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