Partition in the Land of Israel, Then and Now

Posted on Nov 29, 2017

Today marks 70 years since the momentous vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations to create two states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. Jews in Palestine and around the world danced in the streets upon hearing of the UN’s decision. Arabs in Palestine rioted, killing seven Jews on the first day of violence. David Ben Gurion, who had reluctantly supported the partition agreement as the best the Jewish people could hope for at that juncture, warned his aides that blood would soon flow. He was right, of course, and the conflict with Palestinians and some of Israel’s Arab neighbors has not ceased from that day to this. Even Ben Gurion could not have foreseen that 70 years after the vote, issues of partition and division would remain at the top of the agenda for Jews in the Land of Israel, in two related but very different forms. 

The news media reported earlier this month that the Trump administration is preparing a US plan to resolve the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, or at least restart the peace process. Middle East experts agree that the terms will undoubtedly include some sort of territorial compromise. The “two states for two peoples” formula endorsed by the UN 70 years ago will once more be on the table.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, addressing the annual assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America two weeks ago, forcefully articulated his conviction that Israeli society is changing “from a society made up of a clear Zionist majority” to one with “four clear sectors or ‘tribes,’  which are getting closer in size.” Secular Jews, national-religious Jews, haredim, and Arabs maintain separate school systems, live in separate towns, are informed by different media, and “hold different ideas about Israel and its values.” About 50 percent of the first-graders in Israeli schools this fall are Arab or haredi, Rivlin noted, groups that “do not necessarily sing Hatikva.” He called this a demographic “earthquake” that threatens in its deep divisions to preclude “shared Israeli hope.”

Reading the text of the UN Partition Plan last week, I could not help but feel the contrast between the dry legalese of the document and the emotion with which Jews followed the debate and greeted the decision. “Hope”—hatikva—was the order of the day:  hope for redemption from exile, hope that survivors of the Holocaust would be able to immigrate to Palestine, hope that the nations that had not been willing or able to save the six million from the Nazis—and had in many cases closed their borders to Jewish refugees—would vote in favor of life for the Jewish people. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, despite pressure from US President Harry Truman and others to permit 100,000 Jews languishing in DP camps in Germany to enter Palestine, had refused to do so. The British instead sent illegal immigrants to internment camps in Cyprus and returned the mandate for Palestine to the United Nations. A special commission appointed by that body recommended the course of action that was affirmed on November 29.

“The General Assembly . . . recommends . . . the adoption and implementation, with regard to the future government of Palestine, of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union set out below . . .” (See full text.)

A two-thirds majority was needed for approval. The vote was 33 in favor, 12 against, with 10 (including Britain) abstaining.

I cannot review this history without a chill of fear at what might have happened if the vote—or the war that followed—had gone the other way, and corresponding joy beyond measure at the outcome that did occur. At the same time, those who care about this moment of victory and redemption for the Jewish people cannot but direct attention to the two forms of partition and division that today hang like a dark cloud over Israel’s future.     

I have talked to enough Israelis and others over the past four decades, and read enough books and opinion pieces, to know that if resolution of the conflict with Palestinians was in any sense simple or straightforward, it would long since have occurred. I accept the dominant Israeli narrative of the events that got us to the present situation, as amended and qualified by historians and journalists such as Benny Morris and Ari Shavit. Israel accepted partition when Arabs rejected it. Israel needed to defend itself against cross-border raids almost constantly between the armistice that ended the War of Independence and the 1967 War. Israel made the justifiable decision to strike preemptively on June 5, 1967, against armies massing to attack it. Israel rightfully defended itself against the onslaught of Arab armies on Yom Kippur in 1973. Numerous offers were made by Israel to settle the conflict through compromise over the years, most of them rejected by the other side (though historians also report occasions when Israeli governments declined to negotiate or spurned contacts that might have led to peace talks). Yasser Arafat bears major culpability for the breakdown of the talks initiated by President Bill Clinton. Israeli and Palestinian leaders share responsibility since then for failure to resolve the conflict—or inch toward resolution—today.  

I share the opinion of many Israelis that Israel finds itself today in a situation where lack of a settlement gravely threatens its future—and where any settlement that could conceivably be reached also threatens its future. But unlike the current Israeli government and its prime minister, I am persuaded (along with opposition parties, and hundreds of former generals and heads of intelligence agencies) that concrete steps could be taken now to improve the lives of West Bank residents without endangering Israel’s security, and that responsibility for this situation rests in part with the continuing Israeli drive to build more and more settlements in the West Bank. We do not know whether Palestinians might at long last have been willing to reach agreement with Israel on terms acceptable to it had the building of settlements stopped; we do know, I think, that it will be difficult to secure an agreement unless at least some of those settlements are dismantled. Evacuation of existing settlements will prove extremely difficult if not impossible. Military occupation is by definition cruel. The conflict continues to sap lives and idealism on both sides. It seems clear that Israel cannot remain a democracy if it continues to rule by force over millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank—and that Israel will not continue to have a Jewish majority or a Jewish character for very long if it grants West Bank and Gaza Palestinians full citizenship and does not discriminate against them.        

We Jews are in a terrible bind 70 years after partition. It is not for those of us living outside Israel to tell Israelis how to escape that bind. We owe them our unconditional allegiance, our best counsel, and the encouragement of responsible efforts to move toward peace, including those of the American administration. Our future too hangs in the balance, as it did on November 29, 1947. Resolution of the problem, now as then, will require the cooperation of the nations of the world, especially the great powers, and of the non-Jewish residents of the Land of Israel. We need partition in Palestine as much as ever. My confidence remains strong that that partition will happen one day, even if it is hard to imagine in 2017 just how we will get there. 

Israel, seeking peace through division on its borders, finds itself divided inside its borders as well, in a way that likewise threatens the future of the State. This matter too defies easy resolution, but I think President Rivlin was correct in stating that “in 2017, this is Zionism . . . It’s about keeping the State of Israel as a democratic Jewish State, democratic and Jewish bedibur ehad, in a single word.” How can one have a Jewish state in which a quarter of the citizenry is not Jewish and rejects that definition of Israel through and through, and another quarter that, in the name of Judaism, rejects the legitimacy of the State and its institutions? Neither group will fly the Israeli flag or celebrate Israeli Independence Day. None of the four groups President Rivlin mentioned teaches its children to understand and respect the other sectors. (This is not true, I believe, of non-Orthodox religious Zionists, Masorti Jews chief among them.)

It is perhaps unreasonable to ask Israelis to do what so many citizens of so many countries refuse to do in 2017—namely, to educate for, and practice, mutual cooperation and respect. But we are Jews:

a people whose ancestors were murdered by the Nazis only two generations ago, while the world stood by and watched; descendants of refugees and immigrants, for whom pluralism and diversity are not just principles and ideals but proven necessities for survival. We are the heirs to Torah, bound by covenant with God and history to stand for truth and not just self-interest. We are taught by Torah that Jews have every right to defend ourselves, but that our thriving, and even our survival, depends on our standing for more than survival. “Not [only] by might, not [only] by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.”

On this score there is much room for optimism, I believe—because many Israelis are already pursuing efforts at cooperation, dialogue and partnership across the internal boundary lines that President Rivlin highlighted. JTS will present a program this evening, in celebration of that 70th anniversary of the UN partition vote, featuring two female Israeli activists, one haredi and one Masorti, (Ms. Racheli Ibenboim and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, respectively) who are passionately and successfully involved in such efforts. North American Jews—as a “fifth tribe”—can support and join in the many initiatives that bring Israeli Jews together with one another and with Palestinian Israelis. We can expose more Israelis to the varieties of Judaism that have developed in North America in recent decades, in the face of assimilation and signs of growing anti-Semitism. And we can work harder to understand—and play a greater part in—the development of new forms of Judaism and Jewishness in Israel, which as a sovereign state offers possibilities for Jewish fulfillment unavailable outside the borders of the Land.

There is much to worry about on this November 29—but even more to celebrate. A glass is broken under the huppah to remind the newlyweds and their guests of all that remains unredeemed in the world, divided and in need of repair. And then, in real joy, the dancing commences—followed the very next day by the turn to the work at hand.  So may it be with us, and the work that awaits Jews privileged to celebrate this day, both in Israel and in North America.