Part of a Series – Hanukkah 2020 – Nes Gadol Haya Po – Beer Sheva and the Negev
There are few modern politicians who can escape conflict. But while conflict was certainly part of Yitzhak (Ijo) Rager’s time in Beer Sheva, I want to focus on a thread which led him to be one of the truly great personalities in Beer Sheva. The more research I do on Rager, the more that two common threads emerge – his dedication to Soviet Jewry and his drive to improve Beer Sheva. These two wind their way and intermingle in his life.
He was born in Cairo but moved with his family shortly thereafter to Jerusalem, Palestine. He served in the Six-Day War as a lieutenant colonel and participated in the battle to free Gush Etzion. He served in many capacities as a media personality as a Kol Israel correspondent in Paris and Geneva, and as the editor of the periodical HaYom and as Director General of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Media didn’t end up being his most important contribution to the Israeli scene, but rather politics.
His seminal position came when he was posted to New York as a consul in 1973. It was an explosive time in American politics. The Cold War was raging and Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union were hindered from doing so. An initiative, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, funded by American Greetings executives, Harry and Irving Stone, prominent Jews from Cleveland, sought to put pressure on the Soviet government by declaring that states which did not have fair emigration policies could not receive Most Favored Nation status in trade relations with the US. Because of the fierce battles in American politics, and the weakening support for Israel after the Yom Kippur war, the Israeli representatives were warned to stay clear of the duel. Eventually, the amendment was passed, heightening the cold war.
Throughout his time in New York, Rager worked diligently as an advocate for Jewish refusniks, Soviet Jews denied emigration. After New York, Rager returned to Beer Sheva, where his father had served as the first civil engineer.
Soviet policies did not significantly change until the late 1980’s – just in time for Rager’s mayor-ship in Beer Sheva. Mikhail Gorbachev opened the borders in 1989 and allowed Jews to leave the country for Israel. Because the United States no longer saw emigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) as refugees, and Soviet emigrants did not have to give up their Soviet citizenship, Soviet Jewry left in mass, especially for Israel. Between 1989 and 2006, 1.6 million Soviet Jews and their family members emigrated from the FSU with almost 1 million arriving in Israel. (As comparison, between 1970 and 1988, only 291,000 Soviet Jews left the Soviet Union.)
In Israel, massive numbers of immigrants from the FSU created a large housing crisis. Suitable housing in the center of the country was scarce and it was decided that the immigrants would be housed in caravan neighborhoods in the periphery. Rager petitioned to have the largest caravan site in Beer Sheva which included 2,308 housing units.
It was a closing of a circle for Rager. He planned in the city his father planned and built many neighborhoods, naming some streets in Nachal Beka after radio personalities to honor his past. Rager, himself an immigrant, made Beer Sheva into a haven for immigrants from the FSU, immigration that he had worked for in New York decades before.
The main street heading north out of the city was renamed to honor him after his death in office in 1997 at age 65. His legacy and the changed face of Beer Sheva because of his work establishes him without a doubt as a Gadol, great personality, of Beer Sheva and the Negev.
From one Leah to another Leiah, and as one of the top three candidates for City Council in the local 1988 “Tafnit” Party in Be’er-Sheva, who literally went down to Eilat and brought Ijo to run for Mayor of Be’er-Sheva–let me say that I loved your positive, commemorative article on Rager, an extraordinary man with serious diplomatic skills, who took a tiny town and turned it into a city aspiring and able to become the metropolis it is today. I’ll never forget him, his vision and optimism, constructive energy and great sense of humor. Ethelea