When the State of Israel asked the people to help purchase weapons
In 1955, the Israeli leadership launched a fundraising campaign as part of its arms race with its Arab neighbors. The economic situation and austerity period did not stop the public from donating in great numbers in a bid to reach 25 million Israeli pounds. Would a similar campaign work today?
Dozens of posters and documents revealing one of the biggest campaigns that ever took place in Israel are displayed to the public at the National Library’s archive. “Dear citizen, 25 million pounds is the minimum sum for obtaining necessary weapons as additional force for the IDF,” says a postcard which was distributed in 300,000 copies and sent to almost every household in Israel through a committee appointed for that purpose.
The media began publishing ads of people who had donated their money. For example, the Bar-Tal family: “Our son Yoram has reached the age of bar mitzvah. Instead of a party—a donation to the Defense Fund.” Today, Bar-Tal is a professor. He explains that he was influenced by his studies at the elementary school in Kiryat Haim, a northern city which was populated by quite a few Holocaust survivors and new immigrants. The fact that it had the highest number of casualties in the War of Independence shaped its citizens’ consciousness.
“I grew up in a home, society and community of workers, where giving was a norm,” he says. “I would walk around with third or fourth-hand clothing and we would sometimes eat bread with margarine. Once a week, we would get a bar of chocolate, but we donated because we felt it was a mission we had all been recruited to. The state didn’t have money and there was a need to volunteer. I was very proud of it. I think I was among the few people I know who gave up their bar mitzvah party, and it was so natural. We didn’t feel like we were giving up something. On the contrary, we felt we were contributing.”
Yoram’s wife, Bruria, celebrated her sixth birthday those days, and she donated to the Defense Fund as well. “I won’t forget the joy when I received a thank you letter for the donation,” she says. “I remember my father showing it to me. There was an excitement of being part of it.”
An Israel Radio recording from that year features an interview with the Yefet family members—the parents and their four children, who immigrated from Yemen and lived in a one-room apartment. They donated all their savings to the Defense Fund. A member of the family donated his monthly salary as well, “in order to be a patriot.”
Social pressure in a young state
The mass recruitment was not incidental and definitely not spontaneous, as it may have seemed from the headlines of the posters on the bulletin boards. The National Library kept the documents of Emanuel Harusi, who was a writer, poet and publicist and coordinated the Defense Fund’s PR efforts, and the papers point to a well-planned operation.
One of the letters details the activity in the press, which included editorials, news editions in cinemas and production of short films, tanks and cannons on street intersections, posters and parades, and advertisements on buses and trains. The “commercial firms” also dedicated some of the product advertising to the Defense Funds, special stamps and postcards were issued, lesson plans were introduced in schools and the radio conducted interviews with the heads of the state and with donors.
“Everything seemed spontaneous, but there was a public atmosphere and public pressure by the government on the citizens,” explains Dr. Hezi Amior, the Israel Collection's curator at the National Library. “At the end of the day, society has a coercion power and each society has norms which its members obey. In the young State of Israel, society was the state, and the state was an octopus that reaches every corner.”
Private citizens were not the only ones who took part in the fundraising efforts. So did organizations, municipalities, employees’ committees, theaters and the young Nahal troops’ entertainment group, which sang the song “Cannons Instead of Socks,” written by Haim Hefer.
“We needed socks, but we were willing to give them up for cannons and planes in order to support Israel. That was the meaning of this wonderful song,” says veteran actor Gabi Amrani, who was a key figure in the entertainment group’s skits. “We were a military band and we had to lend a hand. We liked the song very much, and those were beautiful times because everyone saw it as an obvious thing. There was pride in giving to the army. Everyone volunteered, we performed in all kinds of remote places, and it was our only pleasure.”
As part of the donation campaign, there was no room for refusal. “The PR or coercion power was so great that even people who did not want to donate ended up donating. In extreme cases, they even published the names of those who did not cooperate with the Defense Fund,” explains Dr. Amior.
“I am sure there were people who did not agree to donate,” says Yoram Bar-Tal. “I am unfamiliar with that from my surroundings, because such people would have been denounced by our homogenous community. If someone had failed to donate, Heaven forbid, everyone would have talked about him and he would have been boycotted by society.”
Nevertheless, Bar-Tal says we should put our cynicism aside. “I don’t know if Ben-Gurion or Levi Eshkol intentionally scared the people. I may be naïve, but I don’t think they were that sophisticated. I do believe that due to the fact that they claimed there was not enough money, and there were no more taxes to spend, it was simply that appeal that did the job and made us want to do it. We heard about the tough situation from our parents, from the news—retaliation acts and an atmosphere of war and that there was no money, so it worked.”
Donating wedding rings
The ambitious target of the fundraising activities, 25 million pounds, was not fully achieved. According to the public committee’s summary report, 18.42 million pounds were raised and added to the defend budget. The donations were put down as weapons.
Davar newspaper, for example, reported that the city of Ramla had purchased the Ramla-1 tank for 80,000 pounds, the standing army soldiers had purchased two fighter aircraft for 350,000 pounds, and the lawyers’ committee had bought a Sherman tank for 50,000 pounds. The city of Netanya raised funds as well for purchasing the Netanya-1 fighter aircraft. The budget books, however, include no evidence of the quantity and type of the equipment.
In additional to the raised funds, many other donations were also collected. The president’s wife approached bereaved parents and asked them to make a donation in memory of their sons, and she herself donated 200 pounds in memory of her son Eli. Rivka Guber, who lost both her sons in the War of Independence, donated the family farm in Moshav Kfar Warburg together with her husband. Workers of a Tel Aviv factory donated their wedding rings, the Amidar company’s employees donated 10 percent of their salary, while the association of butchers for non-kosher meat donated 10,000 pounds.
During a Knesset session discussing the 1956 budget, then-Chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee Yisrael Guri noted that “tehre are times when the state demands that its citizens sacrifice their lives, so it can definitely collect citizens' property. The more we offer this, the more we will save on precious life sacrifices. The state’s citizens should adopt this truth to their hearts. This is directed particularly at those who have so far avoided fulfilling their duty to the Defense Fund operation, which aims to strengthen the state’s security. We should also address the fact that the state will not be able to allow those who are evading their duty to find shelter in the evasion much longer. Time is pressing and we must defend ourselves from the evasion through all legal means at the state’s disposal.”
And so, the Defense Fund’s activities were converted into a compulsory loan law, which imposed a tax on the public to fund security needs and was aimed at tripling the defense budget.
Would such a campaign work today?
“Today, fear is imposed on everything that needs to be done,” says Amrani, “but at the time we didn’t have to do it, we wanted to. It was a duty for our revival and our ability to exist here. I don’t know if the naivety that existed them could exist today, because today people’s innocence and love have been replaced by cynicism and brutality and all kinds of other things.”
“I think that people would have burst out laughing,” says Dr. Amior. “Today we would say, ‘Why are you coming to us? You collect taxes from us, so fund it yourselves?’”
“It’s a completely different system of values,” says Prof. Bar-Tal. “Today, individualism is at the center of our existence as a Western society as well. I am quite convinced that our children would not give as much as our parents did and as much as we did. It’s simply a completely different chapter in the social and personal history.”
“I think they would,” says his wife Bruria. “If someone said that we had to volunteer and donate now—everyone would give.”