November 27, 1997
Since the Partition
By Yehuda Lev
Nov. 29, 1947: A joyous day in Israel. Photo from"Jerusalem in 3000 Years," Konemann, 1995.
The vote enabled Britain, exhausted from the effects of two worldwars, to withdraw gracefully from Palestine. It created a Jewishstate, Israel, for the Jews of Palestine, who had been preparing forthis opportunity for 50 years -- since the first Zionist Congress in1897. It allowed for the creation of an Arab state, which only now,50 years later, is fitfully coming into existence. And it gave theSoviet Union, shut out of the Middle East by its wartime allies, along-sought opening into the region.
Two-thirds of the 56 member states of the General Assembly wouldhave to vote "yes" in order for partition to be approved. The daysbefore the final vote were filled with back-room bargaining at U.N.headquarters in New York. The Arab Palestinians, bitterly opposed toany agreement with the Jews, could count on the votes of 10 Moslemcountries. In addition, they had an ally in Greece because 100,000Greek citizens lived in Egypt, mainly in Alexandria, and were hostageto Egyptian policy.
The two great question marks were the Catholic states of Centraland South America, and the Soviet bloc, including the satellitegovernments of Eastern Europe. Keeping Jerusalem under U.N. controlwas a not-too-subtle inducement to the Vatican to exert, in theAmericas, its influence for partition. Most of the Catholic statesdid, in the end, vote yes.
The Soviet Union waffled. Joseph Stalin was no friend of eitherZionism or Jews, but he knew an opportunity to raise problems for theWest when it stared him in the face. The insertion of Jewish Israelinto a Moslem Middle East could only cause resentment among Americaand Britain's Arab allies. The Soviet bloc voted for partition. (By1955, the Soviet Union began trading arms for Egyptian cotton, andits support for the Arab cause never wavered after that.)
The American government was still arguing about its decision untila few days before the actual vote. The State Department, staffedlargely with professionals who had made their careers in the Arabworld, had little liking for Zionism or Jews. President Truman wasmindful of an election year coming up and had a deeply felt sympathyfor the survivors of the Holocaust. In the end, Truman went againstthe advice of his State Department, led by the much-respectedSecretary of State George Marshall and abetted by Secretary of theNavy James Forrestal, and ordered a yes vote.
The final vote was 33 for, 13 against, with 10 abstentions. Whenthe totals were announced, the hall rang with cheers from thespectator seats, where supporters of a Jewish state had crowded infor what was certainly one of the most fateful moments in the1,900-year history of the Jewish Diaspora.
In the Jewish displaced persons camp in Germany, where I wasworking at the time, there was also wild enthusiasm. Those of us whowere engaged in bringing Holocaust survivors to Palestine alongillegal immigrant routes, thought that, at last, we could see ourefforts producing tangible results. We were correct, but it wasn'tgoing to be as easy as we imagined.
The reasons for this became evident the very next day inJerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa, where Arabs burned Jewish stores andattacked Jews in the streets, killing a score or more. Similarattacks occurred in the Jewish quarters of a number of Arab capitals.Israel's War of Independence did not begin on May 14, 1948, when thestate came into being; it began on Nov. 30, 1947, with the violentArab reaction to partition.
Fifty years later, what are the long-term results of the partitiondecision? First, for friend and foe alike, is the creation andsurvival of Israel. This was by no means assured; Gen. Marshall,among others, did not object to partition per se, but he saw theJewish cause as almost hopeless and worried about what the UnitedStates might be called upon to do in the event of a Jewish collapsein Palestine.
The Soviet Union had its day in the Middle East sun as theprincipal backer of Egypt, Syria and the Palestine LiberationOrganization, but it is no more, and few regret its departure.
Great Britain, no longer in need of Palestine to protect the SuezCanal and maintain its lifeline to the East, held out until the SuezWar of 1956, when Gen. Nasser of Egypt defeated a combinedBritish-French attempt to keep the canal. It marked the end of theBritish Empire, an event presaged by the withdrawal from Palestine.
The United States, reluctantly and slowly, became Israel's primaryprotector, a relationship that developed only after the departure ofthe Eisenhower administration. Today, aided by the broad acceptanceof American popular culture and the demise of the Soviet Union as analternate source of support, both Israel and the Arab world havebecome wedded to Washington to a degree unimaginable just a decadeago. America has become the arbiter of the conflict accompanying theemergence of a Palestinian state just as, 50 years ago, it servedthat role in the creation of the Israeli state.
The wheel that began to revolve 50 years ago this week has turnedfull circle.
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Contributing writer Yehuda Lev writes from Providence, R.I.