Witnessing the birth of a nation

Abba Eban's widow recounts the UN partition vote firsthand.

Suzy and Abba Eban 224.8 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archive)
Suzy and Abba Eban 224.8
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archive)
Suzy Eban has the distinction of being one of the few witnesses to the United Nations November 29, 1947 debate on Palestine who is still living. At the time, she was a young bride in her early 20s. Her husband - Israel's eloquent and eminent statesman Abba Eban - was 32, but already had the experience of a diplomat twice his age in dealing with international affairs. Though raised in a fervently Zionist environment, the brilliant Eban might have a chosen a life in academia, but for the Holocaust and his position as an intelligence officer in the British Army during World War II. As his widow tells it, he was caught in a dilemma between the serene atmosphere of an academic career and answering the request of Chaim Weizmann, who later became Israel's first president, and the plea of Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) to join in the struggle for a Jewish state. To the astonishment of his friends at Cambridge, he chose to work at the Jewish Agency. Palestine was under the administration of the British Mandate, which had imposed an immigration quota of 100,000 people over a five-year period - namely 20,000 people per year. "We were all at a loss as to how to solve this issue," Suzy Eban recalled in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post. "Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, was at a greater loss as to what to do, and threw the whole issue into the lap of the United Nations, which appointed the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) to solve the issue." Its members, representing 11 countries - Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia - were assigned to tour Palestine on a fact-finding mission. Abba Eban, recently discharged from the army, and David Horowitz, the director of the Jewish Agency's Economics Department and later the first governor of the Bank of Israel, were appointed the liaisons to UNSCOP. After completing their mission in Palestine, the 11 UNSCOP members went to Geneva to draft and present their report to Ralph Bunche, who was the acting UN mediator. The committee had to choose between partition and a federal state, which is what the Arabs wanted, "and the Jews would be a minority," said Suzy Eban. But when the question of partition was put to a vote at the General Assembly, the result was 33 in favor, 13 against, 10 abstentions and one absentee. "The hall was full, and I cannot even begin to describe the joy and excitement," said Eban in a tone of exuberance, as if the event had taken place the previous day instead of 60 years ago. "People stood outside. Everybody's radio in New York was open. I shall never forget that day, and I feel privileged that, young as I was, I was part of it." Descendants of the South American UNSCOP representatives are currently in Israel, and will meet on Thursday morning with President Shimon Peres. On Wednesday, they met with former president Yitzhak Navon, and they will be the guests of Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik on Sunday. It is a historical coincidence that the two people who lobbied hardest at the United Nations for the Jewish cause, Weizmann and Abba Eban - who became Israel's first ambassador to the UN, then simultaneously ambassador to the US and later foreign minister - both died in November, the month in which the State of Israel was conceived, if not born. Weizmann died on November 9, 1952 at age 77, and Eban died on November 17, 2002 at age 87. Add to this coincidence the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917 and the Annapolis summit on November, 27, 2007, where Ehud Olmert - who lived on Kaf Tet B'November (November 29) Street in Jerusalem before he became prime minister - told the world at large, and the Arab world in particular, that Israel was willing to make painful concessions for peace.