Levi Eshkol 1895-1969

Levi Eshkol was a political activist from the age of 19, culminating in his service as Prime Minister of Israel in the 1960's and during the Six-Day War. 


The following biography is excerpted from "My Life", Golda Meir's autobiography. Thus it is the perspective of a person who knew the man and should provide unique insight...

"Levi Eshkol (his original name was Shkolnik) was another of the promising young men with whom I became friendly in the 1920's. He was quite different from Shazar, though he also came from a Hassidic family in Russia. But he was much more a man of action and much less a man of words. He had come to Palestine when he was only nineteen and after working as an agricultural laborer in various parts of the country he joined the Jewish Legion with Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi. When the war ended, he became a member of Degania, from which he was coopted by the Histradrut, though his ties with the kibbutz remained strong all his life. Eshkol was typical of the practical idealists of the era: his interests were land, water and defense, though not necessarily in that order, and he was happiest dealing with such down-to-earth and crucial problems. Politics in the abstract didn't particularly attract him, and he hated bureaucratic procedures; but give him a specific challenge and he met it with an extraordinary combination of doggedness, ingenuity, and shrewdness. If you wanted a Jewish national home, you had to settle Jews on the land-never mind how much the land cost or what obstacles the mandatory government put in the way of the Jewish institutions that wanted to buy it. 'Not enough room to swing a cat in Palestine," said the British Colonial Office in 1929, by way of trying to excuse its inexcusable policy of limiting Jewish immigration and land purchase. So Eshkol spent the next thirty years looking for places in which new settlements could indeed be established, and, as head of the Jewish Agency's Land Settlement Department, he supervised the founding of nearly 400 new Jewish villages. You couldn't have settlements without irrigation, or irrigate without water, so Eshkol proceeded to organize an intensive search for water. It was a very expensive search, so he also had to look for many, as well, and managed to find both-though not, needless to say, in quantities that would last for ever. If you had land and water and the misfortune of having extremely hostile neighbors, you also had to acquire arms and train an army, and the story of Eshkol's contribution to Israel's armed strength from 1921 (when he joined the Histadrut's first defence committee) all the way through his period as prime minister and minister of defence which began in 1963 is a story in its own right. As Israel's prime minister during the Six Day War, he was much (and most unfairly) abused for what critics called his hesitancy and all kinds of malicious jokes were made about his supposed inability to make up his mind. The great drama and pain of Eshkol's last years, however (he died of a heart attack-a polite name, I think, for a broken heart-in 1969) was his rift with Ben-Gurion, whose absolutely loyal follower he had been for decades and at whose request he reluctantly took over as prime minister in 1963. That bitter conflict involved the entire Labour movement and almost tore Israel apart, but it belongs to a much later period, so I postpone writing about it for the moment.

Eshkol was not, to use the fashionable word, 'charismatic'. He had no 'glamour', but he was an unusually creative person, a man who got things done when they really needed doing, however hard the job was, and a man to whom people and their feelings meant a great deal. From the start, I liked and trusted him, though who would have dreamed when we worked together in Tel-Aviv then that he would eventually be a prime minister or that I would follow him in that office. In the 1950's, when Eshkol was Israel's minister of finance and I was minister of labour, we had many clashes- though they were never personal in any way. Those were the years when the state was flooded with hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken, undernourished, homeless Jews from the DP camps of Europe and the ghettos of the Arabic-speaking states and the only way that we could house this torrent of people was by setting up camps of our own for them."

For more....read "My Life, by Golda Meir, copyright 1975