Arieh “Luba” Eliav (Lifshitz), one of the founders of the Labor Party and one of the last members of Israel’s “greatest generation” of state-builders died Sunday at the age of 89. Eliav was both a prominent politician, serving in the Knesset as part of a number of left-wing factions and a public figure known for his grass-roots action – from smuggling into pre-state Palestine thousands of Jewish refugees to establishing the eastern Negev city of Arad.
Eliav was born in Moscow in 1921 and immigrated to Israel three years later. He was educated in the most prestigious schools of pre-state Palestine, finishing highschool at the Herzliya Gymnasium and then studying History and Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Like many Israelis of his age, Eliav had a rich and varied military history. He joined the Hagana at the age of 15, and five years later volunteered for the British Army during World War II. At the end of the war, he became active in the Hagana’s intelligence arm and later began intensive efforts facilitating illegal immigration of Jewish refugees to the land of Israel. It was while commanding a boat of illegal immigrants that he met his future wife, Tanya.
Eliav returned to the sea – or at least to naval service – again during the War of Independence, when he served as the commander of manpower for the nascent Naval Corps. In 1956, he served as the commander of the rescue operations to save the Jewish community of Port Said during the Sinai War.
In the late fifties, Eliav served in a senior position at Israel’s Moscow embassy, but his bureaucratic role was a cover story for his real position, as an agent assisting Jews in the Communist state to immigrate to Israel.
While Eliav worked to bring Jews to Israel, he also labored to settle them in new communities on Israel’s then-periphery. In the fifties, he served as the head of programs to settle the southern Lachish region, then the northern-most reaches of the Negev desert, and in 1961, he led the project to establish the town of Arad, on the eastern edge of the Negev, above the Dead Sea.
From 1965-1979, Eliav turned to politics, serving first in the Knesset as a member of Mapai and later as a member of the Labor Party. In 1967, immediately after the victory in the Six-Day War, Eliav resigned to conduct a six-month survey of the situation among the newly-conquered Palestinian population, updating then-prime minister Levi Eshkol on his findings.
Although he was elected as the secretary-general of the Labor Party in 1970, he remained a controversial left-wing figure within the part, opposing the establishment of the settlements and butting heads with Golda Meir, who was prime minister at the time. The disagreements between the two led to his resignation a year later.
Eliav’s opposition to the continued settlement in the West Bank led him to resign from the Labor Party itself in 1975, in the shadow of the Yom Kippur War, and entered a period in which he searched for a political home, joining Ratz, forming Ya’ad, the Social-Democratic Faction and them running for the Knesset as a member of the Sheli Party, only to resign his seat. In the 1984 elections, he won 15,000 votes running as a single candidate but it was only when he returned to Labor in 1987 did he find his way back to the Knesset.
During the Eighties, he also volunteered as a nurse at Tel Aviv’s Hadassah Hospital and as a teacher in Kiryat Shemona, Sderot and Ma’a lot, and helped to establish the Educational Community of Nitzana in the western Negev. Although he won the Israel Prize in 1988 for his contribution to Israeli society, he was defeated by Ezer Weitzman to serve as the Labor Party’s nominee for the presidency in 1993.
While Eliav wrote a number of books over the years, it was his first work – The Land of the Turtle, written in 1972, that remains the best-known of his works.
President Shimon Peres, who knew Eliav for most of his life time and who
worked with him in different capacities and on numerous projects, said
that Eliav had always excelled in his personal pioneering role and his
responsible leadership. He always believed in moving forward with the
troops and not in standing over them, said Peres. "His contribution to
the development of the Negev, including the Lachish region, the
establishment of Arad and Nitzana are glorious milestones in the
pathways of the State."
Eliav always sought the most challenging and difficult places and set an
example for generations of Israelis to follow, said Peres.
“Luba was an example for our nation of pioneering service,” said Welfare
Minister Isaac Herzog. “In his social perspectives, in his
understanding of the beauty of Israeli society as well as its
complexities and of the need to bravely reach peace with our neighbors.
His image and his beliefs will remain with us for generations.”