The seasoned members of the United Nations Security Council were transfixed by the young speaker at the podium; his eloquence captured their attention. In Churchillian tones he defended a small state that had only recently been admitted into the international body but already had powerful enemies from U.N. Arab members. The name of the young orator was Abba Eban and the country he defended was Israel.
Born in South Africa in 1915, Eban’s father died when he was an infant and his mother moved to England with her son after she remarried an Englishman. Eban started his brilliant academic career at an English boarding school and won a scholarship to Cambridge University. At Cambridge, Eban distinguished himself by earning three “triple firsts” (the American equivalent is summa cum laude) in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian and eventually was fluent in 10 languages. Following his graduation, he became a don at Cambridge and might have settled very comfortably into an academic career but for the influence of Chaim Weizmann who in 1939 appointed him to a position with the World Zionist Organization. At the outbreak of WWII, Eban served as an officer in British intelligence in Jerusalem where he trained Jews to form a resistance in case of a German invasion of Palestine. After the war, he continued his role in Zionist activities when he joined the Jewish Agency, the future government of Israel, and served as the Jewish liaison with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine while UNSCOP was preparing a report on the partition of Palestine.
In 1950, Eban began his dual role as Israeli Ambassador to the United States and representative to the United Nations. At the U.N., Eban displayed his gifts of eloquence and intellect in defense of Israel. The United Nations General Assembly was transfixed by the young Jewish diplomat. Henry Kissinger best described Eban’s impressive oratorical skill this way, “I have never encountered anyone who matches his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker’s virtuosity.” At the U.N., Eban’s skill was called on frequently to protect his small country against the repeated attacks of Arab countries. He did this with distinction for 10 years until 1959 when he returned to Israel and a career in Israeli politics.
In Israel, Eban became a member of the Knesset and assumed a number of government positions under Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion and Levi Eshkol until, in 1966, he was appointed Israel’s Foreign Minister. In the days leading to the 1967 War, Foreign Minister Eban had to defend Israel against both the U.N. Security Council and President Johnson. In the spring of 1967, Egypt under command of Abdul Nasser moved 75,000 troops in the Sinai bordering Israel and then unilaterally ordered United Nations peacekeeping troops out of the Sinai and Gaza. The U.N. complied and Israel determined that the impending threat of invasion by Egypt together with Jordan and Syria could only be countered by a preemptive strike. Concerned about increased American involvement in the Middle East, President Johnson was against this strike and made the veiled threat that, “Israel need not be alone unless it chooses to go alone.” After Israel’s climatic victory, Eban made a powerful speech to the U.N. explaining Israel’s position ending with, “I think that Israel has in recent days proved its steadfastness and vigor. It is now willing to demonstrate its instinct for peace. Let us build a new system of relationships from the wreckage of the old. Let us discern across the darkness the vision of a better and a brighter dawn.” Johnson was mollified by Eban’s speech and commented that, “A speech of Eban’s was worth several divisions to Israel. I think you are the most eloquent speaker in the world today.”
The political life is an uncertain one and Israel’s is no exception. In his later years, Eban was considered too dovish by the next, more militant generation of sabra Israelis and he was pushed out of Israeli politics. In 1988 Eban was ousted from the Knesset after 30 years as a member and began a new career as an author and lecturer at Princeton, Columbia University and George Washington University. He wrote books on Israel and diplomacy, and narrated a number of television documentaries, including the acclaimed TV series, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. It was through the Heritage series that a new generation of Americans understood the soaring eloquence of Abba Eban, the voice of Israel.
In 2001, Eban was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to the state of Israel. He died in 2002 at the age of 87. His voice was quiet, but still heard is the echo of his defense of Israel resounding with a lion’s roar – but with cultured, measured overtones.
Herb Belkin is a Jewish historian who writes and lectures on the epic events in the last two hundred years of Jewish life. His writings can be found on his blog, Zionist Dialogue, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.