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Pinchas Rutenberg

(1879 - 1942)

Pinchas Rutenberg was born on February 5, 1879, in Romni, Russia. After graduating from a practical high school, he enrolled at the Technology Institute in Saint Petersburg and joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. He worked as a workshop manager at the Putilov plant, the largest Petersburg industry. He played an active role in the revolutions, in 1905 and 1917. 

Rutenberg moved to Italy and concentrated on hydraulic engineering. Like Theodor Herzl before him, Rutenberg became convinced that anti-Semitism was not eradicable and that the best hope for the Jewish people was to establish a national home in Palestine.

After World War I began, the Zionist movement mainly supported the Entente Powers. He visited European capitals, met prominent politicians and Zionist leaders, and finally joined the efforts of Zeev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor to set up the Jewish Legion.

In May 1915, on Jabotinsky’s approval, Rutenberg traveled to the United States to promote this idea among American Jewry. He found strong support among Jewish organizations in New York City.

Together with Chaim Zhitlowsky, he founded the American Jewish Congress. At the same time, Rutenberg published his book The National Revival of the Jewish People under the pseudonym Pinhas Ben-Ami (in Hebrew: my people’s son).

While in the U.S., Rutenberg managed to complete a detailed design for utilizing the Land of Israel’s hydraulic resources for irrigation and electrical power production, which was his long-time dream.

He returned to Russia and settled in Petrograd just before the revolution. When the Bolsheviks prevailed, he was arrested and put in jail. In March 1918, when German troops approached Petrograd, the Bolsheviks released Rutenberg and he moved to Moscow. After the unsuccessful attempt upon Lenin’s life, the Red Terror campaign was launched. Rutenberg escaped to Odesa. Realizing that anti-Semitism was an ideology that was not going to go away in Russia, he immigrated to Palestine in 1919, where, in addition to other roles, he served as head of the Haganah’s Tel Aviv office, and participated in the demarcation of Palestine’s northern border, defining British and French areas of interest.

Rutenberg is more widely known as a prominent engineer, and his revolutionary work dealing with hydroelectricity. In 1920, he submitted a plan to the British to build hydroelectric plants on the Jordan River. He was subsequently given the water power rights to the river and built the first power station in Naharyim, which operated from 1930 until it was destroyed by Iraqi forces during the 1948 War.

The Naharayim power station (1935)

In 1923, Rutenberg founded the Palestine Electric Corporation, Ltd. (later, the Israel Electric Corporation, Ltd., which provided power to much of Israel by means of utilizing the flow of waters from the Jordan River. Following initial difficulties in launching the project, Rutenberg sought and received higher governmental support from Winston Churchill (then Colonial Secretary) and Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who provided significant financial support. In 1942, when the British-Jerusalem Electric Corporation failed to supply the demands of Jerusalem, the Mandatory government asked the Palestine Electric Company to assume responsibility for the city’s needs.

He died on January 3, 1942, in Jerusalem.

A power station near Ashkelon is named after him. Additionally, streets in Ramat Gan and Netanya are named in his honor.

Sources: The Palestine Electric Corporation, Ltd.
Yosef Israel Abramowitz, Zionist Water Dreams (and nightmares), Jerusalem Report, (March 20, 2023).
Pinhas Rutenberg, Wikipedia.

Photos: Israel Electric Corporation (חברת החשמל לישראל), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Naharayim - C. Raad, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.