Once Decrepit, Jerusalem Residence of 3 Israeli Premiers Gets a New Lease on Life

After a delay of some 40 years, the Rehavia building that served as a residence for David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir opened its doors to the public this week.

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The interior of the refurbished Levi Eshkol House, in Jerusalem.
The interior of the refurbished Levi Eshkol House, in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

It was hard to believe that the house at the corner of Ben Maimon Boulevard and Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood had served as the residence of three of Israel’s prime ministers. A year ago, before renovations began in the building, the plaster was peeling, there were cracks in the walls, graffiti all over and the abandoned site was a haven for homeless people and junkies.

No signs of that disgraceful situation remain today. The extensive restoration of the historic building has atoned for the wrong that was wrought upon it since its last occupant, Prime Minister Golda Meir – who was preceded there by prime ministerial tenants David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol – left, in 1974, metaphorically slamming the door behind her after resigning in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, moved into another venerable Jerusalem building, on nearby Balfour Street, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his official residence today.

This week, the mansion again hosted a prime minister, albeit briefly, when Netanyahu took part in a ceremony dedicating Levi Eshkol House, almost 40 years late. Four decades ago, in 1977, the government entrusted the building to Yad Levi Eshkol, a nonprofit organization headed by Eshkol’s widow, Miriam, which aims to commemorate the legacy of Israel’s third prime minister. But budgetary, bureaucratic and administrative difficulties, related to both the NGO and other authorities, delayed the project and left the building deserted and neglected.

The director of Yad Levi Eshkol, Shavit Ben-Arie, attributes most of the blame to the state, for not transferring the funds to maintain the structure over the years.

“The building was in no condition to be entered when Miriam received it from the government,” Ben-Arie explains. “She believed firmly that the commemoration of prime ministers in general, and of Levi Eshkol in particular, was not a private project, but a national mission and a state obligation. Miriam maintained that it was up to the government to restore the historic building. She refused to beg a Rothschild or a Rockefeller to finance the building’s restoration. Her adamancy was admirable.”

In the end, Eshkol herself did not live to see the project’s culmination; she died on November 26, 47 years after her husband.

For his part, Ben-Arie kept the correspondence she had maintained over the years with a series of prime ministers in an attempt to find a solution to the building’s plight. Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and others promised to help, but only Netanyahu – who has emphasized the need to preserve national heritage sites – came through.

So it was that four years ago, following a decision by Netanyahu, the national heritage department of the Prime Minister’s Office assumed responsibility for the historical structure and came up with a way to finance its long-awaited face-lift: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel would move its Jerusalem offices to the second floor, and would in exchange help fund and maintain the project.

Not everyone has expressed confidence in the viability of this part-museum/part-office scheme, which has now been implemented, but Eshkol’s daughter Ofra Nevo is optimistic: “It is a compromise, but compromise was Eshkol’s second nature. And as he was also the minister of agriculture, issues involving land and water will fit in well there.” Moreover, the arrangement saves the government many of the resources and headaches involved in running such site.

The ground floor of the structure is now a new museum that chronicles the life of Eshkol, one of Israel’s more historically neglected premiers; he held the post from 1963 until his death, in 1969, as head of the Labor Party. Historian Tom Segev described his term of office as a “unique blend of 1960s openness and military forcefulness.” None of Eshkol personal possessions are on display, as none survived the ravages of time. Only two doors and two floor tiles remain of the original fixtures. All the rest of the items – including an old radio and a television, along with other nostalgia-inducing objects – are period pieces meant to approximate the interior of the building as it looked when Shimon Peres came to speak with David Ben-Gurion (who also resided in the house intermittently as prime minister) about the Sinai Campaign, when Moshe Dayan conversed with Eshkol about the Six-Day War, and when Israel Galili presented to Golda Meir the “conception” that led to the complacency that eventuated in the Yom Kippur War.

Homemade cookies

The first owner of the house was Julius Jacobs, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the British Mandatory administration. The two-story house, designed for him in 1933 by architect Benjamin Chaikin, had six rooms, a well-tended garden in which receptions were held, and another housing unit in the yard. Distinguished musicians played the grand piano that Jacobs’ wife, Nechama, placed opposite the window overlooking the street.

By a twist of fate, Chaikin was also the architect of the King David Hotel – where Jacobs was among the 90 people killed in 1946 in an attack perpetrated against the Mandatory offices there by the Irgun underground, led by Menachem Begin. Nechama Jacobs, who was abroad at the time, never returned to the house on Ben Maimon Boulevard, but rented it to the Jewish Agency.

In the 1950s, she sold the house to the government of Israel. The first occupants in the state-owned building were David and Paula Ben-Gurion. “A policeman was posted in front of the house, whom Paula would invite in to taste her dishes. Paula also told off parents of children in Rehavia for not dressing them properly,” Dr. Amnon Ramon writes in his Hebrew-language history of the Rehavia neighborhood. In 1953, when Ben-Gurion moved to Kibbutz Sde Boker, Eshkol, then finance minister, moved into the Jacobs House. Ben-Gurion later returned to live there, and in 1963 was succeeded by Eshkol, this time as prime minister.

Eshkol’s daughter, Ofra Nevo, remembers vividly the lovely years she spent in the house, as a girl and afterward as a soldier and a university student. She celebrated both her bat mitzvah and her wedding in the yard there. Her mother, Elisheva (née Kaplan) was Eshkol’s second wife. Miriam (née Zelikowitz), his third wife, met him when she was a tenant in the residential unit in the yard. Miriam looked after Elisheva when the latter fell ill, and until her death, in 1959. Eshkol married Miriam, more than 30 years his junior, in 1964.

The meeting room at the refurbished Levi Eshkol House in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
A cabinet meeting headed by David Ben-Gurion, 1949.Credit: David Eldan. GPO

“As a girl, I served tea to Finance Ministry officials at meetings chaired by my father, who worked until late at night. There was no one else to do the serving,” Nevo recalls.

Gidi Meir, grandson of the house’s last occupant, Golda Meir, visited the house on weekends. Among the figures he recalls seeing there were Pinhas Sapir, the powerful finance minister, “who went into the kitchen alone and took soda from the refrigerator,” and Yitzhak Rabin, when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, “who adored the sesame cookies made by the housekeeper.”

In fact, one of the attractions of the house is the kitchen, the venue of Meir’s “kitchen cabinet” – a term that’s now part of the political lexicon in Israel – a small forum of confidants who assisted the prime minister in making key policy decisions. According to her grandson, “Golda didn’t like people talking about her kitchen. She was proud of the fact that it was clean.”

Another interesting part of the building – though not open to the public – is the bomb shelter, which is accessed via a side door from the conference room. Leaders of the country spent time there during periods of security tension such as the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. At present, it’s being used to store the boxes holding Miriam Eshkol’s personal archive.

The Eshkol family’s archive was and remains a sensitive issue. In 1970, a few months after Eshkol’s death (he was the first Israeli prime minister to die in office), Yad Levi Eshkol was established to promote his legacy. The organization received Eshkol’s documents from the state. However, differences arose between his widow and the Israel State Archives about how to handle his papers, which for reasons that remain unclear were placed in premises of the Ministry of Welfare (as it was then known) in the government compound in Jerusalem, “in conditions unsuitable for the preservation of documents,” as the state comptroller later found.

Prof. Tuvia Frieling, a former chief archivist of the state archives, told Haaretz that he met Miriam Eshkol several times two discuss two problems: the apparently unlawful possession by the NGO of classified material, and the denial of access to researchers to documents that were supposed to be open to the public.

Frieling: “I told her that, like others in the government, her husband, too, had apparently taken some materials that he had obtained in his various state positions and which were being held illegally.” He remembers, after carrying out his own examination, that “it’s possible that documentation that was still classified by law, including minutes of cabinet meetings, of the [Knesset’s] Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, etc., were available for perusal as part of the [Eshkol] collection, which would be improper.”

Frieling added that he received complaints from researchers who wished to peruse the materials, who charged that Miriam Eshkol was restricting their access to them. The result, he noted, was “inconsistent with the principle of freedom of information and the necessity to allow free access to documentation on a universal basis.”

Eshkol, for her part, complained – and rightly so, Frieling admits – that her husband’s papers had been “stuffed or crammed into some room,” and that it was only after great effort that she was able to receive “funding for a full- or half-time person to deal with the material.”

According to a story that has been making the rounds among employers and users of the state archives for years, “security sources” broke into the Eshkol archive in the wake of the widow’s refusal to hand over the classified materials. For its part, Yad Levi Eshkol deems this an “urban legend” and insists that “the material was under the oversight, supervision and control of the authorities.”

The source of this story may have some relation to the fact that Dr. Avner Cohen – an expert on Israel’s nuclear policy – published classified documents he found in the Eshkol archive in the Welfare Ministry that were not supposed to be there, a source of embarrassment to government authorities. That was in the early 1990s.

“To examine the documents, I had to go to Miriam’s house and undergo an ‘admission test’ in the kitchen,” Cohen recalls now. When she allowed him into the “holy temple,” he adds, he was stunned at “the quality of the treasures it contained,” among them documents revealing “the nation’s nuclear secrets.” After a few days, he was abruptly asked to leave – but not before finding invaluable information, from 1963, concerning consultations held by the Eshkol government about the Dimona nuclear reactor.



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