My parents met as teens in Montreal after immigrating to Canada from Eastern Europe with their families. Attracted to the Labor Zionist ideologies that were common at that time they went to Palestine and joined a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley in 1932.
The kibbutz that my parents joined was a temporary kibbutz called Gesher (not to be confused with the current kibbutz of the same name). Today its name is Ashdot Yaakov. The kibbutz, founded in 1924, mainly by Latvian Jews, was on land owned by an organization founded by one of the Rothschilds to assist Jewish settlement in Palestine. It was located close to the point where the Yarmuk River, the Jordan River’s largest tributary, meets the Jordan, a location referred to in Hebrew as Naharayim (two rivers). This was the focal point of the Rutenberg hydroelectric project and some of the men of the kibbutz, including, for a time, my father, found employment there during its construction.
My father’s formal education was limited, although he did spend some months at a technical institute in Montreal and could read construction plans. He was good at the job of calculating and measuring out the rebar reinforcing rods required for various concrete construction projects. However, his job became the casualty of a power struggle between the Latvians, the dominant group on the kibbutz, and newcomers from Germany, who were arriving in Mandatory Palestine as part of the Transfer Agreement. This agreement, between the Jewish Agency in Palestine and the German government, made it possible for tens of thousands of German Jews to get out of Germany, after converting some of their assets into German goods, during the years leading up to World War II. After several years of kibbutz experience my parents (and my sister) left, returning to Canada and Montreal in 1938.
The abundant rainfall that Israel has experienced over the past two winters has led to speculation about the possible opening of the Deganya Dam to prevent flooding by the high water level in the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee (Hadassah Brenner, The Jerusalem Post, 2021).
The Kinneret, 166 square kilometers in area, is one of the few natural lakes in the Middle East. The Jordan River enters the Kinneret in the north and exits in the south on its way to the Dead Sea, the surface of which is 430 meters below sea level.
The Deganya Dam (sometimes called a barrage rather than a dam) is named after nearby Kibbutz Deganya. It is located about half a kilometer south of the point where the Jordan River exits the Kinneret. The dam helps regulate the amount of water in the Kinneret, particularly when the water level exceeds an upper red line, an elevation of 208.9 meters below sea level, in order to prevent flooding. The Kinneret is one of Israel’s main sources of freshwater. In times of drought it was the lower red line (originally 212 meters below sea level, then shifted to 213 meters below sea level) that was the primary concern, since a low level meant that water could not be pumped out of the lake. (The construction of efficient desalination plants over the past decade and a half has significantly reduced Israel’s reliance on the Kinneret for water.)
Built in the late 1920s, the Deganya Dam includes a bridge over the Jordan River. It was the first part of the multi-phase Rutenberg hydro project, which at its peak involved over three thousand workers. At the time, it was one of the largest construction projects in Palestine and it took several years to complete. The completion target had to be extended a year to 1933 due to damage caused by heavy rains during the winter of 1932.
Pincus Rutenberg was a man of many talents, interests and accomplishments. A Russian political activist, he was deeply involved in the failed revolution of 1905. Forced to leave Russia, he became interested in Zionism and helped create the Jewish Legion, a Jewish fighting force that participated in World War I, as well as the American Jewish Congress. Later, he participated in the Russian revolution of 1917, on the Kerensky side, and fought against the Bolsheviks.
Rutenberg immigrated to Palestine in 1919 and became involved in the establishment of the Hagana, a Jewish paramilitary organization. He helped delineate the northern boundary of the Mandate of Palestine, served on more than one occasion on the Jewish National Council (Va’ad Leumi) and founded Palestine Airways, the first private airline company in Palestine. However, he is best known for his work on the electrification of Palestine and the creation of the Rutenberg Electrical Company, the crown of which was the Naharayim hydroelectric project.
Approval for the Naharayim project involved five years of delicate negotiations by Rutenberg, described in detail by Sara Reguer in, Rutenberg and the Jordan River: a revolution in hydro-electricity, Middle Eastern Studies, 1995. The British Colonial Office, headed by The Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, was concerned about growing Arab Palestinian opposition to the Zionist agenda, including deadly riots in 1921. Moreover, part of the Naharayim hydro plant would be in neighboring Transjordan, a new Arab Emirate created by loping off the eastern two thirds of the British Mandate of Palestine in order to satisfy British obligations to the Hashemites. Moreover, the Yarmuk River, a key component of the plan, was in Transjordan (later called Jordan).
In addition, there was growing British opposition to Zionist plans. In a speech to the House of Commons in 1922, Churchill, who was urging the House to support Rutenberg’s hydroelectric proposal, reminded the members of Britain’s commitment to the Zionists,
“I come to Mr. Rutenberg himself. He is a Jew. I cannot deny that. I do not see why that should be a cause of reproach, at any rate by those who have hitherto supported Zionist policy. It is hard enough to make a new Zion, but if over the portals of the New Jerusalem, you are going to inscribe the legend, ‘No Israelite need apply’, then I hope the House will permit me to confine my attention exclusively to Irish matters.”
Rutenberg used the 30 meter drop in elevation of the Jordan River as it flows south from the Kinneret to turn the power plant’s turbines and create electricity. The overall project was complex and sophisticated. As described by Avitzur (“The Power Plant on Two Rivers,” The Israel Review of Arts and Letters, 2002) it included an ingenious series of canals and dams designed to ensure that the flow of water to the turbines was not diminished by lower water levels during the summers. In addition to the Degania Dam, the outflow of the Jordan was controlled with another dam further south, near present day Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, creating a three kilometer-long reservoir, while the outflow of the Yarmuk was dammed as well, creating a half square mile artificial lake. During optimal conditions, the fall of water to three turbines was 27 meters, a little more than half the height of Niagara Falls.
Initially, Naharayim supplied three quarters of the electricity used in Palestine. By 1945, however, energy needs had multiplied and the portion provided by the Naharayim plant dropped to 25 percent. In any case, much of the facility was destroyed during the 1948 War of Independence when the dams and sluices were opened by the Israelis to block the advance of the Iraqi army. The bulk of the 1500 acres that made up the complex ended up in Jordan, except for a tract of about 175 acres of farmland that remained in Israel, until the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994.
The treaty allowed Israelis (from Ashdot Yaakov) to continue to farm this tract without having to deal with border formalities, for a period of 25 years. To commemorate the treaty, a part of the land was set aside as a park called the Island of Peace, which until recently was open to Israeli tourists. (Tragically, in 1997 a deranged Jordanian soldier opened fire on a group of visiting Israeli schoolchildren from Beit Shemesh, killing seven and wounding six. In a courageous and touching act, Hussein, the late king of Jordan, visited with the children’s families to express his remorse.) In 2019, the Jordanian Government opted to end this arrangement, as was its right, and Jordan has taken full control of this area.
As noted earlier, even before 1948, the energy provided by the Naharayim complex was gradually overtaken by non-renewable sources of electricity, namely from steam turbines powered by coal. Israel was dependent on coal imports for decades. Today, most of Israel’s electricity is generated using natural gas from fields off the Mediterranean coast.
Known to the workers who built the hydro plant as “The Old Man of Naharayim," Rutenberg, who died in 1942, is not widely commemorated in Israel. Streets in two cities are named after him, along with a power station near the city of Ashkelon.■
This article was adapted from a much shorter piece published in The Canadian Jewish News