This Day in Jewish History

1961: 'Broken-hearted' Father of Israeli Potash Industry Dies in Paris

Moshe Novomeysky created Dead Sea mineral mining and turned it into the country’s number-one exporter, not that he got credit for it.

The Dead Sea Works potash fertilizer manufacturing plant belongs to Israel Chemicals.
Bloomberg

On March 27, 1961, Moshe Novomeysky, founder of the Dead Sea minerals industry, one of the most significant drivers of the Israeli economy in the first decades after independence, died, at the age of 87.

Though Novomeysky’s role in the harnessing of this strategic national treasure is indisputable, he has been largely ignored by the shapers of Israel’s official histories. In trying to understand the injustice he believes was done him, one historian, Ron Or-Ner, has written that “Novomeysky turned, in the new state, into an unwanted symbol of the ‘old world,’” for reasons that had little to do with his own actions. Or-Ner writes that Novomeysky’s death, in self-imposed exile in Paris, was of a “broken heart.”

Tradition of radicalism

Mikhail Novomeysky was born on November 25, 1873, in the village of Barguzin, on the shores of Lake Baikal, in Siberia, Russia. His father was Avram Novomeysky, a mining engineer, and his mother the former Haya Levitin.

The family had a tradition of political radicalism that went back at least to his paternal grandfather, who had been exiled to Siberia from Poland, on charges of having assisted in a political uprising there.

After graduating from the Irkutsk Technical School, Moshe attended the Royal Prussian Koenigsberg University, then in Germany, where he earned a degree in 1897 in mining engineering. He returned to Barguzin, where he began examining the possibility of extracting minerals from Lake Baikal, eventually setting up a company for production of various salts needed by local glass producing plants.

Moshe too was naturally drawn to politics, and after a flirtation with radical movements, he was taken with Zionism. After returning home from attending the Sixth Zionist Congress, in Basel, in 1903, he was arrested for “revolutionary activity,” and imprisoned for five months.

Although his first visit to Palestine was in 1906, Novomeysky did not move there until after the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1920. By then, he had already been introduced to the unique qualities of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, and had done extensive testing of its conditions, with a mind to setting up a mining operation there.

Mining the Dead Sea in peace

After the British became the rulers of Palestine, in 1920, Novomeysky’s efforts to get licenses to mine the sea were focused on London. The process that led to the granting of a 75-year mining license to Palestine Potash in 1930 was arduous, requiring extensive scientific surveys and tests, the taking on of a British partner and basing the company’s headquarters there, and much political lobbying.

Novomeysky wanted his project to benefit both Jews and Arabs. To that end, he learned Arabic, and cultivated a relationship with Jordan’s King Abdullah. The company employed Arabs, and had an Arab board member, and as a consequence, its facilities were spared violence during the Arab unrest of 1936-1939.

Eventually, there were two main facilities, one near the sea’s southern end, and the other at the northern edge, at Kalia. At the latter, Novomeysky built a workers’ residence complex, the British set up a golf club (called “Sodom and Gomorrah”), and Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava came into existence.

By 1940, the company was responsible for about half of the country’s industrial-export income, and during World War II, it supplied Great Britain with some 50 percent of its potash, an essential ingredient in fertilizer, among other things.

Novomeysky had negotiated with Jordanian authorities to keep the Dead Sea plants out of the hostilities in 1948, but before his understandings could be finalized, he was in a serious car accident. In his absence, Israeli forces agreed to abandon the properties at the northern edge of the sea, and the invading Arab Legion proceeded to destroy them, on May 22.

That same year, the new government of Israel relieved the British of their holdings in the company, and effectively kicked Novomeysky, who was accused of abandoning the company at the moment it most needed its leadership, upstairs. The Dead Sea’s minerals were nationalized, and Palestine Potash became the Dead Sea Works. Mining resumed in 1955.

After Novomeysky’s death, in Paris on this day in 1961, his body was brought back to Israel for burial at Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery.