Review of Asaf Sinaver’s Abba Eban: A Biography
(London 2016) 464pp. Duckworth Overlook. £25
Abba Eban (1915–2002), who served as Israel’s Foreign Minister between 1966 and 1974, was regarded by many in the international community as Talleyrand’s heir. In Israel, by contrast, he was derided for his Jewish liberalism and quintessentially English intellectual approach to diplomacy. The Labour Prime Minister Levi Eshkol called him der klug na’ar – “the wise fool”. His opponents in Menachem Begin’s Herut ridiculed him as “a proletarian in a Cadillac”. He was undoubtedly a most foreign Foreign Minister, loved in the Jewish diaspora, a figure of disdain in Israel itself. His cousin, the late Oliver Sacks, described him as painfully shy with three people, but at ease with an audience of thousands.
While Eban’s career as the ambassador to both the UN and US has been well documented – as has his soaring rhetoric during the period of the Six Day War– Asaf Sinaver’s biography incisively details his humiliation and marginalization by better operators in the bear pit of Israeli party politics between 1974 and 1988.
Golda Meir did not like intellectuals such as Abba Eban – individuals who were not straight-talking, who refused on principle to answer her back. She was not impressed by Eban’s effortless witty perorations – he could be sarcastic in ten languages. He famously commented that Golda chose to use only 200 words, although her vocabulary stretched to 500.
Sinaver records that Eban grew up in Stoke Newington as an emotionally deprived child with ever-absent parents (his father died before his first birthday and his mother remarried when he was six). He was sent to a Jewish boarding school in Herne Bay at the age of four, and then to St Olave’s and St Saviour’s in Southwark. At Cambridge, he won all the glittering prizes and translated The Times into classical Greek for amusement. A don at twenty-three, he was recruited by British intelligence during the Second World War. Lieutenant Eban was sent to Cairo to become part of the Arab censorship department and
subsequently to act as an adviser on Jewish affairs to the Minister of State in the Middle East.
By 1945, Eban could have returned to academia or run as the Labour candidate for the hopeless constituency of Aldershot.
Instead he accepted an offer from Moshe Shertok (Sharett), later Israel’s first Foreign Minister, to work for the Zionist cause. A few days after Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, he was appointed as the ambassador to the UN, writing to the Home Office to give up his British citizenship. While his speeches in support of his new homeland were deeply admired by politicians and public alike in the US, he actually did not return to settle in
Israel until July 1959, aged forty-four.
The besuited Eban did not fit the imagery of the open-necked socialist Zionist pioneer, reclaiming the promised land by the sweat of his brow. Israelis deemed him to be incomprehensible in a plethora of languages, but significantly unable to master either Yiddish or Russian – the two languages that mattered in 1950s Israel. As he commented: “people here still think of an academic as nothing more than a fine decoration or a luxury toy”.
Sinaver correctly points out that this mindset was formulated by early Zionist endeavour in transforming the ghetto scholar into “the New Jew” – the intellectual who left Eastern Europe to become a proletarian in Palestine. Despite such anti-intellectualism surrounding him, Eban decided to enter political life. He finally succeeded Golda Meir as Foreign Minister
and saw his finest hour during the Six Day War in 1967.
Yet Eban was never the clubbable, backslapping politician, and he never established a solid base in Israeli Labour circles. Moreover, after 1967, Israel had unexpectedly expanded almost fourfold, andmanyIsraelis did not wish to return conquered territory. Eban’s liberalism did not match the times. In February 1968, he commented that the stark solution was “peace without part of the territories or all of the territories without peace”. While Sinaver dismisses the characterization of Eban as “an over-zealous peacenik”, nevertheless, compared to Meir, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, he was a dangerous, other-worldly radical.
Eban’s demeanour also put him at odds with Yitzhak Rabin, the war hero and ambassador to Washington, whom Eban described as “the repelling pole of a magnet”. Their relationship became so bad that Eban unsuccessfully moved to dismiss him in November 1971. When his nemesis became Prime Minister in 1974, Rabin refused to appoint Eban even to the nominal post of Deputy Prime Minister.
His attempts at a comeback were eclipsed by the election of Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977 and the petty indifference of lesser politicians to Eban’s considerable talents in the world arena. Pushed off the Labour list of candidates for the 1988 election, Eban subsequently spent most of his year in New York where he followed his academic pursuits and was in demand as a lecturer and writer.
Asaf Sinaver has drawn a well-rounded portrait of this unusual figure, warts and all. However, his description of the fearsomely complex Palestinian Nakba is telescoped and the Zionist “plan D” left unexplained. His quoted source, the Israeli historian Benny Morris, actually states that the plan was not a blueprint for expulsion. Even so, this comprehensive
account of the life and times of Abba Eban certainly encapsulates the tortuous odyssey of the state of Israel.
Times Literary Supplement 3 June 2016