The myth of the ‘veteran-immigrant’ divide
The division was striking among older people and the youth: Only 30% of those under 24 felt immigrants were contributing in a positive way, while 66% of those over 55 felt the same way.
Basically, the results show a society whose young people are being raised to think the “immigrants” are bad for Israel. Rather than a more inclusive society, a picture is painted of a society that is divided.
To understand the source of the divide one must delve into the unique Israeli term “veteran.” In the modern world every society has a concept of immigrants and those who are “indigenous” or “local.” In some societies this paradigm is multi-layered. For instance in Australia there are truly “indigenous” aboriginal people, then there are white Australians whose ancestors came after 1788, and then more recent immigrants who have come from other places, primarily Asia. Similarly in the US there was once a divide between “American Indians” who had been there before Columbus, the “native Americans,” who were actually mostly English-descended whites, and the “newcomers,” made up of Italians, Germans, Irish, Jews and others who arrived in the 19th century.
As time goes by the “immigrant menace” takes on new shapes, whether it is related to Muslim immigration in Europe or Central Asians in Russia.
In Israel, European Zionist immigrants in the 1930s and ‘40s began to apply this term to themselves as each successive wave of immigrants arrived from places like Germany. It became especially poignant in the 1950s when it became a code word for dividing European Ashkenazi “veteran” immigrants and Sephardi or Mizrahi “immigrants” from the Arab and Muslim world.
The Palestine Post (today’s Jerusalem Post) poked fun at how quick people arriving from Europe were to describe themselves as “veterans” in a October 31, 1949 article. “At first, the newcomers find the food served too strange for their taste – they have never tasted margarine or butter before – and would much prefer ‘pita’ and a handful of olives. But the ‘old-timers,’ those who have been here a few weeks, soon teach them how to eat the new food.” The article noted how many of those arriving from places like Yemen had “never seen an ‘Ashkenazi’ before.”
The author here mocks this idea that a Jew just arrived from Europe was describing himself as an “old timer” or veteran while one from Yemen was considered “a foreigner.” Even the food issue seems tongue-in-cheek, because after all, pita and olives are native to the region. But the Palestine Post reporter’s views were not taken to heart by Israeli society.
Even today Israeli journalists like Ari Shavit describe non-European immigrants thus: “Many of them [the immigrants] were unskilled, illiterate, old and sick…
their ethnic and cultural profile was dramatically different from the profile of the now veteran Israeli population.” Except there is no evidence that they were all “unskilled” or “illiterate” or “sick.” Many Iraqi Jews were in fact probably more literate and cultured than those coming from parts of Europe.
The “veteran” view of the evils associated with the “immigrants” has always been a trope in Israel. Israeli journalist Shmuel Schnitzer reminded everyone of the issue in a 1994 article in Ma’ariv when he claimed Ethiopian immigrants were “thousands of apostates carrying dangerous diseases.” Like the Shavit theory in 2013, there was no evidence that they were either apostates or diseased.
The veteran-olim divide in Israel is not only based on incitement in the media and in popular culture. It also stems from a misreading of history that borders on deliberate ignorance. Many famous Israelis are immigrants. Uri Avnery, probably one of the country’s most famous (and most controversial) journalists, was born in Germany. But would anyone claim he was not a “veteran”? Many immigrants have served in several Israeli wars. Are they really not “veterans”? Similarly the concept of “veteran” Israelis has never included Arabs and haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews).
When surveys are conducted about how “Israelis” feel about “olim,” Arab residents of Taibeh aren’t asked for their opinion. It is an internal Jewish divide, and a ridiculous one.
In some countries there really are people who have lived in the same place since the 17th century; I grew up with people whose ancestors came to America in 1641. Fine. But in Israel we are dealing with a Jewish population, the vast majority of which are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. So what can they possibly mean when they say “olim don’t contribute to our culture.” What culture? We aren’t talking about some ancient Israeli culture that is being “harmed” by immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia, France and America. This is a construct culture, not only created recently but also ever-changing.
The survey may reveal attitudes in society, but also the biases of the surveyor and some of the things we all take for granted. Secondly, they tell us it is important to encourage young people to drop this naïve talk about “veterans” and “newcomers” and embrace a unified society.