Abba Eban

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Abba Eban
Ministerial roles
1959–1960Minister without Portfolio
1960–1963Minister of Education & Culture
1963–1966Deputy Prime Minister
1966–1974Minister of Foreign Affairs
Faction represented in the Knesset
1968–1969Labor Party
Diplomatic roles
1949–1959Permanent Representative to the UN
1950–1959Ambassador to the United States
Personal details
Born(1915-02-02)2 February 1915
Cape Town, Cape Province, South Africa
Died17 November 2002(2002-11-17) (aged 87)
Tel Aviv, Israel
Alma materQueens' College, Cambridge
Israel delegation to the UN: (L–R) A. Lourie, consul general; Dr. J. Robinson, counsellor; A. Eban, envoy extraordinary; Dr. Avraham Katznelson, Minister of Health; Gideon Rafael, Foreign Affairs (1950)
Abba Eban (center) with Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion and U.S. President Harry Truman (1951)
Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion (center) giving a Hanukkah Menorah as a gift to U.S. President Truman in the Oval Office. At right is Abba Eban, the Ambassador of Israel to the U.S. (1951)

Abba Solomon Meir Eban[1] (/ˈɑːbə ˈbən/ ; Hebrew: אבא אבן [ˈ(ʔ)aba ˈ(ʔ)even]; born Aubrey Solomon Meir Eban; 2 February 1915 – 17 November 2002) was a South African-born Israeli diplomat and politician, and a scholar of the Arabic and Hebrew languages.

During his career, he served as Foreign Affairs Minister, Education Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. He was the second ambassador to the United States and the first Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations. He was also Vice President of the United Nations General Assembly and President of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Early life[edit]

Eban was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 2 February 1915 to Lithuanian Jewish[2][3] parents; his mother, Alida Sacks, was an aunt of Oliver Sacks, while his father, Avram Solomon, died while Eban was still an infant.[4][5] Eban's mother moved to the United Kingdom at an early age. As a child, he recalled being sent to his grandfather's house every weekend to study the Hebrew language, Talmud, and Biblical literature.[6] He lived for a period of time in Belfast.[7]

He attended St Olave's Grammar School, then in Southwark, and read Classics and Oriental languages at Queens' College, Cambridge, where he achieved a very rare triple first, studying Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian; these were three of the ten languages he would reportedly master[8] (he enjoyed translating newspapers into Ancient Greek).[4] At the age of 23, he became a Fellow of Pembroke College, a role he held from 1938 to 1939, and was marked for a distinguished academic career.[4]

During his time at University and afterwards, Eban was highly involved in the Federation of Zionist Youth and was editor of its journal, The Young Zionist. At the outbreak of World War II, he worked for Chaim Weizmann at the World Zionist Organization in London from December 1939.

He served in the British Army in Egypt and Mandate Palestine, becoming an intelligence officer in Jerusalem, where he coordinated and trained volunteers for resistance in the event of a German invasion, serving as a liaison officer for the Allies to the Jewish Yishuv.

After the war he continued in his post, helping to establish and run the British Foreign Office's Middle East Centre for Arab Studies which was originally based in Jerusalem before relocating to Shemlan near Beirut. He was at that time known as "Aubrey Evans".[9]

In 1947, he translated from the original Arabic Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecutor, a 1937 novel by Tawfiq al-Hakim.[10][11]


Eban moved back to London briefly to work in the Jewish Agency's Information Department, from which he was posted to New York, where the United Nations General Assembly was considering the "Palestine Question". In 1947, he was appointed as a liaison officer to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, where he was successful in attaining approval for the recommendation of partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab segments—Resolution 181. At this stage, he changed his name to the Hebrew word Abba, meaning "Father".[2]

Eban continued at the United Nations over the next decade. From 1950 to 1959 he also served as his country's ambassador to the United States.[12] He was renowned for his oratorical skills. As Henry Kissinger stated:

I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker's virtuosity.[13]

His knowledge of history and fluency in ten languages enhanced his speech-making in the United Nations, even to skeptical or hostile audiences.[14] In 1952, Eban was elected Vice President of the UN General Assembly.[15] A collection of Eban's speeches before the United Nations' Security Council and General Assembly both at universities and other venues between 1948 and 1968 was compiled in Voice of Israel,[16] recently reissued in eBook form by Plunkett Lake Press.

He was known for his witty remarks. For example, when he was complimented on his perfect Oxford English he replied "Cambridge actually, but in politics one expects to be smeared."[17]


Eban left the United States in 1959 and returned to Israel, where he was elected to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) as a member of Mapai.[12] He served under David Ben-Gurion as Minister of Education and Culture from 1960 to 1963, then as deputy to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol until 1966.[12][18] Through this period (1959–66), he also served as president of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.[12]

From 1966 to 1974, Eban served as Israel's foreign minister.[12] He defended the country's reputation after the Six-Day War by asserting, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, that Israel acted in response to an imminent threat: "So on the fateful morning of 5 June, when Egyptian forces moved by air and land against Israel's western coast and southern territory, our country's choice was plain."[19] Nonetheless, he was a strong supporter of trading parts of the territories occupied in the war in exchange for peace. While serving as foreign minister, he remained in contact with Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Avraham Harman during the war. Five days after the USS Liberty incident took place, Harman cabled from Washington D.C. to Eban in Tel Aviv that one of their sources was reporting that the Americans had "clear proof that from a certain stage the pilot discovered the identity of the ship and continued the attack anyway." Three days later, Harman repeated the warning to Eban that the White House was "very angry" and "the reason for this is that the Americans probably have findings showing that our pilots indeed knew that the ship was American."[20] Eban also played an important part in the shaping of UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, as well as Resolution 338 in 1973. Among his other high level contacts, he was received by Pope Paul VI in 1969.[21]

Eban was at times criticized for not voicing his opinions in Israel's internal debate. However, he was generally known to be on the "dovish" side of Israeli politics and was increasingly outspoken after leaving the cabinet. In 1977 and 1981, it was widely understood that Shimon Peres intended to name Eban Foreign Minister, had the Labor Party won those elections. Eban was offered the chance to serve as minister without portfolio in the 1984 national unity government, but chose to serve instead as Chair of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 1984 to 1988.

His comment that Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" (i.e., for peace), made after the Geneva peace talks in December 1973, is often quoted.[22]

Later life[edit]

Abba Eban (left) escorting the King of Nepal in a 1958 visit to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Shortly after the visit, Eban became President of the Institute.

In 1988, after three decades in the Knesset, he lost his seat over internal splits in the Labour Party. He devoted the rest of his life to writing and teaching, including serving as a visiting academic at Princeton University, Columbia University and George Washington University. He also narrated television documentaries including Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (PBS, 1984), for which he was host, Israel, A Nation Is Born (1992), and On the Brink of Peace (PBS, 1997).

Eban died in 2002 and was buried in Kfar Shmaryahu, north of Tel Aviv. He was survived by his wife, Shoshana "Suzy" (née Ambache) (sister of Aura Herzog), who died in 2011, and their two children.[23]


Eban's son, Eli Eban, is a clarinettist who teaches at Indiana University.[24] Eli has two children, Yael and Omri Eban.

Eban's brother-in-law was Chaim Herzog, the sixth President of Israel. Herzog's son Isaac Herzog was leader of the Israeli Labor Party from 2013 to 2018 and has been the President of Israel since 7 July 2021.[25]

Eban's cousin, Oliver Sacks, was a neurologist and author. Eban's nephew, Jonathan Lynn, is a filmmaker and scriptwriter known for satirical BBC shows Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Lynn recounts that the plot of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister ("A Victory for Democracy"), which involved the British Prime Minister bypassing his own Arab-centric bureaucracy by taking the Israeli ambassador's advice, was based on an actual incident narrated to him by Eban.


In 2001, Eban was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and the State.[26][27][28]

Published works[edit]

  • Voice of Israel. 1957. OCLC 332941.
  • The tide of nationalism. 1959. OCLC 371099. (Herbert Samuel lecture)
  • Eban, Abba Solomon (1968). My people: the story of the Jews. ISBN 978-0-394-72759-2.
  • My country: the story of modern Israel. New York, Random House. 1972. ISBN 978-0-394-46314-8.
  • Eban, Abba Solomon (1977). Abba Eban: an autobiography. ISBN 978-0-394-49302-2.
  • Eban, Abba Solomon (1983). The new diplomacy: international affairs in the modern age. ISBN 978-0-394-50283-0.
  • Eban, Abba Solomon (1984). Heritage: civilization and the Jews. ISBN 978-0-671-44103-6.
  • Personal witness: Israel through my eyes. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 1992. ISBN 978-0-399-13589-7.
  • Eban, Abba Solomon; Even, Abbâ Šelomo (1998). Diplomacy for a new century. ISBN 978-0-300-07287-7.


  1. ^ "Abba Eban: Israeli statesman." Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  2. ^ a b Charney, Marc D. (18 November 2002). "Abba Eban, Eloquent Defender And Voice of Israel, Is Dead at 87". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
  3. ^ "Abba Eban [obituary]". The Telegraph. 18 November 2002. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
  4. ^ a b c Bronner, Ethan (31 December 2015). "'Abba Eban: A Biography,' by Asaf Siniver". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 April 2022.
  5. ^ "Obituary: Abba Eban". the Guardian. 18 November 2002. Retrieved 15 April 2022.
  6. ^ Eban, Abba: An Autobiography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 6
  7. ^ Gaffe, Steven (20 November 2002). "Belfast's legacy to the Israelis." Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  8. ^ Those being Greek, Latin, English, Modern Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, French, German and Spanish.
  9. ^ Cowper-Coles, Sherard. Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin. London: HarperPress, 2012. p. 19.
  10. ^ Johnson-Davies, Denys (2008). "Introduction". In: Johnson-Davies (ed.). The Essential Tawfiq Al-Hakim: Plays, Fiction, Autobiography (pp. 1–4). Cairo; New York: The American University in Cairo Press. p. 4. This edited volume contains an excerpt from the novel, in Eban's translation, pp. 201–210.
  11. ^ The translation was published in 1947 by Harvill Press, London; see: OCLC 6191719. It was reissued in 1989 under the title Maze of Justice: Diary of a country prosecutor: an Egyptian novel (London: Saqi Books; Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press).
  12. ^ a b c d e Samuel, Edwin, 2nd Viscount Samuel; Rolef, Susan Hattis (2007). "Eban, Abba (Aubrey) Solomon". In Berenbaum, Michael; Skolnik, Fred (eds.). Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 6 (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference. pp. 84–85. ISBN 978-0-02-866097-4.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Quigley, John (2016). The International Diplomacy of Israel's Founders. Cambridge University Press. p. 136. ISBN 978-1-316-50355-3.
  14. ^ "Abba Eban". Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel. 2 May 2005. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  15. ^ "Abba Eban". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 30 December 2007.
  16. ^ "Plunkett Lake Press".
  17. ^ "Abba Eban: A Biography" Overlook Press 2015 ISBN 978-1-4683-1648-3
  18. ^ Calder, John (17 November 2002). "Abba Eban [obituary]. The Guardian. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  19. ^ Quoted in Norman G. Finkelstein (2003), Image and Reality of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. 2nd ed. London; New York: Verso. p. 123.
  20. ^ Scott, James (2009). The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781416554820.
  21. ^ "Israel-Vatican Diplomatic Relations".
  22. ^ "Israel's diplomatic giant Eban dies". BBC News. 18 November 2002. Retrieved 3 November 2007.
  23. ^ Abbey, Alan D. (18 September 2011). "Suzy Eban, widow of Abba Eban, dies at 90". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  24. ^ Call, SUSAN TODD, The Morning (13 June 1990). "FESTIVAL LETS SOFT-SPOKEN CLARINETIST BE HEARD".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ "Herzog takes office as Israel's 11th president, warns of dangers of polarization". The Times of Israel. 7 July 2021. Retrieved 5 November 2022.
  26. ^ "אבא אבן".
  27. ^ "נימוקי השופטים".
  28. ^ Shamir, Eban, Ben-Porat Garner Israel Prize The Jewish Week, May 2001

General sources and further reading[edit]

  • Brecher, Michael. "Eban and Israeli Foreign Policy: Diplomacy, War, and Disengagement." in The Diplomats, 1939-1979 ( Princeton University Press, 2019) pp. 398–435 online.
  • Butler, Gavri (2002-11-25). "In Memoriam – Abba Eban". The Commentator, Volume 67, Issue 5. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  • Charney, Marc (18 November 2002). "Abba Eban, Eloquent Defender and Voice of Israel, Is Dead at 87". The New York Times.
  • Siniver, Asaf. Abba Eban: a biography (Abrams, 2015).
  • Siniver, Asaf. "Abba Eban and the Development of American–Israeli Relations, 1950–1959." Diplomacy & Statecraft 26.1 (2015): 65-83. online

External links[edit]