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The first Mr. Hasbara: Mike Wallace's 1958 talk with Abba Eban

On the country’s 10th birthday, Israel’s ambassador to Washington touched on issues that remain on the political agenda half a century later: His government’s territorial ambitions, the refugee problem and Israel’s expectations of the American Jewish community.

Mike Wallace, the legendary host of 60 minutes who passed away on Saturday, interviewed in 1958 Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Abba Eban. It’s an interesting viewing: Eban was the original Mr. Hasbara, unmatched in his mastery of languages and ability to relate to audiences around the world. Many of his talking points, readers may notice, are repeated by Israeli spokespeople to this day, though one cannot really compare Mr. Eban’s cool style with any of his rather vulgar successors. (the cigarette commercials are also a lot of fun.)

Between the lines, you also get a sense of the difference between 1958 Israel – considered the weaker party in the Middle East, without nuclear weapons – and present-day Israel, one of the worlds leading military powers, with a much larger territory, booming economy and (according to foreign sources) second-strike capabilities.

Like all Israeli officials before and after him, Mr. Eban refuses to accept any responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. He does, however, promise that when the Arab countries make an effort to settle the refugees, Israel will do its part in solving the problem (min 5:50 in the video above. Full interview and transcription of the interview can be found on the University of Texas’ website):

There is, I think, a basic immorality in this attitude of Arab governments to their own kinsmen whose plight they could relieve immediately, once the will to relieve it existed. All world opinion admits that the problem can only be solved on a regional basis by opening the vast resources of the Arab world to this Arab refugee population, and if there were such an effort on their part to approach a regional settlement, Israel would make its due and just contribution.

Eban is asked about Israel’s territorial ambitions, and assures Mr. Wallace that his country has none – or at least, that the ruling parties aren’t looking to expand Israel beyond the ceasefire borders that followed the 1948 war. As one of Israel’s leading diplomats, Mr. Eban places great importance on these agreements. He declares that:

Israel does not possess a single inch of territory beyond the valid agreements which she has signed and which United Nations has ratified

Israel, says Ambassador Eban, would also accept a peace agreement on those terms (now referred to as the 1967 borders, which a much stronger Israel rejects).

WALLACE: Mr. Ambassador, do you…. do you foresee further territorial expansion by Israel?

EBAN: Well I don’t like the word “further” Mr. Wallace, because, as I have said, our present boundaries rest upon agreements beyond which we have not encroached, but we certainly do not desire to expand our frontiers. I doubt the reality of this issue. We are prepared to accept a guaranteed settlement with the Arab States on the present frontiers.

Are they so prepared? I wonder whether the issue isn’t one of Arab expansion. Here sit I, the accredited representative of Israel, and I declare that Israel will sign a peace treaty with the Arab States on the present frontier. Now you get an Arab Ambassador sitting here to say that he will have a settlement with Israel on the present frontier, and you will really have a story.


Some of the most interesting questions Ambassador Eban was asked was about Israel’s expectations of the American Jewish Community. The entire exchange (in the video above) is fascinating: it’s hard to imagine it taking place today, when Israel is one of the hottest political currencies in the United States, and even raising some of the following issues is clearly taboo.

WALLACE: Now then, Mr. Eban, regarding the American Jew and the State of Israel, as I said, the anti-Zionist Rabbi, Dr. Elmer Berger, has written, “That the Zionist-Israeli axis imposes upon Jews outside of Israel, Americans of Jewish faith included, a status of double-nationality” a status which he deplores. What’s your answer?

EBAN: Well, Mr. Wallace, I have so many pressing duties that I don’t follow the wisdom of this gentleman perhaps as closely as I should. I will only say this, that we ask no allegiance, we seek no loyalty from anyone who is not a citizen of Israel. There is a kinship of spirit, of emotion, of historic memory between us and those who share our faith throughout the world. If American Jews wish to express that kinship, it is for them so to do; if not, then that also is their decision.

We, as a free nation speaking to a free nation, set forth the reasons why we believe they will find it infinitely rewarding to draw upon our common heritage and to sustain us in our great historic enterprise, but it is their decision and we impose nothing on them at all.

WALLACE: Your own Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wrote back in 1953 this, he said, “When a Jew in America speaks of our government to his fellow Jews, he usually means the government of Israel, while the Jewish public in various countries view the Israeli ambassadors as their own representatives.” Wouldn’t that appear anyway to support Rabbi Berger’s statement?

EBAN: I think not, Mr. Wallace. I’m sure that the Prime Minister was speaking in these terms of historic sympathy, we do evoke a certain affection, certain impulses of responsibility but the clear division of political allegiance is I think fully understood on both sides. We impose nothing upon them; we seek, as I’ve said, no allegiance from them. There is a kinship of history which both, they and we, seek voluntarily to express and for which there are so many examples, both in our own tradition and in yours.

WALLACE: Would a Jew, in your estimation, would a Jew be any the less a Jew if he were opposed to Zionism and to Israel?

EBAN: Well, we are dealing here with subjective terms, “more of a Jew”, or “less of a Jew”. I think it is for Jews outside of Israel to determine the exact degree and measure of their intimacy with us. We believe that Israel’s emergence is the greatest collective event in the history of the Jewish people, and that there is no pride and no dignity for a Jew such as those to be found in giving aid and sustenance to Israel in the great hour of her resurgence.

WALLACE: I still, if I may say so, sir, do not feel that you have been responsive to that question. Can a Jew be a good Jew and still be opposed to Zionism and to Israel?

EBAN: I think that’s for him to decide… I wouldn’t say

WALLACE: But, of course, it is. But in your estimation?

EBAN: In my own personal interpretation, I would say that a man who opposed the State of Israel and the great movement which brought it about, would be in revolt against the most constructive and creative events in the life of the Jewish people, and it’s a fact that the great majority of our kinsmen everywhere, are exalted and uplifted by these events.

WALLACE: But Judaism is a religion, sir

EBAN: It is a religion, and it is a peoplehood, and it is a civilization, and it is a faith, and it is a memory; it is a world of thought and of spirit and of action and it cannot be restrictively defined.

WALLACE: Therefore, in your estimation again, to be a good Jew one has to be more than just a religious practicing Jew, one has to enter the religion and the peoplehood at one and the same time to be a fulfilled Jew.

EBAN: I believe that religion has been the field in which the genius of our people has been most profoundly stirred. But… but being Jewish goes beyond this vital domain, and covers a whole complex of spiritual and other emotions, and that to live within the fullness of Jewish history is a deeply satisfying experience.

h/t Guy West

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    1. aristeides

      Odd that in the discussion of Israel’s territorial ambitions, they never raise the issue of its attempt to take over the Sinai, only two years before the interview. Which, only nine years after the interview, they do.

      Reply to Comment
    2. @ARISTEIDES good point, especially since it took US threats to get Israel out in 56′.

      Reply to Comment
    3. RichardL

      Presumably the interview was sanctioned on condition that the Sinai invasion was left out of the interview. Eban’s notes on his knee merely confirm that all his statistics were not the product of his encyclopaedic knowledge but that he had been given the questions before the interview. Yes it is a smooth, if not oily performance but give credit where it is due (much as I hate to do this) Mark Regev does have to think on his feet against what at times is very hostile questioning.
      Interesting use of the word “blasphemous” in the first video.

      Reply to Comment
    4. RichardL

      Incidentally how does one get spacing between the paragraphs in these comments?

      Reply to Comment
    5. @RICHARDL will be solved in the coming months. for now you can use HTML codes like
      & nbsp ;
      (without spaces)

      Reply to Comment
    6. Great document. No mythical Kingdom of David, no holocaust, no God.
      Just plain and honest colonialism. Hasbara has degenerated, that’s the least we can say.

      Reply to Comment
    7. caden

      You know what was an “oily performance”? Watching Arafat slither into the white house during the Clinton years like the snake that he was

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mike in SB

      @Caden, gotta love productive comments!

      @Noam, thanks for bringing this back to light and highlighting the good parts. Interesting to see many aspects of today’s hasbara in a context when they made more sense…like referring to Arabs as a unified people while pan-Arab nationalism was still strong (note the mention of unified Egypt-Syria).

      Reply to Comment
    9. RichardL

      Thanks Noam for the info and the inserted space.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Richard Witty

      I found Abba Eban’s comments to be reasonable, rational, accurate, clear, and helpful.

      The effort to dismiss them, is at least partially an effort of historical revision, in fact and in emphasis.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Jack

      Ebban, netanyahu is good charlatans, they dupe(d) alot of people. Its part of the PR campaign Israel make use of and know the importance of. Anyone who is well read into the subject although knows that these 2 men are professtional liars.

      Reply to Comment
    12. RichardL

      Richard Witty: “I found Abba Eban’s comments to be reasonable, rational, accurate, clear, and helpful.”
      Very witty. I mean you have got to be joking.
      Just take the first five minutes and you have, from the Voice of Israel,

      “democracy established” (for the Palestinians in the Galilee at this time?)
      “Violence imposed by the hostility of our neighbours” (Were they responsible for Plan Dalet?)
      “…perhaps the memories of the Sinai expedition…” (Nice euphemism for premeditated and unprovoked aggression.)
      Prof Toynbee’s statement is a “monstrous blasphemy” (I would have expected better from a linguist)
      Arab refugees “suffering certain anguish” and “temporary suffering” (Gross understatements if not callous lies.)
      “The refugee problem is the result of an Arab policy which created the problem by the invasion of Israel. Which perpetuates it by refusing to accommodate them into their expanding labour market” (So the Nakba was all the Arabs fault, as is Israel’s denial of the legal right of return.)
      I do not share your dry sense of humour. In fact it stinks.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Richard Witty

      There is much to change and repair, but the reality that the founding and preservation of the state of Israel was a profound liberation for the European and Sephardi Jewish community, and for the world Jewish community.

      That a formerly suppressed community subject to continual prejudice now found a base of dignity, freedom, self-governance, was a profound good in the world, a truly progressive era.

      What needs to happen now is that the Palestinian community achieve something similar to what the Jewish community achieved in the founding and evolution of Israel.

      Not that Israel should be subject to threat or to weaken.

      You don’t like that he is proud of Israel, presents Israel as a positive effort?

      Reply to Comment
    14. caden

      Richard L, Eban was the foreign minister of Israel. What did you want him to do, take a gun and blow his head off in shame over the Arabs “naqba”. Or whatever the hell you call it. I call it losing a war you started and then bitching about it for 64 years.

      Reply to Comment
    15. RichardL

      Richard Witty: “You don’t like that he is proud of Israel, presents Israel as a positive effort?”
      I don’t like that he pulls off a PR coup that seriously distorts the truth which you then call reasonable and accurate.
      And how is the Palestinian community going to achieve “dignity, freedom, self-governance” when it is stifled under a vicious occupation? Only this week Oxfam reports that power outages in Gaza have been lasting 18 hours a day in some areas. Meanwhile the tunnels are closed to fuel for cars and generators resulting in the price being three times the price of fuel supplied through the tunnels. Lest you forget Egyptian policy on entry of goods into Gaza is controlled by Israel via its hold on US policy-makers. Palestinians have the capabilities to create a thriving nation, but they need Israel to stop stealing their rights, their resources, their land and their finances, along with desisting from indulging in violent turkey shoots on a routine basis. If they were to be the beneficiaries of the sort of financial largesse that has been doled out to Israel over decades it would also help them considerably.
      Caden: What do I want Eban to do? Act like a man of principle and not a propagandist liar. Whatever the hell anyone calls it the Zionists had prepared for this fight and had started ethnic cleansing before the Arab attacks, contrary to your misinterpretation of history. The Jews have been “bitching” about their legitimate grievances for a lot longer than 64 years. The Palestinians too have legitimate grievances and you hypocritically want them to keep quiet about being violently deprived of their homes and their land by foreign invaders. I am not so naïve as to expect Eban in 1958 to commit political suicide by publically declaring that Israel had been founded on the rape of Palestine. I do take strong exception to him pretending that Israel was a paragon of virtue and everything that had happened was entirely the fault of the Arabs. The man was a moral bankrupt. Don’t look to me to subscribe to the fan club.

      Reply to Comment
    16. What is interesting is that the interviewer also reflects America’s stance at that time, which was more or less even handed in its Middle East dealings. Today you can’t even imagine any MSM American interviewer asking these questions and suggesting that perhaps America should be even handed in its Middle East policy and has an obligation to maintain friendship with the Arab people too.

      Also, quite funny, here is a man who was not even born in the region, speaking perfect English with Queen’s accent, probably living in a house confiscated from a refugee family, and laying the blame squarely on the “native savages”, including putting the onus on them to fix the refugee problem that his colonial immigration and ethnic cleansing has created.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Richard Witty

      I’m in his fan club.

      I see misrepresentation in the characterization of Israel as “only” undertaking ethnic cleansing, and not also somehow conducting developing and protecting a community.

      In the environment post WW-2 of European Jews not permitted to migrate to Great Britain, France, US, Russia and instead expected to return to the towns where most of their neighbors cheered as the shuttled them off to death camps, it makes perfect sense to me that they would seek out a life in Israel.

      That wrongs occur currently deserves attention and significant repair.

      But, to rationalize a similarly simplistic description of history, seems hypocritical to me. Worse than hypocritical as it insists on continued war, the LEAST democratic and most suppressive political setting, both externally and internally.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Richard Witty

      And, it makes perfect sense to me that American and British Jews would be proud and supportive of such an effort.

      From traumas there is a phenomena of “survivors guilt”. Its not literally that people are guilty that they survived, though that occurs in particularly stressed individuals.

      “Survivors guilt” is in the healthy range of motivation. American Jews were motivated by the sentiment “if it were us?” morphing into the strong motivation of “how can I help?”

      Its not all that different than many dissenters’ motivation, “if it were us” (walking compassionately in another’s shoes), and “how can I help?” (actually doing something about it, something positive).

      Reply to Comment