Howard Adelman

Where does this analysis of the process by which the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) arrived at the recommendation that Palestine be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state leave us? The conclusions fall into a number of headings. The first and most important deals with historical myth and fact. The very widespread belief that the creation of Israel was supported by non-Jews because of guilt over the Holocaust proves to be a myth. If the proceedings of the UNSCOP offer any clue, and I believe they offer a very core and central piece of evidence, there is absolutely no support for this belief. It can and should be relegated to the ash heap of academic history as a total myth. Of course, it would be of great historical interest to trace the origins and consolidation of that myth as a critical part of interpreting the story of Israel. But that is a job for another time and another person.

Israel began its national life by declaring itself as a redeemed state by and for the Jewish people and accomplished by the dedication, labour and sacrifices of those people. Israel was not brought into being because of a series of reports culminating in that of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) or the resolution in November 1947 in support of partition. However, UNSCOP’s majority recommendation for partition and the United Nations General Assembly majority vote endorsing that recommendation did add a considerable measure of legitimacy to the Israeli declaration of independence, but it was not the reason Israel came into being. Further, even in the reasoning behind legitimating this outcome, few believed that the outcome was just and justified because it would be the realization of a dream of self-determination of the Jewish people. The much more important factor was where to settle the 250,000 Jewish refugees in Europe in 1947 when very few states indicated any willingness to resettle the refugees in any significant numbers.

A second set of conclusions entail explaining historical events in general and in explaining this precise event in particular. I wrote my PhD thesis on historical explanation. There were two predominant theories in contention. The positivist thesis, the foremost proponent of which was Carl Hempel, argued that events were explained when we enunciated all the relevant historical laws and all the specific kinds of particular events that would allow us to predict the occurrence of the event as a definitive or, at the very least, probable outcome. A rational explanation was akin to a scientific explanation and was valid when it retrospectively facilitated prediction.

Opposed to this positivist account was an idealistic one, led by Bill Dray when I was a graduate student. That thesis argued that one explained an event when one could re-enact the internal thinking of individual historical agents so that, instead of propositions such as Hempel proposed – If C1, C2, C3…Cn (the classes of historical conditions) and L1, L2, L3…Ln (the presumptive laws of history) then (probably) E, where the event, E was the class of events into which the specific event being explained fell. The idealist model, in contrast argued that, “If C1, C2, C3…Cn (the specific conditions as perceived by the agent) and P1, P2, P3…Pn (the general norms held by the agent) then the thing to do would be A (the action in question, in this case, vote for and recommend the partition of Palestine).

If the positivist account in which scientific modelling was imposed on all thought now seems so ludicrous and irrelevant, one wonders why it was taken so seriously seventy years ago. Certainly, no scholarly historian has been shown to undertake his work in conforming to such a model. Further, theoretically, there is no way he could since history has never been about predictability but more often about unpredictability until positivism began to rage across the intellectual stage in the nineteenth century and scholars tried their hand at devising large scale historical laws.

The idealist explanation gained much more traction because it had a much better pedigree when discussing an actual historian’s work. Certainly one of the intellectual devices used by historians was a re-enactment of the thinking process of an agent involved in making a significant historical decision. However, as useful as this device is in understanding one person’s decision-making in some circumstances, it is useless in most actual cases. Even in the cases cited as illustrations, my thesis argued that the model and the actual case were incongruent. Further, what is most often being explained is the result of collective decision making an action rather than the decisions of an individual. In addition, as I have argued in this case, most of the processes of thinking and drawing conclusions are a mixture of deliberation, pre-fixed ideologies, current and recent experience, dialogue with others and chance circumstances and external pressures. The latter may be limited when a committee is truly set up to be independent.

The most important reason why the above models are totally inadequate is that historians do not explain events or actions or decisions so much as events, decisions and actions are used to explain conundrums or puzzles about history. And one of the duties of a historian is to discover those puzzles. In the case of the UNSCOP recommendation, I argued that the puzzle was why UNSCOP recommended partition when the initial alignments as discovered and documented by historical research indicated that such an outcome was quite unlikely.

In this case, key factors that came into play were not allowed for in either the positivist or the idealist model of historical explanation. Chance is perhaps the most important. The outcome could not have been and should not have been expected because who knew that, during most of these proceedings, John Hood of Australia and Dr. N.S. Blom of the Netherlands were toadies of the foreign affairs departments or the foreign ministers of their respective states rather than independent-thinking contributors to the work of the committee. More importantly, until the last three weeks of the deliberations, both were instructed to oppose partition. The first ended up abstaining because his Foreign Minister did not realize his ambitions for which he needed the support of the Arab states and the second reversed himself and supported partition when, in August, the Arab League came out and openly supported the Indonesian nationalists in their fight against the Netherlands.

However, the role of serendipity is not the only factor to challenge the models held in such high esteem seventy years ago – at least by philosophers though not so much by most historians who recognized that what they did had very little to do with the models put forth by philosophers at that time. Ideology is critical. That is the predispositions with which decision makers and deliberators bring with them to the table are extremely important. Well, perhaps some might argue, this fits in with the idealist model where general principles held by an individual are taken into account in a calculation. But there is no indication that any of the deliberators held that the principles they believed in governed universally even if they were disposed to believe that this should be the case. They may have believed that the principles they held should be universal, but nowhere is there any evidence that they argued that those principles should govern, though perhaps Dr. Jorge García Granados of Guatemala) came closest.

In fact, in examining the deliberations one comes to the conclusion – accepted implicitly by most historians and political scientists – that in the deliberations, as well as in the expectation of each of the parties, there was a belief that a practical solution had to take into account the incompatibility of the principles in contention. The process was a matter of negotiations and not deductive decision making, whether from descriptive or prescriptive laws.

That is why a person like Ivan Rand looms so large in understanding the proceedings of UNSCOP. Sandström may have quietly looked down on him as unprincipled given his shape-shifting during the discussions. Ralph Bunche may have regarded him as an opinionated verbose loudmouth and blowhard. However, Ivan Rand emerges as the key individual seeking compromise and, thereby, was perfectly positioned to write the draft of the majority recommendation. In the process, he was critically influential in shifting two of the eleven members from supporting a single state dominated by Arabs to a federal solution (the minority report) and shifting one of the delegates to support partition because the draft made room for that representative’s primary concern with the role of Christianity in Jerusalem.

Beyond the serendipity of exogenous factors, the ideological differences and dispositions of the members of the committee, the process of compromise involved and the role of a mediating entrepreneur, there was also the most fundamental split of all in the committee, the one between the East and the West, and, more specifically, between Muslims on the committee and others.

There are also implications for more substantive matters. One is Jerusalem. When one knows that the recommendation to internationalize Jerusalem and make it an independent state arose primarily from the need to win over one member to the partition side, when you add to that the total ineffectiveness of the UN in taking over the governance of the city after the mandate ended, when one notes that in all cases, the city has been governed by those that took it by force, how can one expect it to be divided again by a peace treaty, in spite of my idealist expectations that, in the name of peace and recognition of the position of the East Jerusalem Arabs, I personally would be willing to divide the city.

My desires are a matter of indifference to historiography. It is precisely such an expectation that is as unrealistic as Martin Buber’s hope for a bi-national state was at the time. When you add to that the current fact that Jerusalem is now Israel’s largest city (of course, Greater Tel Aviv is larger, but not Tel Aviv per se), and that 350,000 Jews live in what was once Jordanian governed territory, it is totally unrealistic to expect Jerusalem to be placed partially under Palestinian sovereignty, whatever my hopes might be, and whatever the desires of those unwilling to fight for a different result.

Though requiring much more stretch, the same might be said about the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, at least of the densely populated Jewish parts of those areas. A trade of land was once a realistic prospect, but since Yasser Arafat walked away from the compromise proposal post-Oslo, as each year passes, the prospect of surrendering the Jewish populated parts of the West Bank even for land to be given to an independent Palestinian state grows more remote and more unlikely. This is a major reason for the shrinkage of the peace camp and the left in Israel. In the process, the role of the revisionists is now being read in a new light by historians, just as the hagiography on Israeli history had to be rewritten as a result of the work of the new historians beginning thirty years ago.

Truth has often been said to be a silent casualty of war but there may be an even larger more valid generalization. Hopes projected onto polities by dreams of peace may be an even greater casualty when war is found to be the main determiner of the actual outcomes in deep-seated conflicts, a conclusion that is diametrically at odds with my role as a peacenik my entire adult life.

This set of blogs has been an inquiry into why UNSCOP made a recommendation for partition, admittedly shortened by a focus on only one of the two sub-committees supplemented by references not documented in the series. It is clear that a very few members of UNSCOP did agree with the Zionist narrative of restoration and self-determination and a few others referred to this as one argument favouring partition, but one is convinced in reading the discussions that, although this was a factor, this was not a major consideration in their thinking. Further, there was never a majority of the members who supported this position even though, in the final analysis, 7 of the 11 members voted to recommend partition.

What is unequivocally clear is that in no one’s minds was the occurrence of the Holocaust and certainly not guilt over it offered as a reason. The most common reason for sympathy to the Zionist cause, even among the three members who supported the minority report advocating a federation, was the plight of the 250,000 Jewish refugees still remaining in Europe and the fact that no country wanted to resettle them in any significant numbers. There was also admiration by many members of the committee for the accomplishments of the Zionists in agriculture, education, science and commerce. There was a parallel distaste for the working conditions of Arab employees, including the employment of children, when committee members visited a cigarette manufacturing business. The failure of the Arabs to fully cooperate with the committee did not help. But what united the committee was the conclusion that the Mandate had to end, and end sooner rather than later, even by an Anglophile like Dr. Blom.

This was no partition like any other peaceful partition one can recognize – Norway from Sweden or Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. It had far greater similarities with the breakup way of Pakistan from India and of Yugoslavia where there were some areas of concentration of ethnic groups, but many other areas of overlap. In Palestine, the same situation existed and, hence, the recommended division into eight segments. Further, the partition recommendation for Palestine involved religion in a unique way – three religions were recognized as contenders for control of the eighth segment – the recommended assignation of Jerusalem to international control to settle the irreconcilable positions of the different sides was unique to this conflict. This meant that good-will diplomatic efforts could come up with a Goldberg contraption, but the facts on the ground, and the willingness of people to fight for what they believed in, counted rather more than any determination as a result of decisions resulting from rational deliberations.


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