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The Zionist leadership was incredibly pessimistic in the spring of 1947 that the handing over of responsibility of the Palestine question to the United Nations would bring any sort of positive results. If it eventually came to a vote, the British were confident that the Zionists would fail dismally to achieve a two thirds majority at the UN. Yet as history records, on 29 November 1947, the General Assembly vote on partition was 33 for, 13 against with 10 abstentions.
Harold Beeley, the advisor on Palestine to the British Foreign Office had told David Horowitz, head of the Jewish Agency's economics department, that without the full weight of the Soviet bloc, the Zionists would fail dismally and the responsibility for Palestine would probably be returned to an emboldened, empowered British authority. In April 1947, the Soviets had voted with the Arabs at the UN. In May 1947, Andrei Gromyko made his famous intervention which argued that the preferred solution was a bi-national state, but if this was not possible, then a partitioned state was the answer. This flew in the face of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and the fact that the Soviet Union had been sending Zionists to the Gulag for the past 25 years. The Kremlin wanted to exclude not only the British, but also stop increasing American involvement in the Middle East. Moreover, the powerful Zionist Left, besotted with the USSR, the Kremlin reckoned, could prove to be a political asset in the future.
At the beginning of 1947, it was also believed that the Vatican would not favor a Jewish state on theological grounds. Yet a majority of Latin American states voted for partition. In the last few days before the vote, US president Harry S Truman fully threw his political authority behind the Zionist diplomatic effort.
YET ABOVE all, 1947 indicated a determined common effort, a Zionist popular front, to sink personal and ideological differences and to utilize this almost unexpected opportunity which had arisen. It is no clichÃ© to state that the weight of Jewish history was upon their shoulders.
Before 1947, there had been severe division within Zionist ranks. The co-chairmen of the American Zionist Emergency Committee, Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, did not see eye to eye. This was further complicated by the opening of a Jewish Agency office in Washington in 1943 by Chaim Weizmann. The office was headed by Nahum Goldmann whose cavalier diplomacy and independent action infuriated Silver.
Goldmann openly espoused partition whereas Silver believed that this was tactically foolish since the British would attempt to whittle down any proposition. He argued that only a maximalist position should be pitched, compromise could come later. Goldmann said that this denied the Jewish reality in 1946. Following the Holocaust, there simply were not enough European Jews that could create a Jewish majority in a non-partitioned state. Although Silver refused to testify before the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946, by the autumn of 1947, he too began to use all his talents for support the recommendations of the UN Special Committee on Palestine for a partitioned state.
This movement toward accepting partition affected Zionist parties which 10 years before in 1937 had vehemently opposed the Peel Commission's proposals for the division of Palestine. The Holocaust and its aftermath of wrecked lives and displaced people had created an urgency which relegated ideology to a secondary concern. Golda Meir had opposed partition in 1937, but supported it in 1947. The religious Zionists of Mizrachi moved toward supporting Yehuda Leib Maimon (Fishman) who advocated partition over the revered Meir Bar-Ilan. The Lamifneh faction of Hapoel Hamizrachi included many Jews from Germany, Yosef Burg, Moshe Unna and Ephraim Urbach - they too argued for partition.
There were even dramatic displays of disunity at the world conference of Agudat Yisrael in Marienbad in August 1947. The ultra-orthodox party had been established as a bulwark against Zionism. Its president had told the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946 that "for us, the state is not a goal in itself." Yet at the conference, survivors were willing to oppose party leaders and demand to go to Palestine.
The long time belief of the Marxist Zionists, Hashomer Hatzair in a bi-national state, started its slow demise with Gromyko's fateful statements at the UN. Indeed, the movement's initial belief was that he had been misreported. The Communists of Palestine had unfortunately published an editorial on the same day as Gromyko's speech recommending the old line of a federated Arab-Jewish state. Like all dedicated followers of Soviet Communism, they saw the light - and it was good. Achdut Ha'avodah, the party of Yitzhak Tabenkin, Yigal Allon, Moshe Carmel and Yitzhak Rabin, believed that a Jewish socialist society should be constructed before the proclamation of a Jewish state. Tabenkin wanted an extension of the Mandate and believed that the ensuing conflict had been deliberately contrived by the British to obstruct Arab-Jewish cooperation.
THE MAIN group of Zionists which did not move from their ideological beliefs were the nationalists - the Revisionists, the Irgun and Lehi. Ze'ev Jabotinsky had opposed the 1937 partition, labelling the partitioned state as a new "Pale of Settlement." Menachem Begin similarly spoke about the gettoization of the Jews in a statelet along the coast which would be unable to absorb large numbers of Jews.
It would be economically unviable and would have to maintain a large army. The Irgun envisaged that the Negev would be unsuitable for Zionist settlement for decades. Above all, Begin lamented the first partition of Palestine and refused to accept that the East Bank, TransJordan, had been irrevocably lost.
In a memo to the UN in April 1947, the Irgun stated its belief that the Jews constituted a clear majority of the population on both sides of the Jordan. This included "those of our people, numbering millions, who strive to return to it immediately but are unable to realize their right because the British occupation regimeâ€¦ has placed it self in their path."
Begin also invoked "the consciousness of historic unity" of the present with the past. Such "imponderables," he argued, were one of the most real factors in human history. "Their power is supreme and their influence ineradicable."
Most Zionists disagreed with him and made a difficult choice between pragmatism and ideology. Begin never lost his attachment to the East Bank and his distaste for partition, yet he, too, as prime minister, had to distinguish between the dream and the reality.
The writer lectures in Israeli studies at London University. Cambridge University Press will be publishing his History of Modern Israel in 2008.
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