The Postman Knocks Twice: Levi Eshkol: Pioneer, planner, pragmatist

Prime minister Levi Eshkol loved to share anecdotes.

Levi Eshkol 370 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Levi Eshkol 370
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Prime minister Levi Eshkol loved to share anecdotes.
“The kibbutz [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.
Perhaps that’s 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.
“Eshkol,” I 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 citizens.
“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 blankets....”
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 pro-capital party.
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 hope.”
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 presence.
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 rage inside.
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 to familiarize...”
“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.
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