Abba Eban

The Book of the Week is “Abba Eban, An Autobiography” by Abba Eban, published in 1977.

Eban was born in South Africa in 1916. His biological father died when he was a baby. He, his older sister and mother moved to England shortly thereafter, and he got a stepfather, who was a medical doctor. He was under pressure from his grandfather to engage in scholarly pursuits until he was fourteen, when the latter died. Eban won a scholarship to study at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He took to the cause of Zionism while there.

Starting in the late 1930’s Eban used his then-marketable skills of writing and making speeches in an effort to convince Jews to help with the military defeat of Hitler. During the war, he worked in military intelligence. Once Germany’s genocidal threat had been eliminated, he helped the Jews claim their national rights through his employment at the Jewish Agency, first in London, then in New York City.

After the war, Great Britain gave up the Zionist cause. No one knew which group– 300,000 Arabs or 600,000 Jews– would populate the territory of Palestine. Even after the United Nations vote on September 1, 1947 on whether to grant sovereignty to Palestine  (renamed Israel), military action was required to prevent other peoples from ruling it. For, British troops agreed to leave on or before May 15, 1948, at which time, the Jews would be left to their own devices as to how to govern their binational State. In 1949, Israel was admitted to the United Nations.

In the autumn of 1959, the author and his growing family (whom he hardly ever saw) moved back to Washington D.C. to represent that city and Israel at the United Nations. His working hours were long and he was on call 24/7. He was required to travel internationally very frequently and sometimes unexpectedly, to make speeches and negotiate between and among various nations during crises, wars and geopolitical gatherings.

Eban described in detail, the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, among other serious episodes of multinational importance. He theorized that it resulted in increased power for French leader Charles de Gaulle but decreased power for Great Britain. Besides, “No nation except the United States could negotiate to help balance the power between the Arabs and the Israelis and the Arabs’ alliance with Soviet power.”

In the late 1960’s, Israeli homes got broadcast-television. Prior to its initiation, however, there were heated discussions among government officials as to content. One genre was to be educational shows hosted by teachers. Some people argued that the teachers needed to show proper religious reverence by wearing a yarmulke while on camera. Others pointed out that most of the teachers were women. One joker suggested a solution:  that the programs advise viewers to put a yarmulke on top of the TV set to comply with Jewish law.

Read the book to learn of the author’s adventures as a representative of the Knesset, president of the Weizmann Institute, government minister in various subject-areas, and global diplomat who took at least some of the blame or credit for Israel’s military actions.