Tuesday, April 9, 2013

President Ben Zvi Fights a Rising Salary

Izhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president, died 50 years ago this month. In his honor, we've put up a small collection of unusual documents about his salary. If you read Hebrew you really ought to follow the link and read the full story, which is both amusing and, how to put it, rather odd.

The politicians and the gnomes in the Finance Ministry all agreed that the president ought to have the highest salary among the civil servants, what with his being the highest ranking among them. The thing is, Ben Zvi himself had other opinions. Between his taking the job in 1952 and 1962 he ran a successful campaign not to allow his salary to rise. In the early 50s he explained that the country was in dire straights, with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants living in tent cities and the economy groaning under the many burdens of creating a functioning state. By the early 1960s, however, the refugees had mostly been housed and the economy was booming. Ben Zvi still felt that the challenges facing the state were enormous, and still hoped to inspire others to live frugally. Yet if in 1952 his salary had already slipped below that of the Chief Justice, by 1962 it was 40% less than that of his own chauffeur. The Knesset members who had grudgingly humored him for a decade felt he was abusing his office, and took advantage of a trip he was sent on to Africa to triple (!) his salary and legislate it into the general budget so that he couldn't browbeat them to change their mind.

Here's his response, in a letter of December 31st 1962 ot Israel Gouri, the head of the Finance Committee of the Knesset.
Since taking office I have been perturbed by the galloping rise in the standard of living, which I regard as a threat to our economic independence. It is my opinion that as long as we're faced by the double challenge of bringing Jews to Israel and facing the security threats we have, we must not raise the standard of living. Therefore I've been resisting the efforts to raise my salary, hoping to present a model for imitation, and I've explained this both officially and in personal meetings with you.
This year, sadly, the Knesset took advantage of my trip to Africa to raise my salary and legislate it into the budget. You recently explained the considerations, and I no longer feel I can resist them. However, I wish to inform you that I will use no more than half of the sum for my personal needs, and will donate the rest to a trust which will fund the preparation of ancient documents for use by researchers. (Was he thinking of the Aleppo Codex perhaps?)

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