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Early Zionist leaders tried to keep out thousands of 'unhealthy' Jews fleeing pogroms

Jewish refugees arrive in the port of Haifa, Isreal, December 9, 1946. [PhotoQuest/Getty Images]
Jewish refugees arrive in the port of Haifa on December 9, 1946. [PhotoQuest/Getty Images]

Tens of thousands of Jews seeking refuge in historic Palestine under the British Mandate period paid the ultimate price for a highly controversial immigration policy adopted by early Zionist leaders to reject or deport Jewish migrants they deemed sick or unfit, according to a new book by Haifa University Professor Gur Alroey.

Shocking details of the policy, which led to the death and murder of Jews, were revealed by Alroey in his recently completed Hebrew-language book on the subject, "Land of Refuge: Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1919-1927."

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which wrote a review of the book and interviewed Alroey, the book is full of quotes from leaders of the Zionist movement that are hard to take.

Zionist settlers during the pre-state period prided in presenting themselves as vigorous pioneers. This image however is half the story, according to Alroey who exposed the dark side of the policy to keep unhealthy Jews away from historic Palestine.

The heroes of the book aren't the healthy, idealistic immigrants sanctified in Zionist propaganda, but a larger group of immigrants who are said to have been forgotten or deliberately omitted from the history books – survivors of pogroms and riots, orphans, widows, rape victims, famine survivors, bankrupts and others who were wounded in body or spirit.

Alroey explained that most of the immigrants chose British Mandatory Palestine for lack of choice, or because they viewed it as a land of refuge. Commenting on his reasons for writing a book about Jews that have been airbrushed out of history by the Zionist narrative he said that ignoring them "is a sin against historical truth" and that it "doesn't faithfully reflect reality and severs immigration to the Land of Israel from its broader historical context."

Based on reports that piled up a century ago on the desk of Yehoshua Gordon, deputy director of the immigration department in the pre-state Zionist administration, the book provides details of the communication between Zionist leaders in charge of administering emigration of Jews to Palestine.

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In one exchange, Gordon is reported complaining to his superiors that "the number of people who have nervous diseases or are mentally ill is growing," and that this was rousing "great concern." Efforts were made to return Jews that are deemed not up to the sufficient standard of health, back to Europe. In one case cited by Alroey, the emigrant threatened to commit suicide if he was forced to return.

Frustrated that Zionist officials overseas who were organising immigration were not sending healthy Jews, Levi Shvueli, head of the immigration department in Haifa, complained that they "aren't paying attention to the quality of the people they're sending to the Land of Israel or their state of health." He demanded that these emissaries be "punctilious about the human material" they send.

Israel's first President, Chaim Weizmann, who is said to have spearheaded the policy of ensuring only healthy Jews came to Palestine, didn't suffice with mere instructions to his fellow Jews. He apparently sought to persuade the British authorities to significantly limit the Jewish immigration quota, even though this, according to Alroey, was "a fateful moment for the Jews of Eastern Europe." The price of such a policy, says the author, was that tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews were murdered during this period.

Alroey expressed his surprise over the historical airbrushing of this issue which he says is "one of the most controversial disputes in the history of the Zionist movement." He says that it has become a mere footnote in Israeli history books. Faced with the choice of the survival of thousands of Jews and building a state, the heads of the Zionist movement a century ago preferred the latter, he says.

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