60. Power generation begins in the land of Israel

Though the decade that began from the year 1920 saw conflagration of the Jew-Arab conflict, it was the period which marked the beginning of many positive developments for the Jewish people. Several organizations which laid the foundation for the future of Israel in various sectors including business, etc., were formed and also took a definite shape during this period.

The very first instance of this was the awarding of the rights by the British at concessional rates for the generation and distribution of power to the parts of the land of Palestine to a Russian-Jewish businessman ‘Pinhas Rutenberg’. Rutenberg was a Jew and was also one of those obsessed with the concept of Zionism.

Born in 1879 in Ukraine, a part of the then Russian Empire, Rutenberg went on to become a hydraulic engineer. He took an active part in the ‘First Russian Revolution’ in the year 1905. However, repulsed at the power struggle that was then on-going in Russia, and also having witnessed simmering anger against and growing persecution of the Jews, Rutenberg was drawn in and was subsequently attracted to Zionism.

land of Israel, Power generation, Rutenberg, Zionism, Russian Empire, immigration, Ukraine, Hungary

It was during this very time that he was held responsible for the death of his colleague at the ‘Socialist Revolutionary Party’. Within sometime of Rutenberg having met him, the leader was found hanging and dead in the room. In fact, the party circles were quite full with hushed talks that the party leadership, having grown aware of the split loyalty of the leader, had decided upon eliminating him as a punishment for his disloyalty. However, the party implicated Rutenberg for the leader’s murder and sacked him. Rutenberg, having left with no option but to flee Russia, took shelter in Italy. In Italy, staying away from politics for some time, Rutenberg pursued research in the field of his liking – hydraulic engineering.

In 1914, with the flaring of World War I, Rutenberg began efforts with the aim of raising an armed force for the creation of an independent Israel. He toured many European cities for the purpose and established contacts with Ze’evJabotinsky and other Zionist leaders who were in a similar pursuit. With this aim in mind, Rutenberg later also toured the United States. Here, Rutenberg established ties with David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvias well, who were then active in the United States. While in the US, Rutenberg finished detailed research into the optimization of the available water resources in the land of Israel for the purposes of agriculture and power generation.

Rutenberg welcomed the Russian Revolution of February 1917 and returned to Russia in July of the same year. He then participated in the ‘Second Russian Revolution’ that began in October of 1917. After the revolution, he went on to gain a position of importance in the ‘Soviet Union’. However, the new class, the ‘Bolsheviks’, considered the old leaders as ‘agents of the capitalists’ and looked down on them. Out of this rivalry, Rutenberg was again targeted but somehow escaped. This time he bid adieu to Russia forever.

After World War I, many Zionist leaders were trying to push the issue of the ‘Jew nationhood’ to feature into the talks held at the ‘Paris Peace Conference’. Rutenberg got an opportunity to be one among them and accordingly presented his plan of irrigation before many. It received a positive response from the rich Jewish class, and Rutenberg was successful in securing significant funding for his plan. Next, Rutenberg stepped in the land of Palestine during the period of 1920-21. However, with the period witnessing the Jew-Arab riots, Rutenberg temporarily shelved his plans for irrigation, and along with Ze’evJabotinsky, took to the raising of Jewish paramilitary ‘self-defence units’ termed ‘Haganah’.

land of Israel, Power generation, Rutenberg, Zionism, Russian Empire, immigration, Ukraine, Hungary
Haganah self-defence unit

As a matter of fact, it was during the Jew-Arab riots of 1921 that the British awarded Rutenberg the rights for power generation and distribution for Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the neighbouring areas. Rutenberg established ‘Jaffa Electric Company’ for the purpose. However, the rights of power generation and distribution and water supply for Bethlehem, its surrounding areas and for Jerusalem itself had been awarded in the year 1914 by the Ottomans to a Greek businessman named ‘Euripides Mavromatis’. However, no work on it had started even by the year 1921. As a result, when the British transferred these rights from Mavromatis to Rutenberg, he challenged the decision in the international court at The Hague. The court upheld his objection regarding Jerusalem and hence for the initial few years Rutenberg’s company was not able to generate and distribute power to Jerusalem.

land of Israel, Power generation, Rutenberg, Zionism, Russian Empire, immigration, Ukraine, Hungary
The Naharayim Power Station over River Jordan

Overcoming numerous such difficulties, Rutenberg established a power generation plant, but contrary to his initial plans of building a hydro-electric power station over the Yarkon River, he had to use a diesel engine to generate power. Later in 1926, he was awarded rights to supply electricity to Transjordan and was accordingly given permission to build hydro-electric power station over the Jordan River. By the year 1930, he completed building a power station at ‘Naharayim’ (in modern-day Jordan) over the River Jordan. Along with Naharayim, he also built power stations at Tel Aviv, Haifa and Tiberias. He created ‘Palestine Electric Company’ for the purpose and merged his earlier created –‘Jaffa Electric Company’ into it. The ‘Palestine Electric Company’ later went on to take the form of ‘Israel Electric Corporation’ that today is the largest supplier of electrical power in Israel.

In spite of having limited resources at his disposal and having faced with a number of hurdles, Rutenberg began supplying power to the land of Israel (except Jerusalem). Even the British recognized his efforts and contribution to his nation. Later in 1925, when the ‘Palestine Nationality Law’ was duly passed, Rutenberg was given the honour of being the first registered citizen of Israel under the new law. However, the pursuit of his dream to supply electricity to Jerusalem did not realize till he was alive. In 1942, after the death of Rutenberg, his ‘Palestine Electric Company’ was awarded the rights by the British of supplying electricity to Jerusalem in place of Mavromatis’s company as they could not satisfy the growing need of the power of the city. Though posthumously, Rutenberg’s dream had indeed come true.

land of Israel, Power generation, Rutenberg, Zionism, Russian Empire, immigration, Ukraine, Hungary
Palestine Electric Company in the 1920s

Rutenberg holds a place of respect in Israel’s history.

In the meantime, with the financial crisis, the flaring of anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungary, and with the United States having changed its Immigration Act in the year 1924 which disallowed the Jews from entering the US, 82 thousand Jews from Poland and Hungary returned to Palestine between 1924 to 1927. This wave of immigration is recognized as the ‘Fourth Aliyah’. Most of the people who were part of this wave belonged to the ‘middle class’, possessed different skills and also had some working capital in their hands. Thus, with the fourth wave of Aliyah having reached Palestine, the people who were a part of it started with some small businesses which strengthened the financial base of the cities like Tel Aviv, Jaffa, etc. Even in the rural areas, the number of the Arab labourers decreased, and the Jewish labourers started replacing them.

However, weary at the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Palestine, some 23 thousand Jews migrated from Palestine to other areas.

This was the time when some of the events which shaped the future of geopolitics of the Middle East were already taking place….(To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar