Profile: Arie Lova Eliav
Witness to the founding of the state, the decision to settle beyond the green line and the recent disengagement, this octogenarian today looks back on his life of service to Israel.
Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer and the government’s intention of continuing the process in the West Bank should have given Arie Lova Eliav a feeling of satisfaction. After all, not only did he fiercely oppose from day one the idea of settling the areas Israel captured in the 1967 war, he also sacrificed his likely place as one of the nation’s future leaders because of his stance.
As secretary general of the ruling Labor Party just after the war, he was personally groomed by Golda Meir to be her successor. But Eliav clashed with the prime minister over plans for the occupied territories to the point of resigning from office in 1971.
Now that he has seen an israeli majority adopt his view against the occupation and for a two-state solution, it would be tempting for the ranking dove to enjoy a moment of vindication. But the gentle-mannered 84-year-old—regarded with respect and affection by supporters and rivals alike—concedes no such impulse.
“I feel no satisfaction because the price was so high,” he said. “[Israel paid] in lives, in resources, in our moral fiber and our international relations” before it came around to endorsing his perspective.
The Labor Party’s current chairman, Amir Peretz, is a protégé of Eliav, who mentored him in political life and helped him win the party leadership. Peretz has admired Eliav since he was a child in the Negev Desert development town of Sderot. “I saw him as a symbol because of his courage to express clear positions and pay the price,” Peretz said. “Maybe if he had restrained himself and stayed and continued the debate inside the Labor Party, he would have become [its] head and prime minister. Maybe the whole Middle East would look different today.
“When I wanted to quit the Labor Party because of severe internal strife,” Peretz continued, “he advised me not to. He said: ‘Learn from my mistakes. Keep fighting in the political arena as long as you can.’”
Eliav backed Peretz’s nomination to head Labor because he saw him as someone who could embody a renewal of the party’s socialist values. On the morning of Peretz’s victory over Shimon Peres, Eliav was at his friend’s side as the new chairman made his speech.
But Eliav’s career in public service goes well beyond the political and continues to this day as head of the Nitzana educational community he founded on the Israeli-Egyptian border. He also remains active in Labor.
Today, Eliav, who has bright blue eyes and a small but sturdy build, still lives in the Tel Aviv apartment his family moved into after immigrating from Moscow 81 years ago. A painting of a Jewish scholar bending over a large tome hangs in the living room: It is a portrait of his grandfather, painted by Leonid Pasternak, father of author Boris. He called it Der Talmudist.
For almost 60 years Eliav has been married to Tania, a Holocaust survivor born in Kaunas, Lithuania. She was part of a group of refugees he smuggled into Palestine as commander of a ship for the Mossad’s “illegal” immigration in 1947. The couple commemorated her murdered parents and two sisters, members of the Zvi family (zvi means deer in Hebrew), in the names of their children—Zvi, Ofra and Eyal, all names of animals from the deer family.
Today, Zvi is an economist, Ofra is a school librarian and Eyal teaches design at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Eliav has seven grandchildren, most of whom continue the family tradition of “deer” names.
The theme of zvi—deer, hart and gazelle—also appears in the titles of 2 of Eliav’s 14 books, Land of the Hart in 1972 and Twins of the Gazelle in 2005 (both from Am Oved Press). He says his romance with that animal began when, as a boy of 11, he won a school essay contest. The prize was meeting poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, revered throughout the Yishuv and the Jewish world. An inscription Bialik wrote on a photograph of the two alludes to those themes: “Be light as a deer and strong as a lion to work in the service of your people,” he wrote, paraphrasing a passage from Ethics of the Fathers.
The childless poet took a liking to the bright youngster and a friendship grew between them, lasting until Bialik died two years later. During that time he passed on his love of literature, Judaism, Zionism and public service that Eliav says has guided him throughout his life.
At 15, Eliav joined the haganah, followed by service in the British Army, immigrant ship-running, the Israeli Navy and immigration and rescue operations. He studied biology, history and sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his B.A.
As assistant head of the Jewish Agency settlement department, Eliav guided the planning and construction of 50 villages and a town in the Lachish region between Jerusalem and Beersheba, then did the same for Arad. In the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he commanded an operation that whisked the Jews out of Port Said, Egypt, and brought them to Israel overnight.
After resigning as secretary of the Labor Party in 1971, Eliav’s political career had its ups and downs. To get away from political heat and to keep his perspective on life, from 1974 to 1975 he took a job as an orderly in his off-hours, feeding patients and washing bedpans at Tel Aviv’s former Hadassah hospital on Balfour Street.
In 1975, he founded the leftist Sheli Party and then, in 1976, headed a group of Israelis who established a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, more than a decade and a half before the government recognized the group. Eliav left the Knesset in 1979, but in 1984 ran again as the head of his own party but did not win. He returned to Labor and served as a member of the Knesset from 1988 to 1992; in 1993, he made a failed bid for the presidency.
Eliav founded the Nitzana Youth Aliyah Village in 1987 with a vision of turning it into a center of regional cooperation. Nitzana’s offerings include an ulpan for immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, desert seminars, programs for young immigrants who arrive without parents, computer and science studies for talented Israeli students, a Young Judaea program and opportunities for members of the Bedouin community to learn about the Negev. Courses for Palestinians and Egyptians have dwindled since the intifada broke out in 2000. Some 15,000 students participate in Nitzana classes each year.
Having been in the public eye for Israel’s entire history, Eliav’s résumé reads like a Zionist legend, and he was awarded the nation’s top honor, the Israel Prize, in 1988. But for all his achievements, when asked to state his profession, he answers “teacher.” He has taught housewives at community centers in development towns, inmates in Israeli prisons and students at institutes of higher learning including Harvard University and the Tel Hai Regional College in the Galilee.
“The concept of ‘teacher’ has great resonance in Jewish tradition,” he explained. “I am very proud to be able to call myself a teacher.” He has taught everything from agriculture to Hebrew to politics, but his favorite subject is the Bible.
“I am definitely not observant of the commandments,” he admitted, “but I am very sympathetic to Jewish tradition and see it as the basis of my universal beliefs as a humanist and Zionist. The teachings of the prophets are the love of my life. They… were the greatest social reformers humanity has ever seen.”
It was when Eliav moved to Sderot for a teaching stint in 1984 that Peretz, then head of the local council, befriended him. “As council head, I took advantage of his presence and had him go from school to school and speak about peace, humanistic values and personal example,” Peretz recalled. “We forged a personal and practically familial bond. The love between us is like the love of a father and a son, the love of a teacher and a pupil, the love of comrades in arms.”
Eliav has indeed left an indelible impression on the people he has helped over the years. Bezalel Eliahu, 75, emigrated from Cochin, India, in 1955 to a Negev settlement and was received by Eliav.
“He was the driver, the guard and the nurse,” Eliahu related. Even after all these years, he keeps in constant contact with Eliav.
“Lova came down here a few years ago in work clothes and said: ‘I want to work for a week in your greenhouses,’” Eliahu recounted. “He lived here for a week, slept here, worked with us. There have been two people in my life I have ever followed. One was in India…. That was Mahatma Gandhi. Israel has Lova.”