When British intelligence had Abba Eban under surveillance

An MI6 report describes him as 'a brilliant student of languages' who had been engaged in 'training Jewish personnel for guerrilla action'


In the annals of Jewish history the years 1946 and 1947 have been overshadowed by the end of World War II and the declaration of the state of Israel. It was a grey time when relations between the allied powers were breaking down and the perils of Jewish existence had been laid bare. The world had stopped fighting but the Jews realised they had old enemies and new battles.

At the end of 1946, Abba Eban arrived in London to work on behalf of the Jewish Agency. He later wrote: “If I had to condemn an adversary to harsh and unusual punishment, I would sentence him to be an official of the Jewish Agency in London in the winter of 1946” adding that his role was to “capture some islands of sympathy and understanding in this wilderness of alienation”.

While in London he was faced with invasive observation from British intelligence. It isn’t surprising that Eban warranted such attention. Much of his wartime service was spent in the Special Operations Executive. A report in his file from the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) describes him as “a brilliant student of languages” who had been engaged in “training Jewish personnel for guerrilla action.”

In geopolitical terms Eban returned to Britain as the representative of an adversary. The Jewish Agency’s militia, the Haganah, was illegally bringing Holocaust survivors to Palestine and had only recently broken away from a joint resistance organisation with the Irgun which had blown up the King David Hotel a few months before his arrival. Relations between the British Empire and the Jewish Agency Executive had deteriorated to the point where David Ben Gurion fled Palestine for Paris — only returning once the British publicly promised not to have him arrested on arrival.

Eban’s file includes a report from Kim Philby, the communist spy in MI6, that Eban was staying at the Royal Monceau Hotel in Paris, the same hotel as Ben Gurion. Philby adds that “the name Eban has been mentioned in a letter found in Kluger’s room.” The method used to gain access to Kluger’s room has been redacted.

The records show that Eban’s private letters and telegrams were intercepted, the phone in the Jewish Agency was bugged (as were those of his associates) and Special Branch “discreetly” searched his bags while he was in passport control. Researchers can read an explanation of the agreement the passport office had with MI5 to inform them when officials from the Jewish Agency entered or departed Great Britain.

The then Director General of MI5, Sir Percy Sillitoe, writes to the British embassy in Washington DC to explain: “We are unlikely to have security reasons for turning down their applications and therefore the cases need not be referred to us for sanction but only for information.” Eban wasn’t expected to be blowing things up but MI5 wanted to keep an eye on him nonetheless.

In the archives one can read a handwritten note by Eban detailing a meeting with Harold Beeley, a man who, Ebban writes in his autobiography, “was regarded by Zionists as Bevin’s pro-Arab Rasputin”. The note details Eban’s attempt to understand what Britain’s stance towards partition of the Palestine mandate was likely to be. The best he could glean was that “HMG had not decided either for or against partition.”

A fascinating example of Eban’s activities is revealed by a letter to the Executive of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, detailing an address he had given at the Imperial Staff college to 60 senior military officers. Eban wrote that “after an hour long lecture a vigorous discussion ensued.” The task must have been daunting; the British army was losing soldiers in Palestine to Jewish bombs and bullets even as they spoke. Eban managed it while also eliciting the British military’s feelings on Palestine to send back to his superiors in Jerusalem, a report which was in turn intercepted by the security services.

The documents shed light on a battlefield where the weapons were diplomacy, subtlety and intelligence — all of which were possessed by Eban in abundance.

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