'These People Lived Their Ideology'

A three-part television series that begins airing tonight showcases the towering figures who were members of the first Knesset.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

On February 14, 1949, a month after the State of Israel held its first election, the newly elected members of the Constituent Assembly convened. There was a feeling in the air that a miracle had just occurred. The voice of the newly elected speaker of the assembly, Joseph Shprinzak, trembled with emotion as he bowed to and thanked his colleagues for the honor and privilege of being an elected representative of the people. At the same meeting, the name of the Constituent Assembly was changed, and it became the Knesset.

The scene is brought to life in "Mishtahaveh Umodeh," a new three-part television series about the members of the first Knesset, many of whom are familiar to Israelis today primarily because of the streets named after them. The first episode, which was produced by Hadas Levi Setzemsky, will air on the Knesset Channel tonight.

"These people are not just the members of the first Knesset; they were the people who built the land," she said. "They were public figures even before the first Knesset, and reached it as a matter of course. All of their endeavors in the first Knesset set the tone for the state."

The series features interviews with historians, the family members of politicians, archive images and some of the few audio clips that survived, given the penchant of the country's founders for taping over used cassettes to cut down on costs. An Israeli man named Immanuel Adani, who used to collect these politicians' autographs as a teenager, also tells stories about their devotion to the country.

The members of the first Knesset, many of whom were ideological enemies, not to mention rivals in the wars between the prestate underground militias, turn out to be unusual characters. The period when a Knesset member would have to borrow a jacket to wear at his swearing-in ceremony and walk in the rain to the Knesset building seems quaint to modern observers. But these members of the first Knesset proved their mettle by setting aside past rivalries for the sake of the young state, sometimes with great difficulty, and debating reductions of their own salaries as well as salient issues like the role of feminism, religion and education in Israel. Along the way, they determined the character of the country and enacted laws that, more than six decades later, no one has dared change.

"They were, in general, very opinionated people, both in the Knesset and in their personal lives," said Levi Setzemsky, a 40-year-old Jerusalemite who has worked at the Knesset Channel since its inception. "Ada Maimon decided to remain single in order to dedicate herself to public service," said Setzemsky, referring to a member of the first Knesset who represented Mapai, the precursor to the Labor Party. "[David] Ben-Gurion promised the young Immanuel an autograph and he gave it to him, even when it was not so convenient, because promises must be kept. These people lived their ideology."

Levi Setzemsky, 40, said the idea of documenting the first Knesset has been around for some time.

"One of the Knesset corridors has group photos of all the Knesset members of each Knesset, from the first to the 18th, the outgoing Knesset," she said. "For quite some time, the Knesset Channel's director general, Uri Paz, has been saying it's a good idea, but I always thought it would be a little tiresome. Around a year ago, I agreed to try, and it turned out to be an amazing journey."

Levi Setzemsky said what she discovered on her journey was that the country's earliest leaders "were revolutionaries, were required to be revolutionaries, and it was that way in every part of their lives."

"They really did live occasionally in hunger, fear, in a siege," she said. "These are feelings we don't know. It's a fascinating period to learn about, but it's not at all certain that we'd have wanted to live then." Referring to the Irgun weapons ship that was sunk on orders of the government of the new State of Israel in June 1948, the producer added: "You can color it in romantic tones, but when they went to the beach, they saw where the Altalena sank and did not just go to catch some sun. They encountered difficulties along the way. The decisions they made were fateful."

'She has a long nose'

One of the subjects covered in the series, which could have filled an entire episode on its own, is the underground militia movement.

Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau tells viewers that for security reasons, he didn't know until 1948, when he was 5 years old, that his father was Haim Landau, a member of the Irgun, or prestate underground militia led by Menachem Begin. The elder Landau was a Knesset member from 1949 to 1977 and his son has been a Knesset member since 1984.

The daughter of Esther Raziel-Naor, an Irgun leader who served in the Knesset for 25 years, says in the series that "we bore the stain of our parents." Her son relates with a smile the story of a time he was with his mother at the Knesset cafeteria, sitting next to Menachem Begin. When Golda Meir passed by, the boy commented that "she has a long nose." Begin, pleased, responded about his political rival, who later became the country's first - and so far, only - female prime minister: "That's not her biggest shortcoming."

It wasn't just that Begin represented the right and Meir represented the left.

"It was more than a rivalry, because they were so motivated by ideology," said Levi Setzemsky. "There were, for example, no switches between movements and parties. There were splits into one-person factions, but there were no shifts within the blocs. That was a dirty word. There wasn't rivalry. There was burning hatred. These people may have appreciated each other, but they also hated. A few months earlier they had been fighting each other, the Irgun and the Haganah. This was a rivalry that went back many years. The underground period ended but the rivalry did not."

So put the men under curfew

Although Golda Meir has said she disdained feminists, advocacy for women's rights was nonetheless something of a unifying factor among the 12 female members of the first Knesset.

Golda Meir's son, Menachem Meir, tells of a Knesset discussion following a brutal rape, in which then-MK Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon (the brother of Ada Maimon, who was his ideological opposite ) suggested protecting the country's women by imposing a curfew on them after dark. Menachem Meir recalls how his mother objected and suggested imposing the curfew on men instead.

In another instance, the Knesset, at Ada Maimon's initiative, set the minimum age for marriage for women at 17 to prevent the early marriages that were common at the time in the Yemenite community. Only recently has there been an initiative to raise the minimum age for marriage still further, to 18.

When Yehuda Leib Maimon addressed the Knesset plenum and advocated not limiting the marriage age, his sister raised objections. Afterward, in a discussion on drafting women into the IDF, her brother raised some objections of his own.

"Ada Maimon was a real pioneer for Mapai women," said Levi Setzemsky. "Beba Idelson [who served in the first through fifth Knessets] and Golda Meir followed in her footsteps, and this was a Knesset that also had a one-person faction of Rachel [Cohen-]Kagan representing WIZO [the Women's International Zionist Organization], which was a women's party then."

Unlike now, the political parties did not reserve spots on their tickets for women, even though the women who held political office at the time were going against the grain.

"These women went against what was socially comfortable," said Levi Setzemsky. "At the time, a woman did not necessarily work outside the home, and if she did, it was because it was necessary to earn a livelihood, but still the first Knesset had 12 female members, or 10 percent. They were very important, perhaps these were women who really were constantly doing things, it seemed natural for them.

"Within the Knesset it wasn't necessary to secure a place for women and they did not see themselves as different from the men at all. Their public service was public service and it did not matter if they were women or men. To a certain extent, the way I see it, we live in a much more puritanical period than at that time... Today, the gender issue is a much bigger deal."

Some women at the time added a feminine suffix like "-it" to their name. Take the wife of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel: Golda Lishansky, who changed her name to Rahel Yanait when she immigrated to Israel, after the Hasmonean king Alexander Yanai. She became Rahel Yanai Ben-Zvi after her marriage.

David Remez - the country's first transportation minister and an amateur linguist who coined many Hebrew words, including "tahbura" (transportation ), "hamra'a" (takeoff ) and "tayas" (pilot ) - came by his last name by adopting that of his wife Luba.

"It charmed me, and I was also charmed by the simple way it happened: because there was no custom then, so they acted in all kinds of ways," said Levi Setzemsky. "It wasn't considered rebellious or innovative or path-breaking. There was no declaration in it. They innovated along the way. It's unclear when and why what looks in retrospect to be a feminist and Hebrew outlook has disappeared."

A peek into romantic history

The series makes room for the romance between Meir and Remez, a long and delicate relationship between a mentor and a student who ultimately outshone him. It is perhaps a shame that more time was not allocated to it.

Letters written by Meir that were discovered in a simple cardboard file in the World Zionist Organization's archive describe intense emotions sparingly. "I experienced a disappointment," Golda writes to Remez. "I returned to the executive committee and waited until the end of your meeting, just because I wanted to see you, and you didn't wait a moment for me."

Levi Setzemsky squirms a little when asked about the romance and the limited coverage of it.

"Peering into other people's lives always takes courage, and there was a peek here," she said. "If we hadn't found those letters, and if Golda's language hadn't been so nice, I'm not sure I would have covered it. When I opened this file, it was the first time I encountered them, in the language and handwriting of Golda. She is good at writing what she feels and it teaches a lot about her."

"I think that she exercised caution and there's something nice in this delicacy," the producer said. "I felt this belonged to them and there are limits which should not be crossed. I didn't snoop around." She laughed, adding: "Not in her romantic history. There is something about seeing a person's handwriting and feeling closer to him, but I wouldn't want to place too much emphasis on this chapter, even if the affair was great and stormy."

All the same, Levi Setzemsky's next project is a romantic triangle during the underground militia period, which grew out of her research for the Knesset series.

"These people were really giant, outspoken, wrote books and articles, and including them in just a small segment in the series does them a little bit of an injustice," she said. "There were personalities I felt a need to apologize to. Many things were discovered along the way. You find all sorts of things stored on some shelf, in some forgotten file, in some desolate archive. And these people are street names to us, but when they become real live people, they make you want to get to know them."

David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister (center), at a session of the first Knesset in 1949. Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO