Abba Eban: Israel’s voice to the world was an outsider at home

“Abba Eban: A Biography” by Asaf Siniver; 449 pages, Overlook Duckworth, $40.

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Abba Eban was an Israeli diplomat and politician who, for many years, was his country’s voice to the international community. By 1984, known as Israel’s elder statesman, Eban had held significant positions in the Israeli government: representative to the United Nations, ambassador to the United States, education and culture minister, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. He also represented the Labor Party in the Knesset for 25 years.  

Despite all of the honors afforded Eban, he never achieved his ultimate goal, serving as Israel’s prime minister, a post he had long coveted. His detractors always considered the South African-born Eban an outsider, a pretentious elitist who was more concerned about world opinion than Israel’s internal affairs. 

Worse still, he was an intellectual who had not served an apprenticeship either in a political party or in the army. As a result, he exerted little influence while in the Knesset, and no bills bearing his name were passed during his legislative tenure.  

Even his friends agreed that Eban would have been a remarkable prime minister in any country but Israel. When Golda Meir, one of Eban’s most outspoken critics heard that Eban was considering running for prime minister, she asked, “In which country?”  

Although Eban was fluent in 10 languages, Meir was quick to point out that he knew neither Russian nor Polish, spoken by many of Israel’s East European-born leaders.  She also noted that his Hebrew was delivered in an English accent.

Eban also had fierce conflicts with other prominent Israelis. For more than two decades, his most ardent rival was Yitzhak Rabin. Moshe Dayan was considered Eban’s fiercest rival during the 1960s. 

A dove in any attempt to solve Arab-Israeli conflicts, Eban once said: “Usually the dove is nicer than the hawk. I haven’t found any reference in the Bible to a useful mission performed by a hawk.”  

Eban’s most recent biographer is Asaf Siniver, associate professor of international security in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham (England). H writes that Eban “was like his friend Adlai Stevenson, who was also a victim of anti-intellectualism.”

Siniver has written only the second biography of Abba Eban and the first since 1972, although he has written two memoirs along with other works about Israel and the Jews.  But “Abba Eban: A Biography” is actually the first attempt to examine in depth Eban’s life and work.  

For this biography, Siniver spent six years reading Eban’s every word and interviewing Eban’s associates and relatives in order to demonstrate how Eban attempted to obtain stability and peace for Israel. It is a scholarly work based on massive archival research in Israel, Britain and the United States that included 20 archival collections, much of it recently released government documents. 

The result is an engrossing, well-written book that deserves to be called a definitive biography, one that casts a great deal of light on Israeli diplomacy and the inner workings of the country’s domestic policies. 

Readers who are seeking solutions to the diplomatic problems facing Israel will not find them in this book, although it certainly is recommended for personal reading lists.  At the beginning of this biography, Siniver makes it clear that the approach to his book was one of sympathy toward Eban and that it was the author’s intent to highlight some of Eban’s shortcomings as a man, a politician and a leader.

This is simply the life story of one of Israel’s most complex personalities, a man who was more than just Israel’s representative  to the United Nations and the United States.  It tells the story of a man who defined and defended a nation to the world but who never felt at home among his compatriots. He was the most revered statesman of the Jewish people around the world, and Siniver has admirably succeeded in telling this story.

Whether one agrees with Eban’s philosophy and methodology, there is no doubt that he left a permanent mark on the search for peace in the Middle East. Both his detractors and admirers agree that Abba Eban also gave a much-needed boost to Israel’s public relations.