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Abba Eban, z"l.

In a manner of speaking, Abba Eban, zichrono livrachah, who passed away at age 87 in November, was the Adlai Stevenson of Israel. The comparison is not far-fetched. Both were golden-tongued orators; both represented their respective countries nobly in the United Nations at the most critical of times and brought honor to the causes they espoused. The two men also served in other crucial positions of government with diligence, wit, wisdom, and tenacity. And both of these ultimately tragic characters, though honored beyond imagination by foreigners, were essentially blocked by their fellow and sister citizens and politicos from achieving the highest position and the greatest honor their countries had to offer.

We all know that Stevenson twice lost the presidency to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Abba Eban, who served as Israel's ambassador to the U.N. and to Washington, as minister of education and culture, and subsequently as foreign minister in Israeli cabinets and deputy prime minister, never had a chance to be prime minister of the country he helped found and whose survival in the most perilous of times he assured by his diplomatic skills and overpowering eloquence. Ask any Israeli who is old enough to be well-acquainted with Abba Eban's history, and you'll hear much the same story: "He was too good for us, too high-class, too cultured. He spoke Hebrew and English better than anybody. He was an aristocratic British-type gentleman, not a down-to-earth Israeli. He wasn't rough enough. He was a wonderful diplomat to the world, but not a good politician inside the country."

Someday, a social historian will write about the antiintellectual strain in both America and Israel that the repudiation of these two eminent men represents. It's a fascinating subject for analysis, and the last word on this phenomenon has not yet been written. Suffice it to say here, that both men are and will be missed. We may not see their likes again for many a generation.

Abba Eban spoke more than two languages. He was reputed to be adept in some ten languages. This kind of statement is frequently made about extraordinary men and women and is as frequently an exaggeration. But in Eban's case, it could well be the truth. Born in South Africa, he was taken in infancy to England where his father passed away soon after. The orphaned child subsequently adopted the family name of his stepfather, Dr. Isaac Eban. The youngster's first name was, in fact, the very British sounding Aubrey, a name that only personal friends used when he was an adult. His Hebrew name, Abba, fused deliciously with the name Eban since the Hebrew version of the surname, "Even," meant "stone," and Abba Even would then mean, "Father Stone"--a sturdy, smooth, and glistening stone, to be sure, and a stone from which life-giving water in a desert was to issue forth.

He came by his passion for Zionism honorably, as if by inheritance. During World War I, his mother served as secretary in the London offices of the Zionist organization led by Dr. Chaim Weizmann. She was delegated the job of translating into French and Russian the landmark Balfour Declaration that Weizmann was so instrumental in persuading England to issue and to proclaim as formal postwar policy. Quite clearly, Abba Eban also came by his extraordinary skills in languages in a similar manner.

Eban was educated at Cambridge, served in the British Army in Cairo and in Palestine in World War II, and made aliyah to Israel some time after the war's end with his young wife. It didn't take long for him to be at Moshe Sharett's side at the United Nations in the gloriously successful attempt to persuade the wavering nations in the world to vote for partition in 1947 and, by doing so, for the formation of the first independent Jewish state in Palestine in almost two thousand years.

No American Jew of a certain age can forget the mellifluous flow of words, the dulcet tones of pearled rhetoric in the Queen's English that issued forth from Eban at the United Nations, from his maiden speech in 1948 through the crucial and dangerous days of the wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973.

His golden language would have made Winston Churchill proud of this rival in eloquence. Eban's words were not just words, but heartfelt and lucidly powerful arguments in behalf of the nascent Jewish state and the embattled Jewish state fighting for its life. He tied the four-thousand year history of his people and the awful travails of his people into one unified emotional cri de coeur that no person of conscience in the world, no student of world history could gainsay. Eban was not only a Churchill; he was an Isaiah challenging the nations of the world to right a historical wrong, to fulfill a historic imperative.

In his latter years, he wrote a massive work on Jewish history called Heritage: Civilization and the Jews and spent years preparing a 9-part television series on the same subject with the same rifle. In fact, this series was rebroadcast--and not for the first time--on public television in the New York area just a week or two before he died. It remains its own monument to his life's achievement.

Eban prepared another major television documentary called Israel: A Nation Is Born that won universal acclaim. The man's sheer brilliance compels me to go back to the subject of anti-intellectualism that impacted on his life as it did on Adlai Stevenson's.

Not too long ago, I chatted with an Israeli schoolteacher of children aged 12, 13, and 14. Do Israeli kids study, for example, the great literature produced by Jews in the shtetl Diaspora, the works of Mendele Mocher Seforim, Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and so on? Not really. Do they read the Hebrew stories of Feierberg and Brenner? Not so. Not even Brenner, in whose name a famous kibbutz, Givat Brenner, was built in Israel? The answer again, no. Bialik, yes. Tchernichovsky, maybe. Alterman, yes. And that's about it when it comes to the great Jewish authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I dreaded to ask if the curriculum coven, for another example, the Hebrew poets and religious scholars of medieval Spain. It would seem that the State of Israel, whose raison d'etre is its umbilical attachment to its past, has somehow denied a good deal of the essential past achievement of the Jewish people to its own children. Needless to say, Diaspora Jewish education has done much worse.

What does all this have to do with the death of Abba Eban? Why haven't I mentioned Eban's politics, his service to the Labor Party, his liberal left views on accommodation with the Arabs of Palestine and Israel's Arab neighbors? These are undoubtedly important facts of his life representing decisive aspects of his character. But to me, the central lesson of Abba Eban's life is not political. Eban succeeded in being the eloquent spokesperson of Israel and the Jewish nation because in his very bones he represented the whole history of his people--thousands of years of Jewish culture personified---and everyone in the world, friend and foe alike, knew it. His loss will not be replaced unless and until the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual example of his life becomes once again the very warp and woof of every Jewish child's education in every corner of the world in general and in Israel in particular. Yehi zichro baruch.

LEO HABER is editor of Midstream. His recently published novel, The Red Heifer (Syracuse University Press) is in its second printing.
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Author:Haber, Leo
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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