The Zionist wunderkind

Suzy Eban provides a timely reminder of the vacuum left by her husband's absence.

Suzy Eban book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Suzy Eban book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Sense of Purpose: Recollections By Suzy Eban Halban Publishers 384 pages; $29.75 Suzy Eban's recollections encompass almost the entire breadth of Israeli history - from her first meeting in Ismailiya in 1943 with Aubrey Eban, then a British army officer, until his death in November 2002. With the exception of the chapter on the Six Day War, this is a curiously apolitical and non-ideological book - and yet this is also its strength. The author's parents were born in Ottoman Palestine and immigrated to Egypt in the 1880s for reasons of work. In 1884, her maternal grandfather made the long trek to Palestine from Eastern Europe via Constanza to escape the tsarist army's desire to conscript Jews for long periods. With his wife, he settled in an isolated valley near the settlement of Motza and the Arab village of Colonia. Her paternal grandparents, Zalman and Beila Ambache, were also early Zionist enthusiasts, settling in Neveh Tzedek - when the idea of a Tel Aviv was unimaginable. There are some evocative descriptions of the Jews and Arabs in those early years, of separation and human interaction, of the secular socialist and the passively feudal, of the attempt at hygiene and the acceptance of degradation. There is an account of the murder, rape and pillage in Motza in 1929 - atrocities often overshadowed by those in Hebron and Safed. Several members of the Makleff family, neighbors of the Ambaches, were butchered, yet witnesses identified local Arabs who had worked for the family as participants. They were acquitted despite the testimony of one of the surviving children, Mordechai. He went on to become the second chief of General Staff of the IDF. The family on both sides was therefore literally the first in Zion and its lingua franca Hebrew. Suzy Eban's education was naturally French, given the small Jewish community's European bourgeois coloring in early 20th-century Egypt. There was little mixing between the Jews and the indigenous Arabs of Ismailiya. Indeed, Suzy Eban's command of Arabic was less than solid and this influenced her not to apply to Cairo University for a bachelor's degree. Captain Aubrey S. Eban, a Cambridge don at 24 when war broke out, appeared on the scene as another suitor, John Kendrew, the future Nobel Prize winner, was leaving it. The intellectual and middle-class Eban fitted in almost naturally into this milieu. In the memoir, Suzy Eban courageously publishes some her late husband's "love letters" to her. Eban's wooing technique was clearly predicated on the intellectual as well as the emotional - and even here his lofty use of language was a portent of the shape of things to come. Yet there is also his devotion to the Zionist cause and his prediction that this would not be any ordinary journey through life as a couple. Abba Eban often seemed aloof to even his admirers and elitist to his detractors. This book sheds some light on this projection. Eban never knew his natural father, who died of pancreatic cancer in South Africa when he was a baby. His mother returned to Britain and sent him away at three to a boarding school in Herne Bay on the English coast. Eban's sister was separated from him and taken to Belfast by their mother. Eban remarked to his wife shortly after their marriage that he had been brought up "like an orphan." His mother eventually married Dr. Isaac Eban, but the household never exuded an emotional warmth. Eban was, of course, the Zionist wunderkind, who made the transition from the British army to Israeli diplomacy without any intervening integration into the Israeli reality. By 1947, Eban and his wife relocated to New York to monitor the deliberations of the UN Special Committee on Palestine. At the behest of Moshe Sharett, Eban delivered an inaugural speech to the UN Security Council, condemning trusteeship and advocating partition. The brilliance and eloquence of this address mesmerized both supporters and opponents. Eban's sheer intellectual power and entrancing rhetoric led to his appointment as Israel's first UN representative. This inevitably evolved into his becoming its first ambassador to the US. A temporary sojourn in New York became 12 years in Washington until his appointment as head of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. This suited Eban's intellectual temperament, but he was soon placed on Mapai's electoral list as one of David Ben-Gurion's young Turks along with Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan - and entered the Knesset in 1959. Yet Eban was astute enough to recognize Ben-Gurion's obsession with the Lavon Affair for what it was. Unlike Peres, Dayan and his brother-in-law, Chaim Herzog, he did not follow Ben-Gurion out of Mapai and into Rafi in 1965. It was this sort of liberal rationale that allowed him to oppose the settlement drive after 1967 and to face down Dayan in the newly formed Labor Party. It was not his lack of "Israeliness" that led to his falling out of favor politically and his effective banishment from the rough and tumble of Israeli politics, but his inability to compromise his values intellectually and to go along with policies which were morally and pragmatically untenable. Yitzhak Rabin's appointment of his old commander in the Palmah, Yigal Allon, as foreign minister and his rival, Shimon Peres, as defense minister in 1974 reflected the final victory of the Rafi and Ahdut Ha'avoda factions in the Labor Party over its Mapai component. It manifested itself in Eban's political exclusion. By 1988, Peres had facilitated Eban's "crude ouster" from Labor's Knesset list. The Jerusalem Post at the time vehemently condemned this move. It commented: "But Abba Eban is not a moshav secretary, nor a hawk, nor a Sephardi. He is merely the most renowned Israeli alive. So for Peres he was expendable." Teddy Kollek spoke of "a historical mistake," while Haim Guri wrote of "the public's abandonment" of Eban. Following the viciousness of his humiliation, Eban resigned from the party and involved himself in academic and literary pursuits. Despite this, Eban has always been venerated by the English-speaking world and its Jewish communities. His command of the English language has always been valued. Suzy Eban comments that her husband's remarkable speech at the UN at the end of the Six Day War found its genesis on the flight to New York when there was a frantic search for scraps of papers on which to make notes. Eban's relentless logic structured this address, but it was his use of language and construction of images that conveyed itself to Jews around the world. He spoke of "the apocalyptic air of approaching peril" which Israel had breathed. He spoke of Gamal Abdel Nasser's desire to enact "the murder of a state" - and commented "the proclamation was empty, the prediction now lies in ruins." He courageously rebuked a superpower, the Soviet Union, for its stand by quoting in French from one of La Fontaine's fables. How different it is more than 40 years on. There are few Israeli figures who can be called upon "to speak for Israel" today in the wider world. The state has been let down by its retinue of recycled politicians and small-minded apparatchiks. Suzy Eban has provided a timely reminder of the vacuum left by Eban's absence. He concluded his 1967 speech at the UN with a mention of "a vision of a better and brighter dawn." If it ever comes, Abba Eban will be rightly remembered for his selfless contribution to it. The writer is professor of Israeli studies at London University and the author of a recent history of modern Israel.