by Chaim Landau
We live in a fast-paced media age of shock culture. Those with extreme, black-and-white viewpoints have no problem having their voices heard in the media, while complex and nuanced opinions struggle to be heard above the din. When it comes to Israel, the lines are even sharper – one has the choice of being branded a fascist, an apartheid practitioner, and a human rights violator, or a traitor, an extreme leftist, and a self-hating Jew. In this polarized culture, the example of Abba Eban, Israel’s most famous diplomat and foremost statesman, is all the more relevant. Eban exemplified the traits of Jewish self-confidence and pride, alongside critical thinking, respect, and empathy for the other. He combined his defense of Israel’s interests with a strong commitment to universal human rights.
Eban was unparalleled when it came to defending Israel and set the benchmark for every Israeli diplomat who came after him. In 1967, after the Six Day War, he said, “As righteous as the defense of freedom at Valley Forge, as just as the expulsion of Hitler’s bombers from British skies, as noble as the protection of Stalingrad against the Nazi hordes, so was the defense of Israel’s security and existence against those who sought our nation’s destruction. Never have freedom, honor, justice, national interest, and international morality been so righteously protected.” During such periods of crisis as after the Suez crisis in 1956, Eban was instrumental in winning Israel friends in the international community while disarming Israel’s critics with his oratory and wit.
However, belief in the justness of Israel’s cause did not prevent Eban from criticizing some of its policies, such as during the 1982 war in Lebanon, or from advocating for peace, promoting compromise, and empathizing with Palestinian victims. He coined the term ‘Auschwitz lines’ when protesting demands that Israel withdraw to the pre-Six Day War lines. Yet he was also among the first to recognize that keeping the territories and its Palestinian inhabitants was incompatible with Israel’s existence as both a Jewish and a democratic state. Israel’s task today, Eban wrote in 1998, “is not only to proclaim its own rights but also to bring those rights into accord with the rights and interests of others.”
In these days of one diplomatic crisis after another for the State of Israel, Eban’s example is a vital lesson for all those engaged in policy-making and diplomacy. His stance reflected one of confidence in the justice of Zionism and the Jewish state, but also willingness to be critical and engage in soul-searching and self reflection. He was one of Israel’s most ardent defenders, tackling its most bitter foes, but that did not stop him from criticizing his own state and empathizing with Palestinians who also suffered greatly from the conflict.
My first exposure to Eban was from watching his documentary Israel: A Nation is Born when I was 10 years old. That was the moment I became interested in Jewish and general history, Zionism, Israel, and liberalism – all topics which I am passionate about to this day. While it was only later on that I fully appreciated Eban’s nuanced and complex analytical abilities, my early exposure to Eban helps explain why I never felt any conflict between strong support for a secure and strong Israel and the promotion of human rights and liberal values.
In 2001, Eban received the Israel Prize for a lifetime of extraordinary achievement. However, his name is seldom heard in contemporary Israeli and Jewish political discourse. That is surely a loss for a nation struggling to achieve an elusive peace while protecting itself from those determined to destroy it, and for a people straining to make space for alternate and critical voices while maintaining pride in its achievement and faith in its justness. Perhaps the most enduring way to perpetuate his legacy, one that would serve us well in these difficult and confusing times, would be for Israelis and Jews worldwide to reconsider some of the values and ideals that Eban embodied in his long and distinguished career of service to Israel and the Jewish people.
Chaim Landau is the director of Perspectives Israel, which aims to educate about the complexity of the challenges facing Israel from a wide variety of viewpoints within the Israeli- Jewish spectrum. He was a fellow at the 2009 PresenTense Summer Institute and has previously worked as a Legacy Heritage Fellow.