The POSTman Knocks Twice: Sapir: A diamond in the rough

Sapir was convinced that without industry there would be no future for the country.

Pinchas Sapir (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Pinchas Sapir
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
How many of you have been kissed on the forehead by a public official in a hotel bedroom, as he stands in undershorts and a sleeveless cotton undershirt? I am saving that for last, so read on....
My first meeting with Pinchas Sapir (Hebrew for sapphire) was when he was director-general of the Ministry of Finance, which was housed in a small three-story building in a little lane running off Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road. Heavy-set, bald and pulling the papers he was reading close to his eyes, his spectacles perched on his forehead.
He rattled off figures from the state budget, and it all came out as “shwoshim ushwosha miwion wirot….”
The repeated substitution of the ‘w’ for the ‘l’ made it all sound like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But this was in 1953, when the budget meant life or death to the fledgling country doubling its population with immigrants from the displaced persons camps of Europe, and from North Africa. The dozen newsmen in the room tried to hide their amusement. But, as the British liked to say, a titter ran through the room.
Sapir, nobody’s fool, looked over at us, and said, “I know why you are waughing. You are waughing because I cannot pwonouce the letter ‘l’” – which came out as “ew.” As I recall, he muttered a Polish-Yiddishized word which means “snotnoses!” I loved the openness, the good humor with which my fellow reporters on the economic beat took it all, and the seriousness and economic knowledge of their questions.
Pinchas Sapir had been spotted by Levi Eshkol as a solid and serious, extremely capable man. Then of course it was Levi Shkolnik and Pinchas Kozlovsky (again that darn ‘l’). But B-G wanted Israelis to have Hebrew names, not Diaspora names.
How did Kozlowsky (probably someone from a place named Kozlov) become Sapir? His mother’s maiden name was Sapirstein, sapphire-stone. Perhaps Sapir really was just a good Jewish boy who loved his mother. When I introduced my mother to him, in 1959, he said, in English, sweetly, knowing how much it would mean to her, “Mrs. Appewbaum, you have a wovewy son.” (Yes, she glowed! By then Sapir was a minister of the State of Israel, after all.) Like many of his generation, Sapir (born 1906) had left his home in the diminutive town of Suwalke, northeastern Poland, to become a pioneer in Palestine. But, unlike most of his fellow immigrant halutzim (“pioneers”) he had completed teachers’ seminary before leaving Europe. Not many Polish Jews were permitted entry to university.
For those who sought higher education, teachers’ seminary was respected as highly as a university degree. (When my family spoke about my uncle Baruch, who could quite likely have attended the same school as Sapir in the early 1920s, they would say in a special tone of respect, “He went to teachers’ seminary.”) If Eshkol was the No. 1 figure in starting and running Mekorot, the pre-state company for providing water for the growing Yishuv, Sapir was his right-hand man, a super-tough and demanding administrator, and an excellent treasurer. He followed Eshkol to be director-general of the Ministry of Defense in 1949, then director-general of the Ministry of Finance while Eshkol was minister. B-G was hesitant about making Sapir a cabinet minister: he had too independent a way of thinking. Eshkol insisted and Sapir became minister of commerce and industry in 1955. From then until 1972, he was a senior cabinet minister, and in his later years, regardless of what position he held, he was known as “the CEO of the state.”
Sapir was notorious for a number of things. One, he carried a small shirt-pocket-sized black book, and in it, his tiny notes contained the state budget, export-import figures and other key data. But actually he had it all in his head and his phenomenal memory. Second, he was convinced that without industry there would be no future for the country. He pulled in investors, often offering them deals they could not refuse (financially) to get them to set up factories. In his haste to build the state and provide work for the immigrants, he was often accused of shooting from the hip or of giving breaks to insiders. But, under him, the economy boomed and often reached 10 percent annual growth.
Here’s a classic Sapirism: Newly built Kiryat Gat needed a source of employment, and the minister was trying to convince Israel Pollack, a fine and experienced Chilean businessman, to open a textile and clothing factory there. Pollack insisted that it be located no more than an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.
“Of course. No problem. Be ready at 5:30 tomorrow morning in front of your hotel.”
Well, “of course,” there was no traffic on the roads at that time. Usually it would take at least an hour-and-a-half or more to do Tel Aviv-Kiryat Gat. Sapir told his driver, “I don’t care what you have to do, but get us there in one hour. An hour – or less.
Thus was born the Polgat company, named for the first half of Pollack’s name and Gat for the town.
Sapir was quite brilliant as well as full of fun. Futurist Herman Kahn (a Kozlovsky on his mother’s side) told Sapir’s right-hand man, Simcha Pops, “Henry Kissinger and I are the smartest men in the world. When we predicted what would happen by the year 2000, and I told Sapir about it, he added one thing: the collapse of the Soviet Union.” That came a couple of decades after that conversation.
Meyer Weisgal, the fabled founder of the Weizmann Institute, came to minister of finance Sapir and told him either Weizmann gets a $3 million infusion immediately, or he would have to close the institute.
“Go right away and speak to Gowda [Golda Meir, then prime minister]. Have her call me. But tell her you need 5! Remember 5! Don’t argue, go!” A few minutes later the phone rings. Golda’s on the line. He listens and then bellows: “5 miwion? Absolutely not. No! Not a penny more than 3!” He was terrible speaker. But what was good enough for Eshkol, was good enough for him. Once in the 1950s, he asked me to write a speech for him. I was going abroad and asked my co-worker and friend Al Potashnik to write it.
On my return, “So, Al, how’d it go with Sapir?” “Easy.”
“What easy??” “I just tied up the letter ‘l’ on my typewriter. “ Now we switch to the nerve-racking days running up to the Six Day War. May 31, 1967, five days before the war. Sapir was trying to raise as much money as he could, knowing the tests ahead. He had just flown in from Europe, and in his small suite at The Essex House, on Central Park South in New York, along the wall of the “parlor,” which was the minister’s office as he traveled, sat the consul-general of Israel, Michael Arnon, the economic minister, Alex Alexandroni, Rabbi Herbert Friedman, the head of United Jewish Appeal, and I. A few days earlier the Prime Minister’s Office: “Sapir arriving Wednesday and asks you please prepare a speech Emergency UJA dinner, Saturday night.” A speech. Sapir read terribly, in a thick, grunting accent, and had to hold the text close to his eyes, with his glasses perched on his forehead.
In he stormed from the airport, late that mid-week evening, packed full of energy and resolve. “Get me [Ambassador Gershon] Avner in Ottawa.” We hear an angry Sapir raising his voice as they spoke long-distance.
Upset, he barks, “Get me [Ambassador Aharon] Remez.”
“But Sapir, it’s the middle of the night in London.
“Genug geshwofn!” (“He’s slept enough”). Suddenly in Yiddish, wrenched from his guts. No one sleeps now! Meanwhile, he nodded to me, and went to shower and change. He then calls me in. Sapir is standing in the bedroom, still wiping water off his face, dressed in pigeon-egg-blue boxer shorts and an undershirt.
“Do you have my speech?” “Yes.... But Herb [Friedman] thinks it is better that you speak without a text. Speak from the heart.”
Sapir grabbed my head, bent me down a bit, and planted a kiss on the middle of my forehead.
The writer was a senior civil servant in the 1960s. His checkered career includes academia, organized Jewish life, and writing. His novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, is available at bookstores, Amazon, Kindle and Ebooks, published by Gefen, Jerusalem.
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