Sunday, December 23, 2012

We Need to Build a City by Next Week

A few months ago, we broached the subject of the harsh austerity measures launched by the Israeli government in early 1949 to cope with the enormous economic challenges of the day (and achieve some political goals along the way). The overall title of these measures was "Tsena" (Austerity), though the most striking and memorable part was the rationing.

Today's post will look at a different aspect of the policy: the urgent need to create housing for hundreds of thousands of homeless immigrants before the begining of the rain season. Fortunately for the immigrants and for the country, the very thick layer of bureaucracy which exists in Israel today had not yet had time to accumulate, and thus it was possible for some fellow with authority to say "go do it" and they went and did it. If they did it well or not, flawlessly or not, is a different question, but at least they went and did it.

We stay away from contemporary politics on this blog, but think of the number of times you hear about a construction project in the settlements getting authorized, then authorized again, and again being authorized - and you'll begin to see what I mean. Acquiring permission to construct takes literally years. Now compare that with this:

On May 13, 1949, the boss of the Central Housing and Building Corporation sent a letter to Gershon Zack in the Prime Minister's Office:
1. We're willing to build 10,000 housing units immediately as discussed.
2. Many of the construction workers will be new immigrants.
3. The government will procure the import licenses needed.
[Who pays whom how much, and when]
8. We're willing to start working on the first 1,000 units immediately.
9. Following Mr. Zack's order we started building one 2-room unit immediately, it will be ready next week.
We wait your authorization...
On the 19th of May, Prime Minster Ben Gurion himself visited the construction site and was shown that first unit. On the 23rd, the next letter reached Zack, summarizing the visit and adding that
1. We're prepared to construct 10,000 units as discussed.
2. We must receive the neccessary land plots this week. If so, we'll be completing 150 units each day by the end of June.
3. We'll need 400 construction workers for each 150 units.
What happened next? Zack's file (ג-333/63) doesn't quite say, but in June he got a note from the Central Housing and Building Corporation with an urgent request:
Please tell the inspector for transport Mr. Lubersky he's got to allow us to import an automobile for our subcontractor.
Then, on July 28, 1949, Major Moshe Refaeli of the Engineers' Corps wrote to the prime minister. First, he intruduced himself: he was on loan from the military to the Central Housing and Building Corporation as its acting execuutive. He had recently participated in a meeting between Ben Gurion and some engineering officers, in which the PM had told with satisfaction of the progress of public construction projects.
I am convinced of your sincerity, Prime Minister, but based on what I'm seeing, Sir, you may not be hearing the full story.
Two months ago, we were asked to construct 10,000 housing units. We have the technical know-how. We were told the budget was confirmed on June 1st. We have ample laborers, as any visit to the immigrants' camps will show. Yet we haven't done more than a third of the job.
We only have some 100 days left until the rainy season, yet we're not working on schedule. There seem to be a number of reasons for this.
1. The project is being run by a committee of five people, each of whom has other tasks, and none of whom regards himself as responsible.
2. Not all the land has been allocated, and when it is there are often fights with local municipal authorities about jurisdictions, water supply and other matters.

We're doing our utmost, but it's important that you know we're not reaching the targets we've been set.
Though, truth be told, a third of a miracle is still not bad. In 2012, it would take three years merely to acquire the permits.


  1. Where was this particular housing?

  2. Near Tel Mond, apparently, though some of it may also have been near Zichron Yaacov.

    I assume these were the pre-fabs which served as a 10-15 year transition stage between tents in camps, and real apartments in real neighborhoods. The last such a neighborhood in Jerusalem, if memory serves, was bulldozed in the late 1960s or perhaps even early 1970s.