Partition, Then and Now
The organizers of last week’s New York University panel discussion on the two-state solution couldn’t help but congratulate themselves on their lucky timing. Sponsored by the Taub Center for Israel Studies, the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, the long-scheduled event took place only five days after the United Nations General Assembly voted to accord the Palestinian Authority the status of a non-member observer state. But even if the Palestinians had done nothing special this year, the choice of an early December date for the discussion would have made perfectly good sense. The event’s primary purpose was to celebrate the imminent publication of a book, The Two-State Solution, about UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. That resolution was adopted almost exactly 65 years ago, on November 29, 1947.
The new volume contains essential documents relating to Resolution 181 as well as recent essays illuminating its significance. The volume’s editor, the distinguished Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison, expressed her admiration for the powerful and nuanced eloquence of the official statements that accompanied the passage of the resolution in the 1940s; and she stressed that the new essays represent a variety of different perspectives, including Arab ones. But she and her colleagues were less disposed to analyze and criticize the book than to use it as a point of departure.
The director of the Taub Center, historian Ronald Zweig, reminded the audience of more than 100 that the partition of Palestine was something that pre-partition Zionists always found difficult to swallow. From the time the British proposal to divide the territory into Jewish and Arab states surfaced in 1937, the Zionist movement was deeply divided on the subject. Even when the movement accepted the proposal in principle, it insisted on a different and better map. In a crucial vote in 1946 over whether to reaffirm Zionist readiness to accept partition, David Ben-Gurion couldn’t bring himself to do anything more than abstain, even as he made sure that there was a large majority in favor of the favorable decision that he thought necessary.
When the Zionists ultimately accepted the map drawn up by the UN in 1947, they did so despite the fact that the territory assigned to the Jewish state would include a very substantial Arab minority. Whatever may have led to the departure of most of these Arabs in the course of Israel’s War of Independence, Zweig said, it was worth noting that all of the official planners for life in the new Jewish state operated on the assumption that the Arabs would stay put.
While Zweig focused mostly on the events of the 1930s and 1940s, he also made reference to current events. He ventured to characterize the General Assembly’s 2012 resolution elevating the Palestinians’ status as being “equally historic” with the one adopted in 1947, an event capable of having a decisive impact on the Palestinian national movement. He expressed the hope that it would help to end the debate between Palestinian extremists and moderates by demonstrating the superiority of the “practical path through accommodation,” a hope shared by the panel’s moderator, J.H.H. Weiler, Joseph Straus Professor of Law at NYU.
Ariel Zelman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Taub Center, traced the shifting attitudes of Israeli Jews toward partition through the decades since its implementation. After the War of Independence, he showed, the prevailing attitude was mournful; it remained so for nearly 20 years. After the Six Day War, Israelis’ joyous embrace of their reunited homeland gained, then lost intensity. And now, Zelman claimed, with the support of a statistics-laden PowerPoint presentation, most Israelis see that it is necessary to accept the principle of partition, even if they are wary of putting it into practice.
Responding to Zweig and Zelman, Gavison first noted that The Two State Solution was the English-language version of a Hebrew volume produced several years ago by an institution of which she is founding president, the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought. Even among Israelis, she told the audience, the memory of the history surrounding the partition resolution was growing dim and needed restoration.
Gavison compared the UN resolution of 1947 and the resolution that the UN had adopted the previous week. The discussion surrounding the new resolution, she noted, had none of the complexity and subtlety marking the one that took place more than half a century ago. Both the 1947 and the 2012 resolutions were, in themselves, nothing more than recommendations. The 1947 resolution granted legitimacy to the two-state solution but failed to bring about an agreement among those who needed to be parties to such a solution. The Jews accepted it, but the Arabs went to war to undermine it. The resolution had a lasting impact only because the Jews of Palestine deployed military power to implement it. The 2012 resolution reinforces the legitimacy of the partition idea but provides no new incentives for either Israel or the Palestinians to translate it into reality. If, as seems likely, both parties continue to pursue their own interests, subject to the constraints that have so far impeded an agreement, the new resolution offers little basis for hope in the region.
Professor Gavison concluded her remarks with a quick survey of the current situation throughout the Middle East. “It’s a mess!” she finally exclaimed—but an extremely fascinating one. She cheerfully invited the audience to come back again in another 65 years to chew over the events that will by then have taken place.
Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.