October 25, 1895
Levi Eshkol, is born as Levi Shkolnik near Kiev, Ukraine in 1895 into a Hasidic family. When he was denied admission into a local high school because of restrictions on Jewish students, he went to Vilna and attended the Hebrew Gymnasium, becoming involved in Zionist youth groups.
In 1914, he made aliyah at age 19. According to his daughter, he declined his parents offer of financial help answering, “Only if I come empty handed, will these hands be ready to work.”
Levi lived and worked in a variety of agricultural settlements, working as a pipe layer and farm worker, picking olives and grapes. As a result of his work, he changed his last name to Eshkol, meaning ‘cluster of grapes.’
During World War I, he served in the Jewish Legion and soon after was involved in developing and settling agricultural settlements throughout the land of Israel. He became a leader in the Labor Movement and the Mapai party where he was involved in land purchases with JNF and oversaw the creation of the National Water Company.
After the founding of the state, Eshkol served as director general of the Ministry of Defense, helping to unify the many defense organizations into the unified Israel Defense Force. He also served as the head of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Division and as Minister of Agriculture and Development in the 1950’s. Tasked with absorbing thousands of new immigrants during this time, Eshkol focused on establishing new settlements in border areas as a buffer against Arab infiltrations and as a way to ensure that the armistice lines became de facto borders.
In 1963 he became Israel’s third Prime Minister and Defense Minister after nine years as Minister of Finance. One of his first priorities upon assuming these two positions was to modernize the IDF by obtaining new weapons, especially aircraft, tanks and naval vessels. He developed a strong relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and arranged for advanced weapons purchases from America.
Using his organization skills, he enhanced Israel’s intelligence-gathering and reformed the army’s command structure, retaining and promoting some of Israel’s best generals, including Yitzhak Rabin, whom Eshkol appointed as chief of staff in January 1964.
These strategies would be crucial in Israel’s victories in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, allowing Israel to gain superiority in the air as well as being able to fight in a multi-front war. Eshkol served as Prime Minister until 1969 when he died in office.