Latin passion for peace returns to J'lem house

UNSCOP descendants: Partition helped fulfil the dream, but not completely.

UNSCOP 224.88 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir)
UNSCOP 224.88
(photo credit: Yossi Zamir)
In a house that stood alone on a barren Jerusalem hill, 60 years ago, diplomats from across the globe were hotly discussing a troubling question: the future of Palestine. The British had tired of their mandate, and the UN had taken on the task of deciding the fate of the land. The diplomats' recommendations eventually led to the Partition Plan and the UN's acceptance of a Jewish state on November 29 1947. They have been criticized for being unrealistic, as it was war and not diplomacy that ultimately set the boundaries. There's no doubt it was an important step towards the Zionist dream coming true, but for the diplomats there was more to the dream than just creating a state, and that is still a dream, say children and grandchildren of South American members of the United Nations Special Committee On Palestine (UNSCOP). It was the South Americans who played the strongest role in pushing for a Jewish state, and to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN vote, the Foreign Ministry invited a group of their descendants to Israel, to attend a reenactment of that historic vote due to take place at the Knesset on Monday. The visitors spoke to The Jerusalem Post during a visit this week to the house in Jerusalem where the members of the panel lived during their 1947 stay in Jerusalem. Located in what is today the quiet but densely built-up Rav Berlin street, the building is named Beit Kadima after the company that built it near the Arab-controlled Katamon neighborhood. It was originally intended to house British officers, but as the end of the Mandate was already in sight, it became the place where the day after the end was debated. Its neatly-kept garden, golden-brown stone walls and arched exterior staircases make it stand out from the standard gray Jerusalem stone buildings around it. Aharon Ettinger, who at the time lived about 100 meters away, in the closest building to the house, recalled how "One day in '47 lots of workers suddenly came and turned the dirt path here into a proper road. It then turned out that the UN officials had arrived and needed a road for their big American cars." After the diplomats left, Jewish families began living in Beit Kadima. Shmuel Zinger, whose family moved in when he was one year old, said that "The building is the same as it was, nothing has changed except for the trees." The building is the same and, the diplomats' descendants said with a touch of irony and a bit of sorrow and frustration, the same goes for the problems between the Jews and Arabs. In this traumatized region, where the past never seems to ease its grip on the present, their reflections on what happened then make them perhaps perplexed - but apparently not despaired - about what is happening now. One of the visitors, Enrique Garcia Granados, deputy mayor of Guatemala City, said "The paradox today is that they are discussing in Annapolis the same principles set out in the resolution of UNSCOP 60 years ago. The heart of the resolution is what is being discussed with the same basic principles and basic ideas. It's a paradox that 60 years later we have the same result as 60 years ago." Enrique is the great-grandson of Jorge Garcia Granados, the Guatemalan diplomat who was the key protagonist in the drama that played out in the committee, which he later described in his book The Birth Of Israel: The Drama As I Saw It. The picture painted by the visitors was of the Latin American delegates' eager quest to muster a majority in the committee that would support a state for the Jews and a state for the Arabs of Palestine. "Granados first gathered the Latin Americans [Guatemala, Uruguay, Peru] so there was a group of three together, then he persuaded Holland, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Australia, and Sweden, so they eventually had a majority of eight," said Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Aryeh, an eminent expert on Jerusalem and Israel who was at the Beit Kadima event. Opposing the decision were Iran, India, and Yugoslavia. Granados, like the other Latin Americans, ardently supported the creation of a Jewish state, yet it was not only out of particular affection for the Jewish people but also because of his "dream about justice," said Stella Granados, his daughter-in-law, and Guatemala's former ambassador to Israel two decades ago. (Her father-in-law himself was the first ambassador to Israel.) "Guatemala is such a small country and so far away that many people just didn't understand why, but my father-in-law had a dream about justice and told me this Jewish state had to be established, especially after the suffering of World War II," she said. "Granados had fought dictatorships in Guatemala and fought against Franco in Spain, he was in prison twice, thrown out of his country twice, so he understood the fight people had to have for their land and for their own country," Enrique Garcia Granados said. The fight for a Jewish country had ultimately ended in victory and the realization of the Zionist dream, but not completely, because as Stella said, "The dream of the people of Israel of 60 years ago is still a dream - to live in peace with their neighbors." And if her father-in-law were alive today, she said, "He'd still be convincing people that peace is the only way to continue living in this little area." The son of Uruguayian diplomat Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat observed that his father's dream, like the other Latin Americans, was not only of peace for the Jewish state, but for two states living together. "A great part of the dream came true, the other part not," said Daniel Rodriguez, managing editor of the Montevideo daily El País. His father, Rodriguez said, was in general "pleased" with the outcome, "although he thought the whole resolution had not transformed into a reality because the state of Israel was created and the Palestinian state had not, and until today is not a reality." Rodriguez said his father told him the area was "unfriendly," and the committee's work was tough. One night his father and Granados were blindfolded and taken to a secret spot to meet the dissident Zionist underground Irgun leader Menachem Begin who was wanted as a terrorist by the British, then still running the country. Despite the fact that Begin's Revisionist party rejected partition, claiming the whole Land of Israel for the Jews, he "discussed with them the future of the Jewish state and told them he could really trust them because he understood what they represented." The panel's job was strenuous not only because of the hostilities under way in the contested land, but also diplomatically: The rifts within the committee and the Latin Americans' broader mission of trying to get the UN General Assembly to vote in favor of partition. Rodriguez said that when his father talked to the countries' delegates, "There were some who were against, some were not informed about the Jewish problem, and others did care. So the task they undertook, let's say spontaneously, was to convince quite a few countries to vote for the resolution. He was mostly successful because they got the 33 votes necessary in the UN." Stella Granados said her father-in-law "believed in it, he was really fighting for the cause, and in the beginning the US was not so much in favor, maybe President Truman yes, but the State Department not, and he had strong words for the American delegation." Ultimately, the Arabs of the region were not prepared to accept a Jewish state in their midst, minimized and divided as it was by the plan. Despite the wholehearted efforts of the diplomats, the Arabs of Palestine attacked Jewish targets immediately following the vote, joined by neighboring Arab countries on the day the Mandate ended - May 15 1948. The new State of Israel had to fight its War of Independence to establish its borders. If the partition plan had gone into effect, Jerusalem would not have been part of the Jewish state, but an international enclave, and as one of the visitors said, that was one thing about the plan that would not be realistic today. "Sixty years ago the Israelis accepted the idea of partition, but the Arabs were not willing to accept it. Today they say they are… But we still don't know yet if the majority of the Arabs are ready to accept it," Ben Aryeh said. Beit Kadima itself, being right on the front line, soon became a stronghold of the Hagana, and the house was under nearly constant fire. "Because of the shooting attacks, we couldn't go out, so we had to break holes in the walls between the apartments to crawl from one apartment to the other," Shmuel Zinger recollected. Rachel Avramitski, an elderly but very vocal and energetic woman, moved into the house 60 years ago with her baby son, and is the only one to have stayed there since. "My husband was a fighter, he was the only one who knew how to fire a machine gun. There was only one gun, so he fired from here and here and there so they'd think we have lots of weapons," she bellowed with a huge smile stretched across her face. The legacy of the house may still be alive, but, Avramitski said, "I'm the only one who remained here. All the others died."