The Attempts to Destroy Their Spiritual Culture: Part One

Dear Friends,


This letter will begin with the story of the Yemenite Jews who returned to Zion right after the State of Israel was established. Throughout the centuries of our exile, the Yemenite Jews had a passionate love for the Land of Zion and for the Torah which serves as the soul of Zion. There were even some Yemenite Jews who managed to make the very dangerous journey to Zion and settle there before the rise of the modern Zionist movement. After the State of Israel was established in 1948, the Israeli government organized “Operation Flying Carpet” – an airlift which brought most of the Yemenite Jews to Israel. These were deeply religious Jews who thought that they were experiencing the beginning of the final redemption, when all the exiles will return to Zion in the spirit of the soul of Zion. Upon, their arrival, they were shocked to discover that the Israeli government made every effort to break their connection to the soul of Zion!


As I shall discuss in this letter, the government adopted a policy of secular coercion with regard to the new immigrants. (A major source for much of the information appears at the end of this letter.) The Yemenite Jews were not the only targets of the secular Israeli government, for during this period, deeply religious Sephardic Jews who were lovers of Zion were also arriving in Israel, and they too, became victims of the government’s secular coercion. From the perspective of the Labor Party leaders who controlled the new State of Israel, these religious immigrants were a serious threat to their desire to have a secular, westernized state. These leaders therefore attempted to destroy the spiritual culture of these immigrants. I began to learn about these attempts at cultural genocide when I was a Jewish community activist in the United States, and I discovered further information after I moved to Jerusalem.


When I lived in the States, I had started to develop a special love for Yemenite and Sephardic Jews; however, when I learned about the pain they were feeling as result of the attempts to destroy their spiritual culture, my love for them increased. To help you understand why this awareness increased my love, I will share with you the following Chassidic story:


Two Russian friends, Ivan and Peter, were drinking in a tavern. After many drinks, Ivan said to his friend, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter answered, “Of course I love you!”

Ivan said, “If you love me, can you tell me what’s causing me pain?”

Peter replied, “How can I know what’s causing you pain?”

Ivan then said, “If you don’t know what’s causing me pain, then how can you truly say that you love me?”


In the spirit of empathic love, I will begin to tell the story of these immigrants: They were first placed in transit camps and later in immigration absorption centers. As an initial step of the government’s program to “secularize” the immigrants, the youth were separated from their parents and placed in special youth camps. The secular militants who ran these camps had a particular dislike of the religious appearance of the Yemenite Jewish boys who looked like dark-skinned Chassidim with their traditional peyot (long side curls). These officials therefore cut off the peyot of the boys against their will. “Peyot are not necessary in the Land of Israel,” the counselors told the boys. In addition, the counselors removed the traditional yarmulkes (skullcaps) which the boys wore.


The counselors also told the children that keeping the mitzvos of the Torah was not necessary in the Land of Israel. For example, in one camp for Yemenite Jewish youth, children were taken for a Shabbat walk. When they reached the limit beyond which it was forbidden by Jewish tradition to walk on Shabbat, one boy, Shaul Sharabi, told his friends that they could not walk any farther. The counselor, however, told them that there is no Shabbat observance in the Land of Israel, and continued to lead them onward. Arriving at an orchard, the counselor instructed the children to pick apples from the trees. At first, the children refused, for such an activity is forbidden on Shabbat. The counselor asked, “What are you afraid of?” He led the way, picking some apples himself, until most of the children followed suit.


Studying Torah was discouraged by the camp officials, and in some camps, it was actually forbidden to have Torah classes! For example, in the Ein Shemer Absorption Camp, the cultural director, Y.A. Aldema, forbade the teaching of Torah. “Such studies have not been authorized by the Department,” he said, and he added. “We are only to teach non-controversial subjects.” When he later discovered that Torah was being taught to children in the camp’s synagogue, he sent officials to remove the children from the synagogue.


The following incident in the religious city of Bnei Brak helped to alert the religious population of Israel about the secular coercion in the camps:


It was late Shabbat afternoon in the Ponoviez Yeshiva, and Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the beloved sage who founded and led the yeshiva, was giving a Torah discourse, with the students clustered around him. The door of the room suddenly opened, and a tall young man walked in. The visitor hurried up to the central table, and – to the shocked amazement of all present – pounded on its surface. Silence descended on the room. The young man then cried out:


“Rebbe, they are turning children away from their faith!”


Rav Yosef Shlomo approached the stranger, whose name was Yosef Gowitz, and who worked at one of the immigrant camps for Yemenite Jews. Gowitz proceeded to tell the sage and his students the dismal story of how the authorities’ were attempting to sunder the connection between the new immigrants and the Torah they cherished. Rav Yosef Shlomo listened intently, his face reflecting the strong emotional impact the words were having on him. After thinking about what he should first do, he decided to send two of his students, Sholom Ber Lifshitz and Yitzchak Yacobovitz, into the camp to see if they could bring out some boys with the permission of their parents and bring them to the yeshiva. At night, the two students managed to slip into the camp for adults, and with the help of the parents who went to the youth camp, they smuggled several boys out under cover of the night. The boys were brought to the Ponoviezh Yeshiva, where Rav Yosef Shlomo warmly welcomed them and kissed each one of them on the head.


Day by day, boys and girls were brought out of the camps with the approval of the parents and housed in various educational institutions and homes. Yeshiva students also snuck into the camps to give Torah classes; however, they experienced severe harassment from the camp officials. Other Torah teachers from various parts of Israel that visited the camps were also severely harassed.


When the immigrants left the camps and settled in development towns, they were told by the local Labor Party officials that they would not find work if they sent their children to religious schools. Parents who defied these officials and sent their children to religious schools were initially denied certain government benefits for immigrant children such as free lunches and free clothing, including warm winter clothing for the winter.


Through public prayer rallies, flyers, and articles in the religious media, the religious public in Israel became aware of what was happening to the immigrants. In addition, the Yemenite Jews in one camp organized a protest rally, and one Yemenite Jewish man was killed by a guard during the protest! The public outcry became great, and members of the religious parties in Israel’s Knesset (legislative body) strongly condemned the way the secular government was treating these religious immigrants. In an Education Committee meeting in the Knesset, David Tzvi Pinkus, a Knesset member, expressed himself forcefully on this subject, and he proclaimed:


“I cannot view what is happening in these camps as anything but cultural and religious genocide of a portion of the nation of Israel. If this thing is not stopped, it will lead to civil war and actual bloodshed.”


The religious communities in Israel had an uphill struggle, since the Labor Party controlled the government, the police, the economy, and most of the media. It therefore became necessary for concerned Jews in the Diaspora to speak up on behalf of the immigrants, especially since the leaders of the new State of Israel did not want to alienate Diaspora Jewry. In North America, Chareidi and Religious Zionist leaders united on this issue, and they sent a telegram to Prime Minister Ben Gurion and his cabinet requesting an end to the persecution of these religious immigrants; moreover, a mass protest rally was held in the center of Manhattan. Their unified stand and protest was a major achievement, especially since some segments of these communities were reluctant to admit that there could be any wrongdoing in the new State of Israel.


In Israel, the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi, Rav Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, accompanied by two other noted rabbis, visited the camps and demanded the right to speak with the immigrants. After some initial resistance from the camp guards, the rabbis were able to speak to the immigrants, hear their stories, and strengthen their spirit.


As pressure increased on the Israeli government to investigate the charges against the camp officials, the issue became increasingly impossible to ignore. The government finally agreed to establish a prestigious investigative committee. After a few months, the committee reached the following conclusions regarding the way camp officials treated these religious Jews:


1. The cutting off the peyot had been an official policy decision of the camp officials.


2. The disruption of Torah classes had also been a systematic policy.


3. Camp authorities had not been respectful of Shabbat observance and prayer. In addition, there had been incidents where prayer services were disrupted.


The committee laid the blame at the government’s door; however, Ben Gurion’s government rejected the committee’s report, and the harassment of the immigrants continued. Eventually, a coalition of religious parties and other opposition parties voted against the government, and Ben Gurion was forced to resign.


After I moved to Jerusalem in 1988, I read a letter in the Kibbutz Journal from an older secular kibbutznik who described how he and other youth leaders in the immigration camps were told by their leaders to ridicule the religious beliefs and practices of the new immigrants. This letter was an example of how some Labor Zionists were beginning to acknowledge the suffering that their movement had caused to the religious immigrants of that period.


In 1997, Ehud Barak, who had become the leader of the Labor party, visited Netivot, a city in southern Israel where the majority of the residents are Sephardic Jews from North Africa. Like the Yemenite Jews, they too suffered from secular coercion and discrimination in the immigration camps; thus, most of them had a deep resentment towards the secular Labor Party. In an attempt to ease this resentment and gain votes for his party, Barak issued a public apology for the way his party had treated the immigrants.


The apology, however, was very brief and general. It failed to mention the attempts to eradicate their spiritual culture, not did it express regret for the secular Zionist prejudice which led to these attempts. An article about this apology by Joel Greenberg appeared in the New York Times, on September 30, 1997. As the article reported, Barak simply stated:


'”In identification with the pain and suffering, in my name and in the name of the Labor Party, I ask forgiveness from those who were caused this suffering.”

The New York Times article added that “the dislocation and hardships endured by North African immigrants in primitive camps and frontier towns like Netivot and attempts to suppress their religious and social traditions to create a Western, secular Israeli society left deep scars.”

Some of these deep scars still exist, and in order for a complete healing to take place, Israeli society has to honestly address the root causes of these scars – a topic for a future discussion.

Be Well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)


Related Comments:


The above information on the treatment of the Yemenite Jewish immigrants is found in the book, “Voice of Truth – the Life and Eloquence of Rabbi Sholom Schwardon” (ArtScroll History Series). Rabbi Schwardon was a famous and beloved preacher, teacher, and storyteller in Israel who was also an activist on behalf of the rights of Yemenite and Sephardic Jewish immigrants. The information was gathered from historical records, interviews with Yemenite Jews who were in the immigration camps, and interviews with activists on behalf of these immigrants.


For further information on “Voice of Truth – the Life and Eloquence of Rabbi Sholom Schwardon,” visit: 


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