One day in 1947, the members of a new organization convened in a building that had once been a skating rink and changed the world by holding a vote.
Precisely 65 years later, members of the same organization, the United Nations, will hold another vote very much linked to the first. Less is at stake this time. But Thursday’s vote on upgrading the Palestinians to observer state status — a small but significant alteration of their international standing — demonstrates to what extent Saturday, November 29, 1947, is a day that has never really ended.
Witness accounts of the momentous vote in 1947 describe the delegates’ cars pulling up outside the gray building at Flushing Meadow, outside New York, on a cold November afternoon, the crowds gathered outside, an electric excitement inside. People all over the world listened to a live radio broadcast.
The vote was to decide whether to partition the British Mandate territory of Palestine into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. To pass, the motion needed a two-thirds majority. The Jews were in favor, the Arabs opposed. Feverish international lobbying by both sides had preceded the vote.
A Brazilian diplomat, Oswaldo Aranha, presided over the meeting from a high table. Next to him was the secretary general, the Norwegian Trygve Lie. In front of them stood a glass water pitcher and microphones that looked like metallic hard-boiled eggs. Behind them was an enormous painting of the globe.
‘As he spoke, a feeling that grips a man but once in his lifetime came over us. High above us we seemed to hear the beating of the wings of history’
The two men faced a “wide semicircle of delegations with table signs, and the packed galleries,” according to an account written by the Zionist delegate David Horowitz.
Footage of the vote, and the discussions that preceded it, was preserved by the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and is available online. The grainy film still conveys the remarkable drama of that day.
A roll call began. Each country’s delegate shouted from the floor, “Yes,” “No,” or “Abstention.”
When it was France’s turn, the auditorium held its breath; most expected the French to abstain. When their delegate said “Yes,” the Zionist supporters who filled the galleries erupted into cheers.
“Excitement,” Horowitz wrote, “became a physical pain.”
“The president rapped sharply for order and warned the public against demonstrations.” Voting resumed.
When it was over, the president rapped his gavel again and read out the tally: Thirty-three in favor, thirteen against, eleven abstentions. The motion had passed.
“As he spoke,” wrote Horowitz, “a feeling that grips a man but once in his lifetime came over us. High above us we seemed to hear the beating of the wings of history.”
The Arab states were shocked and furious. The representatives of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt, wrote Lie, the secretary-general, immediately “rose and filed out of the Assembly hall.”
The Arab Higher Committee subsequently wrote to inform Lie that the Arabs of Palestine “will never submit or yield to any Power going to Palestine to enforce partition. The only way to establish partition is first to wipe them out — man, woman and child.” The clerics of the Al-Azhar Islamic seminary in Cairo called for a “worldwide jihad in defense of Arab Palestine.”
Violence erupted in Palestine the next morning, the first shots in what would eventually become known as Israel’s War of Independence or, to the Arab world, as the “Nakba” — the catastrophe.
The results of the vote, however, were not perhaps as final as they might have seemed. In 2012, increasingly powerful segments in both Palestinian and Israeli society do not accept what the United Nations accepted that day.
The most important player among Palestinians is now Hamas, which has always rejected the idea of partition as a betrayal of Islam. The land of Palestine is an Islamic trust, according to the group’s 1988 charter, and “no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it.” Hamas’s popularity is on the rise because it is seen to be brave in confronting Israel militarily, as it did in the most recent round of fighting triggered by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza.
Under the pragmatic leadership of David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist movement embraced partition as the realization of a 2,000-year dream of a national revival in the Jews’ historic homeland. Revionist Zionists, led at the time by Menachem Begin, opposed the compromise. But Begin’s political heir, Likud party leader and current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has said in recent years that he now accepts it.
This week, however, Likud members elected a new slate for Israel’s ruling party dominated by candidates who reject the idea of partition. Instead, these present and future lawmakers — Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, Ze’ev Elkin and others — advocate Jewish control of the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, including millions of Arab residents who are not Israeli citizens.
Polls show the party winning the upcoming January election.
The 1967 war and Israel’s capture of Gaza and the West Bank reopened the partition question in Israeli society, said Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri.
“Until 1967 it seemed the argument over partition had ended. Even Begin did not demand to liberate Rachel’s Tomb. But once you gain control, the situation changes,” Avineri told Times of Israel reporter Mitch Ginsburg.
“The occupation reignited the argument,” he said.
Thursday’s vote, on a date chosen at least partly for its historical significance, might well see a Palestinian success. But the modesty of what will have been achieved punctuates the ongoing failure of the Palestinian national movement 65 years after it rejected a state significantly larger than the one currently under discussion — a decision that certainly ranks with the greatest miscalculations of the last century.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told an Israeli TV station last year that rejecting the partition plan had been a “mistake.” The Palestinian Authority opposes violence and says it seeks a two-state solution to the conflict — an agreement, belatedly, to partition — but did not accept Israeli partition offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008, and fatally undermined the pro-partition forces in Israeli society.
Israel’s attempt to rally opposition to Abbas’ UN bid has largely failed, showing the erosion of Israel’s international standing. France, which surprised onlookers in 1947 with its last-moment decision to support Israel’s creation, has announced that this time it will be siding with the Palestinians. The Soviet Union cast a key vote in favor of partition in 1947, but Russia will also be voting for the Palestinian motion Thursday. The same goes for Norway and Denmark.
After the 1947 vote ended at Flushing Meadow, “Jewish Agency delegates, friends, press correspondents, and a great throng of reveling Jews milled in the halls and corridors,” Horowitz wrote. “There was dancing and merrymaking in the streets.” In Jerusalem, the staff of a local winery rolled a barrel into the middle of a downtown street and gave out free drinks. The Zionist leader Golda Meyerson — later to be Prime Minister Golda Meir — addressed the crowds from the balcony of the Jewish Agency building.
“For two thousand years we have waited for our deliverance. Now that it is here it is so great and wonderful that it surpasses human words. Jews,” she cried, “Mazel tov!”
Six and a half decades have passed since that night. The partition of Palestine remains on the table, the final results of the voting still unclear.