By dint of marrying one of the 20th century’s most celebrated statesmen, Suzy Eban witnessed the great events of Israel’s birth, and its subsequent struggle for survival, at close quarters.
Abba Eban, her husband (and my great-uncle), was known as the writer in the family but Suzy reveals through her “recollections” (A Sense of Purpose, Halban £20) a talent for evocative prose. Although born in the Egyptian town of Ismailia, her family was of Palestinian-Jewish stock and she grew up speaking Hebrew. In describing her early days, she conveys a sense of the strong contrast between her affluent colonial-like lifestyle in Egypt and the harsher, pioneering existence of her grandparents in Palestine.
Suzy met and married the young British officer then called Aubrey Eban when he was stationed in Alexandria during the Second World War. The man she describes is a brilliant, absent-minded, scholastic, funny, deeply political character, who had been inculcated with Jewish education and developed fierce Zionist sympathies as a boy in South London. All this I can corroborate. Uncle Aubrey was a man whose towering intellect made him an intimidating, though exhilarating, man to talk to — about politics, history, art, sport and a staggering range of other subjects.
His presence dominates his widow’s book. As Israel’s first ambassador to the United Nations, he was known as “The voice of Israel” on account of his astounding oratory. He would work hard at his speech-writing, recalls Suzy, but on the odd occasion he was called upon to speak off the cuff, he would still be able to dazzle. (For a little light relief from the diplomatic world, Uncle Aubrey translated Oedipus from the Greek and taught himself to speak perfect Castilian Spanish).
There are extensive passages on Eban’s career as Foreign Minister and his pivotal role in the wars of 1967 and 1973, but Suzy tactfully omits his cheeky use of the Israeli diplomatic bag to bring highly unkosher treats from New York to his family in ration-bound London in the 1940s and ’50s.
The book’s many delights include intriguing snippets on Chaim Weizmann, David Ben Gurion, and their wives, Vera and Paula, and an emotional description of Suzy’s return to the country of her birth following President Anwar Sadat’s peace mission to Israel in 1977.