In late August 1948, general director of the Minister of Defense Levi Eshkol, code name Layish, sent the following message to his fellow operatives: “We are prepared to send two ships of ours to meet the Ishmaelite. The ships will go out in order to receive the cargo and will be careful not to enter the sea battle.”
The ‘Ishmaelite’ was, in actuality, the Italian freighter Argero, which was loaded with rifles, ammunition and spare parts headed to Alexandria intended to aid the Arabs in the war against Israel. Disguised in an Italian fishing trawler, the Israeli naval operatives of Operation Pirate captured the freighter in open seas and tricked her Italian crew into continuing to sail.
“The crew and captain still know nothing,” the Pirates, fellow Israeli fighters David and Oved, wrote to Layish one day after the takeover from the helm of Argero. “We appear to be Egyptians and have informed the captain of the change of direction, in place of Alexandria, Beirut.”
Ultimately, the Argero, under the direction of Eshkol and the on-board pirates, was deliberately sunk at sea and the cargo and Italian crew transferred to the INS Haifa. The rifles intended for Egypt landed in Haifa and were quickly delivered into the hands of Israeli soldiers.
The covert act of bravery was a turning point in the 1948 War of Independence. Yet even then, Eshkol, directing operations from a remote location, showed signs of the cautious leadership that would become a controversial hallmark of days as Prime Minister. “Slow down. Report every four hours your position,” he messaged the Pirates aboard the Argero. “[We] will inform you of your plans.”
A careful and calculated figure throughout his life, Levi Eshkol rose to become Israel’s third prime minister and led the country during turbulent Six-Day War. Yet historians have largely neglected the story of Levi Eshkol, who quietly served as an architect for the Israeli nation, in favor of the brash heroism and charismatic personalities that marked the birth of the Jewish state.
Take the Boy to Palestine
Born Levi Shkolnik in Oratov, near Kiev in the modern day Ukraine, Eshkol was the product of an unlikely marriage between a Hasidic bride and a Mitnagdim groom. Despite the mixed marriage, young Levi, grew up in a fairly happy and traditional home surrounded by the Yiddish he loved his entire life.
After graduating from a local cheder, young Shkolnik wanted to attend a preparatory school in Odessa, but was instead sent to a Hebrew high school in Vilna. There, he met Zionist Yosef Sprinzak. The brazen pioneer was recruiting young men to immigrate to Israel and famously demanded, “Take the boy [a reference to the biblical account of Benjamin], kidnap him from his parents’ home, so we can build the national home.”
Levi Shkolnik soon became involved in Sprinzak’s youth group, Hapoel Hatzair, and was convinced of the feasibility of the Zionist dream. At age 19, against his family’s wishes, Shkolnik left his childhood home of Oratov on foot, carrying only a small knapsack and boarded a tramp steamer headed for the port of Jaffa.
Building the Zionist Dream
The young, idealistic Shkolnik, who would later change his name to Eshkol, likely had little idea what faced him once he reached the Jaffa port. By 1914, Ottoman rulers were tightening restrictions on Jewish immigration and Arab hostilities towards the new immigrants made the country a dangerous place for a young, Yeshiva boy with little experience outside the shtetl.
Still, Eshkol was committed to making a new life in Palestine. Immediately after entering the country, he began work as an agricultural laborer, and his talents in organization quickly earned him more responsibility.
He was soon contracted to run one of the farms of Rothschild’s established vineyards in Rishon Le-Zion, tending grapes that would be used to make wine that, by 1914, had already won an established market both in Palestine and abroad.
When World War I broke out, Eshkol, recently divorced from his first wife, joined other young Jewish men from Palestine in the British Army and served, with a mediocre record, at various posts as part of the Royal Fusilers. When the war was over, along with his fellow comrades, he returned to his Zionist dream and helped establish Kibbutz Degania Bet, one of the first kibbutzim in Israel.
Pressed into Service
Shortly after his return from the front, Eshkol attended a meeting of the Labor Zionists in Haifa. There, he met David Ben-Gurion, a charismatic young leader whose fiery speeches would overshadow Eshkol’s more reserved demeanor. Serving as an Executive Committee member of the newly formed Histradut, the General Federation of Jewish Labor in Palestine, alongside Ben-Gurion, Eshkol was appointed to positions abroad and used his organizing talents to set the foundation for creation of the Mapai, or Worker’s Party, in 1929.
With Nazism growing in Germany, Eshkol was sent to Berlin for three years to help bring Jewish immigrants, and their finances, to a growing Palestine. In 1939, nine years before Israel would declare Independence, Eshkol returned to Palestine to help found Mekorot, a national water utility system that Eshkol declared would feed the nation, “like the veins of a human body.”
With the Mapai party gaining prominence, Eshkol served in a number of politically appointed positions in the following years, first as Mapai party secretary, and then during the 1948 War of Independence as the general director of the Minister of Defense, a position he used not only to conduct covert arms missions, like the successful Operation Pirate, but also to unify the Israeli fighting forces into the modern IDF.
The Warm-Hearted Jew, Eshkol
While his life lacked the dramatic flavor that marked those of Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and other party leaders, in the years after the War of Independence, Eshkol continued to quietly and effectively use his positions to help build the new nation of Israel. Under his leadership as Minister of Finance, the Bank of Israel was established, educational and social welfare programs were created, Israel’s infrastructure rapidly developed, and the Israeli economy rapidly grew.
He was also well-liked by his contemporaries. Ezer Weisman described him as “a loveable man… a grand conversationalist.” Aryeh Eliav, a long-time aide, once remarked, “I learned to love the wise, warm-hearted humorous man of the fields, the wonderful Jew, Eshkol.”
The Third Prime Minister
On June 21 1963, the abrupt resignation of David Ben-Gurion thrust the unassuming government administrator, not known for either his skills in oration or colorful nature, into the role of Prime Minister. In his first year in office, Eshkol continued the work he had done as Minister of Finance and other posts. A senior aid from the period, Yossi Sarid, said of the time, “The Eshkol years were devoted to the reclamation and endowment of both land and water.”
He also sought to build a stronger relationship with the United States, visiting President Johnson in June 1964 at the White House, a first for a prime minister of the Jewish state. During the visit, Eshkol pushed Johnson on the United States’ support of Israel. “We are told that there is a United States commitment to Israel… but what if one day Nasser were to attack Israel?” he asked President Johnson, a question that would take on urgency in the months to come.
The Six-Day War
With the outbreak of war likely and political opposition to Eshkol’s cautious leadership growing, in the days leading to the Six-Day War, Eshkol turned to Johnson for help. Needing to get an urgent message to his ally in Washington, he was overheard shouting to his assistant in his beloved Yiddish, “Ikh darf redden mit der gelernter nar [I must speak with the learned fool]!”
Johnson, already entangled in Vietnam, advised Eshkol to avoid war at all costs. Meeting with his ministers the next day, Eshkol took Johnson’s advice and ordered the government to follow a “business as usual” approach and not strike out at the Arab threat unless the Arabs attack first. “If the Arabs bomb us—and it doesn’t matter what they bomb—we must respond rapidly.”
Frustrated by his inaction and seeming indecisiveness, Eshkol’s ministers sought his ouster. Forced to resign as Minister of Defense, he remained in the role of Prime Minister and continued to lend his calculated leadership to the nation during and after the war.
While criticized at the time, writer Elchonon Oberstein believes Eshkol’s willingness to make the unpopular decision to wait showed a quiet and well calculated fortitude that was vital for the war’s success. “By Eshkol’s making every effort to avoid war, and waiting until the last moment, Israel secured the support of the United States and the world for the attacks it ultimately carried out.”
How Do We Get Out of This Mess?
In the days following the war, still Prime Minister Eshkol flashed a “V” sign with his fingers while on a trip abroad. When asked what it meant, Eshkol replied, “V means vi kricht min arois,[ how do we get out of this mess]?”
He was referring to the territory Israel had seized during the war, land he cautioned would cause issues for Israel in the years to come. Working tirelessly on this and other problems that emerged during his time in office, the aging Prime Minister continued to serve the nation until his death while in office on February 25, 1969 at the age of 73.
“Were Israel to forget that child, it would not be Israel”
After Eshkol’s death, Elie Wiesel recounted the moment the Israeli leader heard the Israeli national anthem played for an Israeli sovereign leader for the first time at the White House. Showing a rare flash of emotion, Eshkol was later asked by a friend what he was thinking during the historic moment.
“Strange, I was back in my little shtetl near Kiev, I was a little boy leaving cheder and running, running, from a mob of hooligans,” Eshkol told his friend.
“Only a Jew like Eshkol, with roots in both Kiev and Jerusalem, between the shtetl of yesterday and the independent state of today, only such a man could think of Jewish children running in fear at the very moment he was being honored at the White House,” Wiesel said of the powerful moment.
He added that Eshkol’s willingness to embrace the frightened child is what made his leadership great. “There is a link between the frightened Jewish child and the proud leader of Israel’s sovereign nation. Were Israel to forget that child, it would not be Israel.”