Today is a day of celebration and commemoration of the United Nations vote of November 29, 1947, creating a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. By a vote of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions and 1 absent, the United Nations General Assembly at Lake Success, New York, democratically created the two-state solution to the conflicting claims over Palestine through partition. The Jewish state will be celebrating its 65th birthday in the spring of 2013--it is unfortunate the same has not occurred for the Palestinian people.
The origins of the partition vote extend to 1937 and the Peel Commission conclusion that “in order to dispose, once and for all, of the exclusive claims of Jews and Arabs to Palestine, we regard it as essential that a clear statement of principle should be made that Jew shall not dominate Arab and Arab shall not dominate Jew in Palestine.” The remedy proposed during a period known as the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, was two states for two peoples with the Jewish state governing a minuscule territory. The Jews accepted the proposal in a small percentage of mandatory Palestine and the Arabs rejected the recommendation.
Ten years later and still administering the mandate, a Britain nearly bankrupt and exhausted from fighting the Second World War turned the issue of Palestine over to the United Nations on April 2, 1947. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (“UNSCOP”) was tasked with “submit[ting] such proposals as it may consider appropriate for the solution of the problem of Palestine.” The nations participating on the UNSCOP were: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. The UNSCOP conducted its investigation from May 26, 1947, to August 31, 1947. The committee held 16 public meetings and 36 private meetings. The meetings were held at Lake Success, Jerusalem, Beirut and Geneva. Justice Emil Sandstrom (Sweden) and Dr. Alberto Ulloa (Peru) were elected the Chairman and Vice Chairman. The Jewish Agency for Palestine represented the interests of the Yishuv--the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine. The Arab Higher Committee representing the interests of the Arabs of Palestine refused to participate in the UNSCOP process.
The UNSCOP made a number of recommendations which received unanimous support: termination of Mandate at earliest practicable date; independence for Palestine at earliest practicable date; access to Holy Places in Jerusalem preserved; protection of democratic principles and minority rights.
A majority opinion recommended the following: the claims to Palestine of Jews and Arabs are valid and irreconcilable and as a result the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states is realistic and practicable settlement. The committee also noted that: “only by mean of partitions can these conflicting national aspirations find substantial expression and qualify both peoples to take their places as independent nations of the international community and in the United Nations.” Partition would occur following a transitional period of two years starting September 1, 1947. Each nation would elect a constituent assembly and the nations would be linked by an economic unit. Jerusalem would be under international trusteeship.
The Report to the General Assembly by the UNSCOP--211 pages long--was printed in book form in 1947 by Somerset Books with a report by Sen. Robert Wagner of New York. (Sen. Wagner served in the United States Senate from 1927-1949. He was the architect of the National Labor Relations Act also known as the “Wagner Act” and was a delegate to one of the first United Nations forum--the Bretton Woods conference on global monetary and financial policy. He also sponsored one of the first pieces of federal anti-lynching legislation in 1935.) Sen. Wagner's forward is 17 pages long.
Sen. Wagner--whose portrait is paired in the Senate Reception Room with Sen. Arthur Vandenberg--makes a number of salient and striking contemporaneous historical points and observations from a person prominent in American public affairs and politics from the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 through the UNSCOP process 30 years later:
“The Palestine Question was an early test of the ability of the United Nations to enforce international promises made to the Jews where they have built a vital and vigorous community.”
Sen. Wagner quotes President Woodrow Wilson in 1919--whose legacy of the “Fourteen Points” includes national self-determination: “I am persuaded that the Allied Nations, with the fullest concurrence of our own Government and people, are agreed that Palestine shall be laid the foundations of a Jewish Commonwealth.” It was also noted that President Wilson was one of the draftsmen of the Balfour Declaration.
Sen. Wagner points out the policy of the United States government in support of the Jewish National Home (the words of the Balfour Declaration) as established by Woodrow Wilson from 1917-1919 and by Congress in 1922 had never wavered. (According to Rabbi Gunther Plaut's authoritative 1959 “History of the Jews of Minnesota,” the Minnesota House of Representatives became the ninth state in 1919 to pass a resolution favoring the “establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine.”) Indeed, President Harry Truman recognized Israel mere minutes after its birth on May 14, 1948.
Sen. Wagner also provided this important context: the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire provided for the creation of Arab states over a million square miles in the Middle East. By contrast, in the land of their “historic, physical and spiritual connection”--and from where the Jews brought forth the Bible--10,000 square miles of Palestine would become the home of the Jewish state.
Sen. Wagner could have added that while Jews worldwide and the Jews of Palestine fought Nazism and Fascism with all of their might--and this Sen. Wagner called out that the Arab record in the Second World War ranged from sullen neutrality to outright acts of armed belligerence (the Rashid Ali Iraq coup of 1941) to support for the Holocaust (the Mufti of Jerusalem spent the war years making propaganda broadcasts in Berlin). In short, the nations of the General Assembly had an appreciation of “who-did-what” in the Second World War about assisting the Allied war effort.
Sixty five years ago--today--the vote of the United Nations General Assembly to accept the UNSCOP recommendation of the creation of two states (Jewish and Arab) was one of the great moments of history. We can hope that this vision of two states for two peoples living side by side in peace will ultimately be realized.