The Melting Pot in Israel: Was it a Necessity?
At January’s Sunday Funday, I led a discussion about the melting pot in Israel, one of the most controversial ideas in our nation’s history. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said that different people coming to Israel will go through the melting pot. The question that comes up is: Why did Ben Gurion want to implement this cultural assimilation in Israel?
This metaphor for a diverse society of various peoples with different beliefs or cultural habits implies a goal for becoming a more united society by living side by side and adapting cultural customs together.
How is That Related to Israel?
In a speech presented by Ben Gurion, he said:
“When a Jewish person comes to Israel from Iraq, he comes as an Iraqi Jew, and the emphasis is on Iraq. And when an Iraqi Jew and a Romanian Jew are meeting in the immigrant camps, in the beginning, they can already feel the difference, the distance, and the wall between them.
They cannot talk to one another, and all their behaviors are completely different. For the Romanian Jew, his neighbor is an Iraqi Jew. and for the Iraqi Jew, his neighbor is Romanian. And it’s the same for the Yemenite, Persian, or Moroccan Jews.
They are not just a rabble; this was a reunion of tribes that were far away from each other. And if I will be more precise, it’s like a collection of tears (like in a shirt) that cannot reunite, unless by bringing them together in the Land of Israel.”
Ben Gurion faced some problems. After Israel declared independence in 1948, between 650,000 and 1,300,000 people came to Israel in the first eighteen months of the country’s existence.
Meanwhile, the country needed people to defend Israel requiring manual labor to build roads, schools, and houses. In addition, Israel also needed farmers and Hebrew teachers.
Were the Jewish People who Lived Outside of Israel Able to Deal with Certain Challenges?
The need for meeting those challenges gave birth to the idea of the tzabar, Jewish people born in Israel. “Sabra,” the English nickname came from the sabra cactus, implying that Israelis should be rough and prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the inside.
The cartoon character, Srulik, became one of Israel’s national symbols: a personification of the Israeli people. Created in 1956 by the Israeli cartoonist, Kariel Gardosh, he was a holocaust survivor who came to Israel from Hungary.
Srulik is portrayed as a young adult wearing a bucket hat, khaki pants, and biblical sandals. He was a true Zionist pioneer who loved the land and worked in the fields. He was shown as a brave farmer who, when the duty called, put on his uniform, and went to defend Israel. He was indeed a tzabar or sabra.
Characters connected to the personification of a nation are seen as part of the culture, parallel to Uncle Sam in the United States and Marian in France.
Gardosh created Srulik as an antithesis to the antisemitic caricatures always showing up in Der Stürmer—a famous Nazi newspaper promoted by Joseph Goebbels (head of Nazi propaganda.)
Srulik, opposed to being a stereotype of a defenseless Jew both evil and weak, was a proud, brave Jew who knew how to fight for his country.
How Does This Relate to Ben Gurion Trying to Implement the Melting Pot?
Ben Gurion implemented mandatory military service for all. He developed the Ulpan system for new immigrants to learn Hebrew, and school became mandatory for ages 5 to 18.
How Did This Melting Pot Work Out?
The Israeli melting pot method had significant problems. The cultural past of most immigrants had to be erased as part of the “new model.” Idealistically, minorities in the group would want to become the “new model,” but oftentimes, it was forced upon them.
Israel is the JEWISH state, not just the “Israeli” state and Jewish people are different.
We know that Srulik was supposed to represent the perfect Israeli. But let’s try to think who he is based on. Srulik was secular, and he was a pioneer. He liked to work in manual labor and was unafraid to show his Jewish identity. All those qualities are very similar to a specific type of Jewish people.
To understand who Srulik was based on, we must go back about 80 years before 1948. Before the British mandate, the Ottoman Empire ruled in the Land of Israel in 1516-1917.
Jewish people started to make Aliyah (the immigration of the Jews from the diaspora) in the late 1800s. The first Aliyah happened from 1882 to 1903, and the second from 1904 to 1914.
An article published by Dr. Judah Pinsker, “Auto Emancipation,” expressed the idea that the Jewish people could not continue to wait for the non-Jewish people to give them a country. They needed to establish a nation by actively working toward it, understanding that the Jewish people required a country, a Jewish congress that could engage with powerful countries. They needed to raise money to establish a country where everyone felt safe and equal. Pinsker also published articles and ideas after the pogroms in Russia in 1880.
What Were the Problems with This New Stereotype?
The first problem was that the Mizrachi/Sephardic/Yemenite Jews were pushed to the side. They didn’t feel that they were expressed in the “new model” of the Israeli Jew, felt like their traditions were being ignored, and that the new Israeli Jew was not like them. They felt more European than Arab.
However, the Jews from the Arab countries weren’t alone in that feeling.
For many years, the Jews that who were in Israel before the Holocaust accused the survivors of being sheep led to slaughter by the Nazis, and that they should have fought back.
The survivors were used as an example of “the old” Jew, weak and defenseless. The sabras often didn’t treat the Holocaust survivors as humans who had a story, as people who had been through horrible things. That was why it was believed that we needed to create a newer version of Jewish people.
All of this changed after 1961 with the Adolf Eichmann trial, as more Israelis started to listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors. That’s when the narrative began to change.
As a result, the finger of blame turned against the Jewish leadership in Israel, suggesting they didn’t do enough to help their fellow brothers and sisters in the Holocaust. It was through the Eichman trial that Israelis learned of heroism and resistance, both inside and outside the concentration camps.
Was the Melting Pot in Israel Good or Bad?
It’s a complicated answer. We saw its good and bad sides. But we need to understand that we cannot force the melting pot, and if we try to do so, people will resist. However, what I can say is that right now, Israel is a mosaic or a salad bowl if you will. Every piece is good as it is, and together—they are creating something better without canceling each other. We love our differences, and we love our similarities. None of that should disappear.