Yes, once upon a time there were different leaders.
On 8 December 1952, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was elected second president of the State of Israel.
At the time he lived with his extended family in a wooden prefabricated dwelling consisting of two huts that were granted to him as a veteran British soldier. After his election, the government wished to purchase the Schocken luxury house to serve as residence of the newly elected president. However, the Ben-Zvis refused. “We are simple people,” they argued, “we always lived among the people and wish to keep with our lifestyle”.
In the face of their veto, the government purchased the Valero neighbouring house that served as the president’s office while the presidential couple lived on the second floor. Since the office was not large enough, the government wished to build an extension. At Ben-Zvi’s demand, two Swedish huts were purchased to serve for official receptions to where heads of states, ambassadors as well as simple people came to meet the president. Ben-Zvi’s excuse was that while many new immigrants lived in tents and huts it is unfitting that the president should welcome his guests in a lavish building.
Not less interesting was the adventures of the president’s remuneration. Ben-Zvi’s predecessor, Chaim Weitzman, was a wealthy man who lived on the royalties from his scientific inventions and had no need for his salary. His salary was fixed upon his election in 1949 and stood on 450 IL, 31% less than the president’s driver.
The Knesset wished to raise the salary yet was met by Ben-Zvi’s firm objection. The Speaker, Kadish Luz, argued that the Knesset should not succumb to Ben-Zvi’s rejection as the honour of the presidency is involved. Indeed, on March 1954 the Finance Committee voted to raise the President’s salary to that of the President of the Supreme Court. Ben-Zvi protested and the committee decided to forward the issue to the ruling of the Finance Minister. Ben-Zvi was hoping that his fried Eshkol would agree with him yet Eshkol declared that he must honour the Knesset’s decision. Ben-Zvi did not relent and refused to accept the increased salary and as a result did not receive any remuneration. In view of the public scandal, Eshkol was forced to accept Ben-Zvi’s demand who kept receiving the old salary.
However, Ben-Zvi was tricked. In 1962, he went on a long journey to African countries. The Finance Committee took advantage of the situation and raised his salary. Upon returning to Israel Ben-Zvi discovered that this was a fait accompli as the decision had been already legislated.
Yet Ben-Zvi didn’t give up. He used only half of his statutory salary and dedicated the rest for research of the history of the Jewish people and of Eretz Yisrael.
Ben-Zvi refused to accept the raise not only of his salary. In 1960, the Finance Committee decided to raise the President’s chambers budget but had to retreat facing Ben-Zvi’s objection.
Ben-Zvi was not the only modest leader.
In 1979 Yitzhak Shamir, then Speaker of the Knesset, travelled to Australia with a parliamentary delegation. Due to security reasons the travel lasted for 38 hours. Shamir travelled of course economy and sat in the first row together with MK Adi Amorai. Since there were two empty seats in their row Shamir suggested that during the first night he would sleep on the chairs and Amorai on the floor and for the second night they would switch. When Amorai’s turn was to take the “luxury” seats he felt uneasy and told Shamir: “I can’t accept that I will sleep on the chairs and the Speaker of the Knesset who is also older will sleep on the floor beneath me. Let’s stick to the former arrangement”, to which Shamir reacted “a deal is a deal” and lay down on the floor to get some sleep.
Yes, once upon a time there were other leaders.