A house with a legacy

Jerusalem’s newest museum is a must-see gem that tells the compelling story of Levi Eshkol and his contributions at a crucial point in our history.

December 30, 2016 13:24
Beit Levi Eshkol

The newly renovated Beit Levi Eshkol in the Rehavia neighborhood. (photo credit: DOV GREENBLAT/SPNI)


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Former prime minister Levi Eshkol’s place in history is underrated, but a new museum has just opened that will help correct this lacuna and spur new interest in the pioneers and early leaders of the state Eshkol, Israel’s fourth prime minister, was the first to die in office. From the time of his death in Jerusalem in 1969, his widow, Miriam – his third wife and his junior by 35 years – devoted herself to perpetuating his memory.

Although there is an Eshkol Park in Beersheba, the Eshkol region in the Negev, the Eshkol Power Station in the northern industrial zone of Ashdod and a Ramat Eshkol neighborhood in Jerusalem, Miriam Eshkol wanted something to remind people of who Levi Eshkol was and what he did for the country.

He was among the founders of Kibbutz Deganya Bet, as well as a founder of the Histadrut, a member of the Hagana high command, a managing director of Mekorot (the national water carrier), a director of the Settlement Division of the Jewish Agency, agriculture minister, finance minister, chairman of Mapai, prime minister and defense minister. It was on his watch as prime minister in 1967 that Israel emerged triumphant from the Six Day War, with Jerusalem reunited.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (sporting a newly gifted 10-gallon hat) and his wife Miriam are greeted by mayor Louie Welch at the airport in Houston, Texas, in 1964 (photo credit: GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE)

When the state decided to make the house in which Miriam and Levi Eshkol had lived during his period as prime minister available for the construction of a Levi Eshkol museum, Miriam Eshkol and members of the Eshkol family were left with the burden of raising the necessary funds to restore the house at 46 Ben-Maimon Boulevard on the corner of Ussishkin Street to its former glory.

Miriam Eshkol corresponded with a series of prime ministers in the hope of getting the government to take on the responsibility for the restoration, because she believed that this was something the government ought to do to commemorate its highest-ranking public servants and elected officials.

However, it was not until she appealed yet again to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that she found a willing ear. Netanyahu instructed the Department for the Preservation of National Heritage Sites in the Prime Minister’s office to find a solution to the problem.

The Russian Compound had to be vacated for the Russian government, so the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the last of several occupants to find alternate premises to move to, was offered the upper floor of the house in return for helping to finance the restoration of the building. Several private donors also contributed to the cost.

After having been abandoned for more than 40 years, the first official prime minister’s residence in Israel was rededicated last Tuesday as Beit Levi Eshkol. The interactive museum memorializes Eshkol and also serves as the new headquarters for the SPNI’s Jerusalem community branch, a hub for social-environmental activism in the capital.

On the ground floor, an interactive exhibition narrates the life story of the prime minister; visitors use tablets and visual aids to immerse themselves in the experience – with all content available in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

The building’s remaining floors and its courtyard are operated by SPNI, whose significant contributions to the yard include the planning and operation of an ecological pool and a “living wall” constructed with greenery from the local ecosystem.

Unfortunately, Miriam Eshkol was not there to reap the fruits of her labors; she died less than a month before the opening after sustaining a fall for which she was hospitalized.

THE BAUHAUS building in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood had been built at the behest of Julius and Nechama Jacobs. Julius, who was a senior British Mandate official, was killed in the 1946 explosion at the King David Hotel, and the house was subsequently rented to the Jewish Agency. When David Ben-Gurion moved the government to Jerusalem, he needed a residence that would be close to the Jewish Agency, which was the seat of government and the Knesset until the latter moved down the road to the Froumine Building, which later became the Tourism Ministry, afterwards housed the rabbinate and is now in the process of being turned into the Knesset Museum.

Geographically, the Julius House was an ideal solution and it was occupied by three prime ministers – first by Ben-Gurion, who set up his residence there in 1950, then Levi Eshkol and finally Golda Meir.

When Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister after Meir, his wife, Leah, found the house in such a state of disrepair that she refused to live in it. So the Rabins moved into the house on the corner of Smolenskin and Balfour streets, which had previously been the residence of the foreign minister. The only prime minister who had lived there was Moshe Sharett, who had resided there as foreign minister and opted to remain after he became prime minister.

The house on Ben-Maimon became increasingly dilapidated as homeless people, drug addicts and alcoholics succeeded in getting past the fence to bed down for the night.

Then, a few years back, the government gifted the house to the Eshkol Foundation, headed by Miriam Eshkol, to create an educational memorial for Levi Eshkol.

The opening ceremony was preceded by a video with clips from Eshkol’s life – including Eshkol receiving the welcome news from Motta Gur: “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Miriam’s absence was mentioned by every speaker.

FOR PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin, who grew up in Rehavia and actually played football in the courtyard of the house when Ben-Gurion was prime minister, the return to the very familiar locale was emotionally moving.

Waxing nostalgic and going back to the time of his boyhood, he recalled that when he and his friends were too boisterous, Paula Ben-Gurion would come out and shush them and tell them that Ben-Gurion was sleeping.

President Reuven Rivlin addresses the crowd at the inauguration on December 20 (photo credit: DOV GREENBLAT/SPNI)

When Eshkol was prime minister, Rivlin regularly passed the house on his way to and from school or to the Scouts or to the home of future Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.

While acknowledging all that Eshkol had achieved in his various capacities and crediting him with having been one of Israel’s best prime ministers – who developed a special relationship with the United States and who had revitalized Israel’s economy – Rivlin said that from his perspective, Eshkol’s greatest achievement was in 1964, when he honored Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s last request, which was to bring his remains for burial to Israel after the proclamation of statehood – something that Ben Gurion was unable to bring himself to do. Jabotinsky lies among leaders of the nation on Mount Herzl.

Only someone who lived in Israel at that time could understand what an incredible decision it was for someone so close to Ben-Gurion and so strongly identified with Mapai, said Rivlin, who credited Eshkol with being much more than a political party man.

“He gave legitimacy to Herut when he established a national unity government,” said Rivlin. “He understood the true meaning of democracy when he made Menachem Begin a minister in his government.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog referred to Eshkol’s ability to create unity and to overcome divisiveness.

“He knew how to establish the national unity government that brought about the Six Day War victory, but after the war, he called for peace with Israel’s neighbors, and was willing to cede land for peace.”

Herzog also referred to Eshkol’s well-known sense of humor and to his sayings, which have become legend in Hebrew as well as in Yiddish, which he frequently spoke.

Israel’s ninth president, the late Shimon Peres, whenever he spoke of Eshkol, said that Eshkol never called him by name but always addressed him as yunger man (young man). Eshkol also had a repertoire of Yiddish jokes and was fond of saying that he kept on compromising until he got his own way.

Herzog said that he had grown up on tales of Eshkol because his uncle, Yaakov Herzog, had been the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office during the Eshkol administration.

“When he needed to fight he fought, and when he needed to compromise, he comprised – not out of weakness, but because he understood the situation,” said Herzog.

Singer Shuli Natan, most famous for her rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold,” also recalled Eshkol’s penchant for Yiddish. In 1968, when she and Nechama Hendel were performing at the Khan, they were surprised when Eshkol and his wife came unannounced to the performance.

Of course everything came to a standstill with the arrival of the prime minister. Eshkol broke the ice by saying in Yiddish: “Nu zingt, maidelech, zingt!” (“Come on, sing, girls, sing!”) Jerusalem Affairs and Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin noted how symbolic it was that Beit Levi Eshkol was being inaugurated during the 50th anniversary year of the reunification of Jerusalem, which resulted from the Six Day War. It had been hoped to have the opening earlier but the plan had not worked out.

Elkin drew a line between Eshkol and Begin, saying that by stretching out his hand and bringing Begin into his government, thus giving him legitimacy, Eshkol had set the stage for Begin to become prime minister 10 years later. Without Eshkol’s action, Elkin doubted that there would have been peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

On a personal level, he wanted to thank Eshkol, saying that were it not for Eshkol he would not be standing as an Israeli government minister in Jerusalem. The victory of the Six Day War prompted the creation of a Jewish underground in the Soviet Union. Elkin had been part of that, and just as Eshkol had left Ukraine at age 19 in 1914 to come to Israel, Elkin had come from Ukraine at age 19 in 1990.

THE FACT that the premises are shared with the SPNI is symbolic, because when Eshkol came to the Land of Israel, his ambition was to be a farmer and not a politician, and for a long time he actually did work in the fields. The SPNI’s presence on the site helps encourage people living in urban areas to appreciate the gifts of nature, as Eshkol himself did.

Beit Levi Eshkol is only a five-minute walk from Yad Ben-Zvi, which commemorates the life and work of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president, who likewise was born in Ukraine and was one of the founders of the Gymnasia Rehavia, where he also taught. Ben-Zvi continued his studies in Turkey, and returned to the Land of Israel in 1914, the year that Eshkol came on aliya.

The ceremonial event was attended by three generations of the Eshkol family. According to Eshkol’s grandson, Yochay Shochat, the family will remain involved with the project.

Before and after the ceremony, guests were escorted through the building by Eshkol Foundation director Shavit Ben Arie and other staff members. Much of the building was reconstructed. The floors, for instance, look much too modern, but the living room is classic 1960s austerity. The bookshelves contain decades-old volumes, but not those that were part of Eshkol’s personal library.

The 12-seat dining-room table, which is an exact copy of the one that was in the Eshkol home and was used for emergency meetings, shares floor space with Eshkol’s personal desk and chair, which had been in his study.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of the prime minister, tours an interactive classroom (photo credit: JAY SHOFET/SPNI)

On the desk are two old-fashioned telephones with dials. One is a red phone, which was the hot line. The other is a regular black phone. In the kitchen, there is a period four-burner stove with three saucepans and a kettle on top. The stove is adjacent to a doorway that leads to an underground bunker.

The table in the breakfast nook is set with bone china cups and saucers and a facsimile of a half-century old copy of Maariv.

In 1964, Eshkol was the first Israeli prime minister to be invited to pay an official visit to Washington, thus laying the groundwork for relations between Israel and the US. Photos of Eshkol with world leaders – including Richard Nixon, Harold Wilson, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer and others, as well as Israeli political figures who were legends in their time – adorn the walls and to some extent show how quickly a nation exiled for 2,000 years adapted to sovereignty and statehood.

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