The day I thought I discovered a ‘price tag’ attack in the 30s

Picture 25

Davar, 2nd November, 1938, 8: The headline reads ‘Jewish thugs desecrate synagogue.’

On Tuesday morning, racist graffiti and slashed tyres were discovered at the town of Abu Gosh near Jerusalem. The graffiti, daubed across the wall of a building overnight, read “Arabs out” and “racism or assimilation.” Police suspected this was the latest in a long line of “price tag” attacks.

For those not au fait with the term, here is Haaretz’s definition of the acts of violence and vandalism referred to in Israel as “price tag” attacks:

“The ‘price-tag’ policy was adopted by Israeli settlers and right-wing activists, intended to pressure the government away from making concessions regarding settlement building in the West Bank. Attacks of the sort usually occur after the dismantling of an outpost or similar event, and are often directed at Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and left-wing organizations.”

Reading about Abu Gosh, I remembered an item I came across in the 2nd November, 1938 edition of Davar. “We are publishing the cry of the committee of the Yeshuron synagogue in Jerusalem about a disgusting act by Jewish thugs,” the newspaper said. These “thugs” vandalised “public and private buildings in the country’s cities in the name of ‘propaganda,’ allegedly, actually this demonstrates the poison of destruction and the hate beating in their hearts.”

According to a notice published by the synagogue’s committee, reprinted by Davar, “Everyone who passed in front of Yeshuron in Jerusalem yesterday was upset and shocked to see the beautiful walls of the new, great synagogue dirty and filthy with the colour black and with slander and abominations about ‘Kofer Hayishuv,'” – Hebrew for “ransom of the community.”

Picture 24

Davar, 2nd November, 1938, 8.

When I first saw this, my brain, with its 2013 frame of reference, immediately thought “price tag”; there were “price tag”-like attacks in 1930s Palestine. The term “ransom of the community” sounded something like “price tag” to me, and the incident shared characteristics with the attacks we now today, namely that it was vandalism with a political aim, carried out by “thugs” from the Jewish population. I was excited at my apparent discovery: a precedent to today’s phenomenon, albeit predating the settlement enterprise.

What was behind this graffiti? I later found out that the “ransom” it referred to, “Kofer Hayishuv,” was in fact a voluntary tax instituted by the Vaad Leumi – the governing body of the Yishuv in Palestine – to finance defence operations. It put into place a centralised funding arm for the Haganah, the Yishuv’s underground military organisation, amid the violence of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt. It is also sometimes referred to in English as the “redemption fund.”

Screen grab from PDF of Arthur H Groten's 2007 article on taxi mail in Mandate Palestine.

Screen grab from PDF of Arthur H Groten’s 2007 article on taxi mail in Mandate Palestine.

Kofer Hayishuv went into effect in June 1938, two years into the revolt, and was discontinued after Israel was established in 1948. It was levelled through stamps and direct contributions on various products and services, including cigarettes, visits to cafes and transport. On the image of a letter delivered by taxi, not by the official postal service, in Haifa above, you can see two five mil stamps in the right-hand corner. These indicate that Kofer Hayishuv was paid on top of delivery costs. One other tax collecting initiative was “Matat Takhsitim,” the giving of jewelry, in exchange for which members of the Yishuv would receive a gift in return: a ring, pin or document holder bearing the logo of Kofer Hayishuv. The fund was supplemented by an emergency tax in 1940, and a mobilization and rescue fund in 1942.

Kofer Hayishuv worked against tax evaders, both ideological and non-ideological ones, implementing a system of “honour courts” to deal people who didn’t pay. The slogan of the fund, writes Egozi, was: “The Yishuv will only be loyal to he who is loyal to the Yishuv.” The campaign against evaders might partly explain the graffiti on the synagogue.

Ideological opposition to the initiative came mainly from two groups. One was the Revisionist Zionists, who established their own fund-raising arms called “Keren Tel Hai,” the Tel Hai Fund, and “Keren Barzel,” the Iron Fund. While Kofer Hayishuv funded the Haganah, the Revisionists had formed their own paramilitary group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization (the IZL), which split off from the Haganah in 1931. Some members of the Yishuv who supported the Revisionists would pay half the Kofer Hayishuv tax on some products and services, and the remainder to the Revisionists, Egozi says.

Opposition also came from anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews. Menachem Friedman relates one incident in the summer of 1938, when “a scuffle broke out” after tax collectors came to Jerusalem’s Haredi neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. Shortly after that, he says, a group of extreme ultra-Orthodox Jews published a placard explaining their opposition to the tax. They signed it “Neturei Karta,” Aramaic for “Guardians of the City,” the first time this anti-Zionist group used the name. For them, Kofer Hayishuv was “an example par excellence of the ideology and practice of secular Zionism and should be forcefully opposed,” Friedman writes. Haredim opposed to Kofer Hayishuv also set up their own fundraising initiative, called “Keren Hayishuv,” the Yishuv Fund.

Elsewhere in the Mandate Palestine press, I came across reports of Kofer Hayishuv drives. For example, the short-lived Haifa newspaper, Hacarmel, reported on 9th November that, at an assembly day in Kiryat Motzkin, local school teachers “dedicated special hours” to telling students about “the value of Kofer Hayishuv and the importance of the Yishuv showing its strength.” In addition to this, “at exactly two o’clock in the afternoon, all the cafes and shops closed, and large crowds went to give their donations.” In the evening, there was a mass meeting at the local synagogue where “Kofer Hayishuv president, Aryeh Groshkvitz reminded (the audience) of the value of the initiative.” Hacarmel estimated that some 250 Palestine Pounds had been collected for “Eretz Israel” that day. The meeting finished with “the singing of Hatikva.”

Picture 27

Harcarmel, 9th November, 1938, 4.

Images of Davar taken from the Historical Jewish Press archive. Image of Hacarmel photographed by the author at the Tel Aviv University newspaper archive.

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