The POSTman Knocks Twice: The 19-gun salute

I never had occasion to ask Eshkol how he felt when Hatikva sounded and the cannons saluted.

Levi Eshkol and Lyndon Johnson 370 (photo credit: Lyndon B. Johnson Library)
Levi Eshkol and Lyndon Johnson 370
(photo credit: Lyndon B. Johnson Library)
Three US Marine Corps helicopters descend on the South Lawn of the White House. The obelisk of the Washington Memorial and the domed roof of the Lincoln Memorial loom larger and larger. The toy soldiers below us become a serried panoply representing all branches of US military power and the honor guard are in dress uniform: beige-brown, white and light and dark blue.
The president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson strides toward the prime minister of Israel, Levi, son of Devorah Eshkol.
Handshakes. LBJ and the PM on the saluting stand.
The honor guard at stiff attention.
Present Arms! Officers salute, troops in the rifle-forward “present!” position. The Marine Corps band plays “Hatikva” on the White House Lawn.
A cannon roars. Under the first note of “Hatikva”, the first boom.
Under the last note of the Star- Spangled Banner, the last boom.
A 19-gun salute, protocol for a head of Government.
We are whisked in State Department limousines across the street, to Blair House, the official guest residence.
Full security, special ID, plush quarters, conference rooms, a large dining room with a laden table of finger sandwiches and baked goods, tea and coffee 24 hours a day and a liveried butler always in attendance.
The meetings begin. The State Dinner. The president and Lady Bird Johnson descend the wide imposing staircase as the Marines play, “Hail to the Chief”.
The prime minister and president in black tie and their ladies in evening dress.
Farmers now dressed as statesmen.
Cementing an originally reluctant closeness on the US side, the beginning of an alliance that was tested in fire in only three tears later in 1967 and again in 1973.
A twin to Air Force One is put at our disposal. Police escorts, wailing sirens through city traffic.
Official limousines to planeside.
Immediate clearance. The Boeing 727 flies us to Cape Canaveral.
The head of NASA is Wernher von Braun, who had designed the Nazi’s V-2 rockets – the Vengeance weapon.
Eshkol must shake hands with a smile, and not turn a hair.
On to Houston, then to nearby Fort Bliss.
An Israel Air Force battalion is learning to use the Hawk anti-aircraft missile, alongside of Nato soldiers and Americans. These soldiers are the first to learn to use the Hawk and will return as instructors.
“Hatikva”. A 19-gun salvo.
Prime minister and minister of defense Levi Eshkol and the US base commander, a major-general, take the salute. First a platoon of Americans, “Eyes Right!” Then the Israelis: “Layemin Shur!” Hebrew alternated with English as alternating platoons marched by. Hebrew commands for the first time on a US base.
This was the beginning of Israel’s modern anti-aircraft missile defense.
Back in Washington, the PM had presented our need for tanks and anti-tank weapons to balance the arms flow to Egypt and Syria from the Soviet Union.
Now, the visits to the cities were for public relations purposes, for exposure, for strengthening ties with US political figures and with the local Jewish communities.
PR was not the prime minister’s way. At Houston Airport, the mayor and an honor guard of Texas Rangers, white Stetson cowboy hats. six-shooters and all on fine mounts. The mayor leads Eshkol toward the guard of honor.
“Eshkol,” I say quietly into his ear, “pat the lead horse’s nose.”
“What?” “Pat the horse’s nose!” “Have you gone crazy?” (Through gritted teeth and a thickened voice.) Trying not to grab his arm, “Eshkol!... Pat! The! Horse’s! NOSE!!!” We leave the red carpet, walk a few paces. The captain on his white horse salutes. The PM pats the horse’s nose. Flash-bulbs flare.
Next morning, splashed across the Chronicle’s front page: the photo of the PM and the horse.
Los Angeles, Chicago. Parades, receptions, meetings. Mrs.Eshkol and the prime minister brave it all with evident delight and hidden fatigue. They are powered by a boundless sense of history.
It was 19 years since the horrors of the death camps became full public knowledge,16 years since Ben-Gurion proclaimed the birth of a new state. And now Air Force Two was the inter-city taxi of Israel’s head of government.
At the official dinner given by mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, a perplexed Irish-American politician held the little notice from the local Kashrut board. “I know that kosher means. But what is “parve?” Our program was so tight that from the dinner, still tuxedoclad, and Miriam Eshkol becomingly gowned, we were limousine- whisked to Chicago Airport planeside.
We slept in snatches en route to JFK, where NYPD took over, and police escorted us at high speed to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
New York of course was the grand finale.
Receptions, meetings, speeches, hand-shaking. Exhausting and exhilarating.
Two powerful impressions.
In the historic Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, all rose when Levi son of Yosef and Devorah was called to the Torah and all remained standing until the entire portion was read and he returned to his seat.
Second, a warm tete-a-tete with the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Eshkol had grown up in a half-hassidic (ultra- Orthodox, his father), half nonhassidic and increasingly modern home (his mother).
The main subject under discussion then was the overly-strict approach of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of the time to converting the post-Holocaust, non- Jewish wives of Romanian immigrants.
The rabbi, asked what they do in the US, told Eshkol the Yiddish equivalent of, “We find a way.”
I never had occasion to ask Eshkol how he felt when Hatikva sounded and the cannons saluted.
We all must have felt some version of this: 19 centuries ago the greatest empire of its time destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
Each intervening century had its pain and persecution. Each had its triumphs of the soul and the spirit. Each gun that sounded was saluting one century of survival, each gun 100 years of pain and persistence.
Israel had been destroyed by the greatest power of its time.
Nineteen centuries later, Israel’s rebirth and resurgence is celebrated by the greatest power of our time.
Avraham Avi-hai was a member of the small entourage escorting prime minister Levi Eshkol on his historic visit to the US in 1964.