Abba Eban is remembered as a brilliant orator and diplomat, defending Israel by relating to audiences around the world.
Born Aubrey Solomon, he changed his name to “Abba,” the Hebrew word for father, after getting involved in the Zionist movement in the 1930’s.
Eban was born in 1915 in Cape Town, South Africa, but his family moved to the United Kingdom when he was just seven months old. He studied Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian at the University of Cambridge, and later taught there as well. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, he was fluent in 10 languages, and was known for his eloquence and presence in debates about the Middle East at Cambridge.
But Eban’s way with words was not remarked just by fellow students. In the ensuing decades, when Eban entered the international realm as a diplomat, his speeches became world renowned, even drawing comparisons to those made by Winston Churchill. As Henry Kissinger penned in “White House Years:”
“I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker’s virtuosity.”
After studying at Cambridge, World War II broke out and Eban served in the British Army, deployed to Egypt and Mandate Palestine, which the British had been ruling since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In the aftermath of the war, the Jewish Agency appointed him as political information officer to the British government, where he negotiated Zionist independence from British rule and the establishment of a Jewish State.
It was the start of an impressive diplomatic career. Since then, Eban was in the center of action for all of the wars Israeli fought and nearly every event that affected Israeli history.
“Again and again during the years when Israel’s survival seemed in doubt, the world’s attention focused on the United Nations, where Mr. Eban, as representative of the world’s only Hebrew-speaking democracy, would send his supremely cultured voice using the King’s English into forensic combat,” wrote the New York Times. “His orations, fierce in their defense of his country, were also marked by rich appeals to history, soaring visions of a peaceful Middle East and withering scorn for Israel’s enemies.”
In 1947, Eban served as the liaison officer with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, and as a member of the General Assembly delegation that played a critical role in the 1947 UN resolution to partition Palestine into an Arab and Jewish state.
After Israel became a state in 1948 and was admitted to the UN, Eban became the Israeli representative to the international body, serving in the position until 1959. In the same period, he also served as the ambassador to the United States. In this regard, he became a central figure defending Israel’s right to exist and garnering support from American Jews.
Listening to Eban speak to American audiences during this period exemplifies how differently Israel was viewed at the time; Israel was yet a strong power in the region, and was largely seen as fighting for its survival, always on the defensive, with a sputtering economy. Today, Israel is considered one of the strongest military powers in the world, with a bustling economy, much larger land holdings, and, some would say, second-strike nuclear capabilities.
In the aftermath of World War II and the world’s realization of the immensity of the Holocaust, came the questions of whether Jews would be more loyal to the newfound state—a Jewish homeland—than to their respective countries.
For example, in a 1958 interview with legendary “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace, Eban is asked several questions that would be taboo to pose today, and answers in his characteristically eloquent way.
Wallace asks, “In your estimation, would a Jew be any the less a Jew if he were opposed to Zionism and to Israel?”
Eban answers, “Well, we are dealing here with subjective terms, ‘more of a Jew’ or ‘less of a Jew.’ I think it is for Jews outside of Israel to determine the exact degree and measure of their intimacy with us. We believe that Israel’s emergence is the greatest collective event in the history of the Jewish people, and that there is no pride and no dignity for a Jew such as those to be found in giving aid and sustenance to Israel in the great hour of her resurgence.”
Wallace responds, “I still, if I may say so, sir, do not feel that you have been responsive to that question. Can a Jew be a good Jew and still be opposed to Zionism and to Israel?”
“I think that’s for him to decide… I wouldn’t say.”
“But, of course, it is. But in your estimation?” Wallace prods.
Eban answers, “In my own personal interpretation, I would say that a man who opposed the State of Israel and the great movement which brought it about, would be in revolt against the most constructive and creative events in the life of the Jewish people, and it’s a fact that the great majority of our kinsmen everywhere are exalted and uplifted by these events.”
Wallace counters, “But Judaism is a religion, sir.”
Eban responds, “It is a religion, and it is a peoplehood, and it is a civilization, and it is a faith, and it is a memory; it is a world of thought and of spirit and of action and it cannot be restrictively defined.”
As +972 notes, Eban could be considered Israel’s “first Mr. Hasbara,” a public diplomat for Israel. In fact, many of the points he makes during the interview are repeated by Israeli officials today. For example, Eban refuses to acknowledge that Israel should take responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem that occurred in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and resulted in the creation of Israel.
Eban’s response to the failure of the 1973 Geneva Peace Conference, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” is still quoted as well.
Eban, in his time, was more dovish than many in the current Israeli government. After the 1967 war, during which Israel gained territory in the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights, Eban wasn’t against returning land in exchange for peace with the Palestinians.
He was also one of Israel’s staunchest defenders during that war, claiming, in his role as Israel’s foreign minister, that Israel had been attacked first by Egyptian forces, thereby justifying Israel’s retaliation. He also played an important role in shaping UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, one of the most important documents in subsequent Israeli-Arab peace negotiations.
That resolution stipulates the necessity of “(i) Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict; (ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Ever the staunch defender of Israel on the diplomatic front, Eban wrote a scathing New York Times article on the infamous UN “Zionism = Racism” Resolution in 1975. Eban wrote the following, which appeared November 3, 1975:
“There is no difference whatever between Anti-Semitism and the denial of Israel’s statehood. Classical Anti-Semitism denies the equal right of Jews as citizens within society. Anti-Zionism denies the equal rights of the Jewish people its lawful sovereignty within the community of nations. The common principle in the two cases is discrimination.”
In the ensuing years, Eban continued to work in the diplomatic and Israeli political world, and was originally slated to become Foreign Minister under Shimon Peres in 1977 and 1981, had the Labor Party won those elections. Though he was offered the position as minister without portfolio in the 1984 national unity government, he instead chose to serve as Chair of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 1984 to 1988. He retired from politics in 1988.
This retirement epitomized what the New York Times called “the paradox of Mr. Eban’s career.”
“His eloquence made him more popular with Jews abroad than with Israelis. He rose almost to the top of the Labor Party… But he never became prime minister. What was commanding in the halls of diplomacy did not resonate the same way at home. His compatriots’ style was rough and egalitarian. They were outgoing, not aloof like Mr. Eban…”
Eban was also a devoted academic, and managed to publish multiple works drawing from his education and experiences in Israeli diplomacy. His books include “Voice of Israel” (1957), “My People” (1969), “My Country” (1972), and “Personal Witness” (1992), as well as “An Autobiography.” But his landmarks were his involvement in the creation of three major historical television documentary series about Jews and Israel, in which his remarkable voice rings throughout the narration, for both Israeli Television and PBS.
Eban died in 2002, at the age of 87. He is buried north of Tel Aviv in Kfar Shmaryahu, and is survived by his wife and two children.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.