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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

Liel Leibovitz
January 04, 2013
Tel Aviv residents standing in line for buying food rations, 1954.(Wikimedia Commons)

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Last week, a private dealer of historical documents put up a bundle of notebooks for sale online.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.

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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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.