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The Abba Eban Paradox: A Book Review

The Abba Eban Paradox: A Book Review

While serving as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Rockford, IL, in the late 1970s, I introduced the legendary Israeli statesman Abba Eban at a community event sponsored by a local college. After enlightening us with his Churcillian eloquence on Israel and the international situation, a frightening mishap ensued. As Eban sat down heavily in the large armchair provided for him, it rolled backward, tipped over, and deposited the diplomat behind the Rockford College banner. To everyone’s great relief, he reemerged unscathed.  

Not so for Eban’s political career. Though renowned as an Israeli diplomat for his lucidity and eloquence on the world stage, Eban was never able to gain traction as a national political leader in his own country.

Asaf Siniver’s Abba Eban: A Biography explores this paradox.

By 1984, Abba Eban was Israel’s elder statesman. The South African-born diplomat had served as Israel’s first representative to the United Nations, its ambassador to the United States, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and a Labor Party member of Knesset for 25 years. Yet despite his contributions to the state, Eban was feeling that his best years were behind him as he jostled for a top spot on his party’s ticket in the upcoming general elections.  

Eban wrote to Amnon Abramovich of the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv:

“There is evidence that the year 1983 was my annus mirabilis,”“I was elected into the international hall of fame of the modern era’s greatest orators, America’s Jews expressed their unreserved confidence in me. I led the public polls for the post of foreign minister, and my book The New Diplomacy was widely acclaimed even by [U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger, who had never praised anyone but Kissinger. Now here is the problem: Why does all of this carry so little weight in interparty contests where there are people who lack any international resonance?”

Eban’s friends and critics alike agreed that this man of exceptional eloquence and oratory, unique wit, nuanced understanding of diplomacy, fluency in 10 languages, and moderate worldview would have made a wonderful prime minister – in any country but Israel.

Abba Eban had a keen understanding of his own place in history, as evidenced by the contents of the more than 300 boxes of his recordings and writings he bequeathed to the Abba Eban Centre for Israeli Diplomacy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after his death in 2002.                                                                            

Drawing on these archives, recently released government documents, and extensive interviews, writer Asaf Siniver has penned only the second biography of Eban (the first by Robert St. John in 1972).

Siniver, an associate professor of international security in the department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham (England), explores why the man who was so instrumental in shaping Israel’s early days and creating its special friendship with the United States proved unable to navigate the ways of Israeli politics, which increasingly operated under rules that he could neither understand nor abide.

What emerges in Siniver’s biography is a portrayal of most of Israel’s founding leaders as having little patience for diplomacy. In contrast, Abba Eban advocated multilateralism, as opposed to what he saw as the popular Israeli delusion of self-reliance. Eban’s romantic notion of diplomacy as a noble vocation, his appreciation of the etiquette and subtleties of communication, his insistence that national leaders do not necessarily make for the most effective diplomats – none of these resonated in the messy climate of Israeli politics. Many Israeli’s saw him as a pompous elitist. And his dovish views, as reflected in his call to engage with the Arab world and understand its history, branded him as being detached, as a stranger to his own community

In his final interview, Abba Eban told veteran Israeli journalist Dov Goldstein:

“I failed to convince the [Israeli] public and the politicians that only Israeli concessions and recognition of the right of the Palestinians to live independently will bring peace and prosperity to Israel.  And now my time is running out.  Soon I will say goodbye.”

In reading Siniver’s insightful biography, I contemplated what might have happened had the Israeli public and politicians listened to Abba Eban. Would Israel and her relationship with her neighbors been any different? One can only wonder.

Rabbi Robert Orkand, who retired from the pulpit rabbinate in 2013, lives in the Boston area. He is a past chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Robert Orkand
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