The Holocaust and the Creation of Israel Part IV: UNSCOP in General

During and following the Holocaust, Jews were in shock and grief. Distrust of the Western states had grown by leaps and bounds. Not only the survivors but the Jewish leadership as well faced getting on with the task at hand. That does not mean that these strong self-disciplined men They were virtually all men at the time) did not sometimes break down in despair. But, by and large, they kept their focus on the possible rather than on the much larger dream that had been lost to them. Practicality prevailed. We will take the refugees off your hands in return for a partitioned Jewish state in Palestine.

This approach was enhanced by the UNSCOP exclusive focus on Palestine, whereas the Anglo-American Commission of Enquiry in 1946 had included within its mandate the position of the Jewish remnant in Europe. The Holocaust was now merely part of a fading backdrop as UNSCOP zeroed in on what to do about Palestine.

As I explained in the last blog, this was not because the extermination of the Jews of Europe played no role in the policy deliberations on Palestine by Muslims, by Jews and by other states. However, the motivating factor was not guilt. As Brian Urquhart wrote in 1987 (A Life of Peace and War), in “this most complex and tragic of historical dilemmas, where two ancient peoples were in unequal but deadly competition for a small but infinitely significant piece of territory, a struggle made critical by Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews (my italics and as depicted in the last blog) on the one hand and the emergence of Arab nationalism on the other. Britain must be enabled to relinquish the mandate with dignity. The Jewish refugees from World War II must be allowed to settle. The Palestinians’ interests and rights must be protected. A plan must be found to accommodate the conflicting rights and demands of Arabs and Jews.”

UNSCOP was propelled by the refusal of Britain to accept the main recommendation of the Anglo-American Commission to move 100,000 refugees to Palestine. That became a central concern of their deliberations, as we shall see, for the Committee soon came to a unanimous agreement that, in spite of the very opposite expectations of the UK when it referred the issue to the UN, the British role in the governance of Palestine was over. The members of UNSCOP openly distrusted all of the British so-called experts and relied far more on what they saw and heard, especially the impression in July of the perfidy, ruthlessness and inhumanity of the British in dealing with the voyage and arrival of the Exodus. The only question was: what would succeed Britain and under what political arrangements?

Jacob Robinson noted that in the First Special Session on the Palestine question that there were countries strongly in support of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC). There was only one country that backed the Zionists – South Africa – a fact used against Israel ever since. Most UN member counties, thankfully, took a detached view. The key views were those of the members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Of course, exploring their views does not provide a definitive answer as to whether guilt over the Holocaust affected the recommendation for partition which was adopted and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in November of 1947. However, it is a powerful indicator because it offers a cross section of voices of key players in determining the recommendation with archived records of discussion. There is an assumption behind this focus. The UN was an independent agent and not simply either an instrument of the Great Powers or of the “collective will,” whatever that is, of its members.

Further, it is important not only to focus on the Majority Report recommending partition, but the other conclusions and rationale as well. These included:

·       Determining that the two communities in Palestine were irreconcilable;

·       Placing primary economic and political responsibility for implementation on the inhabitants, meaning that the expectation of war was inevitable;

·       Limiting immigration to sovereign control; on the one hand, that meant limitation by absorptive capacity – at that time and place, the land available; on the other hand, it meant allocating a higher percentage of the land to the Zionists than the existing population warranted to absorb 250,000 refugees;

·       Considering the value of economic unity in spite of the deep divide.

The Minority Report, recommending a federal solution, in spite of the enormous enmity between the Arabs and the Jews, concluded that interests would trump passions since, “it is extremely possible that if a federal solution were firmly and definitively imposed (my italics), the two groups, in their own self-interest, would gradually develop a spirit of cooperation.” After reading both reports, it is hard not to conclude that the Minority Report was more consistent in its thinking but less grounded in reality. The Majority Report rebutted, that only in two independent states could the onus of responsibility for the economic and political success of both be placed in the hands of each community and argued that the only way the Minority Report could be implemented was if force was used. Cooperation could not be forced, especially when immigration was at the centre of the divide and one side, the Arabs, insisted on hegemony that left no room for self-determination by the Other. As Sir Allan Cunningham told the committee, “Whatever solution you find must be imposed.” But the U.S. had vetoed that possibility.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The Palestinians through the Arab Higher Committee had decided to boycott the proceedings as I have said. They had a rationale. For the Zionists had boycotted the London Conference in 1946 while they had attended. However, the Bevin plan that resulted gave the Jews an autonomous province with total control of immigration, a position anathema to the Palestinians. Though the Bevin plan did not include partition, to the AHC it appeared to be the next worst thing. AHC decided more could be obtained by a boycott than by participating.

However, the AHC had already been weakened because of the divisions among the Arab states and between each of those states and the Palestinian leadership. The Zionists were also seriously divided, but that did not prevent most Zionist groups arguing for an independent Jewish state. Further, the AHC also alienated itself from UNSCOP, not only by its boycott, but by its extremist rhetoric against any Jewish immigration. Further, the AHC was adamantly opposed to any outside body recommending the future of what for them had to be a Palestinian majority state. Palestinian self-determination meant ignoring any non-Palestinian, especially a UN body, playing that role.

Ironically, the Arabs did count on Britain to bring them over the finish line. However, UNSCOP was an impartial committee dedicated to reasonableness and compromise. The passion of the AHC and its leadership, and the unwillingness to contemplate any compromise to dilute their right to self-determination in all of Palestine, turned off every one of the committee members who, whatever their personal and national biases, did believe in “reasonableness.” Reasonableness meant compromise. The Zionist acceptance of partition meant giving a degree of self-determination to the Arabs. The AHC’s adamant opposition to any self-determination for the Jews and any control of immigration inherently made them appear to be uncompromising.

The U.S. proposal of 11 neutral countries had been accepted, though the U.S.S.R. initially challenged the definition of Australia and Canada as neutral countries. Neutrality did not mean absence of bias, but exclusion of Jews and Arabs and a lack of any known prior commitment to a resolution of the crisis, or existing commitments that predetermined one outcome rather than another. It also meant procedural fairness. The balance in selection of countries would help ensure impartiality overall.

Dean Acheson had argued that Canada was indeed neutral because it did not have “a really serious Jewish problem.” The U.S. had originally nominated New Zealand, and, as we shall see, this would have made a substantive difference. But New Zealand declined and Australia was named. The two eastern European countries originally proposed were Poland and Czechoslovakia, but Yugoslavia was substituted for Poland. Like the switch of Australia for New Zealand, the inclusion of Yugoslavia instead of Poland would prove detrimental to the Zionists, though they were somewhat lucky when Guatemala and Uruguay were chosen rather than Brazil and Spain as originally proposed, given the members chosen by the two Latin American countries.

One might have thought that in the selection of two western European countries, the substitution of the Netherlands for Belgium would have favoured the Zionists given that Belgium was a unitary binational state, but, as we shall see, that did not prove to be initially true. Choosing India instead of Turkey seemed on the surface to favour the Zionists, but this again proved not to be true. Certainly, if the Philippines had been named instead of Iran, this would have helped the Zionists. Overall, serendipity and the selection of countries did not initially appear to work in favour of the Zionists.

The choice of “neutral” countries over the participation of the Great Powers, as favoured by the Eastern Bloc did mean, as Lester Pearson of Canada had predicted, a weakening of the authority of UNSCOP and its ability to implement any recommendation. UNSCOP would turn out to be a moral voice but not a practical route to avoiding violence in Palestine.

I will focus exclusively on the individual representatives on UNSCOP, what their attitudes were or were likely to be in May 1947 and how and why their attitudes and beliefs shifted between mid-May of 1947 and the end of August, a period of less than four months when the majority on the committee recommended a three-fold partition of the country, the creation of two states and the internationally run region of Jerusalem linked by an economic union among all three entities and mutual dependence in matters of security. What were the original attitudes of the members of the committee in May of 1947 to the two key questions that preoccupied the committee – the plight of the refugees left in Europe and the three-way political conflict in Palestine of Arabs versus Jews and both against Britain?

At the very beginning of its deliberations, the committee determined that Palestine, because of its small size and the political tensions between Arabs and Jews could not be an answer to the so-called Jewish question. This was not a formidable start for the Zionists. As it were, this guiding principle was abandoned or shunted into the background by all the delegates over the next four months. So much for guidelines! Nevertheless, it became clear that the principle of self-determination of Jews in their historic homeland would NOT guide the deliberations of the committee. The principle written into the Palestine Mandate had been abandoned. Practical challenges and internal politics took over as commanding determinants in the deliberations – none of which had anything to do with either Zionist premises and certainly with the Holocaust.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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