A veteran journalist recalls when Israel’s PM lived in a hut, families got two eggs per week and Stalin was a good guy The absorption of a mass immigration wave and the cost of the War of Independence brought the fledgling Jewish state to the verge of economic collapse. There were times when vital reserves of oil and of flour could barely last several days, so Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proclaimed a regime of austerity — tzena — in April 1949.
Strict controls were imposed. Everything — the two eggs per week, sugar and flour, plain khaki clothes and even basic furniture — could be bought only with ration coupons. Very soon, the black market began to reign supreme. Buses, trucks and cars were searched at the entrance to towns for hidden chickens and eggs, while drivers had to choose one day of the week not to use their car. We were happy when we could get an omelette for four, with one real egg mixed with egg powder, although there were restaurants serving rich menus in back rooms for exorbitant prices. The black market flourished and was soon declared Enemy Number One.
In October 1950, David Ben-Gurion decided personally to head the anti-black-market campaign. He himself was always very austere, living in a Tel Aviv worker’s project. When I visited Ben-Gurion in 1953 in Kibbutz Sde Boker several weeks after he first retired to the Negev, he was resting in his wooden house after tending sheep. His whole apartment was very simple, with an iron bed and a few shelves loaded with books. In this sense he was very much an example, but he lamented that he had not been followed by thousands of young people to settle the arid south.
Later, I had the very last interview with Ben-Gurion, in 1973. After we sat down, he asked me: “You weren’t born here, were you?” I told him that I came to Palestine when I was 13 years old. “Ah,” he said, “you must have come with your parents.” “No, Ben-Gurion,” I said. “I came here on my own, with the Kindertransport.” “This is terrible!” he exclaimed. “I came here on my own when I was just 19, and I was so lonely, and wrote so many letters home to my father.” I found it very touching. The whole lifestyle was indeed different. Golda Meir would really have ministers sitting in her kitchen, and make them tea.
When MK Eliezer Livneh bought a house in Kiryat Yovel, in Jerusalem, Golda demanded that he should quit because he had dared to buy a villa. And he did. Once, at the Jerusalem Post, I was told to track down Golda for an urgent story. She was at a rest village in Motza and, when I knocked on the door, she opened it dressed in her housecoat and huffed: “Even here I can’t get away from the press!” But she said I might as well sit down, and brought me a cup of tea. I remember a few weeks later I was at a dinner with her and the Foreign Minister of Ghana, and she said to him: “Is it customary in your country too that reporters follow you into the bedroom?”
In the early years, it was nearly impossible to get a proper job without the red membership card of the Histadrut trade union which, in turn, was ruled by the Mapai Labour Party. For many years Mapai, together with the United Workers Party Mapam, had an absolute Knesset majority. The Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany and its early support of Israel had left deep impressions.
When Stalin died in March 1953, Mapam officially expressed its shock “at the great catastrophe which befell the people of the Soviet Union, the Proletariat of the World and all of progressive Mankind”. During a fierce Knesset debate, Mapam leader Yaacov Hazan once asserted: “I have two homelands — one is Israel, the other is the Soviet Union,” a statement he later regretted. Austerity even extended to our fashions, primarily the product of one textile factory in Haifa, which mainly produced different types of khaki clothing for both men and women. The open-necked shirt was standard wear for men, with ties only worn by some city dwellers.
Meanwhile, thousands of new immigrants kept arriving. Transition camps of tents and tin huts were set up all over the country to accommodate them. A divide soon opened up between newcomers from countries like Iraq and Morocco, who had to live in dismal conditions after leaving their comfortable homes in Baghdad and Casablanca, and the predominantly European community which had founded the State of Israel.
We old-timers often chose voluntarily to live in tents for long periods. I lived in one for five years, and sometimes would come back to find the wind had blown the tent away. Even when the first permanent dwellings of a new kibbutz were built, four of us had to share a room of 12 sq m and use a common shower outside.
How we rejoiced, regarding it as the height of luxury, when in 1954 the first 16 sq m rooms were built, for two people, with a private bathroom attached.