Levi Eshkol, Jeremy Corbyn and memory lane

As Eshkol’s house-turned-museum demonstrates: in good times and hard times, there’s no place like home.

Knesset exhibit: Levi Eshkol and wife, 1965 (photo credit: KNESSET)
Knesset exhibit: Levi Eshkol and wife, 1965
(photo credit: KNESSET)
It started with a quote. It was a question on a recent Israeli television trivia program, the sort where you find yourself yelling the answer as if it could help. “Who said: ‘I compromise and compromise and compromise... until I get my way’?” asked the presenter. I knew the answer: Levi Eshkol.
Poor Eshkol. He was Israel’s third prime minister (David Ben-Gurion held the position twice) and has been described by historian and former ambassador Michael Oren as a “forgotten hero.”
The program reminded me that my son and I wanted to visit Levi Eshkol House before the end of the school summer vacation. The prime minister’s former residence in Jerusalem is now a small museum and, like Eshkol’s life and work, not well known.
After his death in 1969, Eshkol’s third wife, Miriam – more than three decades his junior – devoted herself to perpetuating his name and legacy. Sadly she died just a month before the inauguration of Levi Eshkol House at the end of 2016.
Visitors see a short movie on Eshkol and then walk around the ground floor of the restored building using Tablets to bring exhibits to life. The contrast between the austere furnishings and the augmented technology kept even younger children on the tour riveted. (Tours in English can be ordered in advance.)
My favorite item was his desk diary showing the dates around the Six Day War which with the help of the computer opened to show a parade of photos around the appointments.
The museum could provide material for multiple quiz shows. Here’s some Eshkol trivia:
He was born Levi Shkolnik in 1895, near Kiev, the second of 10 children in a prosperous family. Influenced by the Hapoel Hatzair socialist pioneer movement, he emigrated to then-Ottoman controlled Palestine at the age of 19, just ahead of the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served with the British Army against the Turks.
He worked hard as a laborer, laying pipes, planting trees and picking fruit, including clusters of grapes – Eshkol in Hebrew.
Wherever he spotted a need, he set about rectifying the situation, playing a role as one of the founders of Kibbutz Deganya Bet and the Histadrut labor organization, the director of the Settlement Division of the Jewish Agency (behind the tower-and-stockade enterprise to establish new communities), agriculture, defense and finance ministers, and chaired the Mapai political party. Readers can guess the answer to the question: Who established Mekorot (the national water carrier)?
Jerusalem Post columnist Avraham Avi-Hai, who worked closely with several prime ministers, summed him up thus: “David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s state-builder. Levi Eshkol was the land-builder and people-builder. No single Israeli had more to do with every aspect of creating a viable country, people and economy than this seemingly bluff Ukrainian-born pioneer.”
Eshkol was the prime minister who managed to get the country through the Six Day War in June 1967, avoiding the predicted mass civilian casualties, reuniting Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc and bringing the Golan Heights and Gaza under Israeli control. Few associate his name with this stunning success. More galling, credit is usually attributed to his political rival Moshe Dayan, whom Eshkol reluctantly appointed defense minister under public pressure a few days before the war, and IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, who later became a famous prime minister.
IN THE mid-1980s, I lived across the road from where Levi Eshkol House is located, so the visit to Ben-Maimon Boulevard was literally a stroll down memory lane. Typically, it was then known to local residents as Beit Golda (Golda’s House), after Eshkol’s successor. Inside you can see the kitchen Golda made famous, as well as a re-creation of the book-lined living room from Eshkol’s time.
There is no blue plaque on the wall of the building where I shared an apartment with Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El and another flatmate. Unlike Eshkol, we have no reason to expect one.
In our days, Golda’s House was abandoned and so derelict that my cats used to cross the street to hunt mice in the overrun garden. The garden has also been transformed. Since the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel shares the premises and helps run the museum, the grounds are now a gem and the focus on environmentally friendly gardening would probably appeal to the former farmer who once lived there.
All the children on the tour were amused by the old dial telephones, two on Eshkol’s desk and one in the hallway. I recalled that we had paid extra rent because our old apartment had a phone line at a time when they could not be taken for granted in Israel.
When I lived in the neighborhood, the country’s premiers were ensconced in the Prime Minister’s Residence on nearby Balfour Street, but Yitzhak Shamir was often seen taking an invigorating walk down the tree-lined avenue followed by younger security guards.
The question that hung in the air during the visit was why some prime ministers are remembered and others overlooked despite their huge contribution.
The excellent museum guide, Shahar Oren, suggested that it was mainly because Eshkol resolutely retained his image as a Yiddish-speaking “Diaspora Jew” at a time when the Sabras (like Dayan and Rabin) were considered the ideal. Asa-El and I concur. Eshkol also lacked the charisma and good looks of his younger rivals. And rivals he had: Here’s another Eshkol quote: “Put three Zionists in a room and they will form four political parties.”
The museum’s movie avoids the one (unflattering) incident most Israelis relate to Eshkol: His speech just ahead of the Six Day War, which radio listeners heard as hesitant and stuttering. (Apparently he struggled to read handwritten last-minute corrections.) Eshkol’s image as wavering and indecisive was also due to an extraordinary dilemma: Although the IDF was well prepared for the war – thanks to Eshkol’s work as defense minister – the US warned that it would not back Israel were it to strike first. Eshkol realized he could not risk losing that support, and until he had secured it, he did not dare preempt despite the tremendous pressure. Once he was certain, he allowed the stunning operation that wiped out Egypt’s air force while it was still on the ground and helped save Israel from threatened annihilation.
The walls of Levi Eshkol House are full of photos of him with world leaders. As Michael Oren wrote in Azure in 2003: “Eshkol’s crowning achievement in foreign policy was his June 1964 visit to the White House – the first by a prime minister of the Jewish state. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, himself a plain-talking ex-farmer, immediately warmed to Eshkol.”
The special relationship between Israel and the US continues to this day.
THERE IS a certain irony in my raising a matter of historical interest now. According to British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, I am incapable of understanding either irony or history. It seems that every day another Corbyn statement and deed comes to light demonstrating why the Opposition leader is such an unfitting candidate for the top job in the British government, or any senior position.
After publication of his comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and the photos of him laying a wreath at the graves of terrorists involved in the Munich Olympic massacre, this week video footage emerged of a speech he gave in 2013 in which he told a London conference that “Zionists… clearly have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, [despite] having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.”
In other not-so-subtle words, even after generations in the country, British Jews do not understand it or fit in according to Corbyn’s twisted thinking. Incidentally, after a flood of Jews who left France due to rising antisemitism, Israelis talk about the wave of British Jews likely to arrive were Corbyn to be elected prime minister.
Had I not left Britain in 1979, I would be considering it now. As Eshkol’s house-turned-museum demonstrates: in good times and hard times, there’s no place like home.
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