Temporal states of architecture: mass immigration and provisional housing in Israel

Roy Kozlovsky*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This essay examines the provisional architecture of the ma'abaras (transit towns) that were built to temporarily house immigrants who came to Israel during the period of "mass immigration" (1948-51), and were to be dismantled without a trace once the Israeli government settled these immigrants in permanent housing.Official Israeli historiography depicts the creation of the ma'abaras as an improvised response to the problems caused bymass immigration. This study problematizes that account, and with it the understanding of temporary architecture. It recovers the history of the ma'abara so as to delineate an inherent contradiction of Zionism as first and foremost a modernist project that attempted to create a nation-state by radically altering the course of history, while presuming that this could be done rationally and peacefully, according to a plan. This tension informs the construction of the ma'abaras as negative temporal and spatial voids into which the e aects of accelerated historical transformation were to be channeled and contained without compromising Zionism's utopian self-image. But along with its material aspects, the ma'abara was also a social unit in which the political agency of its inhabitants and their status as autonomous citizens were temporarily suspended. My contention is that these two characteristics of thema'abara-as an instrument of planning and as a mode of governance-are inseparable because the Zionist nation-building project, from its inception, necessitated the momentary disempowerment of its subjects. Historically, the ma'abara was devised in response to the crisis of mass immigration that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948. In just three years, Israel's Jewish population had doubled, from 650,000 to 1.2 million (see fig. 6.1). Initially, the government assembled the immigrants into "immigration camps,"where theywere documented,medically examined, and then billeted to available housing, which included resettlement in evacuated Palestinian towns and villages. However, in less than a year, all housing options were exhausted, the camps ceased to function as relay centers, and the ever-increasing number of stranded immigrants remained for indefinite periods in the camps' tents and barracks, dependent on soup kitchens for daily subsistence. This failure to provide newcomers with the elementary necessities of shelter, food, employment, education, and health services soon threatened the very legitimacy of the newgovernment.With disillusioned camp inhabitants storming the Knesset on several occasions, the minister of agriculture and development Pinhas Lavon warned that "one day a hundred thousand such people, cooped up in the camps without any other outlet could get together and rise up against us, and cause an explosion that would blow away both the government and the Knesset."1 Levi Eshkol,whowas in charge of the JewishAgency's SettlementDepartment, confronted Prime Minister David Ben Gurion with similar alarm: "In the past three months death stared us in the face. . . . How could we bring Jews and settle them in tents? . . . If only we could repress our inclinations and decide to conduct the immigration according to some plan . . . satisfying both the needs of the immigrants and the needs of the state."2 The mass immigration to Israel has been seen as a spontaneous and messianic event, one that reflected the collective aspirations of Jews of the Diaspora to return to their ancestral homeland. But Eshkol's plea demonstrates that mass immigration was in fact the outcome of an explicit and contested policy promoted by Ben Gurion. Two strategic imperatives were behind the promotion of an unrestricted inflowof people, despite the risks and hardships this policy entailed. First, the government was concerned that Eastern European and Arab states would halt the outflow of their Jewish subjects to Israel. Restricting immigration while it was still free (albeit expensive-the Czechoslovakian government extorted a fee for each emigration certificate)would have left some Jewish communities behind, and, in the case of Arab countries, vulnerable to acts of retribution. Second, rapid immigrationwas strategically used by the state to take possession of territories that, prior to theWar of Independence (1947-49), were populated by Palestinians. As Ben Gurion stated, "We have conquered territories, but without settlements they have no decisive value. . . . Settlement-that is the real conquest!The future of the state depends on immigration."3 The result of this counter flow of two populations-Jews flowing in to the newstate of Israel, and Palestinians being driven out to neighboringArab states-was the simultaneous emergence of two complementary, but ideologically opposed, landscapes of roughly the same size: The Palestinian refugee camp and the Israeli ma'abara.4 Both were designed to prevent their inhabitants fromsettling permanently, but they had completely diaerent purposes. In this essay, however, I will analyze only the case of the Israeli ma'abaras and the politics of impermanency that applied to them. The concept of the ma'abara was an invention of Levi Eshkol, as a way to replace the "immigrant camp" system. It was a way to maintain the pace of immigrationwhile containing its explosive political impact. Between 1950 and 1951, 129 ma'abaraswere built, housing one out of every three Israelis. While the emergence of the ma'abara appears to have been chaotic and improvisatory, the communities themselves had an orderly, rational appearance. This can be seen in an aerial photograph, captioned "A neighborhood unit in the town of Yokneam, being constructed by the immigrants living in provisional shacks along the road" (see fig. 6.2), which was used in official representations of the ma'abara. The photo provides the starting point for my critique of the concept of the ma'abara. In the photo, the ma'abara of Yokneam can be seen in the valley below, and on the hilltop above is the New Town of Upper-Yokneam. The photograph implies an easy transition fromthe temporary to the permanent. The prospective settlers of Upper-Yokneamwould be housed for the duration of construction in the temporary settlement below, which in turn would be dismantled once its inhabitants had moved up the hill. This rationale provided a justification for the ma'abara as a self-destructing, disposable architecture: The eventual displacement and uprooting it projects is represented as progress, as a necessary stage in the ascension uphill toward the ideal, modern design of the permanent settlement. However, the orderly situation projected by this image was in no way typical. More often than not, the ma'abara would be erected without the assuring proximity of the permanent settlement, and the efficient transition between the transitory and the permanent only rarely materialized, causing widespread conflict on the ground. This suppressed reality will be recovered by examining the design and organization of the ma'abara along its three distinct scales-the prefabricated shelter unit, the individual settlement, and the nationwide distribution of ma'abaras.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationModernism and the Middle East
PublisherUniversity of Washington Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9780295987941
StatePublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


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