The first steps of statehood

Suzy Eban describes her husband's route from young Zionist to Israeli statesman.

suzy abba eban 88 298 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
suzy abba eban 88 298
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Abba Eban, recognized far and wide as one of Israel's greatest statesmen, was also a pioneer of Israeli diplomacy. His talents as an orator and debater won him great admiration back in his student days at Cambridge. With his brilliant scholastic record, he might have been all set for a flourishing career in academia, but for the fact that he was bitten by the Zionist bug. Eban grew up in a Zionist environment, learning Hebrew, Jewish history and philosophy from an early age; he also edited a Zionist student magazine. His mother, who held both a day job and a night job, worked as a translator for the Jewish Agency, and inter alia translated the Balfour declaration into French and Russian. In 1937, Eban was summoned by Chaim Weizmann to work with him at the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency offices in London. Eban greatly admired Weizmann's style and viewed him as a role model, Eban's widow Suzy explained to The Jerusalem Post in an interview last week. Weizmann, who was to become Israel's first president, was also blessed with diplomatic skills that gave him instrumental roles in the Balfour Declaration, the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine and the recognition by the United States of Israel's provisional government. A signed statement affirming recognition of the newly proclaimed State of Israel was issued by US President Harry S. Truman within 11 minutes of David Ben- Gurion's proclamation of the creation of the independent state. Eban had worked in close consultation with both Weizmann and Ben Gurion in his capacities as the liaison officer to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine and as a member of the Jewish Agency delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. If he had been a staunch Zionist while still a university student, what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust served to further fuel his passion for Zionism. Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Eban joined the British Army where he served as an intelligence officer. Because he was an expert in Oriental languages and fluent in Arabic, he was sent to Egypt in 1941, where he was assigned to military censorship. His job was to read letters in Arabic which had been intercepted by the British forces. According to Suzy Eban, "he was terribly bored." He was then sent to Palestine to work as a liaison to the Jewish population, with a view to encouraging people to enlist in the British forces. He also liaised with the Hagana. Needless to say, there was much more to his relationship with the Hagana than merely liaising. IN 1945, he married Suzy Ambache, whose father, Simcha, he had met while in Jerusalem. The Ambaches were living in Egypt, and in the course of conversation, Ambache invited Eban to visit when he was next in the Land of the Nile. Eban was constantly in touch with Moshe Shertok, later known as Moshe Sharett, Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister. Shertok happened to mention Ambache, and when Eban said that he'd met him, Shertok encouraged him to pursue the acquaintance. When Eban eventually took Ambache up on his invitation and called the house, it was Suzy who answered the phone -- and the rest is history. In 1946, Eban rejoined the Jewish Agency, and in 1947 he was appointed head of the Agency delegation to the UN. Other members of the delegation, whom Suzy Eban refers to as "the backroom boys," were Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Emanuel Neumann. On the day that Israel declared its independence, said Suzy Eban, the members of the delegation had to choose whether to show their identification with Israel by moving to the new state, or to stay where they were. Silver and Neumann preferred to be Zionist leaders in America. Eban chose Israel, but several years were to pass before he could live there on a day-to-day basis. Then, in 1949, he became Israel's permanent representative to the UN. In an interview that he gave to the National Archives in 1997, Eban recalled that turbulent period. Our situation at the end of World War II was as follows: we were wallowing in the fearful anguish of the Holocaust; the visual effects of the Holocaust had an effect that went far beyond the mere statistical enumeration of the victims. Our promised homeland was being assailed by regional violence and by international alienation. The victorious powers, the three of them - the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union - showed no intention whatever, at first, of recognizing the Jews of Palestine as a political reality. There wasn't a single ray of light on the horizon. The Jewish representatives at the United Nations conference at San Francisco were humiliatingly seated in some distant balcony, looking down at the 50 member nations, none of which had made anything like the sacrifices demanded of the Jewish people by its own martyrdom. That was the situation. Two years later - two years later - the gates were opened; masses of our kinsmen were coming back to their national home. The war of survival had been won, and our flag was aloft in its own name and pride. And there has never been, I believe, in the history of any nation, a transformation of fortune as abrupt and as speedy and as providential as that which the Jewish people had in that period, during the first two years of its existence. It was Eban who hoisted the Israeli flag at the UN building in New York in May 1949, after Israel was finally admitted as the UN's 59th member state. But before that happened, Eban had to use all of his oratory skills to persuade the other member states of the UN to recognize his country. The impressive and persuasive speech that he made to the UN General Assembly was widely reported. He also had to use some very convincing arguments against the proposed UN trusteeship of Jerusalem, which some representatives to the UN, despite assurances from Israel, deemed to be essential in order to guarantee access to the holy places. Warning of the political unrest that was bound to erupt under such an arrangement, Eban said: "Unless Jerusalem is politically contented, it cannot be religiously serene." Reflecting on those days, Suzy Eban recalled, "I remember those times when our fight for freedom riveted millions of radio listeners. The threat of a trusteeship for all of Palestine was circulating all over the UN and in much of the press. To defeat it was a race against time. Looking back, to exchange the Mandate for a trusteeship seemed the oddest creation. Weizmann, who was always kept informed by Shertok, caught onto this threat on May 13, less than 48 hours before the British were due to leave Palestine. He called Abba out of the United Nations meeting, but Abba told him that at a dinner party, which Trygvie Lie, the secretary-general of the UN at the time, had a few days earlier, [Andrei] Gromyko [the Soviet permanent delegate to the UN] advanced towards us, shook Abba's hand and said: "You have killed trusteeship. Congratulations!" Indeed, Abba and his team had been working day and night to defeat the idea, but it still had to be voted on." What was amazing was the subsequent quick succession of events. Weizmann had written to Truman to ask for US recognition of Israel, but it is doubtful that he expected a positive response to be so quickly forthcoming. "All of the following events took place on that same May 15 day of Ben Gurion's declaration of Independence at the Tel Aviv Museum," Eban recounted. "The end of British rule, the invasion by the Arab armies, the defeat of the trusteeship proposal and the recognition of Israel by the United States. All these things took place within a single day. "It was phenomenally hectic," Mrs. Eban continued. "The State was still undefined, although Ben Gurion had declared that it would be named Israel. It was a mere aspiration, but such a passionate one. The world watched us step by step at every UN session. Would this be a fleeting moment or would we be capable of establishing a State that would endure?" WHILE EVENTS of historic import may have moved quickly, more mundane things - such as the wording on plaques - took longer to change. "The plaque before Abba at the Security Council still read 'Jewish Agency for Palestine.' We had to wait for a friendly president of the Security Council to give us the first opportunity to get the name 'Israel' onto the plaque. When this was achieved, I remember Abba saying: 'I never loved a piece of wood more than on that day.'" Suzy Eban found it difficult to describe the exaltation that radiated from the building of the Israeli mission in which there was an Israeli flag, a sign inscribed "The permanent delegation of Israel to the United Nations"and next to it "Consulate General of the State of Israel." "People sometimes stood in front of our building just to stare at it and to believe that all these written words really meant what they said." More than that, the Jews of New York were totally enamored with Abba Eban. He represented a new kind of Jew -- a person with a mellifluous voice and a gift for language. He didn't have a coarse Yiddish accent, and whoever didn't hear his speeches could read about them the next day in the newspapers. "People wanted to touch him all the time," his widow recalled. In 1950, Eban was also appointed ambassador to Washington, succeeding Eliyahu Elath, who was Israel's first ambassador to the US. Eban was Israel's only ambassador to serve both at the UN and in Washington concurrently. LIVING IN New York was shocking to the Ebans in more ways than one. Aside from the triumphs and challenges at the UN, Suzy Eban's initial adjustment to life in the city was the high cost of living. There was extreme austerity in Israel, and the Ebans had to get by on $14 per day. They took up residence in a small hotel on Broadway. Things improved somewhat when they went to Washington, where it was understood that they would have to do a lot of entertaining, and where Suzy Eban was advised to get herself mentioned in the social columns as often as possible. When she was asked what sort of a house she wanted, Suzy Eban, mindful of Israel's ailing economy, said that she wanted something that was suitable for a doctor or a lawyer. Initially, she was very pleased with the house provided by the embassy, but with entertaining the volume of congressmen, senators and other people of influence, "the house became so small so quickly." Then Teddy Kollek, director-general of the prime minister's office at the time, arrived in Washington and told the Ebans that they were moving to much larger premises. A rather wealthy man, who wanted to be the chairman of the newly established Israel Bonds office in Washington, had donated the house in return for the position which would add to his social standing. When she went to inspect her new abode, Suzy Eban nearly fainted. The four-story edifice was vulgar. It had a lot of tiny rooms and it was dirty with stains left by dogs and children. She told Kollek that she didn't want it, but he told her that she had to have it as part of her national duty. To compensate her, he gave her a better budget than she had enjoyed before. She would have loved to sell the house, but couldn't. When the Ebans celebrated Israel's tenth anniversary, she had to move furniture and food from one floor to another in order to have sufficient space to accommodate 22 people, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, at the dining table. When Abe and Zena Harman succeeded the Ebans, they sold the house. The current ambassador's residence in Washington, remarked Suzy Eban, is on one floor and has a very large dining room.