Welcome to 70 Faces of Israel. To celebrate 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we’re looking at 70 people whose remarkable stories have changed our country and the world.
Name: Levi Eshkol (born Levi Yitzhak Shkolnik)
Date of Birth: 25th October 1895, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire (now Ukraine)
Date of Death: 26th February 1969, Jerusalem, Israel
Claim to Fame: Third Prime Minister of Israel
In 1963… Levi Eshkol became Israel’s third Prime Minister
Born to a deeply religious family in the Oratov shtetl, Eshkol began his Jewish education at age four. His wealthy family owned a stream of agricultural businesses, and paid for private general education. Eshkol moved to Vilna aged 15 to attend the Jewish gymnasium in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania).
In Vilna, Eshkol joined the Youth of Zion student association and embarked on a lifelong commitment to Zionism. He joined Hapoel Hatzair in 1913 and in 1914, left Europe for British Mandate Palestine.
Eshkol settled in Petach Tikva and joined a team of agricultural workers laying irrigation tunnels in local fields and orchards. Not one to shy away from public responsibility, he soon joined the local workers’ union. He moved between different cities until the outbreak of World War One, when he volunteered for the Jewish Legion.
Eshkol was a founding member of both the Histadrut (Israel’s workers’ union) and the IDF’s precursory group, the Haganah. He served as a delegate to the Zionist Congress, the Zionist Executive, and the new Jewish Agency. He lobbied for the founding of a national water supplier; this led to the formation of Mekorot Water Company which Eshkol directed for 13 years.
Levi served in the Haganah high command for eight years prior to the State’s independence. He served as Secretary General for both the Tel Aviv Workers’ Council and Mapai, the socialist party David Ben-Gurion founded. Eshkol oversaw the Negev Committee and the Yishuv’s Defence Committee. He headed national recruitment ready for the formation of the IDF after the Declaration of Independence. Following Israel’s formation, Eshkol was Director-General of the Ministry of Defence.
Eshkol served in the Knesset as Minister of Agriculture for Mapai until 1952. After this, he held the position of Finance Minister for 12 years. During his term, he oversaw several huge changes to the nascent state’s economic infrastructure: he established committees within the new Ministry of Finance, legislated the establishment of the Bank of Israel, signed the reparations agreement with West Germany, and also initiated membership talks with the EEC.
When Ben-Gurion resigned from Mapai and the Prime Minister’s office in 1963, he designated Eshkol as his successor. Eshkol was subsequently elected as party leader and appointed as the third Prime Minister of Israel. Led by Eshkol, Mapai merged with Achdut HaAvoda to form Alignment, and later formed the Israel Labor Party.
Eshkol focused on improving Israeli infrastructure and the state’s economy, as well as building foreign relations with other world leaders. He led the country to victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Eshkol’s health declined after the Six-Day War. He died in office of a heart attack and rests on Har Herzl in the Great Leaders of the Nation plot. This accolade is certainly warranted: few did as much for Israel’s agricultural, financial, or international health as Eshkol. Eshkol was survived by his third wife and four daughters.
Several sites are named in honour of Eshkol, including a power station, national park, a university agricultural campus, and a water filtration plant. A regional council and Jerusalem neighbourhood bear his name, as do several roads and schools across the country. A non-profit foundation in his name, Yad Levi Eshkol, manages his estate and runs education programs in his memory.
Previously: 1962: Hillel Slovak
Up next: 1964: Ze’ev Jabotinsky