Translating History

The Impressive Story of Isaac A. Abbady

The humble scholarly linguist who helped put Israel on the map as a Jewish state

By Alona Abbady Martinez

Isaac Abbady in the Port of Tel Aviv

Isaac Abbady in the Port of Tel Aviv. This is the Inauguration of the Port of Tel Aviv, 1938. Isaac Abbady was part of a distinguished group of scholars and politicians there for the event.

I never met my grandfather, Isaac A. Abbady, he passed before I was born.  But I’ve grown up under his adoring memory, relayed to me my whole life, by his only son, my father Ariel Abbady. Although I was born and raised far away from Israel, my dad made sure to keep his homeland and the role my grandfather had in creating it, very much alive.  Today my father is in his 80s and slowed down by Parkinson’s disease, but it doesn’t hamper his enthusiasm when speaking about his dad.

“I have a lot to tell you about my father,” he began, then going on to describe a photograph taken in his childhood apartment in Jerusalem of Sir Herbert Louis Samuel, who served as the first High Commissioner of Palestine from July 1, 1920 to June 30, 1925.  “My father was working for him,” he explained, his voice swelling with pride.

A Closer Look
World War I dramatically altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. In 1917, at the height of the war, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour submitted a letter of intent supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The British government hoped that the formal declaration—known thereafter as the Balfour Declaration—would encourage support for the Allies in World War I. When the war ended in 1918 with an Allied victory (in large part thanks to the efforts of British General Edmund Allenby) the 400-year Ottoman Empire rule ended and Great Britain took control over what became known as Palestine (modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan).

General Allenby was in need of someone to translate his decrees and reached out to Samuel for a name.  Samuel did not hesitate to suggest my grandfather, already a known scholar, and Allenby went on to appoint Isaac as Chief Translator for the British Government.

Professional Diplomacy
“Your saba,” my father Ariel said, using the Hebrew word for grandpa, “worked together with the Mufti of Jerusalem, sharing the same office space,” he explained, referring to the Sunni Muslim cleric in charge of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy places. The position was created by the British in 1918. The Mufti of that time, a man by the name of Haj Amin al-Husseini, is notorious for having met with Adolf Hitler to discuss their common enemy, the Jews.

“My father was his boss,” Ariel recounted, explaining that Isaac Abbady translated all decrees from English to Hebrew, as well as from English to Arabic, being fluent in all three languages.

“Did they get along?” the obvious question spills from my lips.

“I’ll tell you, that’s history!” my father answered with a chuckle. “He shared a table next to my father, in the same room.”

The Mufti

The Mufti, first row center, wearing the white headpiece/fez.

Dealing with Growing Tensions with Honor
Even with their differences, my grandfather was always decent and professional, attributes that did not go unnoticed.

“In 1929 there were riots in Palestine,” my father said, referring to the 1929 Massacres.  “Arabs were killing left and right, whichever Jews they could.”

At the same time, King Abdullah of Jordan was hinting he was willing to recognize a Jewish state.  David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish community who would go on to become the country’s first Prime Minister, wanted to send his foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, to Jordan. He reached out to Isaac Abbady, knowing he was the only one who could ensure Sharett receive safe passageway to Jordan.

Ariel continued, “My father spoke to the Mufti, who were running all these riots. The Mufti said, ‘If Isaac Abbady is asking, I will honor his request and Sharett can travel to meet Abdullah and nobody will hurt him.’”

Sharett did indeed travel to Jordan, known as Transjordan at the time, and met with King Abdullah, who gave his consent to recognize the Jewish State.  As a result, the king was assassinated in the Al Aqsa Mosque, in front of his grandson, then Prince Hussein, who was 15 years old at the time.

A Man of Principle
Isaac A. Abbady was the official translator for the British government until 1946, when he resigned in protest of restrictions placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine at that time. In doing so,
he gave up a pension due to him after a lifetime service to the British government.

“Money was a dirty word at our house.  It didn’t mean much to my father,” Ariel said.

He spent the rest of his life translating a summary of the Hebrew newspapers for the United Nations.

“Isaac got up early in the morning, went to the kiosk in the corner to pick up the newspapers, sat down with his Smith Corona typewriter to type the summary of these papers,” Ariel recalled about his father. “Then he’d put them in our broken mailbox and the driver of the United Nations would come to pick it up.  It allowed him to live honorably.”

There are several adjectives that have been ingrained in my understanding of who this man, Isaac A. Abbady, was.  Honorable is certainly one of them.  Scholarly, loyal, and respected are a few others.

A Family Secret Unveiled
My father’s voice is slightly shaky.  He is growing tired but has one more story to tell:

“One day our bell was ringing and three guys appeared. One was from Hebrew University, the other from the Bank of Israel, and the third was a known journalist of the local paper.  The three came to my father to ask him to be a candidate for the presidency of Israel.”

Isaac Abbady declined, suspicious that the men only wanted his nomination to get a Sephardic Jew on the ballot, a sought-after requirement at the time.  My grandfather, whose family hailed from Syria, would be a great fit.

My father grew silent, allowing me to think of two other words that describe this great man I never met:  grounded and humble.  Few people would have the clarity to turn such an
offer down.

“I want to bring to a certain level my father’s career,” he explained, his voice thick with emotion.  “Very few people knew that they came to offer him the nomination.”

My father, now almost 10 years older than his own father was when he died, continues to be a proud son.

Translating History