In honor of the snow which is forecast for Jerusalem this weekend….
Pinhas Rutenberg died in January 1942. Attended by Zionist leaders such as Moshe Sharet, Yitzchak BenTzvi, Zalman Shazar, and Golda Meir, the funeral took place on the day he died, as is customary in Jerusalem. The procession moved slowly to lower this leader into the frozen ground of the Mount of Olives. The British soldiers attending cleared away the snow to uncover a patch of ground into which Rutenberg’s body was laid.
Ben Gurion could not be present at this solemn occasion as he was out the country. He did however send a letter.
“As a true pioneer, Rutenberg gave to Zionism and to the Land of Israel, the most precious items he had in his possession – himself, his unstoppable will, his wide vision. His boundless sacrifice and his power to fulfill dreams. He was one of the giants of our time in renewing the days of the Land of Israel. Our land lost a great builder and our people lost a dear son.”
Chances are, even though the attendees’ names may be familiar to most, Pinhas Rutenberg is not so well known. Who was he? What exactly were his gifts to the Land of Israel so eloquently mentioned by Ben Gurion?
Born in the Ukraine in 1879 to a religious Jewish family, he was educated as an engineer and became a workshop manager of the largest St. Petersburg industry, which was also a center of workers socialist organization. Rutenberg became a supporter of the movement, but when its leader was found dead in Rutenberg’s rented house, he was forced to flee the country.
Besides traveling the world, meeting with Jewish leaders, and writing books, Rutenberg wrote a plan for water management in the Land of Israel. It is for this plan, and the construction of the power plant in Naharayim, that Pinhas Rutenberg is best know.
He came to Israel in 1919 and started working on his dream. In order to get permission to build the power plant in Naharayim, Rutenberg needed to get permission from not only the British, who controlled what is now the State of Israel, but also from King Abdullah of Jordan, as the plant proposed to dam the Yarmuk, which was in the hands of the Jordanians. Only after 6 years of negotiations did Rutenberg receive permission to go ahead with his plans. That’s Unstoppable Will. The Naharayim plant included the Deganya dam, a zero-grade canal, reservoirs, diversionary canals, workers’ communities, a railroad station, in short a HUGE engineering feat. After 5 years of construction, in 1931, the plant went on line. It produced 1/3 of the electricity needed by the growing yishuv.
Most Zionist pioneering images we have are of diplomats, religious leaders, soldiers, donors, or even the anonymous “worker of the land”. Pinhas Rutenberg comes from a different mold, the mold of the scientist/engineer. This pioneer lives in the Land of Israel and tries to understand the science and implement the engineering to capitalize on all the potential that exists. The electrification of the Land of Israel was a necessary component to the development of the Jewish homeland – quite different from settling the Negev, acquiring lands in the Jezreel Valley, meeting with world leaders to push the idea of Zionism, setting up internal pre-state institutions. Only with the inclusion of science and engineering was the Land of Israel built.
Thanks, Leiah, for again telling us a great story and for introducing us to a real pioneer of Israel.
For those interested in the story of Naharayim visit Old Gesher where they have an audio-visual presentation about Rutenberg’s project and a model of the electric plant. It is also possible to “cross into Jordan” and view the remains of the hydroelectric plant from closer up.