Originally published in the Forward June 16, 1995.
Abba Eban has endured countless situations fraught with danger, discomfort and uncertainty, but none quite like the one he faced when George Segal wrapped his body in plaster-impregnated bandages. This was the first step in the making of the cast that was to become “Portrait of Abba Eban.”
“It’s quite an ordeal, actually,” Mr. Eban told the Forward. “You’re surrounded. You just hope they’ll know when to take it off.”
The sculpture shows a seated, life-size Mr. Eban (covered in the dark acrylic paint that Mr. Segal has been using lately) in front of a black, wooden wall with a map of Israel silkscreened on it. Mr. Eban asked Mr. Segal to make it for the Abba Eban Center for the Diplomacy of Israel, a part of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he has donated his papers. On June 1, his 80th birthday, it was unveiled at New York’s Jewish Museum, where museum chairman E. Robert Goodkind, director Joan Rosenbaum, Senator Lautenberg, Isaac Stern and Israeli consul general Colette Avital were among the friends and admirers on hand to make toasts.
The statesman and the sculptor have been friends since 1972, when Mr. Eban intervened in an artistic crisis that required a diplomatic resolution. Mr. Segal, who had been commissioned to make a public artwork for Tel Aviv, wanted to depict Abraham and Isaac. He chose the theme because his father had recently died and because he wanted to pay homage to a story he had often reread as a youth when bored in synagogue.
Some Israelis, however, read a political meaning into the sculpture. “They said it was critical of the policy of sending Israeli sons to die in war,” Mr. Segal recounts. “They said to change the theme of the sculpture.” When Mr. Eban got wind of the problem, he intervened. “Abba Eban shamed the authorities of Tel Aviv,” Mr. Segal says. “He said, ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. How dare you censor freedom of expression?’ I got permission to do as I saw fit.”
At the Jewish Museum ceremony there was much talk of the peace process and praise for Mr. Eban ‘s role in it. “What is portrayed in that map and that sculpture is defiance,” Mr. Eban told the crowd. “A porcupine is not the most cuddlesome bed partner, but he stands a chance of not being easily devoured.” He celebrated his country’s recent diplomatic inroads with countries like Egypt, Morocco and Syria, noting that “the attritional effect of our tenacity has had its effect on our neighbors.”
Like everything connected with the peace process, however, the portrait proved to be controversial. During her remarks, Ms. Avital pointed to Mr. Eban’s elaborate birthday cake, which was shaped like a map of Israel and studded with plastic palm trees. Then she noted that in the map in Mr. Segal’s sculpture, the country was distinctly smaller—Gaza and the West Bank were clearly marked off with thick red lines.
In this case, though, Mr. Segal admits that he indeed intended a political message. The cake was provided by the Jewish Museum. The map in the sculpture was prepared by the artist — in consultation with Mr. Eban.