Israel StoryIn partnership with The Times of Israel

Signed, Sealed, Delivered? Meir Argov

Our series continues with a WWII veteran and labor organizer who loved cantorial music and was Israel’s first chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee

Meir Argov (Courtesy of the Israeli National Photo Collection)
Meir Argov (Courtesy of the Israeli National Photo Collection)

Meir Argov was born as Meir Grabovsky in Rîbnița, Bessarabia, in 1905. While his family was fleeing civil unrest in the region, Argov’s father Yeshayahu – a learned man and a grain salesman – was murdered on the road to Oleksandriia. His remains, in what Argov once called “the land of blood,” were only recovered several months later.

Argov himself attended a cheider, a gymnasium and the University of Kiev. As a prominent young leader in both the Halutz and the Tze’irei Zion youth movements, he was repeatedly arrested by the Russian secret police and was ultimately deported to Mandatory Palestine in December 1924 – a reprieve of sorts, as the much more common option was being exiled to Siberia.

Here in the Land of Israel, he worked in the orange groves of Ness Ziona and Petach Tikvah and later became a fiery labor leader, as the secretary of the Petach Tikvah Council of Workers. He was active in Ben-Gurion’s Labor Party, Mapai, and even served on the Petach Tikvah Municipal Council as their representative.

Though he was already married and a father to twelve-year-old Tamar, in 1941 he volunteered for service in the Palestine Regiment of the British Army. At first, the mostly Jewish enlistees of the 14th infantry company spent their days marching around local parade grounds and guarding warehouses, adhering, he later wrote, to a routine riddled with “suffering, boredom, indifference and despair.”

Only in November 1944, as part of the newly-founded Jewish Brigade, was he finally deployed, reaching Italy and inching towards the actual front. In an essay called “Lit Candles in the Jewish Sector,” he described his first glimpse of German soldiers. They were POWs dressed in rags, being rowed out of the harbor of Taranto. But their sorry state didn’t fool him. Argov wondered whether among them are “those who crushed the skulls of Jews, and showed their valor by slaughtering women and children.” He and his fellow Jewish comrades did nothing, he recalled, but “seal in their hearts a breath of fury.”

Over the course of the next few months the brigade was, at last, thrown into combat. In April 1945 they fought their way across the Senio River – helping win one of the last battles of the war in Italy. The Jewish Brigade, which consisted of some 5,000 soldiers, lost 57 men.

After the war, he helped organize illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, and – as a member of the National Council – prepared the local postal service for independence. Since neither the name of the state-to-be, nor the name of its currency, had been determined, designing its inaugural stamps could have been a difficult task. But nothing, not even the lack of a name, was going to stop Argov, David Remez and their fellow Zionist leaders. It was soon decided that the first stamps would bear the heading of Do’ar Ivri or Hebrew Post, and wouldn’t depict illustrations of landmarks or landscapes (since – after all – no one knew what the borders of the new State would ultimately be, and which regions would, or wouldn’t, end up being part of the country). Instead, the stamps (which were designed by Otte Wallish – who, incidentally, also designed the scroll of the Declaration of Independence) featured images of ancient Jewish coins from the first and second revolts against the Romans. Issued hastily and under suboptimal conditions, some prints contained spelling mistakes and discolorations. Nevertheless, on the whole, the mission was a success and the stamps were officially released on Sunday, May 16, 1948 – the country’s very first day of business. Today, unsurprisingly, full sets of the original nine Do’ar Ivri stamps sell for hundreds of thousands of Shekels.

Argov – who was both a lifelong Mapai Party member and a traditional Jew who often led services in Ness Ziona on the holidays – called the day of the Declaration of Independence a “Genesis moment.”

He was elected to the first Knesset and appointed Chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – a role he held till his sudden death, of a heart attack, in 1963.

The end song is Kol HaDrachim Movilot LeRoma (lyrics – Itzhak Itzhak (Itzhak Ben-Israel), music – Zvi Ben-Yosef, arrangement – Mordechai Shelef), performed by Havurat Shoham and Giora Ross (Licensed by Israel Story through Acum).

About Israel Story: Israel Story is the award-winning podcast that tells extraordinary tales about ordinary Israelis. Often called “the Israeli ‘This American Life,’” we bring you quirky, unpredictable, interesting and moving stories about a place we all think we know a lot about, but really don’t. Produced in partnership with The Times of Israel.

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