Monday, December 24, 2012

Dear Minister, Garbage Can Save the Country

I'm on an austerity roll this week. Yesterday we looked at how the country tried - with partial success - to create housing for hundreds of thousands of penniless immigrants who were pouring into Israel in its earliest years. Since this is a mere blog, not serious research, we don't have to present any story in its entirety. Rather, I shoot an arrow into the stacks, and whatever file the arrow hits, I open and talk about it a bit, before flitting on to the next box. It's all very post-modern, you see. Recently, I seem to have shot a whole quiver of arrows into the files of the Ministry for Supply and Rationing.

Today's file is ג-206/31, and it's titled "proposals for using garbage." Like most archival documentation, it tells more than one story. In this case, one of the interesting stories it tells - quite inadvertantly - is about how the relationship between innovation and entrepreneuers on the one hand and the state on the other has changed over time. Nowadays, there are parts of Israel - in Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, among others - where you can't rush down a sidewalk without bowling over seven or twelve wannabe entrepreneuers busy hatching ways to upend the world and get hyper-rich along the way. (There's even a fine book about this, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle.)

Back in 1950, there were also wannabe entrepreneuers, but they didn't seek angels to invest in their crackpot ideas. No: they wrote letters to government ministers explaining why the government needed to adopt their ideas and run with them. Since in those days, the Ministry for Supply and Rationing was a very important agency, some of them wrote their letters to its minister, Dov Joseph.

Engineer Azriel Ozdor (previously Housdorf) from Tel Aviv wrote repeatedly. He was so persistent that eventually the offiials began chiding him: We're dealing with you, why do you keep on writing letters to other ministries? To which Ozdor responded by adding, in his next letter to a minister, that yes, he's persistent but this is only beause he really cares. And what did he really care about? Recycling garbage. He prepared and sent a closely-typed 5-page memorandum about potential uses of garbage and the pros and cons of each alternative. His starting point was that 70% of Israeli garbage is what we'd call today vegetable mass, and if treated properly it can be used to feed livestock. True, the best livestock for eating garbage are pigs, and there aren't any of those in Israel; and true, farmers don't like to deal with the processing of the garbage, but here's all the reasons why they're wrong, and if the government makes them do it...

Israel Czernotski from Kfar Azar had a scheme to recycle bread. Kfar Azar is a small village, but Mr. Czernotski often had occasion to be in the big city where he saw tons of bread in the garbage dumps. Unlike Engineer Ozdor, he didn't have a 5-page memorandum, but he was convinced that the bread could be fed to livestock (different livestock than the garbage-eating kind, I assume) and this would serve many goals. First, it would save foreign currency "which is such a serious problem in our country. Such an endeavor would have a tremendous educational value for our country's children." The way to do it would be to dedicate areas in each town where the school-children would bring their leftovers, and from there it would be sold to the farmers; the proceeds would cover the operation and the balance would go to the Jewish Agency. His proposal, lest you be skeptical, was forwarded to Mr. Bach of the Agriculture Department in the Food Division, and also to Mr. Gan in the Prices Department, and also to the Deputy-General-Manager.

Sigfried Feigelstock sent his letter to the Minister with an apology for not knowing which department it should actually be forwarded to. He wasn't representing himself, but rather two brothers, immigrants from Austria; and he hadn't yet asked them if they wanted to be doing this at all; first he needed to know if the government was interested - as it ought to be. Anyway, his proposal was to use the feathers of poultry which had been slaughtered, because as it is they just get thrown out. Which was too bad, because those two brothers he knew had been trained, back in Austria, to make feather blankets. Moreover, he knew (or perhaps he had heard from them?) about a disused feather-factory in the Soviet-controlled section of Austria; someone should import its machinery. But if for some reaon that particular machinery couldn't be imported, new machines could be purchased in Luxemburg.

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