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Abba Eban talks about the meaning of 'Masada'

The man who will probably be Israel's next Foreign Minister isn't very happy about "Masada," the ABC mini-series now being viewed all or in part by close to 100 million Americans, according to ABC estimates.

Abba Eban, known to friends and family as Aubrey, served as Israel's first chief delegate to the UN and has already been unoficially designated the Labor Party's foreign minister, if the Labor Party takes power in the June 30 elections, as is being predicted by ISraeli polls.

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He has been here and in Washington for the past week, ostensibly to talk to Jewish-American religious and cultural groups about a PBS/WNET-NY 11-part series , "Civilization and the Jews," for which he is serving as host and consultant. The ambitious $6 million series -- already in the works -- will be shot on four continents and will trace the impact on Western civilization of the history and accomplishment of the Jewish people, from their alleged origins up to contemporary times.

This public broadcasting series, still not completely funded but already in production under the aegis of Marc Seigel, will not air until 1983, but Mr. Eban seems to be taking this opportunity to do some politicking right now for his Labor Party. And he is quite willing to talk about ABC's current "Masada" (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings).

"The suicide of Jews on Masada should not be regarded as the epitome of Jewish response to subjugation" he tells me in a clipped British accent. "The central theme of Jewish life is how to live, not how to die," he objects, even though he is aware that the mini-series, like its predecessor "Holocaust," may attract record-breaking numbers of American TV viewers.

In an interview in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel, Mr. Eban clearly enunciates his version of the Jewish character. Suited in sedate Oxford gray flannel with a silk rep tie, this silver-tongued diplomat also wears comfortable brown loafers on his feet. His embivalent costume seems to reflect the combination of formality and informal good humor with which he peppers and sweetens his conversation.

Does Abba Eban believe the TV version of "Masada" -- which includes the mass suicide of Jewish Zealots and Essenes on the Masada cliff stronghold in AD 73 when faced with defeat by the occupying and attacking Romans -- might do more harm than good to the Jewish image abroad?

"On the one hand," he says thoughtfully, "I have deep emotions about the heroism, but on the other hand I have real skepticism about the historical veracity. After all, the story of the suicides depends upon somebody who never told the truth in any other situation -- Flavius Josephus [a Jewish historian-general who lived between AD 37 and 95 and wrote "The History of the Jewish War" and "Antiquities of the Jews"]. The Roman accounts do speak of conquest, but not of the dramatic spectacle of suicide."

He shakes his head sadly. "However, it all may be irrelevant because I believe that legends are just as important as ascertainable facts in history. Masada is a celebration of resistance and heroism. The resistance was hopeless. There was really no chance of resisting Roman power. The balance of forces in AD 73 was such that a rebellion of this kind could never have been successful.

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"In a sense, Masada has become a metaphor for resistance movements all through history. One could even compare it to the Warsaw Ghetto. You have to die or sell your life dearly to create and legend, the repercussions of which celebrate your values.

"Yet Masada is being presented as the epitome of Jewish response to subjugation. My objection is that his is not a Jewish response.

"The main thing you do if you are authentically Jewish is to remain alive and keep your heritage alive. You go off like Jochanan ben Cakkaii [one of the fathers of the rabbinic tradition of choosing the spiritual way] and despair of military or political or temporal strength. You accept the fact that in the Roman Imperial period, the Jews are not going to have any political or military satisfactions. And that really ensured Jewish persistence much more than the heroic sacrifice of Masada.

"In other words, Israelis and Jews around the world should not look at Masada as something to emulate. And that is why I am against the idea of using the place to swear in our troops [as the modern Israeli Army nows does] even though they declare that Masada shall not fall again. I feel it is the site of an episode of great drama. But I would not like it to be the symbol of the Jewish destiny."

Would Abba Eban prefer that Entebbe, where Israeli soldiers heroically fought their way through Ugandan troops and PLO hijackers to rescue the hostages, be the symbol of Jewish destiny?

He nods his head approvingly but not entirely convincingly. "Perhaps. But really it can be nothing that simple. We have such a rich diversity of historic experience -- I wouldn't want to pick one out.

"But I would certainly not want a version of Jewish history which excludes the prophetic and emphasisizes only military valor, either. Masada is certainly a creditable episode, a symbol of tenacity and the refusal to give in."

What did Abba Eban think of the NBC mini-series "Holocaust" several years ago?

"I did not think it was very good. But if you ask me if it was effective in bringing the Holocaust to the attention of millions of people, I think it was effective. I am more pleased that it was made than if it had not been made. It created a consciousness in the minds of millions of people. It did not in any way exalt the experience. But on the whole I liked the results. . . ."

With "Masada," "Holocaust," "playing for Time," and the upcoming "The Wall" (about the Warsaw ghetto uprising), is Mr. Eban upset that all such TV programs seem to end in disaster for the Jews. Is one of the purposes of the "Civilization and the Jews" series on PBS to counteract that negative view of Jewish history?

He shakes his vigorously. "Not to counteract. This series would have happened irrespective of the other programs. But certainly I would very much prefer that the world not think of the Jews in terms of death and suffering, although you cannot ignore the suffering as one of the themes of Jewish experience.

"But getting killed is not the only thing that Jews have done in history. There is the story of their originality, their creativity -- the ability to be creative within their own heritage and as a component of other civilizations."

"Jews have always created something --to repond to them, having something to say about all the major currents in political and moral history. The PBS series will cover all of that which is essential to the history of the Jewish experience -- perseverance, creativity, renewal. I refuse to concentrate on the theme of suffering."

Does Abba Eban believe that world Jewry is now in a period of renewal?

"Yes. Masada is now part of a state with more than 3 million Jews -- all alive. We have taken revenge on Peter O'Toole [the Roman General Silva]. We have recreated a situation that they destroyed."

Mr. Eban, the man who prefers the Entebbe image of the Masada image, is not very enthusiastic about the oft-repeated Arab demand that the state of Israel be replaced by a multireligion, multinational democratic state.

The would-be foreign minister of Israel shakes his head, thrusts out his jaw firmly and states: "Our answer to anybody who offers an alternative other than Israel is 'No, thank you. Our statehood is an irrevocable fact!'"

Spoken like a true zealot.

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