Thursday, October 25, 2018

Levi Eshkol

No leader wants to send troops to their deaths in battle. But facing the destruction of one’s nation is a trial no leader should ever face. Israel’s second Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, stared that option in the face.

Eshkol was born Levi Yitzchak Skolnick in the village of Oratov, outside of Kiev, on October 25, 1895. He received a traditional cheder education followed by attendance at the Jewish gymnasium in Vilna. It was there that he became active in the nascent Zionist movement, leading to his making aliyah in 1914, where he helped build irrigation tunnels to bring water to the newly-created orchards.

He soon became active in the labor union, was a founder of the Histadrut, the National Federation of Jewish Laborers, helped found Kibbutz Degania Bet, which remained his life-long home, and joined the Haganah. He excelled in all areas.

At the time of Israel’s establishment, in May 1948, Eshkol was appointed Director-General of the Ministry of Defense, and, beginning in 1949, while serving as the head of the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency, made great contributions in absorbing immigrants and dispatching them to new agricultural farms. Later, he also served as Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Finance. Upon Ben Gurion’s resignation as Prime Minister, Eshkol was elected party chair and became Israel’s second Prime Minister, leading Israel’s 12th Knesset in 1963. One of his first acts was to fulfil the wishes of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a more conservative Zionist leader, to re-inter him and his wife in Israeli soil.

Importantly, Eshkol developed a close personal relationship with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. When Israel’s surrounding Arab neighbors, led by Egypt’s President Nasser, ratcheted up the verbal and military pressure to war, Eshkol hesitated, despite the military leaders pushing to pre-empt the enemies. Eshkol stuttered through a national radio address on May 28, 1967, which empowered Israeli’s enemies and caused great concern in Israel. Eshkol eventually gave the green-light to the plan to dispatch Israel’s air force to bomb enemy aircraft while still on their runways, which enabled Israeli forces to repel enemy forces and gain territory in a six day battle, known widely as the Six Day War.

After the war, Eshkol’s health declined. A heart attack on February 26, 1969 proved fatal. Eshkol received a State funeral and was buried on Mount Herzl and was succeeded by Golda Meir.


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