Israel’s decade of austerity
Israeli ration cards, which were distributed to all citizens, had to be presented at the neighborhood grocery to which a person was registered. (photo from National Library of Israel)
If Rip Van Winkle – or his Jewish equivalent, Honi the Circle Drawer, a first-century BCE scholar who, according to rabbinic tradition, slept for 70 years – had fallen asleep in Israel of the early 1950s only to awaken today, he would be stunned by the consumerism that has taken over the country. Israel has quite literally gone from a country of tremendous shortages to one of plenty. While one should not overlook that a significant part of the population lives in poverty, as they do in other countries, the availability of products and the ability to purchase has radically changed since early statehood.
Shortly after Israel gained independence in 1948, thousands of destitute Jews from Europe and Africa began arriving. These people needed to be settled quickly, as hostilities continuously loomed on Israel’s borders. The new state had low foreign currency reserves, making it hard to acquire the materials necessary for “firing up industry.” To cope with the dual costs of absorption and defence, the financially strapped Israeli government initiated an austerity plan, referred to in Hebrew as mishtar ha-tzena. As hated as the British Mandate had been, according to Prof. Guy Seidman, the newly independent Israeli government chose an austerity plan remarkably similar to the one the British had run in pre-state Israel and in its other colonies.
The tzena officially lasted from mid-1949 until 1959. Israel’s then-socialist-oriented administration wanted all citizens (new and veteran) to have the same basic necessities, so the government instituted both price control and rationing. It gave ration coupons for food staples, furniture and clothing. The emphasis was on using local produce while building up foreign reserves.
Water, which in many places had been distributed by water trucks during the War of Independence, continued to be rationed. One poster from this period shows how, with a 10-litre water bucket, a person could quench their thirst, bathe, rinse fruits and vegetables, cook, wash dishes, mop floors, launder clothes and flush toilets. In maabarot (transitional housing facilities for new immigrants), water ran from central faucets, but it had to be boiled before drinking. Public showers and washrooms were generally inadequate and often broken.
All citizens had to register with a makolet (local grocer). Israelis shopped at their neighborhood store using their government-issued purchasing cards. Prices for all products were translated into a fixed points system.
The government set an average daily calorie allotment of 2,700-2,800 calories. Children and older people received a higher daily calorie allowance. Here is a sampling of an average person’s daily quantities of rationed dry staples: 360 grams bread, 60 grams corn flour, 60 grams white flour, 17 grams white rice and 58 grams white sugar. Monthly, individuals had this imposed ceiling on proteins: 750 grams meat, 12 grams eggs and 200 grams low-fat cheese. “Fillers” such as potatoes had a monthly limit of 3,500 grams.
To counter the shortages, many started their own small gardens or built chicken coops. During the first year of the program, Lilian Cornfeld’s cookbook Ani Mevashelet (I Am Cooking) appeared to guide people in preparing meals based on the allowed rations. (Born in Montreal, Cornfeld was one of the first Canadian women to move to Palestine, doing so in 1922.) Ironically, the eggplant recipe for making ersatz chopped liver has become a staple Israeli dish at catered affairs, eateries and take-out facilities. Back then, most Israelis did not have refrigerators and ovens – people cooked and even baked complete meals on gas burners using an aluminum pot, a sir peleh, or “wonder pot.”
In the first year of the program, Israelis as a whole agreed with the government’s approach to the emergency. But, by the second year, some citizens were finding it hard to cope with the food lines and the food points. A thriving black market appeared. In response, the government set up a special unit in 1950 to root out the black market. Hundreds of inspectors were enlisted and special courts judged arrested profiteers.
How did people dodge the restrictions? Zeev Galili, who served as Yedioth Ahronoth’s city editor and deputy chief editor, recalled how his father disobeyed the imposed food ban. His father took him to a relative’s Petah Tikva farmstead and they stashed into a suitcase carefully wrapped eggs, tomatoes, olives and carrots, covering everything with clothes. His father warned him not to reveal what was in the case. When they reached Tel Aviv and food inspectors stopped the bus, passengers fearfully descended, everyone tense about being caught red-handed breaking the law. As “luck” would have it, Galili’s father’s suitcase was at the bottom of the pile of bags strapped to the roof and the inspectors did not open his case.
Other children, however, objected to their parents’ illegal dealings. Media personality Yaron London recalled that his mother bought 10 eggs from a black marketeer who mysteriously appeared at their door. Young London threw the eggs into the garbage. For this, he said, his mother “smacked me across the face. Then she covered her face with her hands and wept. After that, she came to her senses and threw her arms around me. I hugged her back. It was a moment of great joy.”
The austerity plan led to public criticism and outright accusations. Avshalom Cohen, for example, composed a satirical song about the black market; the minister of rationing and supply and minister of agriculture, former Canadian Dov Yosef, was frequently vilified.
According to historian Dr. Mordechai Naor, while the Mapai coalition (National Religious, Sephardim and Progressives) supported the plan, both sides of the opposition objected to it. Leftist Mapam felt the plan did not consider laborers’ voices, especially as the government refused to increase workers’ salaries, while rightist General Zionists and Herut claimed the program interfered with both private initiative and the middle class.
Although Yosef felt the time was premature, beginning in 1952, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion gradually repealed the austerity plan. By 1959, the program had ended.
According to Seidman, the results of Israel’s mishtar ha-tzena paralleled the outcome of the English austerity program: “an initial success in curbing price and demand during wartime, followed by gradual erosion in the policy’s effectiveness and public compliance, futile criminal measures carried out by the police and the court and, finally, the formal dissolution of the legal edifice of the austerity regime.” While not a huge success, the program did manage to provide its growing population with a modicum of food and other basic necessities.
Today’s Israel is vastly different from the Israel of the 1950s. In the 57 years that have passed since the tzena ended, Israel has changed radically, beginning with a seven percent increase in calorie consumption every 10 years. Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s current minister of health, recently launched a program encouraging healthy eating and discouraging the intake of high-fat, high-sugar and salt-filled junk food.
On the one hand, Israel now exports goods and services, and has earned an international reputation as a start-up nation. On the other hand, with its open market policy, it has seen the rise of numerous shopping malls that offer imported products. Like other Westerners, Israelis have become big online shoppers.
Nonetheless, many Israelis have been “left behind,” unable to make ends meet. Hopefully, the still-young state will close the gap between the haves and the have-nots and continue to manage its economy well into the 21st century.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.