cry of the Zionist movement, have become the bane of our society. Urban Israeli life, devoid of much of the features of modern economies, public transport, work near to home, public parks and open spaces, lacks the vitality of the classical Israeli spirit and continuously oppresses its inhabitants. The combination of poor planning and crass business opportunism has transformed Israel’s dense urban conglomerate into a third-world metropolis, the opposite of functional Western mega-cities (think of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Berlin, London and Paris).

Alternatively, much of the land that could be used for natural growth and responsible expansion lies fallow, as a select few families tend to their livestock, vegetables and large plots of land. Even if they wish to sell their land to developers, many government regulations stand in their way, restricting their freedoms and Israel’s ability to develop. Thus, the contrast struck me as I made my way to Tel Aviv. While for most of the trip I noted very little development as I surveyed much of the pastoral, rural countryside, the landscape changed rapidly as I approached the metropolis. I didn’t see trees, nor parks. Just tall, residential high-rises, culminating in the new skyscrapers of Tel Aviv’s post-modern, neo-capitalistic boom.

Bewildered by the odd structure of Israel’s urban development, I began to think about the circumstances that created today’s situation. To that end, inspired by Marx and unnerved by my experience, I started to see similarities between the Palestinian Naqba and the cruel history of land-theft.

In May of 1948, the Arab states of the Middle East declared war on Israel. Israel’s War of Independence, alternately known in Arabic as “the catastrophe,” cemented Israel’s presence in world politics, and offered the Jews a chance at rejuvenation following the Holocaust. For the Arab residents of Palestine, however, it spelled chaos, disenfranchisement and loss of their homes. Around 800,000 Arabs left Palestine during the conflict, leaving behind around 400 depopulated towns and villages. Of those villages, only around seven were eventually repopulated with Jewish residents, the vast majority (around 92 percent) of previously inhabited villages were destroyed, neglected or forgotten in the tumultuous years of Israel’s rebirth.

Israel’s Jewish population, while numbering only around 600,000 in early 1948, exploded in the subsequent years, overtaken by massive numbers of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. By the end of the 1950s, Israel had settled over two million Jews within its borders, stretching its welfare system thin and causing much stress. Israel had not had time to ready itself for such a torrent of refugees and, owing to the relatively young age of the country, did not have all the necessary infrastructure to deal with such numbers. Israel entered into a period of harsh austerity (Tzena), a system of food and utilities rationing, and housed many of the new immigrants in make-ship shelters, large camps of substandard housing (aluminum shelters) called maabarot. Anyone who has seen the quintessential cinematic portrayal of such an experience in “Sallah Shabatican easily imagine what kind of toll such an experience would have taken on the shocked, traumatized refugees. Eventually, the refugees left the camps, built cities and permanently settled, but it took time and left a lasting mark on the younger generations. The systematic repression of these masses, a disproportionate number of them Mizrahi Jews, did not end when they left the ghettos of the absorption communities. It expanded to all forms of employment, housing and education.

The question remains: Why did the government subject the new arrivals to such horrid conditions? Why did the government destroy the towns and villages of the departed Arabs instead of using them to house the immigrants who had just been entirely dispossessed by the Western-backed dictatorships of their native lands? If 800,000 Arabs left, leaving behind many thousands of homes, hundreds of villages and hectares of fertile farmland, why did such precious resources go to waste? The bigger question which we must also ask: what caused the departure of the Arab population? Whose interests did it serve?

Normally, when approaching the topic, we highlight the external nationalistic struggles of two warring peoples: Israelis vs. Arabs, Jews vs. Muslims. However, as we can surely see by the Israeli government’s failure to address the needs of Jewish refugees by appropriating the lost capital of the departing Arabs, the nationalistic/colonialist answer does not provide us proper understanding. If it were just a nationalistically motivated usurpation, the government would have gladly given land to those needy Jews, desperate for a place to call home.

Instead, as we witnessed, the Jews were forced into concentrated ghettos, makeshift urban dwellings, and not allowed to establish themselves in the small communities of historical villages and homesteads. Instead of letting the Jewish migrants develop a community of moshavot and kibbutzim as the older settlers had done upon reaching Israel, the government forced most of the new immigrants into densely-packed urban settlements, thereby restricting them from access to the vast land-resources (which were subsequently appropriated to the ruling Ashkenazi elite) of the recently depopulated land. The resulting masses, unable to fend for themselves, unable to live a self-sufficient lifestyle like their Ashekenazi brethren or their Arab predecessors, were doomed to the banality and oppression of the modern proletariat.

Upon further consideration, we can conclude that the destruction of the Arab villages did not only transform Israel’s demographics, it also represented the end of the yeoman farmer in the region. Until then, most of the Arabs remained in control of their family plots of land. They tilled their soil on their own, grew their own food and ate the fruits of their own labor. When the Arabs left, they left fallow not only their fields but also the mythos of the self-sufficient, independent farmer (the falah). That persona, which served the early kibbutznikim so well, was lost with them, and the newly-arrived immigrants quickly forgot their appreciation for the direct relationship of farmer and land. Instead, they became trapped in the Capitalistic world of inequality and government corruption. The Western-backed government and Ashkenazi elite, sensing the immediate danger posed by reviving the independent spirit of the yeoman, quickly appropriated the land left by the Arab refugees and destroyed the evidence of the self-sufficient falah. Israel had won the war, and Western imperialism had beaten back the Arab menace.

If the satellite villages of the long-departed Arabs would have seen new life, I feel quite certain that the map of Israel would look different. The main cities, instead of forming an unending desert of urban sprawl, would have developed competitively, incorporating the interests of the many communities and identities of Israel. We would not have bulldozed the rich cultures of all our brethren, rather we would have internalized each group in a complex structure of village, city, town. For now, we must live with the monotony of post-modern Israel. That is, until we make peace with the Arab world.

An early Israeli ode to the Jewish falah:

Lo and behold,

How great is the day!

A fire burns in the chest

And the plow

Yet again works the field.

(Zalman Heyn, 1937)


Photo Caption: A Proud Falah

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons