Photo Credit: Jewish Press

To many Jews and Americans, Aubrey (“Abba”) Eban (1915-2002) came to symbolize Israel’s struggle to survive during its critical first 10 years as he helped Ben-Gurion defend Israel’s difficult position through several international crises, including the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Sinai War with Egypt. A brilliant orator, he is perhaps best remembered, though, as the leader of Israel’s struggle in the UN before and after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Eban, Israel’s most powerful advocate during that war, played an important part in shaping UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 and, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in shaping the disengagement of Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai. He was generally perceived as the spokesman for moderation in foreign policy, preferring the use of diplomacy rather than military force to meet the many crises confronting the nation. He was also a passionate supporter of returning the “occupied territories” in exchange for peace.


Born in Capetown, South Africa, Eban moved as a child to England, where he was an honors student at Cambridge University and later taught Arabic (1938-40). During World War II, he served in the British Army in Egypt and Eretz Yisrael and became an intelligence officer in Jerusalem, where he served as a liaison officer for the Allies to the Yishuv and trained volunteers for resistance in the event of a German invasion.

Eban’s signature – in both English and Hebrew – on his Delegation of Israel to the United Nations letterhead.

After the war, the Jewish Agency appointed him political information officer in London (1946), where he participated in the negotiations between the British government and the UN concerning the establishment of Israel.

Before serving as Israel’s first UN representative to the UN (1950-59), Eban was liaison to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, where he successfully attained UN approval for the partition of Eretz Yisrael into Jewish and Arab territories. His polished presentation, grasp of history, and powerful speeches gave him authority in a UN that was antagonistic to Israel, and he served simultaneously as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. In 1952, he was elected vice-president of the UN General Assembly before leaving the United States to serve as president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel (1958-66).

Eban was elected to the Knesset on the Mapai slate (1959) and served in the cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. As Ben-Gurion’s Minister of Education and Culture (1959-63), he sought to introduce educational reforms and increased opportunities for the growing number of Jewish immigrants from lesser-developed countries in Asia and Africa.

He subsequently served as deputy to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1963-66) and as Foreign Minister (1966-74), in which capacity he worked to strengthen relations with the United States and to associate Israel with the European Economic Community. In 1988, after three decades in the Knesset, he lost his seat over internal splits in Israel’s Labor Party.

Fluent in 10 languages, Eban published meticulous and detailed historical works based on his vast knowledge and personal experience, including Voice of Israel (1957), My People (1969), My Country (1972), and Personal Witness (1992). He also created three major historical television documentary series about the Jewish people and Israel (see exhibit), in which his remarkable voice, filled with both style and grace, elevated the narrative. In 2001, he was awarded the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor.

Eban at the Western Wall.

In the original September 30, 1984 newspaper photograph exhibited here, Eban is shown at the Kotel as host of “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews,” a series of nine one-hour TV programs that aired on PBS in October 1984. The documentary series captured more than 3,000 years of Jewish history within the context of other Western religious traditions and the development of Western civilization.

* * * * *

Eban, a great aficionado of the arts, intervened on behalf of famous modernist sculptor George Segal in a 1972 freedom of expression dispute and, in the characteristic fashion for which he was known, came up with a diplomatic solution. Segal, who had been commissioned to make a public artwork for the city of Tel Aviv, chose to depict Abraham and Isaac as a memorial to honor his late father. Some Israelis, however, complained that the sculpture was critical of Israel’s military policies and demanded that a different theme be selected for the piece.

According to Segal’s own account, Eban shamed the Israeli authorities by arguing that Israel, as the only democracy in the Middle East, dare not censor freedom of artistic expression. As a result, the artist received governmental carte blanche for his commission.

Extremely rare photograph of President Truman and Eban, originally signed by both. Eban and Ben-Gurion visited with the president at the White House on May 1, 1951.

Decades later, Eban commissioned Segal to cast a plaster rendition of him for exhibition at the Abba Eban Center for Diplomacy (part of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), to which he had donated his papers; as one pundit delightfully described it, “Eban got plastered.” The final sculpture depicts him seated before a wooden wall upon which a map of Israel was silkscreened – but even this proved controversial.

During the inaugural ceremony of the sculpture at the Jewish Museum, critics noted that the map featured conspicuous thick red lines separating Gaza and the West Bank from the rest of Israel, suggesting a formal territorial partition. Eban, a fervent supporter of “land for peace,” confirmed that Segal had prepared the map in accordance with his wishes.

In his various capacities, Eban received many statesmen and leaders in the arts and sciences visiting Israel, among them famed Belgian surrealist René Magritte, several of whose works are prominently displayed in the Israel Museum. Magritte, who arrived in Israel for a short 10-day vacation on April 10, 1966, met with Eban, then serving as president of the Weizmann Institute in Rechovot.

Opening pages of Patrick Waldberg’s René Magritte. The man at left is Magritte.

Exhibited here are the opening pages of Patrick Waldberg’s René Magritte (Bruxelles 1965), which Magritte has inscribed to Eban and his wife, Suzy: “Hommage a S.E. Abba Eban et madame Suzi Eban, René Magritte Rehoboth, Avril 1966” – which translates as: “As an expression of gratitude to Abba Eban and Mrs. Suzy Eban, Rechovot, April 1966.”

One of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Magritte (1898-1967) achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism in which he played with observers’ expectations through his mischievous and stimulating sense of humor. His iconic style focused on the use of objects as something other than what they seem; thus, his works disorient viewers while simultaneously drawing them in.

He created poetic images by painting commonplace objects in unfamiliar places and, through the reshuffling of recognizable forms, he emphasized the inherent ambiguities between actual objects and their representations.

Magritte famously declared that no matter how naturalistically an artist may depict an object, the artist can never capture the item itself. He incorporated many recurring images into his work, including floating rocks, paintings within paintings, inanimate objects with human features, and a bowler-hatted man, which many pundits consider to be a self-portrait of the artist.

Some of the most common features in his work include the animation of the inanimate, such as birds growing out of vegetation; the enlargement of objects, such as an immense feather leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa; anomalous combinations, such as a road with a headless bust, a trombone, a lion, and a bicycle; comical images, such as a chicken having laid an egg on the ground behind it while contemplating an egg in a cup; sheer absurdities, such as a sitting man whose entire torso is a birdcage with birds; and, perhaps most frequently, physics-defying scenes, such as a locomotive exiting a fireplace.

Three of Magritte’s most famous works have strong Jewish connections:

(1) Le Château des Pyrénées (The Castle of the Pyrenees), commissioned by Magritte’s close friend Harry Torczyner;

(2) Portrait of Harry Torczyner, AKA Harry Torczyner: Justice has been Done; and

(3) Le Discours de la Méthode (“Discourse on the Method”), in which he depicts Israeli ambassador to Belgium Amiel Najar.

Magritte’s Castle of the Pyrenees.

The Castle of the Pyrenees is based upon the title of a book by Jostein Gaarder and broadly considered to be Magritte’s masterpiece, in addition to being perhaps his best known and most-reproduced work. Pyrenees exemplifies the artist’s typical disturbing, yet poetic/mysterious, concurrence of familiar objects and his frequent theme of suspending the laws of gravity.

Employing his characteristic extremes of weightlessness and enormous mass, and incorporating his usual contradiction between non-science and photographic realism, it depicts a single huge rock upon which a mighty castle with fortified walls sits suspended in space high above the ocean below against a beautiful blue sky covered with white puffy clouds. The painting, completed in 1959, currently hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Torczyner (1910-98), an internationally renowned lawyer, art collector, and writer, was an ardent Zionist and Israel supporter who donated important paintings from his collection to the Israel Museum. A Belgian native, he attended the University of Heidelberg and, after earning his law degree from Columbia University School of Law, practiced law in Belgium before escaping the Nazis and emigrating to the United States.

Signed Ambassador of Israel card.

He worked for the Office of War Information during World War II before setting up his law practice in New York in 1946, specializing in international and foreign law, copyright law, and general practice.

He is best known, however, as a friend, advisor, confidant, patron, and lawyer to Magritte. Torczyner commissioned works from him; arranged museum and gallery exhibitions of his work; donated his works to various museums, including the Israel Museum; and served as his American publicist.

He also wrote several scholarly books and articles on the artist, including Magritte: The True Art of Painting and Letters Between Friends, a meticulous record of their extensive communications which provides a unique insight into Magritte and his art. (This collection provides an important and irreplaceable record because Magritte did not retain letters he received or copies of letters that he wrote.)

Torczyner was also the subject of one of Magritte’s most famous portraits, Harry Torczyner (Justice has been done) (1958), which depicts Torczyner wearing a toga with a hot-air balloon suspended above his head. Torczyner donated the painting to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels shortly before his death.

The Cairo-born Amiel E. Najar (1912-94) made aliyah to the new Jewish state in 1948; entered the Israeli foreign service and became a senior diplomat; and served as Israel’s ambassador to Belgium (1960-68), minister to Luxembourg, representative before the European Economic Commission, and ambassador to Italy. An avid art collector, he befriended Magritte and, during the artist’s 1965 visit to Israel, asked him to execute a painting of himself. Acceding to his friend’s request, Magritte painted Le Discours de la Méthode (named after a famous essay by Rene Descartes), which he gifted to Najar.

In his renowned surrealistic style, Magritte combined Najar’s likeness with other seemingly random objects. On the left of the painting, the bespectacled and mustachioed Najar’s bald head, set against a background of blue mountains and aqua sky, bemusedly looks out at the viewer sideways from behind a horizontal brown counter or table. On the right, a bluish grey sphere with a large horizontal slot sits atop a narrow cedar closet.

What exactly was the artist seeking to portray? Perhaps some deep philosophical truth, perhaps nothing at all. That remains an important part of Magritte’s allure; as one commentator cogently noted, “there is no easy way to ‘decode’ a Magritte painting” and his paintings are “insidious conundrums that can never be solved.”

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].