Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lova Eliav - Israeli Hero - Dies at 88

Arieh (Lova) Eliav died in Tel Aviv today after a long illness. He was 88.

Eliav was one of my heroes when I first moved to Israel in 1974. In the pre-state days he had commanded Haganah ships bringing illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine. In 1956 he spearhead the evacuation of the Jews of Port Said from Egypt to Israel. Throughout the 1950s and early 60s he worked on immigrant absorption. He was the prime mover in the development of the Lakhish region of Israel, including the city of Kiryat Gat and 15 surrounding kibbutzim and moshavim.

In 1965 he was elected to the Knesset for the Labour Party. Eventually he became a deputy minister (twice) and Secretary General of the Labour Party. But by 1973 he had quit Labour because he disagreed with Labour's policies regarding both the occupied territories and internal social policy

In late 1967, just after the six day war, when he resigned as Deputy Minister of Commerce and Industry, he told then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol

"Our future, for better of for worse, will be determined in the West Bank and in Gaza, and I don't know anything about them. I am not an expert on Arabs or the Middle East. Until today, I've only met Arabs through the sights of a gun."

Eshkol then asked, "So what is it that you want?" to which Eliav replied "what I want to do now is to tour the territories, explore and begin to understand the issue and the problems. And now I am announcing my resignation."

Eliav toured refugee camps for six months, meeting with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and in Gaza. Once a month, he would file a report with Eshkol.

After six months, Eliav asked to establish a national authority for the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Eliav approached Golda Meir with the proposal, but she replied that it was more important to focus on "our own needy people."

Eliav was re-appointed as a Deputy Minister this time of Immigrant Absorption from 1968 to 1969. He served as Secretary General of the Labour Party from 1969 to 1971. He was re-elected to the Knesset in 1973, but left the Labour Party shortly afterwards, siting its policies in the occupied territories that allowed for Israel settlements, its refusal to negotiate with the PLO, and its abandonment of social democratic ideals within Israel.

Eliav went on sit as a member of Knesset for Ratz, Yaad, and Shelli - all small parties of the Israeli left in the 1970s and 80s. I worked for and voted for all these parties, and it was in this capacity that I got to know Eliav personally.

The single thing that impressed me the most about him - more than his integrity, foresight, political analysis or practical skills - was that once a week, 52 weeks a year, he volunteered as an orderly in an understaffed Tel-Aviv hospital. He felt that he had to do that to keep himself grounded, and so that "if all this politics is slow in producing results, at the end of the week I still know I have contributed." He had been doing that for over 10 years when I met him, and as far as I know he continued for many years after.

In 1988 Eliav helped found Nitzana, an educational community in the Western Negev, and he continued to serve on its board until 2008.


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