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The Day of the Million

Israel’s forgotten secular nationalist Hanukkah holiday was all about welcoming immigrants

Zack Rothbart
November 30, 2021
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The State of Israel lacked many things during its first years of existence—peace, prosperity, food, economic stability, housing, and basic infrastructure, to name just a few.

National holidays, on the other hand, were plentiful.

Not holidays in the traditional celebratory sense, but holidays that were intentionally designed, declared, and commemorated in order to achieve important national objectives under the complex circumstances and realities of the nascent Jewish state. At the behest of David Ben-Gurion, these holidays were all imbued with deep and timeless symbolism.

Both symbolically and literally, the holidays largely centered around the army, which was responsible not only for defense, but also for immigrant absorption, educating the people, and instilling Zionist values. As Israel’s prime minister and minister of defense, Ben-Gurion directly oversaw and commanded the army, paying particular attention to its role as a formative player in the country’s evolving society and culture.

During the first temporary ceasefire during the 1948 war, just a month after the official establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the first such holiday, “Swearing In Day,” was celebrated on the country’s military bases and beyond. Then came “State Day” on the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, which featured Israel’s first official military parade. During the festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, the country celebrated “Settlement Day,” emphasizing the army’s role in helping fulfill the Zionist mission and dream of settling the land.

Then, during Hanukkah, which took place at the end of December 1948 and into January 1949, Israelis celebrated “Ingathering of the Exiles Day,” emphasizing the importance of another central Israeli value: immigration.

The day’s name is decidedly more natural in Hebrew: Yom Kibbutz Galuyot, a clear reference to traditional Jewish texts describing the messianic period in which Jews will finally return to the Land of the Israel from the four corners of the earth. In one famous line from the Talmud, for example, Rabbi Yochanan claims that the day of the ingathering of the exiles is even greater than the day on which the heavens and the earth were created (Pesachim 88). In some ways, the massive wave of immigration to Israel during its earliest days as a nation-state was nothing short of miraculous. Some 100,000 new arrivals came over the course of just a few months.

While the ideal of immigration was an important value to instill, the point of the day was also very practical. The absorption of all these immigrants was hardly going smoothly, especially in the army, where the success or failure of immigrant integration was literally a matter of life and death.

With fresh immigrants comprising about a third of all Israeli combat soldiers in the country’s War of Independence, their acceptance was critical to the success of the entire effort. Yet in many cases, those who had been born in Mandatory Palestine or had immigrated even just a few years prior looked down on the more recent immigrants suddenly in their midst. They often had little empathy or compassion for the recently arrived Holocaust survivors, many of whom had actually enlisted while still in displaced persons camps in Europe. Immigrants from the Arab world were often considered inferior and barbaric due to the dramatic differences in culture and language. For diplomatic reasons, moreover, Israel had largely refrained from emphasizing the fact that many of its soldiers had come from overseas.

Ben-Gurion compared the diplomatic and military difficulties faced by the young country to the internal struggle of successful immigrant absorption.

By Hanukkah of that first year, the new state and army saw a need to encourage the acceptance and appreciation of Israel’s new immigrants, especially those fighting on the front. Because “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” was largely born out of the realization of this need, the immigrant soldiers were the particular focus of the holiday. It was no accident that the holiday was scheduled to take place during Hanukkah, the most militarily heroic festival on the Jewish calendar.

“Ingathering of the Exiles Day” ceremonies and special events were held in communities across the country and on virtually every IDF base; immigrant soldiers were invited to share their stories, and special materials were distributed in their native languages. At the official national ceremony, Ben-Gurion compared the diplomatic and military difficulties faced by the young country to the internal struggle of successful immigrant absorption.

The connection between the Jewish people worldwide had never been stronger, he said, calling the immigrant soldiers a “clear living manifestation” of that connection, and pointing out that they had come from 50 countries across the world, from all ethnicities, tribes, and socioeconomic backgrounds. “The connection between the nation and the Diaspora doesn’t recognize in our army distinctions between East and West. There are soldiers from the West, and there are from the East, Habash [Ethiopia], Burma, India and China. From East and from West all as one came to the army of liberation.”

Civilian institutions were also called upon to participate, with the goal of making every immigrant feel at home in their ancient-modern homeland. At large ceremonies throughout the country, the nation’s leaders called upon the general public to invite immigrant soldiers to family Hanukkah parties, and, if possible, even to stay overnight in their homes.

Poster for 'Ingathering of the Exiles Day,' January 1949
Poster for ‘Ingathering of the Exiles Day,’ January 1949National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection (Design: Yohanan Simon / IDF Culture Service)

An official IDF poster for the first “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” conveyed this spirit simply but powerfully, and each of its carefully assembled elements expressed a message to Israel’s citizens, especially its new immigrants. Designed by artist Yohanan Simon, the poster depicts the new army and state as the center of gravity for Jews dispersed around the globe, featuring the words: “And they will be brought to us from East to West, a great army to help the nation …”

Reverberating with prophetic biblical connotations, the line comes from Hebrew poet laureate Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem “LaMitnadvim Ba’Am” (“To the Volunteers Among the People”), a work known for its allegorical Maccabee references. The poem, written by Bialik in Odessa in 1899, quickly became popular in the Zionist movement, with its stirring Hanukkah-infused call for national renewal, unity, and settlement of the Land of Israel. It was put to music by a number of different composers in the early 20th century, recorded and sung at Zionist gatherings and events.

Over the next year, 300,000 additional immigrants would come from across the globe, and Israel’s second “Ingathering of the Exiles Day” would become known as “The Day of the Million,” commemorating the milestone: The Jewish population of Israel had improbably surpassed 1 million people.

Celebrations in 1949 took place across the Jewish state and the Jewish world: from Los Angeles to YemenRomaniaLibya and elsewhere, including aboard ships carrying the next million new arrivals; and at the airport, where immigrants flown in on two planes from Yemen were warmly welcomed home after thousands of years in exile.

Zack Rothbart is a writer, editor, and international spokesman at the National Library of Israel, where he manages global content and media relations and co-edits The Librarians, an online publication dedicated to Jewish, Israeli, and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture.