The Humble Beginnings of Israel Electric Corporation, Revealed

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A few months after Israel’s founding and a decade before he conquered Broadway with “West Side Story,” Leonard Bernstein had a less-glamorous situation to cope with. In a letter dated October 6, 1948 and mailed to the Israel Electric Corporations’s offices in Tel Aviv, the Jewish-American composer and conductor complained that he couldn’t enjoy a hot meal because the house where he was staying in Tel Aviv had no electricity for cooking.

“As the musical consultant for the 1948-49 season of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, I am staying at the home of Mr. Novikov, 20 Bialik Street, and taking all my meals there, since I have to watch my diet and only eat home-cooked meals,” Bernstein wrote to a Mr. Dikovsky from the electric company.

“With the difficult supply situation in the country, the Novikov family will not be able to fulfill my request unless they have the possibility to cook with electricity. Therefore I shall be most grateful, Sir, if you could issue a license to the Novikov family for the use of electricity for cooking,” he added. In conclusion, Bernstein expressed hope that his request would be granted.

Bernstein’s letter is preserved in the IEC’s archives along with countless other interesting, amusing and surprising documents recording nearly a century of activity, since 1919, the year that company founder Pinhas Rutenberg immigrated to Israel (the Palestine Electric Company, the predecessor of the IEC, was founded in 1923).

This month, the company offered a rare glimpse into its archives, which is not accustomed to receiving visitors from the media. It is kept in a large, 1,000-square meter basement in one of the buildings at the Haifa power station.

IEC workers installing electricity in Tel Aviv in the 1920s. Photo by IEC archives

A tour of the archives reveals that the IEC was involved in the story of the development of the land and of the young state, beyond the electricity grid. In the pre-state days, workers in the company’s factories manufactured weapons, bombs and armored vehicles. During the War of Independence, an independent unit from the company was established under the command of the security director, and took part in battles.

Employees of the Naharayim power station also farmed thousands of dunams of land, and some of the crops were sold at a company workers’ supermarket in Haifa. The photo collection in the archives includes some remarkable scenes, such a camels transporting equipment to the Reading power station in Tel Aviv, and workers hooking up electric cables for Rishon Letzion in an age before there was such thing as a protective helmet.

One thing with which the electric company was concerned to a large extent was cooking. Explanatory booklets distributed by the company decades ago to the women of Israel bear witness to this. Also preserved in the archives are cookbooks that the company put out, with the sole aim of encouraging consumers to switch to using electricity. In addition to study material, the company had a special department of “cooking instructors,” headed by Dr. Orna Mayer, which published the first cookbooks in Israel.

An IEC poster that promoted the use of an electric water heater. Photo by IEC archives

The archive also contains written testimonies that illustrate how great the demand for electricity was in the young nation. One woman from Tel Aviv wrote an emotional letter to the company on April 27, 1950. “For a long time I’ve longed for the convenience of cooking with electricity. I signed up about four years ago and eagerly waited for my turn,” she wrote. During the War of Independence, the letter-writer says she suspended her efforts, “so as not to bother you, and I was patient.”

The directors of the Hadassah Agricultural School for Young Women, located in Nahalal, wrote to the company in 1945 asking to have two urns connected to the electricity grid. The IEC agreed, on one condition: “You must pledge in writing not to use them between the hours of 9 A.M. and 12 A.M.” And the school responded: “Normally, we do not drink tea between the hours of 9 A.M. and 12 A.M. Therefore we herby commit not to use the urns in those hours.”

Diesel generators at the first power station. Photo by IEC archives

Two stories above the archives is the impressive and spacious office that once belonged to Rutenberg, overlooking the sea. The archives staff say he was a very energetic person who was friendly with the leaders of his time, and besides the electric company was also involved in a wide range of security, economic, political and diplomatic activity, all of which is recorded in the company archives.

His will was published on the front page of Haaretz on January 5, 1942, two days after his death, at the height of World War II and the Holocaust. “The splitting of our people into sects, clans and factions has always been our downfall. A civil war led us to the brink, and if it doesn’t end – will be the ruin of us,” he wrote. “Therefore my request and my bequest to the yishuv [pre-state Jewish population] and to the youth growing up within it is to always remember that it is not the Jews of one sect or faction or other who are being persecuted and trampled, but rather the Jewish people as a whole. Whether we like it or not, we are all brothers in sorrow. Let us understand this, and let us be brothers for life, for creativity, for activity and for building.”

Reading Power Plant, 1938.Credit: IEC Archive
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Diesel generators at the first power station.Credit: IEC archives
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Reading Power Plant, 1938.Credit: IEC Archive
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Rutenberg, British High Commissioner Wauchope, and Emir Abdullah at the opening ceremony of the Nahariya station, 1932.Credit: IEC archives
Rutenberg, British High Commissioner Wauchope, and Emir Abdullah at the opening ceremony of the Nahariya station, 1932. Photo by IEC archives

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