At first, poking through old documents might not sound like an exciting hour or two spent online. But when those documents illustrate the dramatic arguments and events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel seven decades ago, they take on incredible importance and currency.
The United Nations was barely a year old when the question of Palestine made its way onto its agenda. In May 1947, two hearings were granted, one for the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the other for the Arab Higher Committee. Because David Ben-Gurion was not available to address the UN on the first day, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver found himself on the world stage. Rabbi Silver was a well-known Zionist leader and rabbi of Cleveland’s Temple Tifereth-Israel. You can read his speech online (and that of Moshe Shertok who would become Moshe Sharrett, Israel’s second Prime Minister. )
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, representing the Jewish Agency for Palestine, May 8, 1947
“We are an ancient people, and though we have often, on the long, hard road which we have travelled, been disillusioned, we have never been disheartened. We have never lost faith in the sovereignty and the ultimate triumph of great moral principles. In these last tragic years, when the whole household of Israel became one great hostelry of pain, we could not have built what we did build had we not preserved our unshakable trust in the victory of truth. …
“The Jewish people belongs in this society of nations. Surely the Jewish people is no less deserving than other peoples whose national freedom and independence have been established and whose representatives are now seated here. … We hope that the representatives of the people which gave to mankind spiritual and ethical values, inspiring human personalities and sacred texts which are your treasured possessions, and which is now rebuilding its national life in its ancient home-land, will be welcomed before long by you to this noble fellowship of the United Nations.”
Henry Cattan, representative of the Arab Higher Committee, May 9, 1947
“The Arab people are deeply anxious to find a just and lasting solution to the problem before you, because it is their own problem, the problem of their present life and their future destiny. … The Arabs of Palestine are not claiming their country on pledges made to them, for it belongs to them. Nor are the Arabs claiming their independence on assurances; they are entitled to such independence as their natural and inalienable right. …There is therefore no justice in the denial to the people of Palestine of the elementary rights of self-government and independence.”
On the question of the fate of the Jewish refugees:
“The problem of the refugees and of displaced persons is not limited to any special religion or race. It is a humanitarian problem, and it is the duty and concern of the civilized world to treat it as such. … The linking of the refugee problem with Palestine has made and will continue to make the solution of both problems infinitely, more difficult, if not impossible.”
Footage of the UN vote to establish a Jewish State in the land of Israel, November 29th, 1947.
Things, of course, heated up in the UN later that year with the passing of Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine. [As well as reading the resolution, you can watch a short documentary that includes historic footage from the UN vote that began: “We will proceed the role call. Afghanistan? No. Argentina? Argentina? Abstention. Australia? Yes. Belgium? Yes. …” The final vote: 33 in favour, 13 against and 10 abstained.
Even if your eyes tend to glaze over when you look at historic documents, don’t miss the two maps that form annexes to Resolution 181. The first illustrates the proposed borders of Palestine. The Jewish State would include the northeast Galilee, the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to about Ashdod and much of the Negev. The Arab State’s areas include Acre and the northwest Galilee, a section extending from Jenin to Beersheva and the Jordan River to Ramle, Gaza and a section of the Negev as well as the enclave of Jaffa.
At the heart is the region of Jerusalem which along with surrounding villages and towns, including Bethlehem, would come under international control, an area known as the “corpus separatum“ (Latin for “separated body”.)
Israeli Declaration of Independence as read by David Ben Gurion
Of course that was not to be. On May 14, 1948, one day after the British Mandate for Palestine expired, Israel declared independence. You can read the Declaration in the original Hebrew and in English. As well, you can listen to Ben-Gurion as he addresses the Jewish People’s Council in Tel Aviv.
The following day, the Arab League declared war. Its document sums up the history of the region, explains what it sees as the illegitimacy of the Jewish state and proclaims that “the Governments of the Arab States have found themselves compelled to intervene in Palestine solely in order to help its inhabitants restore peace and security and the rule of justice and law to their country, and in order to prevent bloodshed.”
As the fighting continued – and after it stopped – the conflict in Israel continued to preoccupy the United Nations. In 1948, the UN Security Council passed 28 resolutions on everything from the admission of Burma to the world body to the control of atomic energy. But you can get a pretty good indication of where their energies were focused when you consider that 16 of those 28 resolutions dealt with “The Palestine Question.”
There is an extensive online collection of documents at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum dealing with the recognition of the State of Israel by the United States. It includes archival audio of the president stating, “The Jews who had been murdered needed to be recognized and the best way to recognize them was to set up a home for those that were left.
One of the most significant artifacts is probably the shortest one. It reads simply, “This Government has been informed that a Jewish sate has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional Government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new Jewish state. [signed] Harry Truman. Approved, May 14, 1948.”
I found it particularly interesting when you see that Truman stroked out the typed phrase, “Jewish state” was stroked and replaced it with his hand-written words, “State of Israel.”