When the result of the vote was announced, ‘a feeling that grips a man but once in his lifetime came upon us. High above us we seemed to hear the beating of the wings of history.’
So recalled David Horowitz, a member of the Jewish Agency delegation, on hearing the result of the historic vote at the United Nations on 29 November 1947. Against all the odds, Horowitz and his colleagues had managed to attain the necessary two thirds majority for UN Resolution 181 in favour of the partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states — one for the Zionist Jews, the other for the Palestinian Arabs. Today, seventy-five years on, any celebrations are defined by the fact that this was a close-run thing and that the emergence of Israel was never inevitable.
As history records, the vote on that historic Friday was 33 for, 13 opposed and 10 abstentions. In calculating the two thirds majority, both abstentions and absentees did not count. On the previous Tuesday evening at Flushing Meadow, the UN Ad Hoc Committee had voted on a draft resolution for partition — and while the Zionists attained a majority, it was not a two thirds majority.
The Brazilian president of this session, Oswaldo Aranha, agreed to postpone the full vote for another three days. This respite afforded the time to the Zionists to persuade the 17 abstainers and countless other waverers to cast their votes in favour of a two-state solution.
During those three days, Jews around the world understood that this was the moment that could change Jewish history. Every contact, no matter how tenuous, every pressure point, no matter how ethical, was utilised. All understood that it was now or never.
Diplomats such as Moshe Sharett, the Jewish Agency’s ‘Foreign Minister’ tried to persuade the Ethiopians by recalling the hospitality that Jerusalem had given Emperor Haile Selassie after the Italians had ousted him. Businessmen such as Harvey Firestone whose National Rubber Company had interests in Liberia used their influence.
Both Greece and Haiti had decided to vote ‘No’. Would the Philippines abstain? What would be the effect of a revolution in Thailand? The dispirited Zionists labelled 27 November as ‘Black Wednesday’.
At that time, only 56 states comprised the United Nations. This was before the onset of full decolonisation a decade later. Even so, the newly independent India was mindful of its Muslim minority and Prime Minister Nehru was not amused at persistent attempts to persuade him to vote in favour.
The Vatican held great sway amongst countries which were nominally Catholic nations. The Latin Americans were divided on partition and France and Belgium were wavering. France, in particular, did not wish to increase anti-colonial sentiment in its Empire amongst its Muslim subjects. Yet the anti-Semitism of the Vichy regime and the Nazi occupation could not be glossed over.
During the inter-war years the Vatican was distinctly unsympathetic to Zionist aspirations and many of its officials tended to view Jews as part and parcel of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (John XXIII) and Karol Józef Wojtyła (John Paul II), future popes who themselves bore witness to Nazi brutality never followed the Vatican’s seemingly neutral stand on Jewish persecution.
The British, virtually bankrupt after victory over the Nazis, felt aggrieved that having won the war, it was now in the process of losing an empire. Maintaining forces in Palestine was expensive and there was mounting anger, exacerbated by the military struggle of the Irgun, at the Zionists — to the extent that there were riots in Britain to the point of open anti-Semitism. David Horowitz writes that Lt. Col. Martin Charteris, the head of military intelligence in Jerusalem was ‘one of our most confirmed and unrelenting adversaries’. Charteris later became private secretary to the late Queen during the early part of her reign.
The Palestine question polarised Britain politically. The Guardian tended to support the Zionists while the Daily Telegraph was lukewarm towards their aspirations. In cabinet, the right-wing trade union leader, now Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin wanted a unitary state and opposed partition because in his eyes the Jewish problem began with the Nazis and ended with it.
The British case was that the Shoah had been ‘a solitary historical phenomenon’ that would not be repeated. British policy was therefore directed at separating the aftermath of the Shoah from the Palestine question. The cabinet of Clement Atlee was divided — Aneurin Bevan, the leader of the Labour Left and founder of the National Health Service, argued passionately for a Jewish state and even threatened to resign because of British conduct in Palestine.
Britain famously abstained in the vote for partition and took eight months to formally recognise Israel after it had declared its independence in May 1948 — the Americans took 11 minutes. Yet the British dominions Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and led by Canada all deserted Britain on 29 November 1947 and voted in favour of a two-state solution.
Despite its virulent anti-Zionism in the past, the Soviet Union now supported the emergence of a state of the Jews. At the same time, it arrested Soviet Jews who wished to leave for Israel and sentenced them to long years in the Gulag. Its external and internal policies were diametrically different.
Stalin believed that the Soviets could replace the British in the Middle East and prevent the Americans from entering that strategic space. Conversely, some in the US administration — and certainly in the Republican party — feared that supporting the Zionists was not in American national interests, given that a Jewish state would be led by Ben-Gurion and a left-wing coalition and that the mass immigration of Jews could open the way to Soviet infiltration.
Local Communist parties strongly supported the rise of Israel — in the spirit of the wartime anti-Nazi alliance. In France, the approach of the Communist party was later typified in a speech in the National Assembly by Florimond Bonté, a member of its central committee. He argued that the fight of the Jews in Palestine was on a par with other anti-imperialist liberation struggles.
The Greek partisan, the soldier in the Chinese popular army, the Spanish combatant, the democrats in Vietnam, the Indonesian patriots, the Hindu resistant are all comrades of the battle waged by the soldiers of the Haganah.
The Shoah was the great leveller. Figures such as Golda Meir and Abba Hillel Silver who had opposed partition previously now accepted it as the only realistic proposition. The Religious Zionists were divided while many anti-Zionist haredi survivors of the Shoah argued that sanctuary in the Land of Israel took precedence over ideology.
Yet many Zionists on the Right continued to condemn partition. The approach of Menahem Begin’s Irgun was the most detailed, articulate and scathing of the right-wing groups on partition. A broadcast from the ‘Voice of Fighting Zion’, in September 1947 described the architects of partition as ‘Jewish Vichyites’ and predicted that in the near future ‘the people will put them on trial’ for their past and present misdemeanours. Begin refused to recognize the 29 November 1947 resolution and regarded any decision as an illegal measure which would eventually be annulled.
The events of 29 November 1947 were the result of the sudden opening of many windows of opportunities — a few months later, it would have been too late. Many saw the vote as etched by the fingerprints of divine providence. Others viewed it as based on the free will and consequent actions of Moshe Sharett, Abba Eban, David Horowitz and their many colleagues. None however disputed the contention that this decision of the UN seventy-five years ago was one of the momentous in Jewish history.
Jewish Chronicle 25 November 2022