Belfast Telegraph

Belfast's legacy to the Israelis

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WORLD FIGURE: Abba Eban who died last Sunday

By Steven Gaffe

They both lived in the north of the city, they married sisters and both became distinguished statemen of the Jewish state. London-based Steven Gaffe recalls their Belfast connection

AT Cliftonpark Avenue, Belfast, at the end of the First World War, lived one infant, Chaim Herzog, destined to become president of the state of Israel. And, remarkably, living nearby was another youngster, born Aubrey Solomon Meir, better known to the world as Abba Eban.

Mr Eban, died last Sunday, in Tel Aviv, aged 87. He was an outstanding Israeli foreign minister and diplomat, who secured for his country precious time in the tense run up to the 1967 Six Day War.

Eban's Belfast years occurred from the tender age of two, following the untimely death of his father. Struggling to make ends meet, his London-based mother was forced to dispatch the youngster to the care of relatives in Belfast. He lived near the Herzog family in the north of the city.

If Abba Eban betrayed little of his Belfast background in later life, it was the first of a bizarre set of coincidences which had his career run parallel to Chaim Herzog's.

Both men were educated at Cambridge, where they became firm friends, and both fought Hitler serving as officers in the British Army.

Eban and Herzog were attracted to Palestine, where they contributed their immense talents to the Zionist movement. Both rose to the highest diplomatic rank possible in the new state of Israel, representing their country at different times in the United Nations.

Eban became Israel's first UN ambassador in 1948, and two years later served also as ambassador to the US. Herzog took up the reigns at the UN in 1974, when Israel stood isolated in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.

Even greater prizes lay ahead. Herzog became president of Israel in 1983. Eban was for eight years Israel's foreign secretary and was for a time deputy prime minister. These two men, right at the heart of Israeli politics for over four decades, even married sisters.

Eban married Suzy Ambashe, from a distinguished Jewish family living in Egypt. It was through his former neighbour off the Cliftonville Road, that Chaim Herzog met his wife, Suzy's younger sister, Aura.

Belfast provided more for Abba Eban than his first link with Chaim Herzog. It also gave him a step-father and his new name.

The family which looked after him in Ulster was the Elliott family, who had two boys studying medicine at Queens. Eban's mother was working for her brother, a doctor in a run down district in the east end of London. The surgery was overwhelmed by a flu epidemic.

A desperate call for help to the Elliott boys had to be turned down, as neither had qualified yet. But they knew a young Scottish doctor then practising in Belfast. His name was Isaac Eban.

Eban agreed to help out at the surgery in London, where he met Abba's mother, and fell in love.

After their marriage, and the end of the Great War, Aubrey Meir was brought back to London, where both he and his elder sister adopted the name of their step-father.

The remarkable legacy of Chaim Herzog (who died in 1997) and Abba Eban is not without controversy in Israel.

BOTH accepted, ahead of their time, that Israel's best means of security would ultimately come from a settlement with the Arabs, once the latter finally came to accept the Jewish state's right to exist. Sadly neither's hoped for peace has come to pass.

But they were also perceived by their fellow Israelis as being patrician and aloof, and were respected rather than loved by an electorate, who prefer their leaders to be more rough and tumble, dogmatic and emotional.

The effortless success of Herzog and Eban at almost everything they turned their hands to, from journalism to broadcasting, as well as politics and diplomacy, inevitably gave rise to envy as well as to admiration.

But in Belfast, at the end of the Great War, few in the local Jewish community could have foreseen in their wildest dreams what lay ahead for these two children in their midst.

The Jewish people had then been without a state to call their own for almost two millenia.

From this tiny outpost of the Jewish diaspora emerged two statesmen who were to play a pivotal role in the success of Israel in bringing this homelessness to an end, and the survival of the new Jewish state in a largely hostile world.


From Belfast Telegraph