Departing from the Narrative

A new book about Jewish emigration from Palestine and Israel in the post-war period changes the Zionist concept of yeridah into a history of migration.

In his recent book Leaving Zion: Emigration from Palestine and Israel after World War II, historian Ori Yehudai evaluates a well-known and charged concept in new terms. That concept, as the title of the book indicates, is the outflow of Jews, almost two hundred thousand in number, from British Mandatory Palestine and Israel in the first decades of the postwar era. Many popular and professional writers have discussed this subject in loaded terms of aliyah and yeridah (“ascent” and “descent”), reflecting the importance of the ingathering of Jews in Eretz Israel as an essential objective for Zionism. Conversely, Yehudai chooses more neutral analytical terms: emigration and emigrants, immigration and immigrants, remigration and remigrants, migration and migrants. This linguistic modification mirrors the overall accomplishment of Yehudai’s book. In Leaving Zion, Yehudai translates a formerly exclusivist narrative in Zionist historiography into a revealing history of postwar migrants and their experiences with states, humanitarian organizations, and different communities globally. This account speaks to larger trends in migration and nationalist scholarship beyond Jewish Studies.

The parameters of Leaving Zion are simultaneously narrow and expansive. Temporally, Leaving Zion spans from 1945 to the late 1960s: the post-WWII reconstruction period during which most Jewish emigration occurred. While the scope of Leaving Zion is global, Palestine/Israel, Germany, and the United States feature most prominently. Statistically, the historical subjects at the heart of Yehudai’s book are the 192,000 Jews who migrated from Palestine/Israel between 1945 and 1967. The majority of these were so-called “new immigrants,” who had arrived in Israel after 1948 but remained only briefly before departing to different destinations. These emigrants constituted a significant proportion of overall migration relating to Israel. Between 1945 and 1967, the total number of emigrants was equivalent to fourteen percent of total immigrants, meaning that at the same time that large numbers of Jews were entering the country, a substantial number of Jews were also leaving it. In the early 1950s, immigration and emigration rates were often quite close to each other (in 1953, the number of emigrants actually exceeded the number of immigrants). The lacuna in scholarship that Yehudai’s book addresses, then, cannot be attributed to simple statistical insignificance. Rather, as Yehudai argues, it is the outcome of deep ideological discomfort about the specter of Jewish emigration from Eretz Israel.

This ideological discomfort – that Jewish emigration from Eretz Israel is an existential threat to Zionism – is the thematic through-line that holds Leaving Zion together. As Yehudai explains in the book’s introduction, early Zionism posited a set of antithetical pairs— geulah/galut (“redemption”/“exile”), Eretz Israeli/Diasporic, masculine/feminine, strong/weak, active/passive, positive/negative. These pairings reduced Jewish history, and notions of inescapable Jewish suffering and persecution in particular, into a linear narrative with migration to Eretz Israel as its end point. Within this belief system, a willingness or even preference to leave Eretz Israel, especially after immigrating to Israel (which, theoretically, completed the ideological narrative arc), was an aberration. It symbolized an unwelcome return of the Diasporic “wandering instinct,” that threatened Zionists’ goals of securing land, sovereignty, and political power.

In the postwar period, Zionism became the consensus position for states and humanitarian organizations, collectives and individuals, Jews and non-Jews, and Israelis and Jewish communities globally. This was because Zionism provided a literal solution for masses of Jewish refugees, and because Zionism—as Jewish nationalism—complemented the project of reconstructing Europe, which was to be carried out in terms of nation-states. The Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel made Zionism more popular. The nation-state discourse that animated postwar reconstruction, widespread sympathy for Jewish political autonomy, and the needs of humanitarian organizations and European states to resolve economic and political pressures caused by large populations of displaced persons, was compounded and calcified in the notion that Israel was the natural national home of the Jewish people.

This postwar Zionist consensus, and the negative conceptualization of Jewish emigration that it carried, affected both the physical restrictions placed on the mobility of Jews and the ideological stigmatization of Jewish emigrants from Israel. States and humanitarian organizations adopted official policies that disqualified Jews with Palestinian or Israeli status from receiving the support that could have helped them seek citizenship elsewhere. The logic was that residence in Israel constituted settlement in a viable, permanent home, and thus Jews with Palestinian or Israeli status were no longer considered as refugees on a still-unfolding journey. Socially, negative stereotypes drawn from Zionism casting Jewish emigrants as weak, opportunists, and political traitors alienated Jewish emigrants from the Jewish communities to which they sought to integrate, particularly in cases where the emigrants’ arrival exacerbated material or financial scarcity. This double-layered pariah status consistently shaped the experiences of Jewish emigrants.

However, Yehudai resists presenting the postwar Zionist consensus as a monolithic causal factor in these experiences. Instead, he argues that the major insight emerging from this history was a profound ambivalence regarding the tension between two core Jewish values. On one side, consensus belief in Zionism became the overwhelming norm for Jews globally. Post-Holocaust, Zionism functioned as a shared idea that united Jewish communities and gave Jews a language to respond to the Nazi’s attempted mass extermination. From the other side, the Jewish adage kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh (“all Jews are responsible for each other”) seemingly demanded that Jews help Jewish migrants in need—even if their desired emigration from Israel directly contradicted consensus support for Zionism. The dissonance between these two values, contrasting political aims against humanitarian obligations, animate the ambiguities in key aspects of Yehudai’s book.

The first, second, and fifth chapters of Leaving Zion discusses attempts by Jews to leave Palestine/Israel and settle elsewhere in three different contexts. Respectively, these chapters are about Jews who sought repatriation to Europe between 1945 and 1948; who migrated to Europe as a waystation for other end destinations between 1948 and 1951; and who immigrated to the Americas—mostly to the United States, but also to Canada and Brazil—in the 1950s. Despite a varied range of actors and consequential shifts in the geopolitical landscapes in question, three key points unite these chapters.

First, restrictions on migrants and especially remigrants—meaning Jews who had previously fled Europe, but later returned, either temporarily or permanently, after World War II and the Holocaust—came in the form of both top-down official policy and bottom-up social stigmatization. The case of Greek Jews seeking repatriation after World War II, discussed in the first chapter, illustrate this point well. From the top-down, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), one of the humanitarian organizations most involved in postwar reconstruction and the settling of displaced refugees, denied assistance to Greek Jews on the grounds that their possession of then-Palestinian citizenship disqualified them from repatriation. UNRRA considered Palestine a terminal site of settlement for Jews, meaning that return “home” to Europe was anathema in a world shaped by the Zionist consensus. In the fall of 1945, for an exemplification of the bottom-up, Zionist activists affiliated with the Jewish Agency purportedly intimidated the Greek consul in Palestine, G. Christodoulou, into rejecting Greek Jews as suitable candidates for repatriation. These trends were not unique to Greek Jews. Zionist and Israeli organizations and institutions used similar tactics against other repatriation applicants as well, including employment blacklisting, withholding housing and food ration cards, and physical violence.

Second, and in closely related fashion, anti-emigrant rhetoric took key ideas from Zionist ideology, stereotyping emigrants as Diasporic freeloading “wandering Jews,” and political traitors who did not deserve economic and moral support. A comparison of three newspaper articles from Israel, Brazil, and the United States in the early 1950s that Yehudai used demonstrates the prevalence of this line of thought. A 1950 headline in the Israeli newspaper Davar mocked emigrants as “Gypsies in Rolls Royces.” Similarly, the author of an article in the Brazilian Yiddish-language Brazilianer Yidishe Tsaytung reviled the emigrants’ “urge to roam and follow the clang of gold and silver in their ears.” And, in a 1954 letter to Jewish Frontier, US Jew Marie Syrkin reiterated an ideologically charged condemnation, that “in a grotesque parody of their martyrdom and redemption [remigrants] reversed the process and transformed the historic Return into the degradation of the ‘returnee’ to Germany.” Each of these cases relied on a common set of points reflecting the postwar Zionist consensus, most notably the Israeli-strong/Diasporic-weak binary and the notion that Israel was the natural national home of the Jews—which thereby made emigration tantamount to political betrayal.

Third, despite the existence of this consensus, there was a considerable amount of ambivalence around emigration, which connects back to Yehudai’s argument about the deep tension that existed between seemingly competing Jewish values. While humanitarian organizations including UNRRA, the Jewish Agency, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Joint Distribution Committee, and United HIAS Services (UHS) all routinely balked at supporting the emigration of Jews with Palestinian or Israeli status, officials within these bodies and everyday people outside of them expressed moral outrage at the absence of support for needy Jews actively seeking assistance. For their part, migrants, too, expressed ambivalence in their fear that their personal decisions to leave Israel could undermine ideological and political support for Zionism. Collective belief in a Jewish state as an abstract concept was commonplace among Jewish emigrants, even if they themselves did not wish to live in Israel. To justify their individual choices, emigrants decoupled support for Jewish statehood from the personal desire to move elsewhere, framing the latter around specifics like health needs, an inability to acclimatize to the environment, insurmountable struggles mastering Hebrew, or wanting to reunite with family.

The third and fourth chapters of the book focus less on Jews who left or planned to leave Israel and more on emigrants who found themselves stalled in Europe for lengthy periods in the 1950s, and to the responses to their situation. The third chapter deals mostly with remigrant groups residing in displaced persons camps in Europe, particularly the Foehrenwald DP camp in Germany. The fourth chapter deals with Israeli emigration restrictions and anti-emigrant propaganda that emerged in reaction to the uncomfortable political and diplomatic conditions created by these large emigrant populations in Europe. These chapters elaborate on the book’s key themes—the effects of the postwar Zionist consensus, the mix of top-down and bottom-up forces, the fraught symbolism of post-Holocaust migration to Europe, tense relations with local Jewish communities, bureaucratic ineptitude, and moral ambivalence over how to approach Jewish emigrants. But what emerges from these two chapters more dramatically than in the others is the mutually vituperative rhetoric both from and about Jewish emigrants. Jewish emigrants condemned Israel at the same time as Israelis condemned Jewish emigrants. For example, in 1953, German remigrants squatting in the Mohlstrasse synagogue near Munich—ensnared there because their briefly-held Israeli legal statuses disqualified them from the humanitarian support that would have enabled them to migrate elsewhere—protested their situation with a banner that read “Hitler was a God compared to Ben-Gurion and Nazi Germany paradise compared to Israel.” Conversely, Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel, ardent Zionist and future famous author, published a sixteen-part series on Jewish emigrants for Davar, detailing what Wiesel presented as the “grotesqueness of [emigrants] lives and delusions.” The mutual antagonism generated by Jewish emigration demonstrates the depth of emotion involved, as well the commitment to activism on both sides.

Yehudai uses the conclusion of Leaving Zion, which deals with emigration at the end of the 1950s and into later decades, to ask if the same pejorative stigmatization of Jewish emigration from Israel remained in place with the passage of time—as seemed to be the case when then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dismissed emigrants as nefolet shel memushot (“leftovers of weaklings”) in 1976. Yehudai suggests that while the postwar Zionist consensus and its effects on the negative reputation of emigrants has waned, emigration still raises existential questions about Zionism, Jewish values, and Jewish characteristics. The out-flow of significant numbers of Israeli Jews for academic, economic, and political reasons indicates viable alternatives for Jewish life other than living in a Jewish state—a fact that today, as in decades past, continues to threatens Zionist narrativization.

Two broader aspects of Leaving Zion are particularly generative and novel to the existing historiography on migration to and from Israel. The first is Yehudai’s analysis of Mizrahi migration in the 1940s and 1950s, when Mizrahim made up fifty percent of immigrants but a mere fifteen percent of emigrants. Scholars from multiple fields and myriad points of analysis have written about Mizrahi migration to and experience in Israel at length. Yehudai, however, contributes a new and important insight, noting that the relatively low rate of Mizrahi emigration correlates with structural factors that, on the whole, were less likely to impede Ashkenazi migrants. For instance: unlike Jews from Europe, Iraqi immigrants to Israel could not apply for repatriation, as the naturalization and nationality laws passed by the Iraqi parliament in 1950 and 1951 required Iraqi Jews to forfeit their Iraqi citizenship, without the possibility of future reinstatement, in exchange for safe passage out of the country. Similarly, Mizrahi Jews were less likely than Ashkenazim to have families ties in Canada—a major advantage in the postwar Canadian citizenship process. Thus, the new insight that Yehudai provides is that while Mizrahim and Ashkenazim shared experiences with dire material conditions and discrimination (albeit with the acknowledgment that the racism of anti-Mizrahi discrimination requires separate, concerted analysis), their experiences differed in available emigration opportunities.

The second worthy contribution is Yehudai’s commitment to giving voice to the perspectives and experiences of Jewish emigrants, providing the most convincing and often the most moving material in the book. Yehudai places a diverse array of individual stories at the center of Leaving Zion. A small sampling voices that populate the book include Cuban veteran of the 1948 War Gershon Mankowitz, Zionist intellectual and emigrant academic Hans Jonas, Romanian Holocaust refugee Ulda Kastersztein, and Iranian Immigrant Association representative Nathan Shahadi. Additionally, Yehudai’s enumeration of the numerous associations and political coalitions organized by emigrants pushes against the myth of emigrants as weak and apolitical compared to Zionist activists. These emigrants organized and advocated on their own behalf, through activities ranging from a sit-down strike at the Landsberg DP camp in October 1950, to physical assaults on American Joint Distribution Committee workers in Brazil, to civil disobedience demonstrations blocking Tel Aviv’s busy roads by Bene Israel Jews in 1952. Whether peaceful or violent, their impassioned responses, again, disprove stereotypes of passivity. This commitment to a bottom-up orientation is, indeed, a definitional feature of social history, and Yehudai realizes the promise of this methodological approach.

In sum, Yehudai’s Leaving Zion is a much-needed, thoroughly researched, and skillfully crafted book, exemplifying an alternative approach to loaded concepts in ideological historiographies. Yehudai changes the Zionist narrative of yeridah into a history of migration, in which the main story is not Jewish-particular but rather more broadly about individuals circumventing the attempts of states and state-adjacent institutions to control them. This point is ultimately empowering. To repurpose a memorable quote that Yehudai uses, it is like Zvi Avnon, former deputy director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, once said at a 1953 subcommittee meeting: “Jews in times of trouble are clever enough to find all kinds of machinations to bypass these and other regulations.” While Avnon originally directed this barb against emigrants working around Israeli restrictions on exit visas, it reflects a greater, and possibly inspiring, truth about the history that Yehudai has written. Jews’ moxie, and their ability to find creative strategies to contend with large powerful political structures, is a hallmark of centuries of Jewish politics. Jews who emigrated from Palestine and Israel are part of this impressive story, too.

*Ori Yehudai, Leaving Zion: Jewish Emigration from Palestine and Israel after World War II, Cambridge University Press, 2020, pp. 280.

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