I first encountered Zvi Gabay at a meeting of activists for justice for Jews from Arab countries. A genteel, thoughtful man, his memoir, From Baghdad to the Pathways of Diplomacy, reflects modesty and restraint. Typically, his memoir understates his tireless advocacy in newspapers and fora for the rights of almost a million Jews driven from Arab lands.
In his book he barely mentions the issue which – apart from his love of Arabic poetry – has consumed much of his time since his retirement.
Born in Baghdad in 1938, Zvi Gabay (brother of the famous film actor Sasson Gabay) was just old enough to remember the turmoil of 1947, when the Iraqi government tried to divert popular attention away from domestic issues to the Jews. Iraq was among the seven Arab countries that declared war against the new state of Israel. Arrests of local Jews, executions and travel bans followed. The writing on the wall was clear to Zvi: the Jewish community of Iraq was doomed.
Although he comes from a comfortable middle class family, several frightening incidents stick in Zvi’s childhood memory: Palestinian youths hurling stones at Zvi’s bicycle, for instance. The hostility he encountered in Baghdad made Zvi loathe the city and strengthened his determination to emigrate to Israel.
There was a two year stint at a ‘cold and alienating’ kibbutz, night school, then military service in the IDF. Expecting to be punished for playing without permission his passion, tennis, in his lunch break, Zvi tells an amusing anecdote when the base commander insisted, davka, on playing with him. It was ‘tennis under orders’.
His family having sought security in Israel, then came a terrible twist of fate: his father was murdered in his Haifa grocery store by a Christian Arab.
Zvi undertook intermittent higher studies and embarked a long career in the Israeli Foreign Ministry which took him to Ireland (where he served as ambassador) and Australasia. As a fluent Arabic speaker he was one of the first diplomats to be assigned to the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Much of the work was unglamorous: arranging official visits, undertaking painstaking mediation behind-the-scenes for the release of Israelis in Egyptian jails. His disappointment at the cold peace which followed the 1979 Israel-Egypt Treaty is palpable. The Egyptians he dealt with remained smiling and polite but ultimately uninterested in advancing relations with Israel.
Zvi Gabay: thoughtful and restrained
The most fascinating section of Zvi’s memoirs relates to Egypt. He tells a hilarious story of Israelis stuck in a lift ‘with a mind of its own’. The repairmen’s stock answer was ‘patience, patience.’ The doorman refused to help, convinced that the cries of the trapped Israelis were the voices of jin (spirits). The firemen arrived, put out an imaginary fire and left. Zvi and his friends had no choice but to free their suffocating colleagues with their own hands, by breaking a hole through the adjoining wall.
A suitable metaphor for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, perhaps: the Israelis make all the running, while the Egyptians imagine Zionist conspiracies, pay lip service, and urge ‘patience’.
From Baghdad to the Pathways of Diplomacy by Zvi Gabay (Contento, 2016) £14.43. Also on Kindle.