Lova Eliav: A personal appreciation

Warm, friendly and humorous, he lacked the self-importance of most public figures. He always said exactly what he thought.

June 3, 2010 00:14
3 minute read.
Lova at Rupin College

311_Lova Eliav 2010. (photo credit: Israel Sun/Jerusalem Post)


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In 1961, when Arie Lova Eliav and his design team were planning the town of Arad, while living in a few isolated huts in the middle of the Judean desert, the team’s government salaries failed to arrive on time. Without hesitation, Eliav dipped into his own modest bank account and forked out advances to every member of the team, including Assad and Ghanem, the two Druse guards. That was Lova – idealist, visionary, dreamer, but also a supremely practical man of action.

It is difficult to write about Eliav because in so many ways he was “too good to be true,” but that was the real person, genuine and unvarnished. The diametric opposite of the cliché politician of today, he continued to live in the modest Tel Aviv apartment where he grew up, while spending many of his last years in Nitzana, the green jewel in the desert that he created and administered on the Egyptian border. When he and his wife Tanya, then in their 70s, moved to Nitzana in the arid Negev, they joked that they were moving into “special apartments for young couples.”

To visit Nitzana was to receive a lesson in Zionism. The educational campus, which Eliav created and continued to help administer, was host to courses in Hebrew, Jewish history, desert agriculture, technology and pure science. There, immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union rubbed shoulders with Beduin students and young Israeli volunteer instructors. And Nitzana was only the last in a long series of Eliav’s pioneering projects that included Lachish and Arad.

MY WIFE and I first met Eliav in 1962, when we joined the first settlers in the new town of Arad. By then, he had left the project, but from time to time visited his design team to see how things were going. It was Eliav who insisted the team live on the spot in the desert from day one, so that they would know the area intimately, and plan the town accordingly.

Warm, friendly and humorous, Eliav lacked the self-importance of most public figures. There was no public Lova and private Lova; He always said exactly what he thought, without consideration for the consequences. After the Six Day War of 1967, he visited the West Bank and Gaza, holding extensive talks with the local inhabitants, and concluded  that a Palestinian state should be established there.

In the 1960s and ’70s, this opinion was regarded by the majority of Israelis as treasonable, and Eliav, who as secretary-general of the Labor Party was effectively number two to prime minister Golda Meir, sacrificed his political career on the altar of truth as he saw it.

“What has happened to Lova?” demanded the pugnacious prime minister. I once repeated Golda’s remark to Eliav, who used to note sorrowfully that, as a young member of the Hagana, “I killed my first Arab at age 17.”

What had happened, he told me, was that “we Jews had achieved our self-determination with the establishment of the State of Israel. Now it was the turn of the Palestinians to receive a measure of justice.”

Taking a time-out from politics, Eliav worked as a volunteer sanitary worker at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, where he told me he learned two lessons. One, don’t become too fat, because it makes an operation harder to perform; two, when the surgeon makes his incision, you see that “all of us are the same inside.”

He subsequently worked as a teacher of adults in Kiryat Shmona, Or Akiva and Sderot. He described his time in the development towns as “a love affair between me and 100 Moroccan housewives.”

In truth, Eliav’s entire life was a love affair – with the Jewish people, with Zionism, with pioneering and with the State of Israel. He is sorely missed by all of us who knew and loved him both for who he was and for what he represented – an image of our better selves.

The writer’s most recent book is Holy Land Mosaic (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham 2008)

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