Returning to Israel for the first time since 1949, Ernest Stock finds significant changes in the atmosphere of the young country—some of these changes the natural results of “growing up,” some of them reflecting a certain weariness with the idea of pioneering.
Returning to Israel after a lapse of a few years, one finds a toddler grown into a boy. The features that had been soft and nondescript have become firm enough so that the traits of the future adult can be discerned. Not even the parents any longer look for signs of budding genius in his every word and act Enough that he will, hopefully, one day become a normal, healthy man.
In the summer of 1949, when the Jewish Agency’s immigrant ship “Atzmaut” came within sight of Haifa Bay, a police launch with the Star of David painted on its bow approached the vessel and circled it several times. The sight of this symbol of Israel’s sovereignty was the signal for the hundreds of immigrants lining the decks of the “Atzmaut” to burst into song. Many had tears streaming down their cheeks; excited shouts went out to the harbor police in the launch and the policemen waved back.
A police launch was on hand, too, to greet the S.S. “Artza” of the Shoham Line as she steamed into the port four years later. “They want to make sure,” a returning Israeli remarked, “that we don’t smuggle anything ashore.” Now too, singing was heard from the starboard side, but not from the hundred or so Moroccan immigrants who peered silently at the land from the lower deck that was reserved for them. Nor was it “Hatikvah.” A group of young men and women, mostly students coming home for lack of foreign currency, were singing a part-Hebrew, part-Yiddish soldier’s ditty about their throats being dry: “Just let’s have some mashke, mit a bissel kashke, and we’ll shout and sing.”
The harbor policeman glanced up, smiling indulgently. “Wait another week,” he said. “You won’t be singing so loud.”
The immigration men who set up shop in the lounge after the ship had made fast had the polite yet determined manner (though not the impeccable attire) of Swiss border officials accustomed to handling tourists for generations. The Israeli regulations change more frequently, yet these men wield their rubber stamps with no less sureness than their more experienced brethren on the Continent. In 1949, when the “Atzmaut” docked, the chief formality for the passengers had consisted of a spraying with insecticide.
Beyond the port, the most striking sign of the passage of time is the new construction which has changed the face of the landscape. Brand new factories, fair-sized by any standard, have sprung up, often with signs proclaiming their allegiance to some parent company in the United States. New villages dot the plain. Tel Aviv has kept expanding northward, and the once empty space between its built-up area and the sluggish Yarkon River is all but filled. Towering over the flat countryside here is the new headquarters of Histadrut, which from afar looks like a somewhat diminished mixture of the UN Secretariat building and I. G. Farben. Its monolithic shape contrasts sharply with the inconspicuously dispersed government offices in Tel Aviv’s Kirya and in Jerusalem.
Further to the south, some of the older parts of Tel Aviv—such as the lower end of Ben Yehuda Street and the stretch of Allenby Road which leads to the sea—seem suddenly to have taken on a shabby and small-townish look which, if it was already there in 1949, must have been screened from my notice by the exhilaration that hovered in the air.
On the roads between the main cities some of the worst bottlenecks have been replaced by stretches of four-lane asphalt. As one drives up to Jerusalem, two or three of the nude, rocky hills show a blanket of green unusual for the dry season: Yemenite settlers have removed the rocks one by one and have planted seed. But there is still no peace. That blessed state seems further removed, in fact, than it did four years ago, when there were at least rumors of peace and whispers of secret talks. Men dare not walk unarmed after dark along the frontier roads; night after night the border villagers post guards to ward off marauders.
The American limousines that serve as interurban taxis seem to have got bigger still in the interval; some of the latest have a wheel-base of quite improbable proportions. A new sight on the roads are cars sporting license plates from New York, California, Wisconsin (America’s Dairyland), and even New Mexico. For the enlightenment of these Americans, the Bond Drive people have set up some Burma-Shave-type signs in the fields, but it is evident that they did not put their first-string team to work on the copy. “Help Israel Pay . . . (50 yards of green grazing land) . . . Her Own Way . . . (50 yards) . . . Buy Israel Bonds”—that’s about as striking as they come.
Speaking of slogans, the great watchword of four years ago has all but disappeared from the scene. Then immigrants were arriving by the thousands each week from the Yemen, from Iraq, from Morocco, from Persia, and one couldn’t open a newspaper without reading about Kibbutz Galuyot, the “Ingathering of the Exiles.” Today one reads far more about Mifal Hapayis, the state-sponsored lottery scheme. Payis Mifal—Nasse Mazal proclaims a large sign at the gateway to Jerusalem. Rough translation: Lottery brings Luck.
Five years ago the visitor was asked frequently and impatiently: “When are the American Jews going to come?” and “Why aren’t you staying here?” Today the question is, “What made you come?” Or, to those who are settling in Israel, an incredulous “Are you really staying?” It is sad to discover that even old stalwarts of the early aliyot—men who have been in the country twenty years or more—are dropping hints that they, too, would not be averse to trying their luck in the States, were it not that they are getting old, or that they have no relatives to send them affidavits.
On the whole, however, the people have stood the trials of the intervening years surprisingly well. The dominant mood is not disillusionment, but at most resignation to the fact that the birth and growth of a state is a slow and painful process. The young men in particular no longer show that cocky confidence of the first period (the current intonation of the “yihye tov”—“it will be good”—is as sure a sign as any), but they seem to be a wiser and maturer lot. The withdrawal of Ben Gurion from the premiership, which in 1949 would have come as a thunderclap, was received with equanimity. There was perhaps a feeling that the country had writ finis to one epoch in its history—the era of romantic nationalism, one might call it—and that it was fitting that there should be a change of the guard.
There are once again goods in the stores, and a pound note still buys a meal. Yet most people are aware that the economic basis of the state is as shaky as ever. The shortage of money has brought with it, for the first time, real unemployment, and small clumps of jobless workers gather on street corners.
In the countryside, the tent cities of 1949 have given way to corrugated aluminum huts that glisten in the sun. Because of their very impermanence, the immigrant camps of yesterday did not offend the eye as much as do the tin, wood, and pitifully small concrete structures of today. Where a few years ago Israel’s population was one large middle class, it is now showing signs of dividing sharply into an urban proletariat, a proletariat of the countryside, and a middle class having almost no contact with the other two, and whose outer fringe already skirts the status of what would be called the upper middle in the United States.
Not all the large buildings that were begun in the new country’s Gründerjähre were completed. The rise in cost and consequent lack of capital has forced the abandonment, temporarily at least, of several ambitious structures. The most striking of these “magnificent ruins,” as a bitter Knesset member once called them, is the Convention Center on the western approaches to Jerusalem. No more than a huge concrete shell, the Center has nevertheless already served its intended purpose on two occasions. In 1951, it managed to house the Zionist Congress in its roofless hall, and this summer, its nakedness once more covered by acres of ingeniously draped cloth, it was host to the Conquest of the Desert Exhibition. One of the jokes stimulated by these disconsolate half-buildings is worth repeating. An Israeli on his first visit to Greece, so the story goes, is shown the Acropolis. “I see you people are making the same mistakes over here,” he remarks to the guide. “Never start building until you’re sure you’ve got the money to finish the job!”
By now this kind of sardonic humor has spilled over from the anecdotal mold into far wider areas of the national life. The little country no longer takes itself with the same solemnity it once did, and everything seen or done for the first time in two thousand years is no longer ipso facto worthy of awe. A little farce called His Name Went Before Him, dealing with what happens when a nincompoop attains to high public office through some mix-ups plus a dose of protectzia, sneaked into the staid old Habimah’s repertoire last season and played before packed houses several times a week in spite of disapproving clucks from the critics.
The author, Ephraim Kishon, is a postwar immigrant from Hungary who is best known for his daily column in the afternoon tabloid Ma’ariv. In a typically irreverent column not long ago, Kishon described a day in the life of President Eisenhower as an Israeli imagines it: As soon as Ike wakes up, he asks to see the Yiddish press so as to be informed about the latest happenings in Jewish life. He is handed a telegram from the Rabbis of Safad asking him to release the grant-in-aid, then hurries to his office to receive the head of the Jewish community of San Francisco, who tells him of the great interest on the part of San Francisco’s Jews in the problem of the Suez Canal. As Ike cordially shakes hands with the man from the West Coast, still and newsreel photographers take pictures. Afterwards, Ike devotes his attention to world politics: he receives the Israeli Foreign Minister, who is in the United States on a visit, and Mr. Eban; they present him with a souvenir from Zion, the Holy Bible in a lovely leather binding; after a long talk on Korea, the situation on Israel’s borders, and Moscow’s new policy, Ike promises to consult Israel on all these questions and stresses the importance of the Middle East from the point of view of aid. Pictures are taken. The President is then left free until four, when he has a visit from the Director of Vegetables in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, who brings the same gift At six, he asks Mr. Bar-Bitzua to excuse him, as he has a meeting with the Jewish War Veterans to discuss Middle East Defense. When he drops exhausted on his bed at midnight, Ike has thirteen copies of the Bible, and dreams of Dov Joseph.
This picture of Mr. Eisenhower’s concern with Israel is doubtless somewhat exaggerated; but it would be hard to exaggerate Israel’s concern with the United States. With the years of isolation from the surrounding Arab countries, the United States has become Israel’s real cultural and economic hinterland. The most striking outward mark of this is the vast number of magazines and pocket-size books displayed at bookstores and newsstands; since 1951, when Israel became a beneficiary of the Media Guaranty Program of the State Department whereby American reading matter can be paid for in local currency, millions of such publications have been sold. Best sellers among the paperbounds, characteristically enough, have been serious volumes: dictionaries and atlases, Plato and Shakespeare; historical romances, detective stories, and Westerns, though they too have their fanciers, lag far behind.
The United States Embassy, which four years ago occupied a modest single floor in an office building, has since taken over an entire structure which is recognizable as much by the rows of air-conditioners in the windows as by the Stars and Stripes. The dozens of Embassy cars and the squat station wagons of the Technical Corporation Administration have become as normal a part of the panorama of Rothschild Boulevard as the clusters of shoestring businessmen who use its shade to consummate their more or less shady deals.
At the Ramat Gan Stadium and on improvised diamonds as far apart as Naharia in the North and Kibbutz Urim in the South, baseball teams of American settlers have been playing against such outfits as the “Tel Aviv Amateurs” and a nine from the Embassy. So far, Israeli children have shown no signs of taking up the game. They are still confused.
Five years ago, Israel’s problems and achievements loomed so large that the struggle between East and West in which the rest of the world had become embroiled appeared insignificant and even slightly foolish from Tel Aviv. Israel was an oasis where real, earthy challenges were met with singleminded energy, While bigger countries that should know better were concentrating on atomic bombs. “Non-identification” as a foreign policy seemed then to be as firmly rooted on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean as it had been for centuries around the mountains of Switzerland or the forests of Sweden. Today few thinking citizens believe that Israel can ever again “go it alone.” This new attitude has evolved gradually over a span of time, but such events as the Prague trials and the Moscow doctors’ “plot” helped to dispel the last vestiges of the illusion of neutrality in most quarters. It is true that, as a result of the temporary stoppage of grant-in-aid and other recent developments, there has been a good deal of bitterness towards the policies of the United States, but this has not changed the certainty that Israel is, and must be, a part of the West.
Five years ago the group of young Americans who had just founded Kibbutz Sassa high up in the Galilean hills seemed to be a happy, carefree lot who had thrown off the shackles of an urbanized and artificial civilization and were embarking on a life pure in its rustic simplicity. Since then the village has made great strides, its agriculture and small industries are a success, new houses have been built, and healthy children romp around in the wind and sun. But there are political troubles. Did not the group come over as a homogeneous whole, staunch Marxists all of them? Well, yes and no. Although there are a few farbrente dialecticians among them, most are normal American young people for whom Zionism and pioneering were the motivating ideals. By instinct, they are on the moderate side, which in practice means that they tend to the right, or “liberal,” wing of Mapam. But the kibbutz recently accepted a group of young native Israelis, and among these there are some followers of Dr. Moshe Sneh, the pro-Soviet “deviationist.” One Friday evening a secret five-hour meeting took place in the dining hall in which the whole thing was thrashed out. No outsiders were permitted at the meeting. Judging by the faces of the chaverim the next day, Sassa weathered the storm but not without some rough sailing. In other kibbutzim, where political differences, heated to fever pitch by the anti-Semitic campaign behind the Iron Curtain last year, could not be composed, the land and property were split up between the factions, and through this process of asexual reproduction one finds today two settlements in a good many places where five years ago there was one. (See “Israel’s Left Reels to the Shock of ‘Prague,’” by Mark Alexander, COMMENTARY, April 1953.)
Although the constant clashes and skirmishes in the field of politics generally satisfy the popular need for contest and tournament, a public duel which took place in another sphere not long ago was followed everywhere with partisanship and relish. The contestants were Habimah and the Hebrew National Opera; at stake was the Opera’s right to perform in Habimah’s building once a week, and the weapons were ordinary house-breaking tools. These were used by the Opera’s minions when the Habimah management locked them out and changed the locks on the doors. For a while both parties advertised performances for Tuesday nights, the opera’s traditional day on the stage, and a large crowd assembled every week on the square opposite the hall to be on hand for the collision. After the first violent entry, however, the police interfered, with the result that neither party performed on the disputed evening. A compromise was finally arrived at, but not until the issue had been debated on the Cabinet level.
The hotel Nordau-Plaza in Tel Aviv, which five years ago was just a grandiose project, now stands 80 per cent completed on the beach, one of those “magnificent ruins” of over-optimistic planning. It has been standing that way for almost two years, disconsolate and empty, and the grapevine has it that to complete and open it at this time would not pay, since the tourist traffic does not warrant a hotel of this size; the smaller, equally modern, and newly opened Hotel Dan, it appears, takes care of the need.
The tourist now gets appreciably more for his money than he did five years ago, but this in itself is not enough to draw the desired flood of travelers. Too many of the tourists up to now have been oldtime Zionists who stay with relatives, and whose total expenditure during a month’s stay averages $70 in precious hard currency. But the one thing which Israel still lacks to attract tourists for reasons other than kinship or Jewish sentiment is a dash of glamour. The sight of young Jews working the ancestral soil is thrilling to the sensitive Jewish heart, but a man who spends a good part of his yearly income to get away from it all and have a good time wants something more exotic.
Foreign travelers are not the only disappointment that has come in these years. Foreign investment is another. For some days last year the front page of the Jerusalem Post carried a series of “open letters” from the Jerusalem Shoe Corporation, the largest industrial concern in the capital and widely regarded as a model of American enterprise; the plant threatened to close down, and blamed the government and the tanners for the lack of hides. While the Ministry of Industry and Commerce refused to participate in the controversy publicly, the tanners and other shoe manufacturers jumped into the fray. For the reader it was hard to decide who was right; what did emerge, however, was the feeling that any industry which depends for its raw materials on imports from abroad and does not earn itself the foreign currency required through export of its goods, will always have a hard struggle.
The early tendency to over-reach, to advance without pausing to consolidate, also makes itself felt today in fields that have little to do with exports or hard currency. The compulsory education law that was passed in 1949 could well serve as a model to countries older and richer than Israel: it provided for free education not merely for six- to fourteen-year-olds, but also for five-year-olds in kindergartens. This year there was no money for the kindergartens. Parents will have to pay.
One private investment which paid off magnificently is the enterprise of a group of Belgian ice-cream manufacturers. Their product, a wrapped cube of ice cream on a stick, conquered the market in the space of weeks. As part of its publicity campaign the firm sponsored a “giant contest” with prizes such as a refrigerator, radios, motorcycles, a trip abroad; in short, everything except television sets. The way to become eligible was to send in a set of five ice-cream sticks on each of which a letter from the word “Artie” was impressed, and which together had to spell out the name of the brand. The final kof in the combination was imprinted less frequently than the other letters on the sticks, and for some weeks a good portion of the population was engaged in a frantic search for that elusive letter. Dignified men could be seen at kiosks buying ice-cream sticks and throwing the wrapped cube away untouched. Schoolboys brought bundles of sticks to class to trade with in order to complete the required combination. And then, a few days before the deadline of the contest, the government, apparently jealous of its prerogative, declared the whole scheme a lottery and therefore illegal.
One thing which would have seemed a wild dream five years ago became reality in Tel Aviv. The bus cooperative, whose drivers had been known as one of the most prosperous and also most inconsiderate groups in the state, launched an “Operation Politeness.” The climax of the campaign consisted of a series of newspaper ads which made the point that a bus driver is a harassed individual with many onerous duties, and that the public should therefore be nice to him. The buses, meanwhile, traded in their wartime olive-drab for a dapper two-tone green, and a good many of the old workhorses with the unbending square bodies mounted on truck chassis, narrow aisles, and narrower doors, were replaced by a more generously proportioned French model.
But politeness has not yet conquered all. At the office of the Jewish Agency in Haifa early one morning I asked to see a certain official.
“Hu od lo ba—(he hasn’t come yet),” said the clerk whose job it was to keep the throng out of the inner office (receptionist would be too fancy a word for it).
“When will he come?”
“Hu od lo ba, nu!” (Translation: same as above, plus the nu .)
The language has not stood still. In the customs shed, a girl filling in her declaration hesitated for a moment. Then she put the word for “typewriter” in Hebrew and added “portable” in English. The examiner glanced at the form, crossed out the English word, and substituted the Hebrew metaltelet. “It’s a new word,” he explained.
New names have sprung up for Israel’s sons and daughters too. A neighboring family, socially conscious, are calling their new daughter Shivyona (from shivyon—equality). And the young commander of the fleet named his offspring Nily, from the initials of a verse in the First Book of Samuel, Nezach Israel Lo Yeshaker—“the glory of Israel will not fail.”
At Tel Aviv’s Kilar Hamoshavot (“Circle of the Villages”), in the heart of the commercial district, the sign urging “Quiet, Please” has been removed. In fact, the entire island which once made the square a circle is gone, and all that remains is a busy intersection with a three-way traffic light. The sign apparently had its effect, for there is a strange quiet in the square, and honking one’s horn anywhere in the town has become an offense.
But some things in the state are, like its capital, eternal, and they don’t change even within four years. In the waiting room of the Va’ad Hakehilla (community council) in Tel Aviv there is tumult and shouting: a middle-aged Yemenite whose wife wants to leave him cries angrily that he paid dearly for her and will kill her before he lets her go; a father with a child on his arm tries to force his way into the chambers of the Sephardic rabbinical court and is restrained with difficulty by a bearded clerk; others stand by and smile or take part in the argument. The noise increases by the minute. At last a voice is heard over the confusion: “Silence, all of you!” A soldier is speaking in a voice of authority. For a moment things quiet down. “It’s impossible to catch a little sleep here!” he shouts. “A man is entitled to some rest once in a while!”