Who Was Abba Eban?

The “voice of Israel,” as David Ben-Gurion dubbed him, was revered abroad, mocked and sidelined at home. A new biography helps explain why.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, left, confer at the White House on October 22, 1968. AP Photo/Henry Griffin.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, left, confer at the White House on October 22, 1968. AP Photo/Henry Griffin.

Observation
Feb. 17 2016
About the author

Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.


For much of the second half of the 20th century, Abba Eban was one of the world’s most famous Jews. As the first representative of the fledgling state of Israel to the United Nations in 1948, and then as its ambassador to the UN and Washington, Eban shot to prominence through his eloquent defenses of the Jewish state in some of its most perilous early hours. For two decades after 1960, serving as Israel’s on-again, off-again foreign minister, he remained in the eyes of the world the indispensable “voice of Israel,” as David Ben-Gurion had dubbed him. His books on Jewish and Israeli history and a hefty autobiography were best-sellers, and Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, a 1984 public-television series in which he served as both writer and presenter, drew more than 50 million viewers.

Counting on posthumous recognition is a hazardous business. Still, it has been surprising how fast Eban has fallen out of memory since his death in 2002. This is too bad. Despite his fair share of personal flaws, most notably a pride that often slipped into vanity, Eban was one of the most interesting and impressive statesmen of the last century, and both his successes and perhaps especially his disappointments tell us much about the state of Israel.

That is reason enough to welcome the appearance of Asaf Siniver’s Abba Eban: A Biography. (An early, mainly hagiographical treatment by the journalist Robert St. John appeared in 1972.) An Israeli historian teaching in Britain, Siniver has produced an informative and well-researched if also somewhat boring account mainly of Eban’s political career. Although not so engaging as Eban’s own Autobiography, where the emphasis falls on thoughts and ideas as well as on politics, Siniver’s book does permit reflection on the central puzzle of Eban’s career.

That puzzle is this: admired and recognized for his talents abroad, Eban failed dismally at home. Immediately after the Six-Day War of June 1967, his Labor-party colleagues began gradually stripping him of all political responsibility, finally running him out of the party in 1987 in a most uncharitable way. Even as he spent the last quarter-century of his life being touted as a kind of global public intellectual, he was never able to exercise much influence in Israel, winning the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, only just before he died. Sinviver reports that upon hearing of his death, Israel Meir Lau, Israel’s chief rabbi, remarked: “We never appreciated him as much as we should have.” It is worth considering why.

 

Aubrey Abba Solomon was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1915 to financially comfortable parents of Lithuanian origin. Soon after his birth, the family moved to London in search of better medical care for his father, who would die of cancer just short of the child’s first birthday. Some years later, his mother married Isaac Eban, a physician, who gave his name to young Abba and his elder sister.

The young Eban was an intellectual prodigy. At grammar school in South London, he excelled in the rigorous, classics-based curriculum then still in vogue in Britain. Weekends were spent at the home of his maternal grandfather, Elihu Sacks, who put him through what Eban would later describe as a “brutally intensive immersion” in Hebrew language and literature, Bible, and Talmud. Unlike some of his Zionist predecessors and contemporaries, Eban never seems to have undergone an intellectual conversion to Zionism, having instead imbibed its truths from, as it were, birth.

After his grandfather’s death, Eban spent most weekends at the Brixton Synagogue, whose rabbi, Arnold Mischon, encouraged his budding Zionism as well as his interest in the classics and Jewish learning. As a teenager, his linguistic skills were astonishing: by the time of his matriculation at Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1935, he had already mastered Hebrew, Latin, German, French, and Greek; to these he would add Arabic and Persian, attaining an extremely rare “triple first” degree in classics and oriental languages.

Siniver produces little or no evidence of young Eban’s attraction to any particular writers or ideas at this formative stage, and there may not have been any; in general, his learning seems to have been more virtuosic than profound. Capable of declaiming Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ Greek, he showed no signs of wrestling with Thucydides’ political teaching. But by any standard his learning was certainly immense, and all the more impressive given his simultaneous involvement in Zionist activism and political debate in the Cambridge Union Society.

The young Eban’s political principles, like his Zionist principles, were what they would always remain: genteel, left-of-center in domestic affairs combined with a rejection of both fascism and Communism and, in contrast to the modish pacifism of the British university world, an alertness to the need to defend the West with the force of arms as well as with words. In 1938, he gave a stirring speech in the Cambridge Union warning of the dangers posed by Hitler and denouncing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

After completing his degree, Eban stayed at Cambridge as a fellow but quickly grew restless in the face of global events and (as he would later record) contemptuous of fellow academics who in the fall of 1939 offered little more than a shrug as Hitler’s tanks rolled through Poland. For his part, Eban volunteered for British army service right away, and, despite official reservations about his “foreign” background, was given a commission in the Intelligence Corps. He spent the war years between Cairo and Jerusalem, including a brief stint as a covert liaison with leaders of the Yishuv, the Zionist settlement in pre-state Palestine, who were then preparing against a possible German attack.

 

Having served faithfully in World War II, Eban had every prospect of returning to a conventional Oxbridge life of scholarship with perhaps some dabbling in British politics. Yet he seems hardly to have hesitated before choosing instead to devote himself to Zionism. Already during the war, Eban had been thinking about the exigent needs of the Jewish state-to-be. Unlike other Labor Zionists of his time, he was not an implacable enemy of Jewish religious tradition—but he did believe that Jewish life and law in the Diaspora had not adequately prepared Jews for the requirements of full political sovereignty. What was needed, he wrote in a fascinating memo (reproduced by Siniver), was “a certain type of man: a type unknown to Jewish life, because the Jewish people has hitherto not been involved in direct and normal national intercourse.” While he would go on to praise and work loyally for other Zionist diplomats—particularly Moshe Shertok and Chaim Weizmann—he no doubt saw himself as that “certain type of man,” and as one uniquely suited to bringing the art of modern diplomacy to the new Jews.

Although that larger task would remain uncompleted, any review of his career must acknowledge the sheer magnitude of his own achievements. At the UN, Eban played a significant role in shepherding the partition plan for Palestine through to final passage in November 1947—and in preventing the UN from reneging on it a few months later in the face of Arab violence. During Israel’s war of independence in 1948-49, the skirmishes of the early 1950s, and the Sinai campaign of 1955-56 and its aftermath, Eban’s stirring oratory rallied Americans and others to see a bedrock truth: that the principal cause of the fighting between Israel and the Arabs lay in the latter’s immovable rejection of the former’s very existence.

Throughout his long posting in the United States, Eban built strong relationships with both Democrats and Republicans, and also helped convince his own government to abandon its strategic ambiguity between the U.S. and Soviet Union in favor of closer ties with Washington. Altogether, building and then solidifying U.S.-Israel friendship and eventual alliance were among his most lasting successes.

Eban’s speeches almost always combined strategic with moral appeals. In the early 1950s, as the UN debated turning Jerusalem into an international city, he denounced the proposed measure in these terms:

The spiritual ideas conceived in Jerusalem are the moral basis on which modern democracy rests. Would it not be incongruous if the United Nations were to advance the course of democratic liberty everywhere, and yet prevent self-government from taking root in the very city where the democratic ideal was born?

The speech was vintage Eban, not least in its use of moral argument to persuade allies or waverers to act in accordance with the principles they claimed to hold dear. An Eban speech was never just about Israel but about the deep human meaning of Israel’s return to the world stage. If at times his rhetoric spilled over from the moral to the moralistic, more often than not he was able to hit the right note.

One of his finest hours and perhaps his most famous speech came in the middle of the Six-Day War, when, as foreign minister, he flew to New York and, in the great hall of the United Nations General Assembly, put the blame for the war squarely on Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s blockade of the Suez Canal—and on UN complicity in that move:

Blockades have traditionally been regarded, in the pre-Charter parlance, as acts of war. To blockade, after all, is to attempt strangulation; and sovereign states are entitled not to have their trade strangled. To understand how the state of Israel felt, one has merely to look around this table and imagine, for example, a foreign power forcibly closing New York or Montreal, or Boston or Marseille, or Toulon or Copenhagen. . . . How would your governments react? What would you do? How long would you wait?

His interventions then and in the immediate aftermath helped both to consolidate Israel’s victory and to avoid an imposed and immediate withdrawal to the prewar lines. Siniver quotes President Lyndon Johnson’s remark that Eban’s mid-war speech was worth “several divisions” to Israel.

 

Eban sought not just immediate successes, however important or vital. He hoped to shape Israeli political culture for years to come. In that pursuit, he failed.

True, in the 1950s and 60s he did manage to Westernize and professionalize the bureaucratic procedures of the foreign ministry, including through such simple measures as requiring that policies be actually written down. (Israeli government departments, then as now, were more inclined to get by on verbal “understandings.”) Yet his improvements seem not to have long outlived his tenure, and meanwhile his achievements abroad had little resonance within Israel. As the years went by, his influence continued to diminish. Though still foreign minister during the Yom Kippur war of 1973, he was effectively sidelined by the government’s inner circle. From time to time he was still mentioned, along with Yitzḥak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as a potential candidate to take the reins of the Labor party in the post-Ben-Gurion era, but unlike them he could never muster enough internal support to compete.

In a certain way, this outcome was preordained. The first generation of Israeli political leaders almost all hailed from Eastern Europe, and their raucous political style, bred in innumerable clubs and party meetings, was worlds apart from what transpired in dinner jackets at the Cambridge Union—even though self-styled socialists filled both venues. “Anglo-Saxon” ways were at once unknown, misunderstood, and derided. To admirers of Eban’s multilingual eloquence, Golda Meir rejoined that he lacked the one foreign language that counted in Israel, namely, Russian.

As Siniver reports, Eban was hardly unaware of the problem. Coming home to Israel in 1960 after his tenure in Washington, he did his best to go native, occasionally donning a short-sleeve shirt rather than his usual tailored suit and adjusting his superb Hebrew to conform better with contemporary Israeli usage (though he drew the line at giving up golf). Having spent formative years outside the state, his instincts for Israeli party politics were poor. To top it off, he couldn’t resist witty putdowns of his colleagues, quipping that Golda Meir preferred to use 500 words even though she knew 1,000, or that Moshe Dayan was the only Jew who had managed to break all ten commandments.

In this domain, to be fair, Eban got much worse than he gave—and often without the saving touch of humor. If he was haughty and vain, his Labor-party colleagues were vindictive and crass, seeking to marginalize him even as he remained one of the country’s most valuable political assets. Siniver details his long feud with Rabin, whose intense hatred of Eban verged on the pathological. Elected prime minister for the first time in 1974, Rabin excluded Eban from the cabinet purely out of spite and at the cost of weakening the government. Eban had supported Shimon Peres over Rabin for the office, and the race had been very close. Many other senior Labor figures had done the same and yet remained in positions of power. But the urbane and loquacious Eban represented everything that Rabin, the stolid and taciturn general, detested.

That personal quarrels can get in the way of the public good is a truth of politics everywhere. But it has long been a particularly grievous affliction in Israeli politics. Part of the reason, no doubt, is Israel’s system of proportional representation, which prevents politicians from creating their own regional or other constituencies. Control of the party structure thus becomes everything, giving every incentive to destroy potential rivals rather than compromise and forge working relations.

 

One could imagine Abba Eban serving with great distinction in the office of Israel’s president. But there’s no cause to regret that he never became prime minister. Indeed, especially in the 80s and 90s, his political judgments proved no sounder than anyone else’s of his general political persuasion. A major supporter of Oslo, if one who tended to envisage not the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state but a self-governing Palestinian entity confederated with Jordan, he never questioned the agreement’s viability. At the end of his life, he refused to see any grounds for Likud skepticism about the peace process, viewed the return of religion into the Israeli public sphere with nothing but derision, and dismissed Benjamin Netanyahu’s first election to the premiership in 1996 as the recrudescence of a “totally antiquated political doctrine,” never mind that Netanyahu came bearing plans to modernize and transform the Israeli economy. In all of this, Eban was simply following the old Labor political orthodoxies which, if they were ever applicable, turned out to be highly unsuited to post-cold-war realities.

And yet, Rabbi Lau was assuredly right that Israel never appreciated Eban as much as it should have. His diplomatic achievements at the UN and in New York alone should have earned him a place in the pantheon of Israeli statesmen. Perhaps just as significant were his thoughts on Israeli society, of which he was an often perceptive critic. While praising Israeli vitality, bravery, and intellectual ingenuity, he took his countrymen to task for their poor taste, manifest in everything from the ugliness of Israeli cities to the national susceptibility to shallow fads in art, literature, and ideas. To him, Israel was supposed to be not only a refuge ensuring Jewish survival but a center of high Jewish culture and civilization. He also believed that bad aesthetic judgment could be politically damaging, producing either a thoughtless utopianism or an unimaginative realism.

Unfortunately, Eban did not consider the extent to which the drab, Marxist-inspired aesthetics of many early Zionists contributed to the poor taste he would come to criticize in the Israel of the second half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, he tried to do his part in addressing and rectifying the situation. In particular, he urged Israelis to learn more about the history of the Jews and Judaism as well as about the achievements and legacy of their founding generation. In his final years he churned out documentaries, books, and other speeches on this theme, bidding Israelis to look back on the greatest figures and moments of their history and thereby renew their own continuing sense of purpose.

Abba Eban did not succeed in this task any more than he succeeded in creating the culture of diplomacy he sought. Israelis mostly remained indifferent. But anyone concerned with helping Israeli society orient and energize itself and its governing institutions by the light of past Jewish and Zionist achievements would find in him a perhaps unexpected source of wisdom, now too often overlooked.

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More about: Abba Eban, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli history