What Happened When the Moroccans Refused to Get Off the Bus

It’s been a month since I watched the Israeli documentary, “The Ancestral Sin,” and I still can’t stop thinking about it. I had assumed I knew all about the dirty underbelly of Israel’s history as a budding nation, and how Sephardi immigrants were discriminated against compared to their Ashkenazi counterparts. But man — was I in the dark. Because what this documentary brings to light is not merely the racist beliefs and behaviors that were prevalent back then, but official racist policies and protocols that were signed and sealed into place by the State’s founders we revere — Ben Gurion among them.

This documentary will simply break your heart. It tells the story of Jews from Morocco who were led to believe that they would have a better life in Israel, only to be dumped — literally — in the middle of the Negev desert. The film includes witness testimony of truck drivers tilting and dumping immigrants onto the ground when they refused to disembark. This was part of Israel’s “population dispersal” plan, to scatter immigrants around the country so that they didn’t all congregate in the three major cities. Around this time, in the early 1950s, 80% of Israel’s Jewish population lived in Tel Aviv. The government wanted to spread Jews around the land for multiple reasons, from the ideological to the logistical, and also to discourage Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes.

One of the problems with this plan was that immigrants naturally gravitate toward cities, where they can find a job, assimilate into the culture, learn the language, etc. So when the Moroccan immigrants were brought to one of these development towns, such as Yeruham and Kiryat Shmona, they immediately (and understandably) tried to leave.

What solution did the government come up with? Harsh punitive policies to dissuade them from trying to move. These included putting their names on lists that would prevent them from getting a job, housing, or food vouchers in any other city. Government officials paid “collaborators,” or other Moroccan immigrants, to lie about how great it was and convince them to stay. They even went so far as threatening to take away their children, since it’s against the law to not provide a proper home for minors. Does any of this send chills up your spine? It makes me shudder, to think that Jews did this to other Jews—especially in the shadow of the Holocaust, especially when we were trying to come together as a nation.

These protocols were so scandalous and so secret that they were literally locked up in boxes in the basements of record facilities, sealed from the public eye for decades. Until recently. The film exposes some of these protocols for the first time, literally scanning the signed pages so that there can be no question as to their authenticity. I won’t give it all away here, because I think everyone who cares about Israel’s history should watch this—but suffice to say it will make you gasp. And possibly cry.

I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of these Moroccan Israelis, now senior citizens, as they watched the footage for the first time. They were silent, waves of shock and anger and dejected resignation passing over their expressions like clouds. In their interviews afterward, they spoke about feeling robbed of their potential, their hopes, and their futures. One man even said, “If I had known they were going to treat us like this, I never would have left Morocco.” (And life for Jews in Morocco at that time wasn’t so rosy.)

The one question that keeps coming up again and again for me is, was this policy really necessary? So what if the immigrants had settled in cities? Did we really need tiny pockets of people scattered around the desert and the Galilee in order to build a state? Would Israel not be the Israel we have today without this cruel population dispersal program? In my experience, people naturally gravitate away from urban centers as they get older. Friends of mine who once never imagined living outside Tel Aviv are now living in places like Nahariya and Be’er Yaakov for the sake of bigger homes at a cheaper price. So wouldn’t this type of population dispersal eventually have happened in a natural way, on its own?

On my way home after the film, I had a taxi driver who turned out to be Moroccan. I asked him if he had seen or heard of “The Ancestral Sin,” and he hadn’t. I asked him what he thought about the population dispersal program, and if he believed it was necessary. To my surprise, he did think it was necessary—but that it should have been executed differently.

“It wasn’t fair!” He exclaimed with a vigorous wave of the hand. “Why didn’t they disperse the Ashkenazim too? They should have sent the Ashkenazim together with the Sephardim to these development towns. So everyone could have had an equal chance. But no—they only set us up to struggle.”

I nodded in agreement. The film touches on this point—how Polish immigrants, for example, were settled in places like Ramat Aviv (a suburb of Tel Aviv). Because, as one government official explained, the Poles “wouldn’t tolerate” bad living conditions. But one Moroccan man in the film makes a good point: “Even if they weren’t happy with their new homes, where would they have gone? Back to communist Poland?”

Many, many questions. I guess we’ll never know how Israel would have turned out without the population dispersal policy. Maybe it really was for the best. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I’m glad I have a better understanding of it now, and the trickle-down effect it still has on Israeli society.

About the Author
Libbie Snyder manages a freelance writing and editing business from Tel Aviv, serving high tech and startup companies across Israel. She earned her BA in English Literature from Montreal's McGill University. Originally from Boston, she made aliyah in 2009. Libbie lives with her husband, two children, and two cats in Tel Aviv.