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'One of the lone women of virtue'

Trailblazing former MK, diplomat Tamar Eshel dies on her 102nd birthday

Born in London but raised in Mandatory Palestine, Eshel served in Haganah, was first Israeli to serve as chair of a UN commission, later sat in Knesset and Jerusalem city council

  • Tamar Eshel (center), serving in the Haganah in 1938 (Family photo, via Wikipedia)
    Tamar Eshel (center), serving in the Haganah in 1938 (Family photo, via Wikipedia)
  • Tamar Eshel chairing a UN committee on women's rights, Geneva, 1961 (Family photo, via Wikipedia)
    Tamar Eshel chairing a UN committee on women's rights, Geneva, 1961 (Family photo, via Wikipedia)
  • Tamar Eshel in 1977. (Wikipedia/ Creative Commons)
    Tamar Eshel in 1977. (Wikipedia/ Creative Commons)
  • Allignment MKs Tamar Eshel (left) and Adiel Amorai in the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 18, 1983. (GPO)
    Allignment MKs Tamar Eshel (left) and Adiel Amorai in the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 18, 1983. (GPO)
  • Tamar Eshel, pictured when serving on the board of the Bezalel arts academy in 1991 (Family photo, via Wikipedia)
    Tamar Eshel, pictured when serving on the board of the Bezalel arts academy in 1991 (Family photo, via Wikipedia)
  • Tamar Eshel, at her home in Jerusalem, August 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
    Tamar Eshel, at her home in Jerusalem, August 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Tamar Eshel, a former Israeli diplomat and lawmaker who was Israel’s oldest ex-MK, died Sunday in Jerusalem on her 102nd birthday.

Eshel, a career diplomat, made history as the first Israeli to head the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She later served as a member of the Knesset for seven years and as a member of the Jerusalem City Council.

Born Tamar Shoham in London in 1920, she grew up in Haifa after her parents, who were serving as emissaries, returned to Mandatory Palestine when she was young. In her youth, Eshel was a member and later youth leader in the Tzofim (the Israeli scouts), and joined the ranks of the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state military.

During the 1936-1939 Arab riots, Eshel worked as a signals operator in the militia, and also prepared grenades and dismantled handguns.

In 1938, she returned to the United Kingdom to attend the University of London,  where she studied plant entomology. There, she operated an illegal radio station for the Haganah.

After the outbreak of World War II, Eshel volunteered for the British army, first serving as a driver in Scotland in 1943, and later as part of the military intelligence in Cairo in August 1944. She was removed from her position there after her connections to the Zionist movement were discovered.

Tamar Eshel in 1977. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

She was released from the British army in 1946 and became involved in activities to bring Jewish immigrants to Mandatory Palestine, heading an office in Marseilles that provided Holocaust survivors with fake documents to enter the land of Israel.

Shortly after the Jewish state was established, Eshel joined Israel’s Foreign Ministry, kicking off a successful diplomatic career that led her to work as part of the Israeli delegation at the United Nations.

In 1961, Eshel was elected chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, becoming the first Israeli to head such a body. She continued her work for the advancement of women’s rights when she returned to Israel in the 1970s as chair of the Na’amat women’s organization.

In 1977, she was elected to the Knesset with the Alignment faction, led at the time by Shimon Peres. She served until 1984 — while simultaneously serving on the Jerusalem city council, where she was responsible for education in the capital city.

Allignment MKs Tamar Eshel (left) and Adiel Amorai in the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 18, 1983. (GPO/File)

After retiring from political life, Eshel committed her time to volunteer positions, serving on the public committee of Hadassah Medical Center, as well as establishing the Beit Tzipora women’s shelter.

In 1990, she became a “distinguished citizen” of Jerusalem.

Eshel married twice, first to Lionel Schwarz in 1948, an economist, with whom she had a daughter, Yael in 1949. They divorced in 1954.

In 1960, she married Foreign Ministry colleague Arye Eshel. He served as Israel’s ambassador to Canada, until 1968, when he died of a heart attack, at the age of 56.

Former Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin took to Twitter on Sunday to mourn Eshel, calling her “one of the lone women of virtue on whose shoulders we stand in the fight for a society with gender equality.”

“Sometimes, I don’t believe I was able to meet such a significant person. May her memory be a blessing.”

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