On the Not So Golden Days, When Israeli Leaders Declared Every Shekel

Benjamin Netanyahu may face charges for receiving gifts like luxury cigars, but his predecessors like Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol were embarrassingly honest, letters in the archives show

Former Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol with his wife Miriam on a flight in the U.S., rumor has it that her archive was also raided
David Eldan, GPO

The letter sent from the Prime Minister’s Office to Bank Leumi 52 years ago makes you smile, even if at the time it was written with deep seriousness. Dated August 10, 1965, it was penned by a clerk in Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s office to the bank’s branch in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood.

“A while ago you transferred the sum of $50 from a man named Eric Taub from Trinidad,” the clerk wrote. “We waited for you to clarify who this was and for what purpose he sent the money. Four days ago you called and informed Mrs. Eshkol that the man was complaining that he never received a thank you letter or any confirmation that the money was received.”

Then he got to the point: “Because Mrs. Eshkol doesn’t know this man and still doesn’t know for what purpose he sent the money, she asks that the money be returned to the sender with thanks, and to inform him that we do not accept money without knowing what it is meant for.”

Miriam and Levi Eshkol and a 1965 letter rejecting a donation of $50.
Moshe Frieden / GPO / Levi Eshkol

This week, 52 years later, the Yad Levi Eshkol organization that commemorates Eshkol posted the letter on its Facebook page. Shavit Ben-Arie, the director of the group, explained that the letter was found during a reorganization of the NGO’s archives, which a few months ago moved into new quarters in Jerusalem’s Levi Eshkol House, the villa that housed prime ministers from David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir.

Miriam Eshkol is no longer here to ask about the mysterious payment. She died last year at 89, almost half a century after her husband, Israel’s third prime minister.

Another document recently discovered by Yad Levi Eshkol was also sent by the prime minister’s people, this time to the chief caretaker. “Re: Hebrew typewriter,” starts the letter from 1968. Apparently after 12 years of use, the typewriter used by the ombudsman’s office, which dealt with letters written to the prime minister, was now obsolete.

“The typewriter is an old-fashioned one and its print is not nice and not clear,” the prime minister’s aides wrote, explaining its “exceptional” request. “I must note that letters sent from our office are sent as responses to letters to the prime minister and must represent this honorable office in a proper fashion.”

These archival items are part of a series of documents demonstrating the modesty and manners of past Israeli leaders. In 2015 another letter began circulating on Facebook; Yigal Allon, who was education minister from 1969 to 1974, had asked the Finance Ministry to reduce the budget for furnishing his apartment.

Golda Meir and a 1958 letter seeking to declare a record player with the customs office.
Moshe Frieden / GPO / Israel State Archives

“I was informed today that the proposed budget for furnishing and equipping the official residence in the Old City meant for me exceeds a sum that seems reasonable to me,” he wrote to the Finance Ministry in 1969. “I am therefore requesting that a smaller budget be worked out with the apartment’s architect that will make maximum use of the furniture and equipment of my apartment in West Jerusalem to the extent they are suited to the planned apartment’s architectural character.”

A decade earlier, in 1958, Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s secretary wrote to the customs chief in Jerusalem: “On August 24, 1958, the foreign minister, Mrs. Golda Meir, returned [to Israel] and brought with her an unboxed record player worth 14 pounds sterling that was purchased in London. The record player went through with all the rest of Mrs. Meir’s personal effects and was not checked by a customs officer. We would very much appreciate it if you would tell me what the customs levy is that Mrs. Meir must pay.”

Yigal Allon and a 1969 letter requesting a smaller budget for his apartment's furniture.
Fritz Cohen / GPO / Kibbutz Movement Archives

Another example was published in 2013 by the State Archives. The former leader in question was President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who in 1962 resisted a proposal to increase his salary. The archival documents show that the raise was being proposed because the president’s salary had not been increased since he took office in 1952, creating an absurd situation: The president’s salary was 40 percent lower than that of his driver.

In July 1962 the Knesset Finance Committee met for a special hearing (one that seems inconceivable today) to debate how to raise the president’s salary against his will.

“We cannot take into account the president’s demand for a lower salary, just as we cannot consider when someone requests a salary that’s too high,” MK Yohanan Bader told the committee. “Mr. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi is very modest and serves as an example to everyone. I don’t have to repeat such praise for the president because we all know him. I’m talking about the president in general, and he, in my opinion, is the last person who can give an opinion regarding his own salary.”

“I think that the president’s salary is a truly ridiculous phenomenon,” added MK Yitzhak Golan. “The president’s modest lifestyle is a nice thing, but it doesn’t have to reach an unreasonable, exaggerated level.”

President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and a 1962 letter resisting an increase in his salary.
Fritz Cohen / GPO / Israel State Archives

“We can make a decision without asking the president; there’s nothing wrong with that,” said the chairman of the committee, Israel Guri.

In the end the committee decided to ignore the president’s wishes and tripled his salary. As expected, the raise wasn’t welcomed by Ben-Zvi.

In December 1962 Ben Zvi wrote to Guri: “Since I assumed this job I view with concern the dizzying increase in our country’s standard of living as a serious danger to the economic independence we so desire. My opinion is that as long as we must uphold two important missions – bringing our brethren [to Israel] and absorbing them, and increasing our security independence given the dangers facing us from the outside, we must not be dragged into raising the standard of living.”