The way it really was

Project Renewal: How history was made by Menachemm Begin,Phil Granovsky – and a flip chart.

Former prime minister Menachem Begin (right) with the writer, Avraham Avi-hai (photo credit: COURTESY AVRAHAM AVI-HAI)
Former prime minister Menachem Begin (right) with the writer, Avraham Avi-hai
MENACHEM BEGIN probably coined the phrase himself. Quite possibly it helped him sweep away 30 years of Labor party incumbency in the elections of May 1977.
The slogan was: “To improve things for the people.”
One might think that this was just a slogan, an oratorical catchphrase Begin was so apt at creating in his rich, mellifluous and dramatic Hebrew. But Begin was not an ordinary politician. Innate was his Polish penchant for aristocratic manners enhanced by “nobility of behavior” (hadar in Hebrew), part of the teaching coined by his mentor Zeev Jabotinsky.
A few months after his election, Prime Minister Begin met with the leaders of the United Jewish Appeal of America and of Keren Hayesod - United Israel Appeal that is the Diaspora representation in the Jewish Agency. He asked them to undertake a project to renew the neediest neighborhoods in the country. Most of these consisted of low-rise, sprawling, three-story concrete buildings. Each contained dozens of small apartments to accommodate the immigrant families that had poured into the country after the creation of the state and well into the 1960s.
The heads of UJA in the United States did not want to take on an additional fundraising burden. Not so Keren Hayesod, which united all the campaigns for Israel outside of the US. Its Acting World Chairman was Torontonian Phil Granovsky. Phil was slight of build, but – not at all a cliché – he had a great heart.
Phil promised the prime minister that Keren Hayesod would willingly undertake its share.
An abashed American leadership was then – unhappily – forced to agree.
At that time, nothing had been actually done to move the project forward. There was naturally some initial data and planning in the Ministry of Housing. But no one had worked out a plan for raising the Diaspora’s half of the funds needed. The government would not proceed with only its share of the budget.
IN FEBRUARY 1978, as a non-party representative, I was elected to head World UIA-Keren Hayesod. (Until then, Phil Granovsky had valiantly spent every second month in Israel for a year to bridge the gap between the death of the sitting World Chairman and my subsequent election.) On a sunny spring day, a few months into my position, Phil invited me to coffee at the King David Hotel patio. He was in Israel for an executive meeting of the Agency. Phil was succinct.
“Avi-hai, I promised Begin we would do this fixing up of the poor neighborhoods,” Phil said. “It’s time we started on it.”
“Tell me more, I never heard about this.”
“No more to tell. Now it is up to you.”
This was it.
The questions were simple: Is there a renewal plan, what is it, how much will it cost? And the core problem: how do we raise the Renewal funds above and beyond the tens of millions raised annually. Phil had handed me the challenge, “Now it’s up to you….”
I immediately met with the relevant department in the Ministry of Housing and together worked out a list of about 26 bottom-of-the ladder and “disadvantaged” neighborhoods.
Some were crime-ridden; all contained large families in overcrowded small apartments of perhaps 50 square meters (about 500 sq ft). What had served well in the emergency of clearing the immigrant transit camps was now seen in the light of the standards a generation or a generation and a half later.
The ugly concrete tenements projected “we are second-class.” By changing their home environment, we hoped it would mark the beginning of a better self-image and social advancement.
The first step had been taken. We knew “what” and “where.” Now came the test – “how.” And, we also had a time frame for presenting the project and the so far non-existent plan for raising the millions of dollars needed for each neighborhood. We had less than two months before the worldwide representatives of Keren Hayesod would meet in advance of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. That would take place in June 1978, a year after Begin had entered the Prime Minister’s Office.
We asked the ex-South African Yitzhak (Ian) Rogow, who headed a boutique Jerusalem public relations firm, to design a “flip chart,” which would present visually the material we had assembled. In today’s digital world, this would be a Power Point presentation, but these were “the olden times” of snail mail, and faxes were just slowly beginning to cede place of pride to desktop computers.
The flip chart’s last few leaves held the key to raising the funds. In order not to injure the general funds raised for the regular campaign, we proposed adding to the pledge card each contributor filled in a first line for the “regular” campaign and a second line for neighborhood renewal. Each separate country campaign (or, in the case of Canada, large city campaign) would “adopt” a neighborhood.
The time had come to show the chart to our senior staff. The plan met with a resounding “Yes.” A new breath of life in our work! But, some asked, how do we get the lay leaders of our constituencies across the continents to take on an additional load? At that point, I knew only blind faith would work.
Here is how it played out. In a large meeting hall in the Jerusalem Community Center, the lay leadership and some of the overseas professionals gathered. At the far end of the room in small glass-fronted booths sat the translators into Spanish, French and German, wearing their earphones and speaking into their individual microphones.
Phil Granovsky presided, and as was his wont, began his report with a joke. Not always did the jokes he used exactly suit the occasion. There was a rather specific reference to a bodily function. The translators rose in horror in their booths, waving their hands and pointing to their mikes. It was a moment of laughter and levity that only increased the feeling of family we were striving to create.
HE INTRODUCED me by referring to Prime Minister Begin’s request, and turned the floor over to the fledgling World Chairman.
Using an old-fashioned wooden pointer to stress the points made in the flip chart, I presented the plan, guided by blind faith that the dozens of leaders there would adopt the plan.
And they did.
A few weeks later, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Arieh Dulzin and I were invited to a UJA leadership “retreat” in one of the then-fashionable Jewish hotels in the Catskills. (For non-Americans, the Catskills are a large mountainous area in southeastern New York State, made famous by the comedians who first made their name in the “Borscht Belt” kosher hotels such as Grossinger’s or the Nevele Grande [sic!] Hotel.) I flew with the trusted flip chart safely hand-carried or lying next to my legs.
Here again, we made the flip chart presentation.
Now, too, the UJA endorsed the program, making it worldwide and doable.
Meanwhile, Keren Hayesod had Rogow print a brochure based on the flip chart. We called it “Operation Renewal.” The Americans reprinted it on glossier paper, but – rightly – changed its name to Project Renewal.
Now when you drive through the cities and towns in Israel and see stone-fronted large buildings, with a row of perpendicular rooms added on, you will know how it really happened.
Avraham Avi-hai was world chairman of United Israel Appeal-Keren Hayesod from 1978 to 1988