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The UN Partition Plan, Seventy Years Later

Bennett Muraskin
December 24, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

The United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 would have established an Arab state in about 45 percent of the British Mandate, with 55 percent allotted to a Jewish state. The two states were to form an economic union, and Jerusalem was to be the capital of neither. but to be placed under UN control.

I submit that the Arab failure to accept this two-state solution was a colossal, historic blunder, if for no other reason than the most Palestinians can hope to achieve through a two- state solution today is the establishment of a Palestinians state on 22 percent of what was once the British mandate, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and at best a limited “right to return.”

To give the Arab side its due, when the UN Partition Plan was announced, the Arab population in Palestine outnumbered the Jewish population by 2:1. Yet partition on any terms was anathema to the Arab side, which also had no use for the binational state proposed by a minority of Zionists (including Martin Buber and Judah L. Magnes). What, then, were the Arabs offering the Jews of Palestine? Just that they could be citizens of an Arab state to which no further Jewish immigrants would be admitted. Even this was not a certainty, as Arab spokespersons often argued that Jews who arrived in Palestine after 1917 should be deported. (Benny Morris, in his 2008 book, 1948: a history of the first Arab-Israeli war, notes that on “23 July, at Sofar, the Arab representatives completed their testimony before UNSCOP. Faranjieh, speaking for the Arab League, said that Jews ‘illegally’ in Palestine would be expelled and that the future of many of those ‘legally’ in the country but without Palestine citizenship would need to be resolved ‘by the future Arab government.‘”)

It is plain that this proposal was unacceptable to the Zionist side, which was seeking a nation- state not only for the existing Jewish population of Palestine, but for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Nazi Europe.

THE JEWISH STATE as created by the UN Partition Plan would have included a huge Arab minority, initially over 40 percent. It is well known that in the course of the Israeli War of Independence, most Arabs living there fled or were expelled and not allowed to return. (More suffered the same fate in the course of the Six-Day War in 1967.) Historians have debated what would have happened had the Arab side not started a war in 1948 or provoked a war in 1967. The consensus is that in peacetime, the Arab population would have remained in place within Israel, which would have made it a formidable force to fight for its rights as a national minority. Imagine no Palestinian refugees!

Why didn’t the Arab side seek to made the best of it and accept the UN Partition Plan? (Arab communists, acting in accordance with Soviet policy, did accept the plan, but they were completely isolated.) If the Partition Plan was unfair, why didn’t the Arab side make a counterproposal that took into account the rights of Jews to national self-determination at least in some part of Palestine? Such a plan, known as the Minority Report, actually was proposed by India, Iran, and Yugoslavia as an alternative to the Partition Plan. It would have essentially created a binational state. But the Arab side rejected it — as did the Zionists.

In my opinion, this was not merely the normal reaction of an indigenous people to the growing presence of outsiders from Europe. All Jews were not outsiders in the sense that white European colonists were outsiders in the New World. Jews had a small but continuous presence throughout the Middle East, including the region of Palestine. The Arab attitude toward Jews pre-dated the Zionist movement: They saw Jews as purely a religious group, like Christians, who could live under Moslem rule as a subordinate albeit tolerated minority. Arabs could simply not abide any form of Jewish nationalism. It was alien to their experience.

Christian Arabs were no better, and in some ways probably worse, because they were also imbued with the anti-Semitism of the Christian world in general, which depicted Jews as Christ-killers. In fact, in 1965, when the Catholic Church finally repudiated the deicide charge against Jews, virtually the only cardinals to vote in opposition were from the Arab world, and in this they were supported by Muslim clerics. That was pure antisemitism.

TO THIS DAY, even moderate Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas deny that Jews in Israael today have any connection to ancient Israel. (In a 2012 speech, a spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas said, “The nation of Palestine upon the land of Canaan had a 7,000-year history B.C.E. This is the truth, which must be understood, and we have to note it, in order to say: ‘Netanyahu, you are incidental in history. We are the people of history. We are the owners of history. — Forward May 24, 2017)

In fact Palestinian leaders routinely claim that the First Temple never existed. A study reported in Haaretz in 2005 exposed the systematic Muslim denial of the existence of Solomon’s Temple by clergymen, historians and statesmen, some of whom claimed that the Al Aqsa mosque was built in the times of Adam! Arabs continue to consider Jews, even those from Arab and/or Muslim lands who certainly have roots in the Middle East as deep as any Arab, to be foreign interlopers.

Antisemitic ideas are widespread throughout the Arab world. In Abbas’ doctoral thesis, he minimized the Holocaust and accused Zionists of large scale collaboration with the Nazis. To this day Holocaust denial is alive and well in the Arab/Muslim world, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is given wide currency.

Many ask why didn’t the Arab states absorb the Arabs forced out of Israel in 1948-49? Jordan eventually did, but it was the exception. These were people speaking the same language, practicing the same religion and, to a large degree, sharing the same culture. It would have been relatively easy to offer them citizenship. If the Palestinians declined, so be it. But the fact that there are still refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt until the Six-Day War in 1967, and now by Hamas) seventy years after Partition is difficult to explain, except as a cynical political manipulation.

I raise these issues in an attempt to explore why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so intractable. No doubt Zionists, including the current government of Israel, carry a heavy burden of responsibility, but when I hear the slogan chanted at pro-Palestinian rallies, “From the river to the sea, all of Palestine must be free!” I shake my head and wonder when Palestinians and their supporters on the left will come to their senses.

If I were a Palestinian, there is nothing I would not give for Palestine to receive the deal the UN offered to the Arab side on November 1947. I know that hindsight is always 20/20, but I do not hear any Palestinians expressing regrets. Abbas did so in 2011, but I have not heard anything more. In fact, Palestinians who loudly condemned the Balfour Declaration on its 70th anniversary have been silent about the 70th anniversary of the Partition Resolution.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.