Slightly less than one year after the Jewish state's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared independence and mere weeks after the most serious fighting in the War of Independence came to an end, the United Nations voted to admit Israel to its halls and chambers as a full member-state. Although the country has since had a continuously contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the world body, obtaining membership after those first months of statehood served as one of the most important and lasting acknowledgements and symbols of independence and sovereignty.
When United Nations General Assembly Resolution 273 came up for a vote on May 11, 1949, half a year after the application was first submitted, 37 countries voted in favor, 9 abstained and 12 cast their votes against Israeli membership in the UN. Immediately following the vote, Israel's flag was raised outside the United Nations building in New York and Hatikva was first sung at the world body.
Israel's first foreign minister Moshe Sharet and diplomat Abba Eban were in attendance. Former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and then-US delegate to the UN also attended the ceremony. Speaking at the UN that day, Sharet celebrated the "great event, which marks our full emancipation."
"Our flag has been raised proudly on the great circle which symbolizes the liberty and humanity of mankind," he continued, "We have achieved liberty and equality in the family of nations and full creative appreciation for the national genius of our people."
In the General Assembly’s resolution approving the ascension of Israel to a full member-state, its members had affirmed that the young state was “a peace loving State which accepts the obligations contained in the (UN) Charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations.” But it also contained references to previous resolutions relating to the state and the conflict it was born into.
In voting to admit Israel, the UN made specific note of resolutions 181 and 194. Resolution 181 was the approval of the Partition Plan, which had planted the seed for Israeli independence two years earlier. Resolution 194, which was passed half a year after Israel’s declaration of independence and the start of the War of Independence, called for Jerusalem being an international city under UN control and for allowing the conditional return of Palestinian refugees displaced in the war.
While the language in Resolution 273 did not condition Israel’s membership on the implementation of 181 and 194, the included mentions were indicative and foretelling of the frictions the Jewish state would face in the United Nations in years to come.
The Jewish state has seen a disproportionate number of resolutions relating to it and the Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinians passed since its establishment. Some 100 resolutions have been passed relating to Israel and the conflict in the General Assembly. In the Security Council, over 200 such resolutions have been passed, although many of them reference previous resolutions.
But despite the contentious relationship Israel has continuously had with the world body, its admission and continued membership remains one of the most important landmarks and accomplishments along the road to establishing the Jewish state envisioned in the Zionist project. Membership in the United Nations cemented Israel’s membership in the international community. Amid continued fears of delegitimization efforts against Israel, becoming the United Nations’ 57th member-state was and continues to serve as a nearly unquestionable affirmation of the country’s legitimacy and existence.