Abba Eban’s autobiography is evidence that the post-World War II era has produced leaders of the same caliber as the giants who dominated the tumultuous thirty years’ war which raged in Europe from 1914 to 1945. Of all the major political events since 1945, only the Chinese Revolution has captured the imagination and will stand out as much as the establishment of the state of Israel. While Eban’s story is familiar to historians, his lucid style, sense of humor, and personal involvement make his book a valuable document and an excellent introduction to the drama from an Israeli point of view.
Not least of this work’s assets is the opportunity it provides of getting to know Eban himself. By the end, the reader is left dazzled by the achievements of the man. A tireless worker with very high standards, Eban, as the most important Israeli diplomat, can justly claim much of the credit for the enviable position of international security which Israel has reached. With tongue in cheek, he writes at one point that as foreign minister he never received a dispatch from an Israeli ambassador reporting on a conversation in which he was bested. One might add that Eban himself rarely recalls a diplomatic duel in which he was touched. Nevertheless, the reader finishes this autobiography with the impression that Eban is a modest, sensible, and humane man. It might be said, however, that he would have done as well to have omitted the all too frequent quotations from newspapers describing his speeches as “Churchillian,” for his accomplishments stand on their own. Basically, Israeli diplomacy has triumphed over its Arab counterpart through unrelenting effort and unsurpassed mastery of material and argument. If Eban needed a vote at the United Nations or support at the State Department or in Congress, he called as often as he decently could, courted his object and finally won it over with his impressive reasoning and his sympathetic personality. His dedication and his willingness to try and try again, combined with his finesse and personal appeal, made him an extremely successful diplomat in an often hostile environment.
His dedication stems from the religious and cultural heritage he received from his grandfather. The rest of his childhood upbringing, though, is an example of the impressive pluralism of Jewish society as a whole and Israel in particular. Eban’s maternal grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew who emigrated to South Africa and then to London. His father was also a Lithuanian Jew in South Africa who died of cancer in 1916, having taken his family to London in search of a cure. There his mother married Isaac Eban, an English Jew who had a medical practice in the English capital. Here, young Eban, known as Aubrey, divided his time between weekdays at an English public school run by a classics-minded Cambridge scholar, and weekends spent learning Hebrew and poring over Jewish scriptures with his grandfather. It is difficult to imagine two more contrary influences than that of a practical and socially competitive English public school and a mystical and intellectually demanding Old World Jewish grandfather. In his public life, though, Eban has been able to synthesize these two currents by putting the social and verbal skills so well inculcated by an English education to use for the creation and survival of a Jewish state.
Upon graduation, he went to Cambridge, where he won a triple-first—an extremely rare accomplishment. It probably was not quite good form for most Cambridge students to do so well or work so hard at academic subjects. He also became more and more involved in Zionist activity, which was headquartered in London and dominated by the venerated Chaim Weizmann. Eban was appointed to the faculty at Cambridge and continued to divide his time between his research and his political work for the Zionists until the outbreak of World War II. He does not appear to have seriously considered leaving England at this point, but when he describes his loyalties, not one is to Britain. “I was a Jew, a Zionist, a democratic socialist, an advocate of resistance to Fascism, a supporter of the Spanish Loyalists against Franco and an adherent of the League of Nations concept.” There was no necessity to be loyal to England, but he should not have been surprised when during the war, the British army, of which he was an officer, seemed to question how far he could be trusted. It took the war and the desperate situation of European Jews finally to convince Eban to abandon an academic career at Cambridge and devote himself completely to Israel.
In this service, he rose meteorically, becoming at the same time the youngest ambassador to the United Nations and to the United States. He served in this dual role from 1950 to 1959, then returned to Israel, where he was first appointed Minister of Education, then Deputy Prime...
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