You Decide: Was Levi Eshkol an Israeli Hero?
Updated: Mar 18
Although in his lifetime many people criticized his decisions, Levi Eshkol contributed enormously to the establishment of Israel. In honor of the anniversary of his passing, on February 26, 1969, here are some things that may help you understand the impact of Israel’s third Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol.
Levi Eshkol, the second of 10 children, was born in Ukraine on October 25th, 1895. His original family name is Shkolnik.
His childhood was spent in forests and orchards where his family worked in agriculture, trading lumber, cattle, fish, and operated flour mills.
He grew up in a traditional religious home, his mother came from a Hasidic background and his father from the Lithuanian tradition (mitnagdim). The local public schools refused to accept him (because he was Jewish), so he applied to the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vilna, where he joined the Young Zionist Organization.
He emigrated to Israel at age 18 and refused to accept any financial support from his family, “only if I come empty-handed will these hands be ready to work.” One of his first jobs after emigrating to Israel was picking grape clusters (Eshkol, in Hebrew) which was the inspiration for his name change.
He arrived in Israel at the outbreak of World War I and, after a short stint in the British army, established Degania Bet, the first kibbutz located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
He was Prime Minister during the famous 1967, Six-Day War. In the days prior to the war, with the help of individuals, including Golda Meir, he formed Israel's first national unity government, including opposition leader Menahem Begin.
After World War II, Eshkol worked at the Jewish Agency as the treasurer and created 400 settlements in three years. Using his Master's in finance and administrative skills, he maneuvered an extremely tough period and sustained Israel’s economy, despite the absorption of 700,000 immigrants (most of them poor) during that time.
In 1937, he created the National Water Carrier to channel fresh water from the Sea of Galilee to the south in order to irrigate the Negev desert. He called the initiative Mekorot (sources), with the vision to install pipelines all over the country, “like the veins of a human body”.
In June of 1964, Eshkol was the first prime minister of Israel to visit the White House. He immediately established a warm rapport with U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson and over the next few years significantly increased the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
The ultra-orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol is named after Levi Eshkol.