Why has it taken until now to get a biography of one of Israel’s founding fathers?

There has been no biography of Pinchas Rutenberg until now yet this uncompromising figure had a key role in Israel’s history

February 01, 2024 11:04

One hundred years ago an ecstatic crowd greeted Pinchas Rutenberg as he switched on the lights in Allenby Street, Tel Aviv. The name was symbolic. Allenby was the man who had liberated Jerusalem in 1917 and now, here was Rutenberg opening a new era as he began the electrification of the whole of Mandatory Palestine. When he pressed the button on 10 June, 1923 he was starting a process that led to the agricultural and industrial development of a land long neglected under the Ottomans.

Jewish literature is replete with biographies of great men and women who have contributed much to the history of Israel. But Rutenberg has been largely ignored despite his significant contributions to the development of Mandatory Palestine and to the future of Israel. But he was certainly not an easy man, described as a mixture of a steamroller and a whirlwind, and his past history would not have commended him to the British government or the Jewish leadership. Yet he succeeded through initiative, strength of will and unequalled determination to overcome huge hurdles of which there were many.

Born in the Ukraine in 1879, Rutenberg was one of very few Jews who managed to gain entrance to the Imperial St Petersburg Institute of Technology. There he began his training as an engineer. But it was as a determined revolutionary that he made a mark. He joined the “active” (terrorist) wing of the Workers’ Socialist Party and by 1907 he had become an assassin. He arranged for the death of Father Gapon, believed to be a traitor to the cause.

In 1917, he took on a significant role in the short-lived Russian government of Alexander Kerensky where, true to form, he plotted the deaths of Lenin and Trotsky. If only Kerensky had listened, who knows how history might have been changed. But he did not, and Rutenberg had to escape the Bolsheviks in a hurry.

Before 1907 he had not yet developed much concern for the Jews or the pogroms from which they suffered.

It was in 1919 when he turned up at the Paris Peace Conference after the Great War that his career path changed dramatically and his commitment for the Jews of Palestine took off. Little wonder, though, that the whiff of Satan followed him when he tried to woo the British government to grant him the concession for his hydro-electric scheme in Palestine. But by one means or another he gained access to many of the senior members of the British delegation to the conference and to the Jewish leadership under Chaim Weizmann. He presented his ideas about a hydro-electric plant to generate electricity in a land not known for its ready supply of water.

Despite this minor problem and despite his unsavoury history he convinced the British to allow him to explore both the land and the feasibility of his schemes. By the following year he had a fully worked up plan for a huge water-driven generator on the Jordan River. South of Lake Kinneret, it would require a series of dams, canals and a reservoir. It was nothing if not ambitious. Both Herbert Samuel, recently appointed High Commissioner, and Winston Churchill, whom he met in Jerusalem in 1921, became enthusiastic supporters. And he certainly needed them as he faced a stormy reception in Parliament. A debate in the Lords saw an amendment passed to stop him being given the concession he needed. How could they, it was argued, give a “Bolshevik” (he was not), a German, (he was not) and a Jewish murderer (he was both) his concession. And should they not also stop the whole idea of a Jewish homeland in Mandatory Palestine before it was approved by the League of Nations? Fortunately for him, and for the Jews, the Commons overturned these proposals when they were opposed by a large majority led by Churchill. Rutenberg used his chutzpah and persuasive powers on government officials and, after three more years of painful negotiation, he got his plans over the line. It took several more years before his generator, named “Naharayim” (two rivers), became operational but by then it was providing electricity for most of the land.

But that was not the end of his audacity. This became obvious when he persuaded the government to allow him to introduce a diesel-powered plant on the Yarkon River near to Tel Aviv. He had gained permission for a hydro-electric scheme there but soon found that the flow of water down the Yarkon was going to be inadequate. He made the excuse that the Arabs would not sell him the land he needed near the river and proposed that as an “interim” measure he would put up a diesel-powered plant instead. They accepted the proposal after a rapid Rutenberg assault but to add insult to injury he went on to buy all the equipment he needed from Germany, the recently defeated enemy, where it was much cheaper. How he got away with that is covered in obfuscation and some partially informed support from his friends in high places, including Churchill.

He went on to instal several more diesel generators and within a few years was producing profits for the company he had set up. He had persuaded Lord Reading to be the first chairman of his board and, later, Lord Samuel.

That was not to be the last result of Rutenberg’s restless energies. In 1934 he set up Palestine Airways, flying regular services between Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beirut until the Second World War. It went on to become El Al after the war.

His third career, as a politician, was not quite so successful. He was no democrat as he mainly enjoyed giving orders. Nevertheless he was elected twice to become the head of the Yishuv, the Jewish population of Palestine. His socialist credentials appealed to the workers and his success as an entrepreneur appealed to those on the right. He was the man of action who was desperately needed in harsh times in Palestine. He worked hard with the British government and with the Jewish and Arab leadership on plans for peace between Arabs and Jews. As a friend of King Abdullah of Jordan he pressed him to open his land to both Jewish and Arab settlers. But his leadership style was confrontational and Ben Gurion thought he was politically naive.

It may be asked how a man who provoked strong reactions with his overbearing and aggressive manner could achieve so much. He was described as having “a head as strong as granite and an utterance low and menacing through clenched teeth” and as “a solid mass of rebellion, with absolute convictions”. He was apt to treat a difference of opinion as a personal insult; a faithful friend to many but an awkward enemy to some. And yet he overcame many obstacles by his sheer force of character. I titled my book about him An Unreasonable Man after George Bernard Shaw’s description: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. He clearly epitomised that man.

He died in 1942 and stipulated in his will that he should be buried among the workers on the Mount of Olives with no eulogies read.

There were to be no towns, villages or streets named after him in his desire for as little publicity as possible.

It may be these wishes that has led to the paucity of literature about him and the absence of any books in English about an “unreasonable” but remarkable man.

Lord Turnberg discusses his biography of Pinchas Rutenberg at Jewish Book Week on 10 March

February 01, 2024 11:04

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