In Memoriam – Abba Eban
by Gavri Butler
YU Israel Club Political Analyst
On November 17, Abba Eban passed away. His name should be familiar to all Yeshiva students. Many Americans support the candidacy of Binyamin Netanyahu for Prime Minister because of his ability to present the opinions of Israel to the international community. This skill was pioneered by Abba Eban. In fact, Netanyahu himself called Eban “the founding father of Israeli diplomacy.”
Abba Eban was born in South Africa but was raised and educated in England. After attending Cambridge, Eban worked for a short time as the aide to Chaim Weitzman, the future president of Israel. He then enlisted in the British Army as an intelligence officer, and was sent to Palestine, where he reached the rank of major. After World War II, the Jewish Agency sent him to the UN to represent the Zionist cause. Almost immediately he earned a reputation as one of the UN’s finest orators. He led the fight for the foundation of the Jewish State, and later became its ambassador to the UN and United States. He later served as Foreign Minister from 1966-1974. His tenure was marked by some of the harshest international criticism of Israel, especially the Six-Day-War.
As the youngest Permanent Ambassador to the UN, Eban embodied the young emerging state. He was known as the most eloquent – and most interesting – speaker in the General Assembly. At the time, Ben Gurion famously called him “the voice of the Hebrew nation.” Eban’s speeches were the stuff of legends. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote of Eban: “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.” The spell cast by Eban’s eloquence was such, that "to interrupt seemed almost unthinkable.” The most famous speech that he ever gave in the UN was actually after his term as ambassador. On June 2, 1967, where he addressed the Security Council in defense of Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria. It was during that speech, while arguing in support of the annexation of the West Bank, that he coned the phrase “the Auschwitz Borders,” referring to the pre-1967 boarders of Israel.
When he presented Israel’s case to the UN, he never presented merely a political argument; rather, his statements were always steeped in Jewish History. He was able to prove to the world that the creation of the State of Israel was a moral imperative as a response to the Holocaust. His contention was, as he once put it, “Israel is not an interloper in the Middle East. Israel sprang from this region, Israel is returning to it...there never was, there is not, and there cannot be a Middle East which is not illuminated by the influence of Israel.”
What made Eban famous outside of the diplomatic community, however, more than his long speeches, were his witty one-liners. Even today, he is often quoted as having said that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” When Sir Alexander Cadogan, the British ambassador at the United Nations, opposed the admission of Israel to the United Nations, Eban responded: “When an ostrich buries its head in the ground to avoid facing unpleasant facts, it not only presents an undignified spectacle, it also constitutes an irresistible target.” When he became foreign minister, he described his job as, “not to do things, but explain why they can’t be done,” and as for ministers, in general, he wrote, “If ministers start talking about something, eventually they might begin thinking about it.”
A particularly witty “Ebanism” was in a response to a Letter to the Editor in the Jerusalem Post. In 1993, Eban wrote a book entitled Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, which led to PBS miniseries. Someone (I don’t recall his name, but it was something obviously Jewish, like Chaim Goldstein) wrote to the Jerusalem Post criticizing Eban for his role in the foundations of the state, and his book and Miniseries. Eban responded simply by saying: “the entire history of the State of Israel was written without one mention of Chaim Goldstein.”
What made Eban great in my eyes was a characteristic that is severely lacking in Israel, our University, and the Jewish community as a whole. If you read his books, you’ll discover that he was shockingly left wing. Most recently, he argued in the late 1990s for a return of Gaza and the West Bank, remaining steadfast in his support of Oslo even after the start of the Intifada. Yet he understood that if you are representing a higher authority you must support their beliefs, whether or not you agree with them completely. In fact, during his tenures both as Ambassador and Foreign Minister, he never promoted his own beliefs, and always supported the Israeli government’s policies and positions. A story is told that in December 1955 Eban told Ben Gurion of his reservations about a paratroopers' raid, led by Ariel Sharon, on Syrian positions on the Kinneret. In the raid 56 Syrian soldiers were killed and 32 captured, sparking international outrage. Ben Gurion responded: “I also had reservations about the operation, but after I heard your speech to the General Assembly, my doubts disappeared and I became convinced of the justification of the operation!” His was so awe-inspiring that in 1952 he was elected Vice-President of the UN General Assembly, a post that no Israeli today could ever dream of.
Part of Eban’s historical understanding was that Israel has enough enemies that it is not our place to publicly criticize them. This is not to say that dissent is wrong; on the contrary, Eban was very critical of Israeli politicians in Israel. But he limited his criticism to the local media, and never abused his stature in the international community by attacking the government of Israel in the forum in which he was supposed to be defending it. I dream of a day when other Israeli politicians – and Foreign Ministers – emulate Eban’s restraint.
Eban believed that someone who displays the symbols of
a Jew – both on the global and local stages – has a responsibility that
supercedes his personal feelings or inclinations, another ambassadorial
obligation. If you’re going to wear the uniform you have to act the part.
For Abba Eban it wasn’t just a matter of principle, but also a matter of
class. Abba Eban had class, and that’s something worth emulating.
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