Modern history



Three years after the end of the war the state of Israel came into being. They were years of mounting tension between the Palestine Jewish community and the British government, which eventually reached the conclusion that abandoning the mandate was the only course of action open to it. In the interval there were further commissions of enquiry, of complex blueprints for a solution, of arrests and acts of terror, ending with the British withdrawal and bitter fighting between Jews and Arabs. The birth of the Jewish state was the fulfilment of the Zionist dream. But it had taken the destruction of European Jewry to realise this aim. Zionism had not been able to prevent the catastrophe. On the contrary, the state owed its existence to the disaster. The Jewish Agency continued to exist, there were Zionist conferences and even a full-scale congress. But the real significance of these years is that they witnessed the birth of the state of Israel. It was the most critical period in the history of the Zionist movement.

Immediately after the end of the war, on 27 May 1945, the executive of the Jewish Agency petitioned the British government to declare Palestine a Jewish state. It also submitted a programme for a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth to the San Francisco conference of the United Nations. The appeal to Britain was no doubt made for the record; there was not the slightest chance of a favourable response. Anglo-Zionist relations had reached their nadir. Weizmann, as already mentioned, contemplated resignation at the time. The advent of the Labour government was hailed by one Zionist journal as an epoch-making event of world-wide significance which opened up hopeful new perspectives for Zionism.* Past experience with British governments should have taught the Zionist leaders to be cautious; there was always a lag between promise and performance. With Labour in power the distance between the two was particularly striking, simply because the Tories promised less in the first place.

The outlook in Washington was equally uncertain: Rabbi Wise saw Harry Truman on 20 April 1945, in his second week as the new president. Truman had been forewarned by Stettinius, the secretary of state, that the Zionists would try to get some commitment from him. With unconscious irony Truman assured Wise that he would carry out Roosevelt’s policy. He was totally unaware of the bundle of incoherent and contradictory promises he had inherited. Truman was by no means a Zionist. In early August he said at a press conference that he had no desire to send half a million American soldiers to Palestine to make peace in that country. A few weeks later he received the report of Earl Harrison, whom he had sent to Europe on a fact-finding tour, concerning the refugee situation. The report said that the situation was intolerable and that the Jewish refugees in the camps wanted to be evacuated to Palestine. One week later Truman sent a copy of the report to Prime Minister Attlee with the suggestion that one hundred thousand immigration certificates should be granted forthwith.

This move aroused a great deal of indignation among some leading members of the Labour government, and in none more than in Ernest Bevin, the new foreign secretary. Bevin, like his chief Attlee, was neither pro- nor anti-Jewish. He simply believed that the Jews, unlike the Arabs, were not a nation and did not therefore need a state of their own. The Jews, as he and Attlee saw it - and as the Foreign Office had told him - were ungrateful, devious and cantankerous. The Arabs, on the other hand, were a simple, straightforward people with a deep liking for Britain.* When Weizmann went to see Bevin on 10 October 1945, he had a frosty reception, and in a statement on 13 November the foreign secretary announced that the White Paper policy would be continued. He had not the slightest intention of carrying out the Labour Party plank on Palestine; even the demand for the hundred thousand certificates was resented. He implied that Truman had been impelled by electoral considerations (the New York Jewish vote) to support the Zionist demand. Bevin’s stubbornness, his unwillingness to make any compromise even with regard to the displaced persons, put him on a collision course, not only with the Jewish community of Palestine, but with Americans and others to whom such behaviour seemed unreasonable.

Such are the ironies of history that, as far as the birth of the state of Israel is concerned, Bevin’s obstinate adherence to the policy recommended by his Foreign Office aides (such as Harold Beeley) played an important, probably essential role. It is quite likely that had the Foreign Office gone to Hugh Dalton or someone else less stubborn, the demand for the hundred thousand certificates (as well as some other urgent Zionist demands) might have been met. The problem might then have lost its acute character and the unendurable tension and thus the need for the state of Israel would have lessened.* The Middle East policy of Bevin and his advisers was based on the assumption that the Arab states were essentially pro-western and, if properly handled, factors of stability in the area, whereas Zionism meant the intrusion of an alien and disruptive element which was bound to weaken the western position.

Palestinian Jewry, naturally, was not interested in calculations of imperial interest and global strategy. They had heard the arguments too often and felt that it was always at their expense. The war effort had always been invoked to explain the impossibility of diverting resources to save Jewish lives. But the war was now over, and even before Bevin’s statement in November there had been talk in Jerusalem, and not only talk, about armed resistance. At a meeting of the Inner Zionist Council in October, Dr Sneh (formerly Kleinbaum), then commander-in-chief of the Hagana, said that the Zionist movement had never faced a more serious crisis; it had to show the British that they would have to pay a high price for pursuing the White Paper policy. At the same meeting Rabbi Berlin said: ‘Soon perhaps we may all have to go underground.’ It is difficult to imagine such a conspicuous figure as Rabbi Berlin in illegal conditions. In October also, the Palmach, the Hagana elite corps created during the war, sank three small naval craft which had been operating against ships carrying illegal immigrants, and blew up railway lines in fifty different places. In the same month a clandestine radio station, ‘Voice of Israel’, began broadcasting.

There had been hints concerning armed resistance even earlier, at the World Zionist Conference in London in September, the first international Zionist meeting after the war. While Weizmann again predicted that the road ahead would be long and arduous, the Americans claimed that it was a question of ‘now or never’. ‘If our rights are denied to us’, Rabbi Silver said, ‘we shall fight for them with whatever weapons are at our disposal.’ He told Weizmann to demand not certificates but a Jewish state, and suggested that on occasion it might be the height of statesmanship to be unstatesmanlike. Ben Gurion, too, advocated more intense pressure to bring a Jewish state into being. There was the usual wrangling in committee - Mizrahi once again wanted more power and announced that it would resign, but at the last moment withdrew the threat. The plenary meetings showed that there was a broad consensus, and resolutions were passed endorsing the demand for a Jewish state which ‘will be based upon full equality of rights of all inhabitants without distinction of religion or race in the political, civic, religious and national domains and without domination or subjection.’*

The constitutional status of the conference and the legal validity of its resolutions were doubtful, but since there had been no time to call a congress, it simply assumed the prerogatives of a congress. A new executive was elected, consisting of Weizmann, Ben Gurion, Shertok, Kaplan, Berl Locker, Dobkin, Nahum Goldmann, Lipsky; Rabbis Wise, Silver, and Goldstein; Rose Halprin, Chaim Greenberg; and Rabbi Fishman and Moshe Shapira of the Mizrahi.

The new executive immediately began to negotiate with the British, but the results were disappointing. They were offered a monthly immigration schedule of fifteen hundred from which, however, illegal immigration was to be deducted. As a result of these restrictions, immigration to Palestine in 1945 was in fact slightly less (13,100) than in the previous year (14,500). This, of course, was totally unacceptable to the Zionists. When Bevin charged the Jews with trying too hard to get to the head of the queue, Weizmann asked whether it was too much if, after the slaughter of six million, those who remained sought the shelter of a Jewish homeland and asked for a hundred thousand certificates.

If the British were refusing immigration certificates, the Jews had made up their minds to come anyway. There were tens of thousands of them in the camps. At the end of the war some fifty thousand, both displaced persons and local residents, found themselves in Germany and Austria. But the stream from the east, mainly from Poland, continued. There were ups and downs in this steady migration. After the pogrom in Kielce (Poland) in which forty-one Jews were killed, the influx increased considerably. It is estimated that altogether some 300,000 Jews passed at one time or another through the camps of Austria, Germany and Italy.*

The initial impetus for immigration to Palestine was spontaneous, or, to be precise, originated among those former members of Zionist youth movements from eastern Europe who had survived and were now the main organisers in the DP camps. They were joined later by emissaries from Palestine and the Jewish brigade. The British government claimed that the wish to go to Israel was the result of the work of Zionist propagandists. Richard Crossman, the Labour MP who had visited the camps as a member of the Anglo-American commission in early 1946, wrote that the Jews would have opted for Palestine even if not a single foreign emissary or a trace of Zionist propaganda had reached the camps. This, no doubt, was a correct account of the situation during the first year or two. Later the mood began to change, partly as a result of the demoralisation which was the inevitable result of the enforced stay in the camps. But it is also a fact that many survivors wanted above all a quiet life after all they had been through, and Palestine in 1947 hardly promised this. An American Jewish adviser to the military government wrote in late 1947 that the emergence of the Jewish state was not substantially affecting the Drang nach Amerika. Given equal opportunity to go to Palestine or to the States, 50 per cent would join the unfortunate Galut Jews in America.

Illegal immigration had never ceased altogether and Hagana began to organise it after the end of the war on a much bigger scale than before. Refugee ships appeared regularly off the shores of Palestine. A few succeeded in breaking the blockade, but most were apprehended and their passengers detained - first in Palestine, and from summer 1946 on in camps in Cyprus. The story of illegal immigration culminated in the case of the President Garfield, an old 4,000-ton Chesepeake Bay steamer which, acquired by Hagana and renamed Exodus 1947, carried some 4,200 illegal immigrants. To discourage any further exploits London decided to turn the ship back to Port de Bove near Marseilles. After the passengers refused to disembark there, they were forcibly disembarked at Hamburg. There were violent scenes and some casualties on this as on previous similar occasions. The British government claimed, correctly no doubt, that in organising illegal immigration into Palestine the Jews had defied the law of Palestine and of other countries from which the traffic had been carried on: ‘It is no answer to this to say that the law is unacceptable or that it is illegal, when it is not.’* Legal arguments were not, however, likely to persuade those who felt that it was an outrage to compel Jewish refugees to return to Germany.

In answer to Truman’s repeated demands for a hundred thousand certificates, and also, no doubt, to gain time, the Labour government proposed on 19 October 1945 the establishment of an Anglo-American committee to investigate the wider issue of Jewish refugees and to make recommendations for both an interim and a permanent solution. The offer was received with less than enthusiasm by Jews and Arabs, who agreed that they had seen enough commissions and that the issues were already clear enough. Truman, on the other hand, accepted the proposal after he had succeeded in more strictly defining its scope and timetable: it was to examine the suitability of Palestine as a shelter for the refugees and to have its report ready within four months.

Truman had grown weary of the constant pressure exerted by the American Zionists. Palestine is not ours to dispose of, he wrote at the time; to impose a political structure on the Middle East could only result in conflict. On the eve of the final approval by Congress of the Taft-Wagner act, Truman announced that he no longer believed in resolutions aiming at the creation of a Jewish state. This was a severe blow to the American Zionists, who believed they had at long last achieved a decisive breakthrough. Bevin, on the other hand, was elated and promised the committee that, provided it turned in a unanimous report, he would do everything in his power to put it into effect. He was soon to regret this rash promise.

The members of the committee went first to the German camps, then to the Middle East. They listened to many witnesses, the most impressive of whom was, as usual, Weizmann, both for his eloquence and his candour. There is no absolute justice, he said, only rough human justice. Injustice there was bound to be. But the Arabs had already two kingdoms and four republics. What was the number of their casualties in the Second World War? They had, moreover, a foolproof guarantee with regard to the fate of their fellow Palestinians in the Jewish state, for Israel was bound to remain an island in the Arab sea.

The committee’s report was published on 1 May 1946: it made ten recommendations, and gave a brief survey of the situation of the Jews in Europe and a note on the state of affairs in Palestine. It suggested that since the attempt to establish either one Palestinian state, or Arab and Jewish states in Palestine, would result in civil strife which might threaten the peace of the world, the only practical solution was the continuation of the mandate, for the time being by the British and ultimately under the United Nations. The Jews were to get their hundred thousand certificates, and the White Paper and land transfer regulations were to be rescinded.*

The Arabs flatly rejected the report and declared a general strike. The Jews were happy with some of its provisions, bitterly opposed to others. Ben Gurion regarded it as a thinly disguised, more cleverly compiled edition of the White Paper, and the American Zionist leaders rejected it for its denial of Jewish rights and aspirations. Other Zionist leaders took a more conciliatory line, believing that with all its weaknesses the report could serve as a basis for discussion and negotiations. Truman said, inter alia, that he was happy that the request for the hundred thousand certificates had been endorsed and the abrogation of the White Paper suggested.

The British government, however, was most unhappy about the outcome. Crossman was told by the leaders of his party that he had let them down. In a statement on 1 May 1946 Attlee said that ‘the report must be considered as a whole in all its implications’, which meant in less diplomatic language that he did not like any part of it. Its execution would entail very heavy immediate and long-term commitments. When pressed for details Bevin said, a few weeks later, that it would involve the dispatch of another division and £200 million to implement the admission of the hundred thousand. And he returned to his favoured theme: the Americans were putting so much pressure on London because they did not want too many Jews in New York. If Truman was annoyed by Zionist pressure, Bevin’s constant innuendoes did not improve his mood, especially since he was working at this very time for a liberalisation of American immigration laws. The president continued to ask the British for action on the hundred thousand certificates, and the Labour government continued to stall.

In Jerusalem, counsels were divided. Weizmann said at a meeting of the Inner Zionist Council that it had perhaps been a mistake to ask for a Jewish state: ‘We are always trying to push too hard.’ But the activists had the upper hand; on 16 June 1946 there was another large-scale Hagana action in which nine bridges (including the Allenby bridge across the Jordan) were blown up and the Haifa railway workshops damaged. The British retaliated on 29 June by ordering the arrest of the members of the Zionist executive in Palestine as well as many other public figures. The Jewish Agency offices were sealed off and public buildings and settlements were searched.

British-Zionist relations were reaching their lowest ebb when the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with the loss of almost one hundred lives, British, Jews and Arabs. The British imposed a three-day curfew on Tel Aviv, during which 787 men and women were arrested. The terrorist leaders were not among them. General Barker, commanding the British forces, issued an order to his officers which said that he would punish the Jews in a way this race disliked most of all, ‘by striking at their pocket and showing our contempt for them’. This declaration in its turn provoked a great outcry and there were further acts of violence.

The British were charged by the Zionists with using Nazi methods and trying to destroy the Jewish national home. There were acts of torture and even murder, but on the whole the British troops behaved with considerable restraint in the face of frequent physical attacks and much abuse. It is not difficult to imagine how American or Russian or most other troops would have reacted in a similar situation. It was not the fault of the individual British officer or private if he had to carry out the conflicting orders of a government which, facing an impossible task, no longer had a policy. There was only a vague hope that by procrastinating, hanging on to Palestine, the problem might become more tractable. While a campaign for non-cooperation got under way in Palestine, Weizmann appealed to London on 9 July to act quickly. Shortly after, the Jewish Agency building was handed back, and several hundred detainees, including the aged Rabbi Fishman of the Jewish Agency executive, were released. But Shertok and the other members of the executive remained in detention for several more months.

Ben Gurion and Sneh, who had evaded arrest, convened an executive meeting in Paris on 1 August 1946. Weizmann was ill at the time and could not be present; nor did Rabbi Silver attend. The mood was one of almost unmitigated gloom. Rabbis Wise and Fishman had second thoughts about Biltmore and partition. Perhaps they should have accepted the Peel Report at the time after all? Even the irrepressible Rabbi Silver wrote that it was a terrible situation, with the Americans inactive and ‘all the cards stacked against us’.* In a vote taken on 5 August, with Ben Gurion and Sneh abstaining, a resolution was adopted which marked a clear retreat from Biltmore: the Jewish Agency was willing to negotiate on the basis of a viable Jewish state in an adequate area of Palestine, rather than in the whole of western Palestine. Goldmann immediately returned to Washington and began to negotiate with the administration on the basis of this resolution.

Meanwhile a new project had appeared on the scene; it was discussed and rejected in record time. Details of the Morrison-Grady scheme were revealed in a debate in the House of Commons on 31 July and 1 August 1946. Less than two weeks later Attlee had word from Truman that the plan was unacceptable. It was essentially a Foreign Office document to which Herbert Morrison, one of the central figures in the Labour cabinet, had given his name. It had been discussed in London with a small American working party headed by Ambassador Grady. The scheme envisaged a division of Palestine into four areas (Arab and Jewish provinces, a district of Jerusalem, and a district of the Negev), with the central government (British) having exclusive authority on defence and foreign affairs, and with the high commissioner as the supreme arbiter of, inter alia, the extent of immigration. The scheme was not new; it had been submitted to the members of the Anglo-American committee who had been to Palestine earlier that year and had been rejected by most of them.

The concept of partition as defined by the Zionists at their Paris meeting seems to have appealed to the American administration, but there was no marked advance in Goldmann’s talks in Washington. Nor did Weizmann make much headway when he resumed his contacts with Bevin in Paris. On the eve of the Day of Atonement (shortly before the New York elections) President Truman in a public statement reiterated his request for the hundred thousand certificates, for the liberalisation of America’s immigration laws, and, for the first time, mentioned the idea of a ‘viable Jewish state in an adequate area of Palestine’ (the Paris formula) as something to which the American government could give its support.

This announcement was generally interpreted as the most pro-Zionist ever made by an American president. It angered Bevin, who found his pet theory about the influence of the New York Jews confirmed, outraged the Arabs, and provoked anger among the anti-Zionists in the American administration. Nor did the Zionists display much enthusiasm either, since the statement was open to conflicting interpretations. The president did not define ‘viable’, but he probably meant a very small Jewish state, which would be unacceptable to the Zionists. Rabbi Silver probably had this danger in mind when, at the zoa convention of 26 October, he attacked his old political enemies, Weizmann and Goldmann. He argued that the executive had no right to negotiate on partition without the approval of the Zionist congress.* A resolution was passed, stressing again the claim to the whole of mandatory Palestine.

These declarations had no practical results, and the next stage in this struggle for the future of Palestine opened at the twenty-second Zionist congress in Basle on 9 December 1946. The number of voters who had participated in the elections - 2,159,850 - was far larger than ever before. It differed radically in its constitution from its predecessors; it was, as Tabenkin sadly noted, an ‘English’ not a ‘Jewish’ congress. More than 40 per cent of the votes had come from the United States, and the Americans had by far the largest delegation. The three left-wing parties - not united at the time - had 125 mandates; the General Zionists, equally torn by internal strife, 106; the Mizrahi 48; and the revisionists 36. The congress should have met in Palestine; Weizmann had been one of the few to express doubts whether this was feasible in the given political circumstances. Events, as so often, proved him right, but this did not make him any more popular. He was under fire from the very start in view of the failure of his ‘pro-British orientation’, but was determined to fight back. In his opening address he said that Zionism was a modern expression of the liberal ideal. Divorced from it, it lost all purpose and hope. He, too, was in favour of the immediate establishment of a Jewish state. But the acts of terrorism were abhorrent and barren of all advantage. Against the heroics of suicidal violence he urged the ‘courage of endurance and the heroism of superhuman restraint’. Massada, for all its heroism, had been a great disaster in Jewish history.

The counter-attack was led by Emanuel Neumann, a ZOA vice-president, who said that the conciliatory line was a costly experiment that had already failed. He opposed Zionist participation in the new London conference which the British government was about to initiate. (It should be noted in parenthesis that some of the bitterest conflicts in Zionist history concerned conferences or schemes which either never went beyond the planning stage or were doomed to fail soon after.) Neumann called for a more active struggle against the mandatory power. Diplomacy, he said, could succeed only if backed by force, by a resistance movement.* Goldmann, defending the policy of which he had been one of the main architects, said that if the deadlock had not been broken by the Paris initiative, America would have washed her hands of the whole affair and things would have further deteriorated: ‘What we attained with our proposals was to bring America back into the picture.’

The confrontation between ‘activists’ and ‘moderates’ reached its climax with Weizmann’s answer to his critics. Speaking in Yiddish at the seventeenth session, he again condemned in the sharpest terms the terror, that ‘cancer in the body politic of the yishuv’, which would destroy it if it was not stamped out. He criticised Dr Sneh, who had advocated both armed struggle and a political reorientation. ‘Sneh’s arguments frighten me’, Weizmann cried, and, pointing to Herzl’s picture on the wall, he quoted Ahad Ha’am’s old slogan: ‘This is not the road’. The American Zionists were the main target of Weizmann’s speech: the eleven new settlements recently established in the Negev had a far greater weight than a hundred speeches about resistance, especially if these speeches were made in Washington and New York, whereas the resistance would be put up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Neumann interrupted him and shouted ‘Demagogue!’, whereupon Weizmann, deeply offended, gave free rein to his fury:

I – a demagogue! I who have borne all the ills and travails of this movement. The person who flung this word in my face should know that in every house and every stable in Nahalal, in every workshop in Tel Aviv or Haifa, there is a drop of my blood. [Most delegates rose to their feet.] You know that I am telling you the truth. Some people don’t like to hear it - but you will hear me. I warn you against bogus palliatives, against short-cuts, against false prophets, against facile generalisations, against distortion of historic facts. … If you think of bringing the redemption nearer by un-Jewish methods, if you lose faith in hard work and better days, then you commit idolatry and endanger what we have built. Would I had a tongue of flame, the strength of prophets, to warn you against the paths of Babylon and Egypt. Zion shall be redeemed in Judgment - and not by any other means.*

It was one of the most dramatic scenes at a Zionist congress, but in political terms Weizmann’s moving appeal was ineffectual. He received great applause, but the vote went against him. By a small majority (171–154) the congress rejected the proposal to attend the London talks, which was tantamount to a vote of no-confidence. Weizmann was not re-elected as president, and though out of respect to him the post was left vacant, this was the end of his career in the Zionist movement which he had served for more than fifty years. In his autobiography Weizmann bitterly notes that, as in the past, he had become the scapegoat for the sins of the British government, and since his critics knew that their assault on Westminster was bound to be ineffective, they turned their shafts against him.

It is easy to take issue with his critics for inconsistency and indeed demagogy. The crowning irony was that four weeks later the Zionist leaders went to the London talks after all, and that nothing of any consequence came of these negotiations. But Weizmann’s position had become untenable irrespective of the vote of no-confidence. More and more Zionists had reached the conclusion that their cause could be advanced only against, not with Britain, and that Weizmann was no longer the right man to lead the movement in this new phase. The recourse to armed resistance was dangerous in both its foreign political and domestic implications, but in retrospect it may be seen as an essential element in the struggle for independence. The powers dealt with the Palestine problem as a matter of urgency not because of speeches made or resolutions adopted, but because it constituted a danger to peace. Armed resistance and illegal immigration helped to dramatise the state of emergency much more effectively than the patient, constructive work (‘another settlement, another shed, another cow in Hadera’) which for so many years under Weizmann’s leadership had been Zionist policy.

The congress marks the midway passage between the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the state. In political terms it had been a failure. An English newspaper noted that Weizmann had been overthrown by a ‘coalition of incompatibles’ which included the revisionists and Mizrahi on the one hand, and left-wing labour on the other.* The yishuv was disappointed: fifty-three long speeches and countless shorter interventions had not resulted in any clear and concrete policy decisions. American Zionism was deeply split as a result. Stephen Wise withdrew from office in the ZOA, which in his words had become a ‘collection of personal hatreds, rancours and private ambitions’.

But for Weizmann’s departure, the newly elected executive of the Jewish Agency and of the Zionist movement hardly differed from the previous one. The General Zionists received somewhat stronger representation; Eliahu Dobkin of Mapai became head of the organisation department; Moshe Shapira was made director of the department of immigration; and Fritz Bernstein, an old Dutch Zionist, was coopted as a full member. There was no change in the direction of political affairs.

The conference called by Bevin early in 1947 was a repeat performance for those who had been to St James’ Palace eight years before. There were no new proposals to be discussed, nor, as in 1939, were there any direct meetings between Jews and Arabs. The latter expressed the view both privately and on occasion in public, that historical conflicts are always settled by force of arms and that one might as well have the struggle right away and get it over. The Zionist plan (partition) was unacceptable to the British, and of course to the Arabs. Bevin’s attempt to save the conference through a modified version of the Morrison-Grady scheme was rejected by both sides. The main purpose of the London meeting was apparently to give Bevin a last opportunity to find some compromise solution. When it appeared that the Arab delegation was not only opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in principle, but rejected Jewish immigration and land sales under any circumstances, Bevin and his advisers lost interest in the proceedings. On 18 February 1947 it was announced in the House of Commons that the only course open to Britain was to submit the problem to the judgment of the United Nations, since it had no power under the terms of the mandate to award the country either to Jews or Arabs or to partition it between them. On 2 April the secretary-general of the United Nations was asked to arrange for a special session of the General Assembly on Palestine; it was held later that month.

The possibility that the Palestine issue might be referred to the United Nations had been considered by the Zionist leaders on various occasions. In a speech on 1 August 1946 Churchill had said that the ‘one rightful, reasonable, simple and compulsive lever which we held was and is a sincere readiness to lay our mandate at the feet of the UNO and thereafter to evacuate the country’. Nevertheless, when the decision was announced, the Zionist reaction was one of ‘scepticism and distaste’.* Scepticism, because they suspected that Britain, banking on the east-west stalemate in the United Nations, expected that no decision would be reached in New York and that therefore the mandate would continue. Such calculations may have influenced some British advisers, but it is unlikely that this was the decisive factor. Both the British government and public opinion were fed up with Palestine and ready to accept almost any solution to relieve them of the burden. The Zionists viewed the move to the UN with not a little apprehension because they feared that their cause would not fare any better, and most probably much worse, in Flushing Meadows and Lake Success than in Whitehall.

Thus the centre of the political scene again shifted to New York, and the Zionist executive, working against time, set out to win the support of the nations, big and small, which were soon to decide the fate of Palestine. It was an uphill task, above all because the American position at this stage was not helpful. President Truman and his advisers were firmly resolved not to give any lead to the United Nations but to wait for the emergence of a consensus. Much to the surprise of the Zionists, the Soviet attitude was much more positive. This first became evident when the Jewish Agency asked to be permitted (‘as a matter of simple justice’) to appear at the UN on behalf of the Jewish people, since the Arabs were already represented there. They had the immediate support of the Soviet delegation, and, on 15 May, Gromyko spoke not without sympathy about the ‘aspirations towards Palestine of a considerable part of the Jewish people’, of the calamities and sufferings they had undergone during the last war (‘which defy description’), and the grave conditions in which the masses of the Jewish population found themselves after the war. He mentioned partition as one of several possible solutions.

This unexpected support continued throughout 1947 and led later that year to the Soviet decision to vote for partition. Traditionally, the Soviet attitude to Zionism had been extremely hostile, and since Moscow reverted to its earlier position not long after the state of Israel came into being, one can only conclude that the short-lived rapprochement came exactly at the right moment for the Zionists. Without it they would not have stood a chance. What then were the Soviet motives? It was the Soviet aim to diminish western influence in the eastern Mediterranean and, if possible, advance its own interests in the power vacuum that was bound to follow the western withdrawal. Ten years later Stalin’s heirs were to pursue this policy in close collaboration with the radical forces which had come to power in the Arab world. But in 1947 Egypt was still ruled by King Faruq, and Iraq and Jordan by the Hashemites, régimes linked to Britain by many ties. In the circumstances a vote for the partition of Palestine must have seemed to most Soviet policy-makers a reasonable course of action.

On 15 May 1947 the General Assembly approved the establishment of a committee of eleven to investigate the Palestine question, to make proposals for a settlement, and to report back by September. None of the big powers was represented on this committee, which entered history under the name of UNSCOP. It consisted of delegates from Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, The Netherlands, Persia, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. Its chairman was Judge Sandstrom, a Swede, with Ralph Bunche representing the UN.

UNSCOP heard witnesses for three and a half months in America, Europe and Palestine, and toured DP camps and Arab and Jewish cities and rural settlements. Among the Zionist representatives the most effective was again Weizmann, appearing for once in an unofficial capacity. The committee was given a brief lecture on the nature of antisemitism: what are Poles? What are Frenchmen? The answer is obvious, Weizmann said; but if one asks who is a Jew, lengthy explanations are necessary, and these are always suspect. Why did the Jews insist so stubbornly on Palestine rather than some other country? It was no doubt the responsibility of Moses who had taken them to Palestine. Instead of the Jordan they might have had the Mississippi: ‘But he chose to stop here. We are an ancient people with a long history and you cannot deny your history and begin afresh.’

When asked about the prospects of bi-nationalism, Moshe Shertok made the point that willingness to work together was the prerequisite for the existence of a bi-national state, but unfortunately it did not exist. A Jewish state was needed because Palestinian Jewry had come of age, to save the remnant of European Jewry, and to ensure the future of the Jewish people.* Questioned by Sandstrom, Ben Gurion said that he foresaw the settlement of the first million Jews in a Jewish state in the shortest possible time - three to four years. In the period of transition he envisaged a régime of diarchy with the mandatory power, as in India. Ben Gurion rejected the idea of parity, which would result in permanent deadlock on all vital issues such as immigration. Instead of an Arab-Jewish federation he proposed a confederation of states.

As the members of UNSCOP came to grasp the complexity of the situation, two opposed views emerged: India, Iran and Yugoslavia favoured a federation, not altogether dissimilar to the Morrison-Grady plan. There was to be common citizenship, and a federal authority controlling foreign policy, national defence, immigration and most economic activities. During the transitional period, which was to last for three years, the administration was to be conducted by an authority appointed by the United Nations.

The UNSCOP majority came out in favour of partition, but recommended at the same time economic union, without which they believed the proposed Arab state would not be viable. All members of the commission agreed that the transitional period should be as short as possible. There was also a consensus on keeping the Holy Places accessible to all, and there was an appeal to Arabs and Jews to refrain from acts of violence. But on matters of political substance no common denominator could be found to reconcile the majority and minority views, and consequently there were two separate reports.

The UNSCOP findings were published on 31 August 1947. Both the majority and the minority reports had been drawn up by the same man - Dr Ralph Bunche. The majority plan envisaged a Jewish state and an Arab state (both of which were to come into being by September 1949) with the city of Jerusalem remaining under international trusteeship. The Jewish state was to consist of three sections: upper Galilee and the Jordan and Beisan valleys; the coastal plain from a point south of Acre to a point north of Isdud, including the city of Jaffa and most of the Valley of Esdraelon; and lastly, most of the Negev. The Arab state was to include western Galilee, most of the West Bank down to and including Lydda, and the Gaza Strip, from the Egyptian border to a point some twenty miles south of Tel Aviv.

The Zionist leaders had fought very hard throughout the UNSCOP hearings for the inclusion of western Galilee and the Negev in the Jewish state, so as to have at their disposal sparsely populated areas for future development. They failed as far as western Galilee was concerned, and the fate of the Negev was uncertain, for when the UNSCOP majority plan came to the vote later that year, the American delegation wanted the Negev to be assigned to the Arabs, to make the scheme more palatable to them. Weizmann went to see a most reluctant President Truman to prevent any change in the proposed borders.

The minority report was rejected without further ado by the Zionists. On the majority report counsels were divided. While abstaining from the vote on partition in Paris a year earlier, Ben Gurion had clearly retreated from Biltmore. In a letter to Weizmann of October 1946 he had said that ‘we should be ready for an enlightened compromise even if it gives us less in practice than we have a right to in theory, but only as long as what is granted to us is really in our hands’.* Rabbi Silver said that the boundaries as drawn by UNSCOP were a great blow and had to be fought. But after this initial negative reaction Silver, too, retreated, having realised that the majority report was the maximum the Zionists could possibly hope for. He understood that the commandment of the hour was not to press for more, which was unrealistic, but to work for acceptance of the report by the United Nations.

The prospects were by no means rosy: Britain was clearly opposed to partition, so were the Arab countries and most of the Asian nations. As the views of the rest were not at all clear, the American position was likely to be a factor of paramount importance. In Washington the State Department (General Marshall, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, Loy Henderson) was clearly against a Jewish state, as was Forrestal, the secretary of defence. Truman wrote in his diary that the nation’s military leaders were primarily concerned about Middle East oil and, in long-range terms, about the danger that the Arabs, antagonised by western action in Palestine, would make common cause with Russia. These were weighty arguments and they were pressed home with immense concern by Forrestal and others. Forrestal argued that the failure to go along with the Zionists might lose the Democrats the states of New York and California. But was it not high time to consider whether giving in to Jewish pressure ‘might not lose the United States’? Since the Soviet Union was a co-sponsor of partition, and since Forrestal could not have foreseen the switch in the Soviet position, his anxiety was exaggerated. Since the west was the only major market for Arab oil, there was no reason to fear that the Arabs would try to boycott their best customers.

Subsequent developments seem to have partly justified Forrestal’s warnings, for Palestine was no doubt one of the main issues as the radical Arab countries moved to a position hostile to the United States. However, the evidence is by no means conclusive. Similar processes took place all over the Third World, with the exception of a few countries directly threatened by the Soviet Union. King Faruq may have lasted a few more years but for the emergence of a Jewish state, but there is little doubt that political and social change sprang from indigenous conditions in the Nile Valley. On the other hand, it could be argued that but for the existence of Israel, serving as a lightning conductor, the ‘moderates’ would have been overthrown by the ‘radicals’ everywhere, or that in the absence of a common enemy the Arab world would have fallen into a state of anarchy. All this, of course, is highly speculative; no one can say what might have happened but for the emergence of the state of Israel.

A hesitating President Truman gave his assent to the partition scheme on 9 October 1947. He faced considerable opposition within his administration, and the strident tone of American Zionist propaganda and the pressure constantly brought on him, had antagonised him. Nevertheless, he seems to have given instructions in November to give assistance to the Zionist representatives in New York who were trying hard to gain the necessary majority for the UNSCOP report. There were delays and it was not certain up to the last moment whether the motion would succeed. The vote was taken on Saturday, 29 November, and the motion carried by thirty-three to thirteen. Among those against were the Arab and some Asian states as well as Greece and Cuba. Among those who abstained were Argentina, Chile, China, Ethiopia, Britain, Yugoslavia and several South American republics.

There were celebrations that day in New York, in Palestine, and wherever Jews lived. Traffic stopped in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as people danced in the streets until the early hours of the morning. The decision imposed heavy responsibility on the yishuv and the entire Jewish people, Ben Gurion said in an interview. ‘After a darkness of two thousand years the dawn of redemption has broken’, declared Isaac Herzog, the chief rabbi. ‘It looks like trouble’, said Dr Magnes, who for many years had fought valiantly and vainly for a bi-national state.*

The next morning the Palestinian Arabs called a three-day protest strike, and Jews in all parts of the country were attacked. On that first day of rioting seven were killed and more injured; the fighting continued to the end of the mandate. The next months, as chaos engulfed Palestine, were a time of crisis for the Jewish community. Britain announced that it would leave the country by 16 May 1948, but the administration made no preparations to transfer power to Jews and Arabs, nor indeed to the Committee of Five which had been appointed by the UN to administer Jerusalem. The most pressing task facing the Jewish population was to strengthen its defences, since the Arab countries had already announced that their armies would enter the country as soon as the British left. Syria was not willing to wait that long: an ‘Arab Liberation Army’ inside Palestine was established in February with the help of Syrian officers as well as irregulars.

Hagana was by no means as well equipped and trained a fighting detachment as was commonly believed. Its forces and equipment were sufficient to cope with a civil war, but they seemed inadequate to defend the yishuv against regular armies. While Britain continued to supply arms to the neighbouring Arab countries, and America had declared a general arms embargo, the Jewish forces had great difficulty in obtaining supplies. By February the Arab forces were on the offensive throughout the country. While they did not succeed in capturing Jewish settlements, they all but paralysed the traffic among them, and even Jerusalem was about to become a besieged city. The Jewish relief force sent to the help of the Ezion settlements had been wiped out to the last man, a terrible loss by the standards of those days.

At the UN the Palestine Commission reported despairingly that nothing could be done before the end of the mandate. They could not demarcate the frontiers or set up a provisional government in the Arab state, and this would prevent economic union, and jeopardise the Jewish state and the international régime for Jerusalem.* The British announced that they could not support the UN resolution because it committed the Security Council to carrying out the partition scheme or giving guidance to the Palestine Commission. Palestine sterling holdings in London were blocked and the country expelled from the sterling bloc. It seemed as if London was determined to wreck whatever chances remained for an orderly and peaceful handover. Perhaps it wanted to demonstrate that the Palestinian problem was intractable and that where Britain had failed, no one else could succeed.

As events in Palestine took a turn for the worse, as far as Jewish interests were concerned, the resolve of the United States to support partition, never very strong, was further weakened. Senator Austin, telling the Security Council on 24 February that his country was not really bound by the recommendation of the General Assembly, prepared the way for the retreat. On 18 March he formally declared that since the partition plan could not be put into effect peacefully, the attempt to implement it should be discontinued and a temporary trusteeship established by the UN. Only a day before this announcement Truman had assured Weizmann that the United States was in favour of partition and would stick to this policy.

The shift in the American position was not apparently the result of a carefully thought-out political line; it simply reflected the drift, the lack of resolution and coordination in the American capital and the conflicting views within the administration. The trusteeship proposals were unrealistic, for if the UN had no authority to send a police force to supervise partition, who was going to enforce trusteeship? But events in Palestine had their own momentum, and the country was moving towards partition. In April Truman informed Weizmann that there would be no change in the long-term policy of the United States. If partition was not reversed in the General Assembly, and if after 15 May a Jewish state came into being, Washington would recognise it.

During March and April the military situation in Palestine suddenly improved for the Jews. It was still doubtful whether Hagana would be able to withstand the attack of Arab regular armies, but the main Arab guerrilla forces near Jerusalem and Haifa were routed. Fighting became more intense and savage, as acts of reprisal followed one another. On 8 April, most of the inhabitants of the Arab village of Dir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem, 254 in number, were killed by a combined IZL-Sternist force. Three days later, a Jewish medical convoy on its way to the Hadassa hospital on Mount Scopus was ambushed in the streets of Jerusalem with the loss of seventy-nine doctors, nurses and students. A British force stationed two hundred yards away did not intervene.

As the armed struggle became more bitter, the Jews were fighting with their backs to the wall, whereas the Arabs could take refuge in neighbouring countries. By the end of April, about 15,000 Arabs had left Palestine. What impelled them to do so has been debated ever since. The Arabs claim that the Jews, by massacres and threats of massacre, forced them out and that this was part of a systematic policy. The Jews asserted that the Palestinian Arabs followed the call of their leaders, believing they would soon return in the wake of victorious Arab armies.

As the end of the mandate drew nearer, the Jewish organisations prepared for the establishment of the state. Manpower was mobilised, emergency loans floated; the name of the new state, its constitution, flag, emblem, the seat of government were discussed, and there were hundreds of other questions to be decided. In reply to Washington’s trusteeship proposal, the Jewish Agency executive resolved on 23 March 1948 that immediately after the end of the mandate a Jewish government would take over. The Jewish Agency (at its meeting of 30 March) and the Zionist Council (on 6-12 April) decided on the establishment of a provisional government to be called Minhelet Ha’am (National Administration) and a provisional parliament, Moezet Ha’am (National Council).* On 20 April, these terms were first used in the Palestinian press. The new government was to consist of thirteen members and the council of thirty-seven; they were to be located for the time being in the Tel Aviv area. Thus the era of the Zionist institutions in the history of Palestine came to an end.

The mandate was due to end at midnight, 14 May, but the new Jewish administration began to function several weeks earlier. The blue and white flag was hoisted on public buildings in Tel Aviv, new stamps were issued, the taxation services reorganised. (One of the main problems facing the new administration was to find a sufficient number of Hebrew typewriters.) Meanwhile in New York and Washington the Americans and the UN went through the motions of establishing a caretaker commission as zero hour approached. But a report from the Consular Truce commission in Jerusalem announced that partition in the capital was already a fact. Officials in Washington thought that the chances that the Jewish state, if proclaimed, would survive, were not very good. Moshe Shertok was warned by General Marshall, the secretary of state, that if the Jewish state was attacked it should not count on American military help. There were suggestions by Dean Rusk and others that the proclamation of the state should be postponed for ten days, perhaps longer, and that meanwhile the truce should be restored.

Shertok arrived in Tel Aviv on 12 May, just in time for the session of the provisional government which was to decide on the proclamation of the state. He supported the proposal that a truce should be declared and that, while a government should be appointed at the end of the British mandate, the proclamation of the state should be delayed. But Ben Gurion was not willing to budge. The motion was defeated by a vote of six to four, as, with a small minority, was the suggestion that the proclamation of the state should mention its borders as defined by the United Nations.*

The state of Israel came into being at a meeting of the National Council at 4 p.m. on Friday, 14 May 1948 (Iyar 5, 5708), at the Tel Aviv Museum, Rothschild Boulevard. The Hatiqva was sung first, and then David Ben Gurion read out the declaration of independence: ‘By virtue of the natural and historical right of the Jewish people and of the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine to be called Israel.’ This took little more than fifteen minutes, after which the members of the council signed the document in alphabetical order. Rabbi Fishman pronounced Shehekheyanu, the traditional benediction (… that we lived to see this day …). The first decree adopted by the National Council as the supreme legislative authority was the retroactive annulment of the White Paper. The ceremony was over well before the Sabbath set in. Ben Gurion said to one of his aides: ‘I feel no gaiety in me, only deep anxiety as on 29 November, when I was like a mourner at the feast.’ Half an hour before midnight the last British high commissioner left Haifa, and the following Sunday Dr Weizmann was elected president of the new state.

The first country to recognise the new state was the United States. President Truman made a brief statement to that effect on Friday, shortly after 6 p.m. Washington time. Within the next few days the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, Uruguay and other countries followed. A cable was received by the chairman of the Security Council from the Egyptian foreign minister: the Egyptian army was crossing the borders of Palestine with the object of putting an end to the massacres raging there, and upholding the law and the principles recognised among the United Nations; military operations were directed not against the Palestinian Jew but only against the terrorist Zionist gangs. During Friday night, the invasion of Palestine began. On Saturday morning Tel Aviv’s power station and Aqir airport were attacked from the air. It was the beginning of a series of wars which was not to end for many years.

* Jewish Frontier, August 1945.

* R.R.R. Srossman, A Nation Reborn, London, 1960, p. 70.

* Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 280.

 Central Zionist Archives. File S 5/351. Meeting of 7 October 1945.

* The World Zionist Conference, London, 1945, p. 6.

 Speech in Atlantic City, JTA Bulletin, 23 November 1945.

* Yehuda Bauer, Flight and Rescue: Brichah, New York, 1970, p. 320.

 Ibid., pp. 317–18.

* Supplementary Memorandum by the Government of Palestine including Notes on Evidence Given to UNSCOP up to July 12, 1947, p. 34.

 Ch. Weizmann, The Right to Survive, Jerusalem, 1946.

* Cmd. 6808, London, 1946, p. 11.

 David Horowitz, State in the Making, New York, 1953, p. 94; Silverberg, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem, p. 307.

 Central Zionist Archives, Meeting of 21 May 1946, File S 25/1804.

* Quoted in Bauer, Flight and Rescue, p. 256.

* Quoted in Silverberg, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem, p. 318.

 Some of the figures, such as 112,000 for Germany and 100,000 for Poland, look somewhat suspect.

 HaKongress Hazioni ha 22. Din vekheshbon stenografi, Jerusalem, n.d., p. 7 et seq.

* Ibid., p. 87.

 Ibid., p. 142 et seq.

 Ibid., p. 344. Sneh left the Zionist movement not long after and became a member of the Communist Party; his break with Moscow came only many years later and after countless disappointments.

* Ibid., pp. 344–5.

* The Times, 8 January 1947.

* Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 295.

 The English text of the speech was distributed by the press department of the Soviet Embassy in London; see Zionist Review, 23 May 1947.

* The Jewish Evidence before the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine, Jerusalem, 1947, pp. 25-6.

* Quoted in Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 288.

 Der Tog, 5 September 1947. Quoted in Silverberg, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem, p. 343.

* New York Times, 30 November 1947.

* Quoted in H. Sacher, Israel: The Establishment of a State, London, 1952, p. 105.

* Zeev Sharef, Three Days, London, 1962, p. 44 et seq; A.A. Poliak, Bekum Medinat Israel, Tel Aviv, 1956, p. 175.

 Sharef, Three Days, p. 167.

* Ibid., pp. 122-3; Ben Gurion, The Peel Report and the Jewish State, p. 86.

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