The onset of austerity

The early years of ‘Tzena’

RESIDENTS OF Tel Aviv stand in line to purchase food rations against special coupons, 1954. (photo credit: HANS PINN)
RESIDENTS OF Tel Aviv stand in line to purchase food rations against special coupons, 1954.
(photo credit: HANS PINN)
Welcome to the early days of the country, the period of tzena (austerity), when food, clothing and utensils needed to be purchased in Israel with ration coupons (or on the black market). Many of these nostalgic items can be fondly revisited at the Herzlilienblum Museum in Tel Aviv, which is currently showing an exhibition titled “The Zionist Side of the Coin, 1954-1947.”
“We searched for our own creative way to mark Israel’s 70th birthday, and in the end we chose the economic-financial angle,” explains Yehudit Ben-Levy, who curated the exhibition with Shirley Goren. “In the items displayed here, you can really see the drama that took place in those early days in Israel. If Hollywood made a movie about this period, it would most certainly be a fascinating film.”
When the War of Independence broke out, after the UN’s November 29, 1947, decision for the partition of Palestine, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The British did not wait until they left the country and instead unpegged the British pound from the Palestine pound in February 1948. The Anglo-Palestine Bank, the precursor of today’s Bank Leumi, won the concession to issue new banknotes.
The exhibition explores the process with information and photographs that tell about the community living in Israel in the early years of the state and how they mobilized to finance the war and how the population doubled within three years. Golda Meir was sent to raise tens of millions of dollars in the Diaspora to fill the coffers, and Germany signed a reparations agreement with Israel that would finance the establishment of national infrastructures in the budding state. New immigrants filled the ma’abarot (absorption camps) and the era of tzena – an austerity regime – was announced, in which food and items were rationed. It was also at this time that social legislation and social security laws, such as the Women’s Work and the Hours of Work and Rest Laws, were passed.
The exhibits and photographs on display at the Herzlilienblum Museum are accompanied by texts describing their relevance, such as a backpack from a refugee camp in Cyprus and equipment used by the Hagana during the War of Independence, including a mess tin, metal cup and a bowl. There are also items that were unique to this era of austerity, such as powdered eggs, Ora soap flakes, Kesem laundry powder, Tnuva milk and Mei Ami drink bottles. There’s also a table with school pupils’ items, such as a sketchbook, a cardboard pencil box, half of a math notebook, chalk and the classic vintage metal Keren Kayemet tzedakah box.
Of course, there’s a sea of stories that are told throughout the exhibition for visitors to read. For example, on one of her trips as labor minister, Golda Meir was visiting a construction site in Tiberias. When she walked into an apartment’s kitchen, she noticed that the window was higher than normal, so she scolded the contractor, telling him that when a woman is busy cooking in her kitchen, she should be able to enjoy the beautiful view from her window. And so the determined minister demanded that construction specifications should be changed so that women could see out of the kitchen windows while they were cooking. And this is how Golda’s Window became almost as well known as Golda’s Shoes.
Another story connected with Golda’s kitchen is the following: “The countertops that they were installing in the kitchens of the massive apartment buildings being built for the new immigrants were awful. The difference in price of installing nicer stone countertops was only one lira per apartment. I suggested that we install the nicer ones, since as a woman who liked to cook, I knew it would be incredibly difficult to keep the cheaper countertops clean. But we had to build 13,000 units, and so an extra 13,000 lirot would have to have been added to the budget, and Levi Eshkol, who was finance minister at the time, answered me simply, saying: You can’t milk a house. Only cows can be milked, not houses. There was no arguing with him. It was not easy finding a way to access an additional 13,000 lirot.”
Then there’s the story in the exhibition by David (Dolek) Horowitz, the first director general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, who later became the first governor of the Bank of Israel when it was established in 1954. One day, Horowitz was invited to meet a Dutch Jew who had just arrived at Haifa Port on a ship that was laden with military equipment, and wanted to discuss the payment of the shipping costs. When he asked how things were on the military front, Horowitz replied that things were difficult, mostly due to our weak air defenses. Upon hearing that, his Dutch companion asked if a Dakota plane were put at Israel’s disposal, would that be of help? The Dutchman happened to be the brother-in-law of Lia Van Leer, who would later become an Israel Prize laureate in the field of film. When Horowitz answered in the affirmative, Israel was provided with two such airplanes.
“I returned to Tel Aviv,” Horowitz later wrote, “and reported straight away to Eliezer Kaplan [the first finance minister] who replied, jokingly, ‘Maybe if you visit Haifa twice a week Israel will finally have a proper air force.’”
The exhibition also presents visual displays that touch on the reparations agreement with Germany, which extricated Israel from almost certain financial collapse. In the agreement, which was countersigned in 1952 in Luxembourg by German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israel’s foreign minister Moshe Sharett, Germany admitted to the role the Nazis played in the Holocaust and its devastating effect on the Jewish people.
Under the agreement, the West German government undertook to carry out payments of three billion Deutschmarks (then about $715 million) spread out over 12 years. In the museum exhibition, you can see that $12m. was deducted from this amount to compensate for assets belonging to Templers who had been expelled from Israel during the Second World War, for being German citizens. While the West German government fulfilled its commitment to the end, the East German communist regime was not a signatory on the agreement and did not transfer the DM 1.5 billion that it had been required to provide. This issue remained an open topic, even after Germany was reunited.
In November 1952, Eshkol made it clear that according to Israeli government policy, all of the reparations funds would be channeled to the development of Israel’s agriculture, industry and transportation sectors. The exhibition display shows exactly how the money was allocated, which included housing for immigrants, the purchase of fuel, the construction of Israel’s national water carrier, Israel Shipyards, railways and power stations. The exhibition does not really touch on the public uproar that arose following the signing of the agreement, at the height of which Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition at the time, led a massive demonstration in the Knesset.
Another wonderful addition to the exhibition are caricatures by Dosh (Kariel Gardosh), who for years brought the character Srulik to life on a daily basis in Ma’ariv for the public to enjoy. Srulik played an important role in Israel’s development as a young country.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.