The U.N. Didn’t Create Israel. We Did.

November 29, 2017
The 1948 signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv. Photo from Wikimedia

Please rise and open your Zionist hymnals. Let us sing praises to three of the most miraculous minutes in Jewish history.

That’s how long it took on Nov. 29, 1947, for delegates of the 2-year-old United Nations to vote — 33-13 with 10 abstaining — to declare a Jewish state. Or, more technically, to partition Palestine for the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states. The United States had delayed the vote on Resolution 181 to allow for some final, frenzied lobbying over the Thanksgiving holiday. In the end, it worked.

Watch the black-and-white footage from 70 years ago this week. Uruguay and Venezuela give the final affirmative votes. The resolution passes! Jews dance the horah near Tel Aviv’s beaches. American Jews sing “Hatikvah” in midtown Manhattan. Italian Jews pray under the Arch of Titus — toasting the end of exile precisely where the Romans celebrated its start 1,900 years earlier.

In Jerusalem that night, a little boy who would grow up to become a great writer, Amos Oz, for the first and only time in his life sees his father cry. His cerebral, birdlike, undemonstrative father describes the anti-Semitic humiliations Poles imposed, then says: “From now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew.”

So, let’s follow the conventional wisdom. First, praise the United Nations for making Israel a state. Then bless the United States and President Harry Truman for making it happen. Finally, curse the Palestinians for rejecting the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, which would have brought peace. And let us say, “Amen.”

Alas, this paint-by-numbers history is misleading. Reality was messier — yet more inspirational.

Zionism rejects a politics of permission slips that assumes that one vote “made us a state.” Beware: the U.N. giveth, the U.N. taketh away. Israel’s legitimacy is rooted in thousands of years of national identity. The Jewish state emerged from innumberable Jewish initiatives over centuries.

Jews are not a depressed, oppressed people, little Oliver Twists, begging for more, thanking Big Daddy U.N. for freeing us. Zionism is the Jewish national liberation movement. We freed ourselves from the grip of anti-Semitism, exile, mass murder and national impotence.

Alas, this paint-by-numbers history is misleading. Reality was messier — yet more inspirational.

Moreover, let’s thank the United States, its president and a broader supporting cast only for helping to make it happen. The Swiss-cheese borders of the Jewish state as partitioned weren’t defendable, making war all but inevitable. Rather than blaming “the Palestinians” as one entity, blame the Palestinian-Arabs’ leaders (Jews were “Palestinians” too back then); the other Arab states; and a systematic, ongoing refusal rooted in historic anti-Semitism and contemporary Arab hostility to acknowledge Jews’ basic national rights.

Historians know that where we begin a story often determines where we end up. Over-celebrating Nov. 29 risks over-emphasizing the short-term 1940s timetable pivoting around the Holocaust and underestimating the power of 3,500 years of Jews being connected to the same land.

The delegitimizing narrative alleges Europeans sinned by killing 6 million Jews from 1939 to 1945, then exorcised their guilt by “giving” Palestinian land to the Jews on Nov. 29, 1947. While acknowledging that one piece of real estate can have multiple historic claims, we affirm it was Jewish land and within our collective rights to develop.

Zionism’s story begins, more accurately, in the Bible, as one of the world’s oldest love stories — a love triangle connecting the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and God. Less theologically, the story of the Jews is about what professor Irwin Cotler, founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, calls “the original aboriginal people.”

For thousands of years, Jews have worshiped the same deity, spoken the same language, developed a common culture and remained tied to the same land. The logic of history, the ethics of modern nationalism and the principles of justice all justify Zionism, the movement of Jewish nationalism identifying Jews as a people with collective rights to establish — and today to perfect — a nation-state in their homeland.

Those claims are as legitimate as — if not older and more morally compelling than — the 192 other national claims behind the states making up the U.N. today. And like all valid nationalist movements, we take control of our own national destiny, saying, “We’re in charge now.”

The U.N.’s approval gave a nice push on the road to statehood. But the desire was already there. The case was already made. The infrastructure was already built. And the moment had already arrived — with or without an international license.

Next, yes, the United States under Truman was a valued ally, but the story of Resolution 181 is more complicated.

In 1947, most Jews viewed their national narrative through four lenses:

  • Counting in millennia, their most sweeping telescopic perspective looked back 3,500 years to Abraham and Sarah, who started the Jewish story by founding a Jewish nation deeply tied to the Land of Israel.
  • Counting in centuries, Jews emphasized 70 C.E. as a traumatic historical turning point when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and hundreds of years of exile and powerlessness began, even though a remnant always remained in the land of Israel.
  • Counting in decades, the modern push to redeem Palestine began in the late 19th century, when Zionism emerged as the Jewish national movement amid other Romantic nationalist movements.
  • Counting year by year, Jews were reeling from a miserable 11-year period when the Arab riots in Palestine from 1936 to 1939 triggered British limits on immigration to Palestine just as Adolf Hitler targeted the Jews. Voices on both sides sought coexistence in Palestine, but Arab extremists, especially the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, rejected compromise. Fueled by a Hitlerite anti-Semitism, tapping Islam’s radicalizing potential, the Mufti boasted: “We do not fear the Jews. … They will eventually crumble into nothing.”

Millions of Jews died because they had nowhere to go. No country wanted an influx of Jews — nor did the British who controlled Palestine, despite its being the national Jewish homeland and an incipient Jewish state thirsting for more immigrants.

From its founding in April 1945, the United Nations followed the dictum “Never Again,” long before it became a popular phrase. With the international community starting to recognize that a Jewish state was the best “Never Again” guarantee, Oxford professor Reginald Coupland’s proposal from 1937 gained popularity. Coupland wondered: “Might it not be a final and peaceful settlement” to “split Palestine into two halves … ?”

Initially, the scientist and Zionist Chaim Weizmann scoffed, “It is cutting the child in two.” When the Peel Commission later that year endorsed Coupland’s idea, Viscount Herbert Samuel, Britain’s first High Commissioner of Palestine, feared two unviable states emerging “entwined in an inimical embrace, like two fighting serpents.”

But Weizmann recognized the critical process occurring. As painful as it would be to accept what David Ben-Gurion called this “half loaf,” the conversation was shifting from whether there should be a Jewish state to what borders it would have.

Over the next decade, the diplomatic struggle intensified. America’s new president since 1945, Harry Truman, endorsed Woodrow Wilson’s promise of “self-determination” for all peoples. Truman respected the Balfour Declaration of 1917 legitimizing a Jewish national homeland. The Nazis’ mass murder of Jews confirmed his sympathy for Jews and their Zionist dreams.

At left, the borders of the 1947 United Nations partition. At right, the borders today. Photos from AIPAC.org

That didn’t mean that Truman wasn’t occasionally sobered by diplomats and generals warning that supporting a Jewish state of a few hundred thousand would alienate hundreds of millions of oil-rich Arabs. Mostly, however, Truman insisted: “I will handle the problem not in the light of oil, but in the light of justice.”

Such sympathy didn’t prevent Truman from bristling when 48,600 telegrams, 790,575 cards  and 81,200 other pieces of Palestine-related mail bombarded the White House, mostly from Jews demanding that the U.S. endorse a Jewish state. One rival heard Truman mutter, “Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was here on earth, so how can anyone expect that I would have any luck?” Still, 65 percent of Americans also supported establishing this Jewish state.

Perhaps most surprising was the Soviet Union’s support, reflecting the global consensus. Despite the emerging Cold War, Soviets and Americans cooperated to push U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, carving out a Jewish state and an undefined Arab territory, leaving Jerusalem an international zone.

Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin’s U.N. Ambassador Andrei Gromyko admitted: “All the alternative solutions of the Palestinian problem were found to be unworkable and impracticable. … Jews and Arabs do not wish, or are unable, to live together.”

Gromyko gave legitimacy to the Jewish state he would spend the next 40 years delegitimizing as the Soviet minister of foreign affairs. Reflecting the logic that most compelled the two-thirds vote in favor of Jewish statehood, Gromyko said, “The Jewish people have been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history” and “the Jews, as a people, have suffered more than any other people.” Thus, in November 1947, the U.N. consecrated its collective promise to the devastated Jewish people.

The dramatic vote, broadcast on radio, reflected the U.N.’s political power and moral standing at the time. Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), heading the political section of the Jewish Agency, the Palestinian Jews’ government-in-formation, said, “My first feeling is that not only has our cause triumphed at Flushing Meadows [the site of the U.N. vote], but the U.N. has triumphed through our cause. This is the first time that the U.N. and the civilized world have decided to create a new state.”

The widespread dancing in the Jewish streets reflected the Jews’ gratitude at this culmination of a 50-year (and 1,900-year) quest for Jewish statehood. Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver celebrated this “turning point in Jewish history,” saying this “noble decision to re-establish and restore the Jewish people to its rightful place in the family of nations will redound to the everlasting credit of the United Nations.”

Sam Surkis, vice president of the Jewish National Fund Council in Los Angeles, gushed: “It is the greatest thing that has happened to the Jewish people in 1,900 years.”

Some Jews mourned. Menachem Begin, then leader of the Revisionist Zionist underground movement, the Irgun, lamented: “The Homeland has not been liberated, but mutilated.” He vowed: “Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And forever.”

History aside, the partition map created an impractical state that was impossible to defend, one deprived of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem. Such borders probably made the military option more appealing to the neighboring Arab dictators, who assumed their armies would crush the Jews.

Here, then, the third proposition becomes more nuanced. Note the Jew-hatred uniting Arab leaders. The Palestinian Arab leadership rejected the compromise, as did most Arabs, who also repudiated the U.N. “Today’s resolution destroys the [U.N.] Charter,” Saudi Arabia’s Emir Faisal al-Saud insisted. Many Arabs called the organization’s move self-destructive. “No,” the U.N. had “not died,” Syria’s Faris al-Khoury said. It was “murdered.”

Contrasting the many examples of Arab-Jewish neighborliness before 1947 with the violence of leaders such as the Grand Mufti, professor Efraim Karsch in “Palestine Betrayed” concludes that neither the U.N. nor the Americans nor the Soviets nor the Jews betrayed the Palestinians. They were betrayed — then as now — by extremist leaders resisting reality, undermining peace, still trying to destroy the one Jewish state established on a small sliver of land to fulfill a 3,500-year-old dream.

So, yes, if there was an international covenant with the Jewish people, it was sealed Nov. 29, 1947, when the U.N. approved the Palestine Partition Plan. Initially, the resulting State of Israel enjoyed its special status as a state the U.N. voted into being. Alas, this bond between the U.N. and Israel did not last.

So, seven decades later, let’s give the U.N. its due, while also toasting our stunning triumph in launching a Jewish state. They say history is written by the winners. All too often in Jewish history, it’s been written by our oppressors. Today, we must not let it be written by the delegitimizers.

On this important anniversary, let’s say, as good nationalists, as proud Jews: “We appreciate others’ assistance but celebrate our achievements on our own terms.”

Gil Troy is the author of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s” and the forthcoming book, “The Zionist Ideas,” to be published in spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University in Montreal. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.

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