by Asaf Siniver
Overlook Press, New York. 464 pages
Abba Eban (1915-2002) was arguably the most brilliant and accomplished statesman that Israel produced in the 20th century. He was fluent in ten languages, wrote nine books, served his nation in key posts for nearly 40 years, and was the most eloquent advocate for Israel in his generation. After listening to Eban defend Israel in the United Nations following the Six-Day War in June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson said to him, “I think you are the most eloquent speaker in the world today.” Ehud Olmert pronounced him a “Gulliver in Lilliput.” David Ben-Gurion described him simply as the “voice of Israel.”
Yet Eban was also a man who was out of place in Israel, a politician who had no natural following, an intellectual among hardheaded politicos, a buttoned-down Cambridge don amid the practical, open-collared settlers of a new nation. A colleague remarked dismissively, “He is our attorney, not our representative.” When Golda Meir learned that Eban was thinking of running for prime minister, she asked roguishly, “in which country?”
Eban grew up in England, receiving a classical education in Latin and Greek literature. At Queens’ College, Cambridge, he excelled in languages and debate, graduating with a triple- first. He then became a tutor and research fellow in oriental languages at Pembroke College, Cambridge. During World War II, he served in Cairo and Jerusalem in Britain’s Intelligence Corps. Becoming fully committed to Zionism, he threw in his lot with the emerging nation of Israel and became the country’s first ambassador to the UN, serving from 1948 to 1959. During most of those years he also served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. In 1959 he returned to Israel, serving in the Knesset between 1959 and 1987. He was foreign minister in the crucial years from 1966 to 1974, years that saw the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
When Eban no longer held a cabinet post and could speak his own mind, he became an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and failure to seek peace. A dove amongst hawks, he was finally dropped by the Labor Party.
Curiously, Eban has not been the subject of a major biography before, though Eban wrote two acclaimed memoirs. Asaf Siniver, associate professor in international security in the department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham, has now filled this lacuna. Based on 39 interviews and six years of archival research, Siniver has written a lucid, balanced and well-paced biography.
This is a fine introduction to Eban’s life and will probably be the definitive biography for our time. As I read the book, however, I found myself wanting more. Eban was at the center of events through some of the most tumultuous years of Israel’s history, yet the author does not pause to explore closely or critically the roiling disputes that he describes. Moreover, the narrative seems to recount events as if observed from the stratosphere. One longs for an occasional up-close, ground-level look at the human drama, especially the clashing titans in the UN, Knesset and cabinet meetings. Instead, the Eban that Siniver presents is the well-spoken but distant and elusive statesman he appeared to be at the time – and so he remains.
Michael Parker is Presbyterian World Mission’s interim coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.