In the first years after World War II, people around the world wanted nothing more than to recuperate and forget the horrors they had been through. It was an era of consumerism, affluence and good feelings. But in Israel we did not have that luxury. As the war ended, we were moving from one fight into another, even greater, struggle.
We were in the last stages of the battle to create a Jewish state, after 2,000 years of dispersion. To make the state a reality, we had to bring Jewish refugees out of Europe, acquire arms, defend ourselves from invasion and build thousands of new homes, schools and roads. Looking back, it was a dramatic, heroic time, filled with anguish and passion, but the truth is that we didn’t have time for such thoughts. There was too much to do.
When World War II broke out in Europe, I enlisted in the British army and served in the Jewish Brigade as an artilleryman. I was at El Alamein, then in North Africa and Italy. Like most of my comrades, I had been in the Haganah, the illegal Zionist underground army in Mandate Palestine, and so I knew something about soldiering.
Naturally, as we were fighting shoulder to shoulder with the British in North Africa, we hoped they would see us as allies and open the gates of Palestine to Jewish immigration after the war. But instead, because of the foolish policies of Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, they refused to open them. So we decided to work against the British and open the gates ourselves. We acquired several dozen rickety boats and did our best to bring refugees from Europe through the British naval blockade.
In the first years of the state, the major tasks were absorbing new immigrants into Israeli society and developing the country’s outlying areas — both for security reasons and to provide homes for the immigrants. We were a nation of 600,000 people, and we would absorb a million newcomers in the next decade. Of course it was dramatic. It was terribly difficult. But it was necessary.
We knew that our best hope of survival was to double and triple our population. At the same time, we knew that if we took in a million people, fed them, built new towns and created industries to employ them, it would be a difficult experience for all concerned — most of all for the immigrants. What’s more, many of these people were survivors of a terrible war, a nightmare. They had been through hell, and they had a right to want some comfort and ease, but we were a poor country trying to house them. And we had just fought a war and lost 6,000 souls, a terrible price for a small nation.
We did it all with full awareness of the implications for the future. There were some steps we took that would come back to haunt us later on. But with all the difficulties, they were necessary.
In the early years, the state imposed a regime of austerity and rationing of basic commodities, one of the hardest decisions we had to take. Our foreign credit was not good. Much of our agricultural produce had been supplied by Palestinians who were now gone. And 1,000 new hungry mouths were arriving every single day. Immediately after the war of independence ended, in 1949, David Ben-Gurion created a Ministry of Supply and Rationing, which set prices and allocated such basic commodities as milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil.
The shortages were accepted in good spirit for the first few months, but within a year it was causing considerable hardship. Parents went to the black market to find extra food for their children. Doctors reported a decline in the health of young mothers who were giving up protein rations for their small children. Mapai, the ruling party, lost votes in the second Knesset election because of popular anger.
As angry as the settled population was in those first years, the immigrants were even more frustrated. Most of them were initially housed in tent camps and tin shacks for months at a time while permanent housing was prepared. When they received permanent housing, it was usually in outlying areas with few comforts and amenities. In 1959, rioting broke out in Haifa’s Wadi Salib section, a formerly Arab neighborhood that had been abandoned during the war and was now populated mainly by new immigrants from North Africa. The rioters were protesting discrimination against oriental Jews — Sephardic Jews from Africa and Asia — and the protests and violence quickly spread to other immigrant towns in the north. Quiet was restored, but the bitterness lingered for years until it finally exploded in the electoral earthquake of 1977.
Angriest of all, of course, were the people who had lived in Wadi Salib before the immigrants came — the Palestinian refugees. Hundreds of villages and neighborhoods all over Israel had been abandoned by Arabs who fled or were pushed to neighboring Arab countries during the fighting. Most of them ended up in camps just over the border from their former homes, barred from returning and prevented from entering the Arab societies around them.
Our response to them, to their feelings of loss, was not unlike our response to our own feelings: We had no time. It would take Israelis years to begin to recognize the Palestinians as a genuine party to our conflict. I came to understand after the Six Day War that the Palestinians were a nation — that Zionism had given birth to twin offspring, namely the Jewish state and the Palestinian national movement, and we would have to come to terms with that. At the time, I was the secretary general of the Labor Party, and my new understanding of the Palestinians was rejected so strongly that I resigned from the party.
In the early years, though, our attitude was that we were fighting a war for survival. It was them or us. We won, but we paid a heavy price in terms of our losses, and yet we moved forward. We built our state where we could. We knew that if we were to survive, we had to populate the areas we controlled.
The goal was not merely to build a state. Establishing a state was a tool, a means. The goal was to bring immigrants and settle them, to create a new future for the Jewish people.
If there was a great disappointment in those years, it was not the austerity or the wars, but the fact that larger numbers of Jews did not come and join us, especially from affluent countries in the West. From America. I used to think quite often of an old saying of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president: “Am Yisrael ayeka?” — “Jewish people, where are you?”
We had expected all along that when the state was established, a great many more people would come — not just the poor and oppressed, but the free Jews. It was a terrible shock when that did not happen.
Looking back, it’s become clear that without the mobilization of American Jews, without their economic and financial assistance, we couldn’t have done what we did. We couldn’t have absorbed the Jews of Europe and the Middle East. We couldn’t have built the new towns and fed our population.
Those accomplishments were the continuation of that heroic period before independence. The heroism of the 1950s was the superhuman effort of the people of Israel rising in those first years to the task of building a nation. Yes, there was great hardship — the austerity, the rationing. On the other hand, we succeeded: We opened the gates, and we built a Jewish state.
To be sure, the daily experience of the average Israeli was not necessarily of heroism and great drama. The first task every Israeli faced was to survive the daily hardships and difficulties. Still, almost everyone in the state understood that we were accomplishing something vast and historic. We were changing history. When you bring in 1,000 new immigrants a day, day after day, everyone in the country feels it, sees it constantly. There was a magic in the air. It was brutally hard, but there was magic.
Aryeh Lova Eliav is the founder and chairman of the Nitzana, a desert education village in the central Negev. Born in Moscow in 1921, he was raised in Tel Aviv. He joined the Haganah underground in 1935 and the British army in 1940. He commanded illegal aliyah boats before 1948, headed special immigration and development projects for Finance Minister Levi Eshkol during the 1950s and served as first secretary in Israel’s Moscow embassy from 1958 to 1960. His book on Soviet Jewry, “Between Hammer and Sickle,” was published in 1965. He sat in the Knesset from 1965 to 1979 and from 1988 to 1992, and served as deputy minister of trade and industry, deputy minister of immigrant absorption and secretary general of the Israel Labor Party.