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Israel’s Mister Austerity

Dov Yosef was one of the state’s founding fathers, but his unpopular economic measures made him a pariah

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Tel Aviv residents standing in line for buying food rations, 1954. (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, a private dealer of historical documents put up a bundle of notebooks for sale online. They contain precious and previously unseen fragments of Israel’s early history: notes from the 1964 Cabinet meeting in which David Ben-Gurion surprisingly announced his resignation as Israel’s prime minister, recollections from the War of Independence, and pointed reflections on the country’s thorny relations with various American administrations. That these treasures ended up on eBay rather than in some official archive tells you everything you need to know about their author, Dov Yosef, the most reviled and, likely, most indispensable of the Jewish State’s Founding Fathers.

Born Bernard Joseph in Montreal in 1899, Yosef was everything his Zionist peers were not. As Ben-Gurion et al., were packing up and moving to kibbutzim to live off the land, Yosef attended McGill University. They wrote passionately about socialism and casting off the shackles of bourgeois society; he went on to receive a doctorate in law. When World War I broke out, Yosef took a break from school to join other American volunteers in the British Army’s Jewish Regiment, fighting to free Palestine from Ottoman rule. He eventually settled in Jerusalem and gained a reputation as one of the sharpest lawyers in town. As such, he was respected and needed but never admired. It was a pattern that would accompany him his entire life.

When war broke out in 1948 and Jerusalem fell under siege, Yosef was appointed the city’s governor general. It wasn’t a glorious position. With supplies dwindling and hunger creeping in, someone had to figure out a system for rationing food, gasoline, and other necessities. Yosef had just the disposition for the job: The quintessential attorney, he was meticulous, focused, and enamored with the weaving together of myriad minute details into one grand and intricate system. None of his subjects were too happy with Yosef’s strictures, but he persevered, refusing to abandon his post even after his young daughter was killed while fending off Egyptian forces in the Negev.

Peacetime promised little respite. With thousands of new immigrants flooding the nascent state each month, Israel’s economy teetered on the brink of collapse. Ben Gurion, a believer in centrally planned economic measures, wanted a regimen that would preserve as much of Israel’s foreign currency surplus as possible and simultaneously provide each citizen with sufficient sustenance. He appointed Yosef as his minister of Rationing and Supplies and entrusted him with putting the entire nation on a diet.

Yosef’s plan, known as the Tzena, or austerity, debuted in May 1949. At its core was one number—1,600, the amount of calories that Yosef, having consulted with a bevy of experts, believed each Israeli needed to consume daily. With this goal in mind, an intricate infrastructure was put into place: Citizens were assigned a single local grocery store as their sole accredited provider of rations and received a small booklet of coupons without which no purchase was permitted. This meant that Yosef was now determining what everyone could and could not eat; in the summer of 1949, for example, his daily per-meal rations included 0.2 ounces of noodles, half an ounce of rice, a quarter of an ounce of coconut meat, a few pieces of toast, and a handful of oats.

To combat the meagerness of Yosef’s menu, resourceful Israelis soon developed an intricate underground market where luxuries like fresh meat or a dozen eggs could be had for a princely sum. His entire operation now at stake, Yosef retaliated by setting up a mechanism to enforce his edicts, called the Staff to Fight the Black Market. Hundreds of austerity inspectors were dispatched to marketplaces, grocery stores, and other locations to ensure that no one was consuming more than their share. By the spring of 1950, Ben Gurion widened Yosef’s authority by agreeing to ration not only foodstuffs but also clothes, shoes, pots, pans, furniture, and a wide variety of goods.

Dov Yosef
Dov Yosef, 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

Already unpopular, Yosef grew reviled. He was an easy man for Israelis to despise: Pudgy, with a prominent nose, bushy eyebrows and a thick mustache, he looked nothing like the Israeli ideal of the tanned and muscular sabra. To his constituents, he was always the Anglo, the foreigner, the mirthless square whose harsh rules sucked the life out of the famed Israeli culture of improvisation. Soon, Dov Yosef jokes became the paragon of wit, even though the quips themselves were frequently nothing more than thinly veiled bitter rants. One popular joke, for example, had Yosef coming home for lunch one day only to find a bowlful of something cold and white on the table in front of him. Hesitantly, he lifts his spoon to his lips, and, pleased with the taste, continues to gobble up the bowl’s contents. “What is this?” Yosef asks his wife as he cleans up his plate; she replies that it’s yogurt, the only thing she could get at the grocery store that morning. “Yogurt!” exclaims the minister, “It’s delicious! I’ll make sure to ban it first thing tomorrow morning.”

The Tzena lasted about four years. At its peak, between 1949 and 1951, Israel more than doubled its population, with many of the newly arrived immigrants living in abject poverty in tin huts or in tents. Yosef’s austerity measures were crucial to keeping them all fed. For his troubles, Yosef was rewarded with a few more Cabinet posts, most of them minor, but his public image continued to haunt him. By 1965, after Ben-Gurion quit and Levi Eshkol took his place, Yosef was shunned from his party and ousted from politics. He spent the last decade and a half of his life watching his more popular contemporaries retire into the pantheon of early Zionist saints, studied by scholars and commemorated on currency. Today, 33 years to the week after his death, he remains unduly obscure.

It’s likely that Yosef himself would not have approved of spending $150,000 to purchase his notebooks, but we’re no longer living in the days of the Tzena. Anyone with a few shekels to spare and a passion for Jewish history could hardly do better than make sure that Yosef’s journals are made available to researchers and that his legacy lives on.

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PhillipNagle says:

It was not until Israel abandoned the foolish socialism of its early governments that it was able to develop and modern economy and prosperity. Yosef should have concerned himself less with rationing and more with the socialism that caused the need for rationing.

    It’s this austerity and social program that allowed Israel to survive and support an impoverished post-war refugee population and near-disastrous war effort. To think that the answer to survival in war and encirclement would have been ‘free-markets’ and laissez-faire is utter malicious ignorance. ‘Laissez-faire’ does not feed the poor or fund wars in times of crisis. Even FDR realised this. Even Churchill realised this. The British had austere rationing into the 50s to pay back war debt. But no, ‘Phillip Nagle’ knows more and better than the founding fathers who kept Israel alive. Furthermore, the article indicates that Yosef was anything but a Socialist – he was a pragmatist who needed to apply austerity to centralised government. But Israel was no USSR – same as it was no USA. It was Israel – and many good things came out of those times.

      PhillipNagle says:

      The socialists have used excuses like this to justify their economy killing ways. Israel’s founding fathers, at least the ones from Mapai that ruled Israel in it’s early days were doctrainaire socialists. Their policies stifled Israel’s economy and when abandoned, not at their doing, Israel’s economy grew and prospered. But Meir Moses and his ilk would rather ignore history and believe socialism, which has nothing to with austerity or military preparedness, actually was a good thing.

      Raymond_in_DC says:

      Military historian van Kreveld of Hebrew University similarly argued that such centralization was required in Israel’s early years. Even were one to buy that argument, by the mid 1950s there was no longer a case to be made for it, yet it continued because the powers that be *believed* in it. Commerce, banking and building a private business were frowned upon. Gilder notes that the only Israeli enterprise with a Rothschild connection in those years was … a winery.

      I suspect few communities were hurt by such policies as the Sephardi. For there were many who had business and commercial skills, yet their efforts were stymied by the rules, taxes, and generally business-unfriendly atmosphere. A scholar at BGU long ago told me of letters to fellow Sephardim warning them not to come for just that reason. Many of them ended up, instead, in France, Canada, or Brazil. I’ve long wondered how Israel might have developed differently had they adopted what I’ve called the Salonika model, where Sephardi Jews exiled from Iberia built a major shipping and trading center, rather than the socialist model that held sway for so many decades.

Martin Freeman says:

I would like to add a more personal note on Dov Yosef. My father was also a Montreal lawyer and Zionist and he knew Dov Joseph (as he was called at home) quite well. My Dad had great admiration for Yosef, who maintained a strong connection with Montreal even after making aliyah. Joseph was also the author of a fascinating book about Jerusalem during the War of Independence, ‘The Faithful City’

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Israel’s Mister Austerity

Dov Yosef was one of the state’s founding fathers, but his unpopular economic measures made him a pariah

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