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  • Prime Minister Levy Eshkol taking leave from his cabinet ministry, (l to r) Golda Meir, Bar Yehuda, Dov Yosef, deputy Aba Eban & PM Levy Eshkol at Lydda Airport on May 31, 1964 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Fritz Cohen
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Nowhere to Lay His Head

Kay Wilson - 19 April 2022

What Churchill was to Britain with his command of the English language, Abba Eban was to Israel. Of all the Israeli statesmen, it is Abba Eban who left a legacy of literary wit on every Israeli heart.

Among his most piercingly humorist and truthful sayings is the unforgettable, “If Algeria introduced a resolution that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”  His tongue was his most powerful weapon, and over his long career he used it with astonishing effectiveness numerous times.

“If Algeria introduced a resolution that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”

He first caught the eye of the world when he rose to address the General Assembly of the United Nations in May, 1949. His very British appearance and his Oxbridge accent set him apart from the stereotypes that the assembly had of Israelis. No one moved in the hall as he delivered a two hour appeal for the new state of Israel. His speech that year at the General Assembly was so moving that it led to Israel’s admission to the UN. His position assured, he retained his post at the UN until 1959, even becoming vice-president of the General Assembly for a number of years.

A brilliant scholar, Abba Eban was born in South Africa and given the name Aubrey Solomon Meir Eban. His family soon moved to England. His parents were not rich, and life was tough with four children on their hands. But proving to be a prodigy, he won scholarships to every school he attended and even Cambridge University.

During World War II, British Intelligence recognised his talent and sent him on a secret mission to Egypt to discuss ways in which the Arab nations could be involved in the British side in the war. He was soon serving as liaison officer at allied headquarters in Jerusalem, where he was given the task of recruiting the Jewish population for the British army. Although the British wanted him to continue to serve in their forces after the war, with the horrors of the Holocaust now becoming known, Abba Eban joined the Jewish Agency instead and dedicated his life to Zionism.

“Abba Eban joined the Jewish Agency and dedicated his life to Zionism”

In Israel, he invested his time in writing and in public speaking, becoming very involved in Israeli politics. Fluent in Arabic, he was always given the task to talk to the Arabs. His British accent and exterior were a bonus to him and his country. Just like at the UN, both the Israelis and the Arabs did not always equate him with being a “real” Israeli.

In the case of the Arabs, it arguably made them more open to dialogue, but in the case of the Israeli, sadly Abba Eban felt very estranged. After all the incredible work Abba Eban also did for the British, even they shunned him. One of the finest British service men of his time, he is not even mentioned in any of their biographical dictionaries.

As an old saying goes, this man had nowhere to lay his head. Eban did not fit in anywhere, but his legacy lives on. His words, thoughts and pointed wit still amuse us and challenge us today.

Note: Lydda Airport is today called Ben Gurion airport.

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