Prime minister Levi Eshkol loved to share anecdotes.
[Degania Bet] had a car for its treasurer, (that was me) and no money.... I’d
deposit a check in Tel Aviv, buy what we needed, and then race to Haifa to cover
the Tel Aviv check with another check without cover.”
He laughed at the
memory. Well in those days nothing was electronic, and so the kibbutzim “hiked”
checks. Eshkol had mastered the intricacies of banking.
why the following took place.
In the mid-1950s the first visit to Israel
by a group of US bank heads was slated. Thenfinance minister Eshkol kept putting
off reviewing the talk we had prepared for them.
remonstrated, “This is important. They are bankers!” He smiled, “Yes,
yes. Remember they are only bankers.”
Again in the mid-1950s, I sit
facing the minister as he reviews some of the personal mail from ordinary
“Dear Minister Eshkol,” he reads aloud, “I work in the Post
Office, and earn 170 lirot a month. From this I must pay my mortgage, gas,
electricity and water bills, feed my family and buy schoolbooks. Tell me,
respected minister, how can I make ends meet?” Eshkol sat, his forehead
furrowed. His eyes kindled with sympathy.
“Really, how can he make ends
meet?” The lines in his face showed deeper.
Later that evening. “‘They’
say we are spending too much money on the new immigrants.
What should we
do? The immigrants come with nothing. What do we give them? A few cots, a table
and chairs, a petillia [a kerosene one-burner cooking stove], a few
You may ask whom he meant by “they.” I am not sure, it
could be the overseas members of the Jewish Agency, or perhaps the opposition
A few modern questions. Can those who have never known
hunger and poverty understand the poor? Can those living in towns and villages
in Judea and Samaria really be called pioneers, with adequate budgets available?
Who was the last prime minister who read ordinary peoples’ mail? On his deathbed
in 1969, one of the last things he did was to remind his military aide,
Maj.-Gen. Yisrael Lior, not to forget a deserving person who had written to the
prime minister, and whom he had promised to help.
BACK TO the beginning,
1914: An 18-year-old son of a prosperous family from Ukraine lands at Jaffa
Port. Lacing his shoes around his neck, he sets out barefoot to join his fellow
pioneers (halutzim) in Petah Tikva, which in Hosea’s prophesy is “the gateway to
Like most of the halutzim – the pioneers who laid the foundations
for the state, he was imbued with the ideals of practical Zionism, of labor as a
value, of social and economic equality, developing a Hebrew-speaking New Jew
living in a New Society. These were the untried days of socialism, before its
degradation by fanatics or incompetents elsewhere in the world. The vision of
the communal kvutza and kibbutz, and of creating a healthy Hebrew working class,
united in it national and socioeconomic idealism.
It was that idealism
that built the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish self-government, its defense force,
the Hagana, and its finest fighters, the Palmah, as well as the Histadrut labor
federation, then a useful, constructive body, the health services (Kupat Holim),
and traced the boundaries of the state-to-be.
Eshkol (Shlonik then)
became a leading member of the Judea Workers’ Union, which provided support and
organized strength for the penniless halutzim who sought work in competition
with cheaper Arab labor. In those days of ideological debate, he went counter to
his party’s pacifism, to cross Turkish lines and join the British Army Palestine
battalion. By this time, he was already a leading figure in the small but
determined band of Labor Zionists.
One subject he never raised in my
He had been handed a vital and grim task a few years after
Hitler took over Germany in 1933. The Zionist Organization of Germany and the
Palestine Jewish community founded Ha’avarah (“Transfer”) by which Jewish bank
accounts – blocked by the Nazis – could be used to buy equipment needed in
Palestine, and the equivalent amount would be paid to the German Jews who
participated in Palestine.
Eshkol was a founder of Mekorot, the national
water company, and when in Germany bought equipment needed for water-drilling
and pipelines. This infrastructure was a forerunner of the National Water
Carrier. Its completion when he was already prime minister ensures that every
part of the country has what is taken for granted when a faucet is turned on. He
also bought arms for the Hagana and helped find ways of getting them through the
British-controlled ports of Haifa and Tel Aviv.
The archives probably
contain reports about his meetings at Gestapo headquarters with Reinhardt
Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, when it was still possible to rescue Jews and their
property. One can see Eshkol using all his personal charm and considerable
bargaining powers to save people and property, while seething with controlled
In the 1940s, when the hegemony of David Ben-Gurion was
threatened by a dissident faction of the Labor Party, Eshkol was selected to
head the Tel Aviv Workers’ Council, a powerful political post at that time.
Pragmatism, and the sechel (“common-sense”) quotient: When he entered his new
office, the desk was piled with file upon file. “Up to here,” he showed me,
raising his arm shoulder high.
He called the office manager: “Take all of
this down to the archive.”
“But, these are very important files. You need
“Just clear them out! If it’s important, it will get
to me anyway!” He started with a clean desk, unfettered by bureaucracy, armed
with the constancy of vision and a humane heart.Avraham Avi-hai, author
of the novel
A Tale of Two Avrahams. He served as Levi Eshkol’s English
speechwriter from 1955 to 1965, and in senior positions in the offices of prime
minister David Ben-Gurion, under Teddy Kollek, and as secretary for public
affairs to prime minister Levi Eshkol.