January 3, 2016
Ebba Eban–Israel’s Finest Diplomat and Voice
NY Times Sunday Book Review
‘Abba Eban: A Biography,’ by Asaf Siniver
In December 1955, following Syrian harassment of Israeli fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, Israel carried out a large attack on Syrian military positions, killing 50 soldiers and capturing 30. Abba Eban, Israel’s eloquent and admired representative to the United Nations, thought the response was over the top and wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion condemning the raid.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, Eban defended the operation, assailing Syria’s implacable hostility. Ben-Gurion wrote back to Eban saying he himself had had doubts about the retaliation but “when I read the full text of your brilliant defense of our action in the Security Council, all my doubts were set to rest. You have convinced me that we were right after all.”
It was a moment that captured the cruel irony of Eban’s political career, filled with glory at the podium and derision behind the scenes. Known as the Voice of Israel, he was one of the most stirring orators of the second half of the 20th century and an accomplished author of popular history. President Lyndon Johnson said a speech of Eban’s was worth several divisions to Israel and told him, “I think you are the most eloquent speaker in the world today.”
But in Israel, he was mostly dismissed as a pompous, softheaded outsider overly worried about world opinion. (When Golda Meir heard that Eban was considering running for prime minister, she asked, “In which country?”) After 10 years representing Israel at the United Nations and in Washington, he spent three decades as a member of Parliament and eight as foreign minister. But his political influence was minimal and his legislative accomplishments nearly nil (not a single bill carried his name).
Having done less to shape Israel than to defend and chronicle it, Eban is a challenging choice for a biographer. Asaf Siniver, a Professor of International Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, has produced a clear and levelheaded volume, a vast improvement over the only other Eban biography, a gushing bit of hagiography by the journalist Robert St. John in 1972. Eban himself wrote two somewhat self-congratulatory memoirs along with his numerous works about Israel and the Jews. But “Abba Eban: A Biography” is the first attempt to examine this unusual man’s life and work and use them as a lens for the history of Israel. The life and work come across reasonably clearly, the lens part less so.
Siniver says that the six years he spent reading Eban’s every word and interviewing associates and relatives gave him affection for his subject. Perhaps, but he judges his man pretty harshly. Eban was, Siniver says, “the Voice of Israel, but not its mind,” and describes his story as “ultimately one of failure.” That failure, Siniver asserts, lies as much with Eban’s compatriots as with him, evidence of a virulent form of anti-intellectualism at the heart of Zionism that helps explain Israel’s continuing preference for militarism over diplomacy. While that argument might have been an intriguing one for the author to follow, Siniver does not develop it. He merely states it.
This is a shame, since one suspects that whatever general interest remains in Eban today comes from a similar sentiment. At one time, Zionism was represented by a liberal intellectual like Eban, a peace-loving Arabic scholar whose every English word sounded like Keats. Israel’s current United Nations ambassador, Danny Danon, is by contrast a scrappy right-wing advocate of Jewish settlements. Could Eban’s life and work be used to examine how that shift occurred? Perhaps. But Siniver has not really tried. Instead, his book is a straightforward account of Eban’s personal story interwoven with Israel’s diplomatic and political history. Both stories are pretty extraordinary.
Born in 1915 in South Africa and raised in England, Eban, who was originally named Aubrey, had a rough childhood. His father died when he was an infant. His mother remarried and sent Aubrey to an English boarding school at age 4. He felt orphaned, which may help explain his reserved, formal manner. He buried himself in studies, especially of languages, and excelled. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he earned a rare triple first in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian, three of the 10 languages in which he reputedly became fluent. This was a man who amused himself by translating newspaper articles into classical Greek. He was a Cambridge don at 23 and would have gone on to a distinguished academic career had not the Zionist movement come calling.
He began at the Jewish Agency in London, and although he was deeply devoted to Jewish national rebirth in Palestine, he was troubled by two shortcomings of the movement. The first was a “tendency to claim a total rectitude for its views and to be based on the assumption that nobody else has any case at all.” The second was disdain for Arab culture. Eban said that his deep study of Arabic literature “made it impossible for me thereafter to adopt the routine Zionist stereotype that regarded the Arab nation with intellectual condescension.”
His skill as a wordsmith became evident quickly and he was put to work. His speech at the United Nations advocating Israel’s membership lasted more than two hours, to great admiration. He gained fame for some aphorisms. (“Men and nations sometimes behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” “His ignorance is encyclopedic.”) But his brilliance as a speaker was not about the killer quote. It involved pace, image and word choice, a mix of grit and poignancy, as when he said of Israel’s struggle for international recognition that it “held the joy of birth and the fear of death in a single taste.”
In the end, Siniver’s account raises fewer questions about the gap between Eban and his country than about the gap between his beliefs and his words when it mattered most. In that sense, it is a more tragic story and more damning account than many may expect. Siniver offers numerous examples of Eban defending Israeli actions with which he disagreed or urging that steps (like annexing the Golan) be simply more discreet, not abandoned. In 1967, Eban was sent to Washington to ask it to lead an effort to reopen shipping lanes that were under Egyptian control. But in a meeting with the American secretary of state he knowingly read a false intelligence report alleging that six Egyptian divisions were gathered in Sinai in preparation for an Arab attack. He was angry at his government and himself, but he did it. Only after Eban was ejected from Israeli politics in the 1980s did he find a real voice of dissent, publicly advocating for the Palestinian case and assailing some of Israel’s restrictive laws.
In his last interview, two years before his death in 2002, he told an Israeli journalist that he had been mistaken to hold his tongue. “I was wrong when I did not fight for my positions,” he said. “I didn’t have the courage.”
Ethan Bronner, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012.
A version of this review appears in print on January 3, 2016, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Defender of Israel. Today’s Paper.