Once Upon a Time in Queens The Hope and Tragedy of the “Two-State” Deal of the Century
Updated: Aug 19
Robert Leonard Berkowitz, Contributor / The American Rant
The Hope and Tragedy of the “Two-State” Deal of the Century
“The Jews bring to the land the social dynamism and scientific method of the West; the Arabs confront them with individualism and intuitive understanding of life. Here then, in this close association, through the natural emulation of each other, can be evolved a synthesis of the two civilizations, preserving, at the same time, their fundamental characteristics. In each State, the native genius will have a scope and opportunity to evolve into its highest cultural forms and to attain its greatest reaches of mind and spirit. In the case of the Jews, that is really the condition of survival. Palestine will remain one land in which Semitic ideals may pass into realization.”
On a late November afternoon in 1947, as the sun dipped behind the Manhattan skyline, scores of limousines approached the entrance to a stately classical-style building with imposing colonnades and an endless façade of glass bricks. Eight years earlier, the two-story structure, stretching along the western edge of Flushing Meadows, had opened as the New York City Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Conceived by New York’s master builder of public works, Robert Moses, and its legendary Mayor, Fiorella LaGuardia, the New York City Pavilion was now temporary home to the two-year old United Nations. A phoenix of nations arising from the ashes of World War II, that newly-formed international parliament promised in the preamble of its founding charter, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind,” and “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.”
President Roosevelt, 1939 World’s Fair Opening Address
It was fitting that the U.N.’s first headquarters was housed on the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair. Like the preamble of the U.N. Charter, the theme of the World’s Fair, “Dawn of the Future,” was equally hopeful. So too was the address by President Franklin Roosevelt that celebrated both the opening of the World’s Fair and the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington who had once considered Flushing Meadows as the site of the new nation’s capital.
Speaking from the Court of Peace, with a sweeping view of the Lagoon of Nations, a sixty-foot tall statue of Washington, and a towering Perisphere housing a utopian democratic city-of-the-future — Roosevelt dedicated the 1939’s World’s Fair to the cause of peace. Against the backdrop of the Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, he prayed that the months ahead “may carry us forward in the rays of that hope,” and he assured the thirty-five thousand guests in attendance that, “Our wagon is hitched to a star of international good-will, and above all, a star of peace.” Tragically, World War II broke out five months later, on September 1st, 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and President Roosevelt’s “wagon of peace” morphed into a “wagon of war” in a life-and-death struggle against the Nazi nemesis. Roosevelt, however, never lost sight of those two celestial symbols of international good-will and peace. He, more than any other wartime-allied leader, championed and inspired a post-war United Nations.
It was also fitting that the flagpoles displaying the flags of fifty-one member nations encircling the newly-landscaped front lawn of the United Nations headquarters were cemented into the same patch of earth that had served as the base of the Perisphere — a massive structure of steel that, following the close of the Fair, was dismantled and salvaged as scrap metal to fight a war that would take more than eighty-million lives and witness the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz, Belzec, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As the winds blew in off Jamaica Bay on that fall afternoon in 1947 and the circle of multicolored banners flapped in the darkening autumn sky, hundreds of U.N. delegates, representing four-fifths of the world’s population, emptied out of their stark, black limousines. In little more than an hour the clarion call of the United Nations founding charter — for the peoples of the world to promote tolerance and live together in peace as good neighbors — would be put to test. In one of the most consequential acts in the history of the United Nations, those delegates would be casting their vote on the future of the Holy Land of Palestine.
Issuing the Challenge
At a Special Session of the U.N held the previous May in Flushing Meadows the General Assembly took up the challenge of its Charter and approved a resolution to establish a special committee to prepare proposals “for the solution of the problem of Palestine.”
Responding to the volatile environment in Palestine that led the United Kingdom, the governing authority of the Palestine Mandate, to request that the U.N. take up the matter, the General Assembly called upon “all Governments and peoples, and particularly upon the inhabitants of Palestine, to refrain, pending action by the General Assembly on the report of the Special Committee on Palestine, from the threat or use of force or any other action which might create an atmosphere prejudicial to an early settlement of the question of Palestine.”
Summoned to the immense challenge, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) spent most of the summer of 1947 gathering oral and written testimony from governments, organizations, religious bodies and individual experts. Its members and staff traveled to Jerusalem, Beirut, Germany and Austria where they visited displacement camps that housed hundreds of thousands of surviving refugees of the Holocaust. It met with representatives of the Jews of Palestine, and the Arab governments of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
Proposing a Two-State Solution
On September 1st, UNSCOP submitted its report. It included two proposals to resolve the “problem of Palestine.” The one that received majority support (7–3) of its ten committee members had five salient elements:
-The first was ending the quarter-century-long British Mandate that had been empowered by the League of Nations to administer Palestine and eventually prepare it for self-rule.
-The second was replacing the Mandate with two independent states — one Arab and one Jewish — with each state having full ‘sovereign’ authority. Independence would be signed-off by the U.N. and conditional on the establishment of democratic, representative governments with constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, worship, assemblage, and equal protection of the civil and religious rights of all citizens, residents and minorities.
UNSCOP’s Majority Territorial Proposal, 1947
Territorially, the Arab state would be given a large chunk of the mid-section of Palestine, including the Central Highlands and the vast majority of the Jordan Valley– a seamless land mass substantially larger than present day West Bank. It would also be ceded the entire Western region of the Galilee extending to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a narrow strip of the southern coastal plain running along the Mediterranean to the Egyptian frontier, roughly the length of the current-day Gaza borders.
The Jewish state would be granted the narrow, coastal fertile plain along the Mediterranean from Ashdod to Haifa, the inland plains of the Jezreel Valley, the entire Eastern Galilee, including its Northeastern Panhandle, the upper Jordan River Valley, and the vast majority of the sparsely- inhabited Negev desert triangle.
To maximize border continuity, the three major geographic sub-regions of the Arab state, as well as those of the Jewish state, would be linked at two neutral points of intersection. Those extraterritorial crossroads would be off-limits to building or settlement by either state.
-The third element was establishing an economic union of the two states to be directed by a Joint Economic Board made up of equal representatives of each state and Members of the U.N. The Economic Board would oversee a common currency and system of tariffs, as well as all interstate transportation and communication networks, including postal, telephone, telegraph, and sea and airports associated with international trade. This Board would operate as a planning body to promote beneficial joint economic projects, such as irrigation, land reclamation and soil conservation that would serve both states. It would also serve as a regulatory body to ensure complete freedom of trade between the two states, and full and equal access to water and power facilities.
The fourth piece was creating a “Special Regime” for the City of Jerusalem, including surrounding towns and villages, to be administered by the U.N. Trusteeship Council. The greater Jerusalem trusteeship would operate as a democratic republic with the same “bill-of-rights” like guarantees as required for both Arab and Jewish states. The overriding responsibility of the U.N. Trusteeship, beyond its management of the municipality of greater Jerusalem, would be to protect and preserve the unique spiritual and religious interests of the three great monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and to ensure complete freedom of access to all Holy Places, religious buildings and sites, including those residing within the borders of each state.
The fifth component was authorizing a U.N. commission for Palestine to oversee the roughly year-long transition to self-governing rule by the newly independent Arab and Jewish states — a process to be enforced by the U.N. Security Council.
Making the Case
The proposed two-state plan was a best-faith attempt at compromise. Its proponents acknowledged that both Arabs and Jews had legitimate claims and aspirations to statehood, based on historic roots and more recent international pledges and agreements. They found the Balfour Declaration and 1923 League of Nations Mandate-for-Palestine Charter to be maddeningly ambiguous and vague on the issue of statehood entitlement. Although the Balfour Declaration had called for a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine and the League Mandate Charter had obligated its establishment, the obligation was not necessarily for all of Palestine, and not necessarily for a Jewish Home as a fully-constituted Jewish State. But neither the Balfour Declaration nor the League Mandate Charter explicitly precluded such outcomes.
The Mandate Charter had also called for the creation of self-governing institutions. That commitment supported the Arab claim for a state in all of Palestine, since its inhabitants accounted for the vast majority of the country’s population at the time. Conversely, in keeping with the League Mandate Charter’s promise to foster a “Jewish National Home,” one of its statutory responsibilities was the facilitation of Jewish immigration to Palestine. However, that duty was subject to limits based on Palestine’s economic absorption capacity — which was open to broad interpretation, depending in part on whether one believed that the swamp and desert areas, that accounted for the majority of the land mass of Palestine, could be made fertile. Setting aside competing historic claims to the Holy Land, and whether Palestine had ever been imagined as country or nation let alone a state until the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the whole thing was viewed as one big muddle.
In the end, the proponents of the majority-supported two-state plan struck a compromise, with each of the claimants getting its own state.
The champions of the two-state plan hoped that economic cooperation, essential to the long-term viability of both states, would beget social bonds that would ease and soften the ethnic, religious and political animus between the two peoples and reconcile them to smaller-sized states. They also hoped that a U.N. trusteeship for the City of Jerusalem, where the Holy sites of the three monotheistic religions were commingled (and literally on top of each other), would diffuse conflicts, assuage sensitivities and create a spirit of ecumenicalism that would spread throughout the entire Holy Land.
Although hopes were high, the plan’s proponents fully acknowledged that the plan was far from perfect. Its greatest shortcoming related to the issue of minorities. Every effort was made to minimize the number of Arabs in the Jewish state and Jews in the Arab state, while ensuring that each state had contiguous borders, an equitable share of the country’s fertile lands, water resources, and outlets to the sea, as well as enough room for population growth and economic development. But that still left a sizeable minority of Arabs in the Jewish state (almost forty-five percent). The Jewish minority in the Arab state would be much smaller (just under fourteen percent). The hope was that the safeguards to protect the political, civil, religious and cultural rights of minorities embedded in the governing documents of the new states would help to resolve the issue. The “two-state” plan also allowed for Arabs residing in the Jewish state to become citizens of the Arab state (and vice versa) in the first year of independence.
The Larger View
In the final analysis, however, the majority of UNSCOP members believed that the viability of the two-state plan, and for that matter, “the solution of the problem of Palestine” they were commissioned to address, rested less on the efficacy of the “machinery of government,” than on something far more intangible that no plan could ever hope to capture. They underscored this sobering reflection in what was, by far, the most moving passage in the report submitted to the U.N. General Assembly:
In the larger view, here are the sole remaining representatives of the Semitic race. They are in the land in which that race was cradled. There are no fundamental incompatibilities between them. The scheme satisfies the deepest aspiration of both: independence. There is a considerable body of opinion in both groups which seeks the course of cooperation. Despite, then, the drawback of the Arab minority, the setting is one from which, with good will and a spirit of cooperation, may arise a rebirth, in historical surroundings, of the genius of each people. The massive contribution made by them throughout the centuries in religious and ethical conceptions, in philosophy, and in the entire intellectual sphere, should excite among the leaders a mutual respect and a pride in their common origin.
The Jews bring to the land the social dynamism and scientific method of the West; the Arabs confront them with individualism and intuitive understanding of life. Here then, in this close association, through the natural emulation of each other, can be evolved a synthesis of the two civilizations, preserving, at the same time, their fundamental characteristics. In each State, the native genius will have a scope and opportunity to evolve into its highest cultural forms and to attain its greatest reaches of mind and spirit. In the case of the Jews, that is really the condition of survival. Palestine will remain one land in which Semitic ideals may pass into realization.
At the same time there is secured, through the constitutional position of Jerusalem and the Holy Places, the preservation of the scenes of events in which the sentiments of Christendom also center. There will thus be imposed over the whole land an unobjectionable interest of the adherents of all three religions throughout the world; and so secured, this unique and historical land may at last cease to be the arena of human strife.
The passage concluded on a candidly sober note.
Whether, however, these are vain speculations must await the future. If they are never realized, it will not, it is believed, be because of defects in the machinery of government that is proposed.
Hearing from the Voices of the Holy Land
The “sole remaining representatives of the Semitic race” of Palestine were the Jewish Agency and the Arab Higher Committee. Both were given ample opportunity to weigh in on the UNSCOP report and its recommendations. And both “shadow governments” did so at the opening and closing of three weeks of hearings conducted by the UN General Assembly Ad Hoc Committee held in Lake Success, Queens beginning in late September, 1947.
New York Times, October 5, 1947
Abba Silver, a reformed rabbi from Cleveland, spoke on behalf of the Jewish Agency of Palestine. Silver considered the partition of Palestine a violation of the spirit and letter of the Balfour Declaration and League Mandate. He contended that Palestine had already been partitioned in 1922 when Great Britain transferred three-quarters of the mandated territory to TransJordan. Nevertheless, he accepted the UNSCOP plan.
Silver still had reservations with several of its features, especially the exclusion of Western Galilee, and the Jewish section of Jerusalem outside the walls of the old City, which included the “central national, religious and educational institutions of the Jewish people of Palestine” with its ninety-thousand Jewish inhabitants. Also, though “impressed” with the recommendation of an economic union between the two states, he questioned the large subsidy” for the Arab state built into its proposed distribution of customs revenues. Nonetheless, Silver informed the Ad Hoc Committee that the Jewish Agency would “be prepared to assume this burden as one of the sacrifices designed to find a way out of the present intolerable impasse.”
New York Times, October 5, 1947
Silver was willing to make such sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish Agency, and defy those Zionists who wanted a State in all of Palestine, in order to “contribute to the solution of a grave international problem,” and “join with the community of nations in an effort to bring peace at last to the troubled land which is precious to the heart of mankind.” Holding out an olive branch of peace and goodwill to the Arab neighbors of a Jewish State, Silver offered:
To be good neighbors not only to the Arab state of Palestine, but to the Arab States throughout the Middle East. And certainly, we mean scrupulously to respect the equal rights of the Arab population in the free and democratic Jewish state. With the removal of political friction and bitterness which we hope will eventually result from the setting of these two independent states, each people master in his own home, it should be possible to usher in an era of progress and regeneration which would be a boon to all the people in that part of the world.
New York Times, September 30, 1947
Jamail Husseini, Vice Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee, addressing the U.N. Ad-Hoc Committee as its spokesman, categorically rejected not only the UNSCOP two-state plan, but the UNSCOP minority-supported one-nation, federal-state plan that allowed for a much smaller and far less sovereign Jewish state subject to Arab majority rule. He declared that “the one and only course” acceptable to the Arabs of Palestine was the establishment of an “Arab state in the whole of Palestine.”
Husseini asserted that the Arabs of Palestine “are there where Providence and history have placed them,” “have always been there in actual possession of our own country” and it was theirs by birthright. He dismissed Zionist historic, moral and legal claims to Palestine. He characterized the Balfour Declaration as the “germ that Great Britain infected into the body of the Holy Land and made it a victim of an ever-heightening fever.” He called it “an immoral, unjust and illegal promise.” He attacked the League of Nations Mandate for allowing “a home for a people who were not in Palestine and who have no direct relation with the indigenous population,” and he blasted the British mandatory for having “dumped more than half a million Jews in such a tiny country as Palestine” — an invasion that would “weaken or breakup an existing natural old homogeneity as that of the Arab world by the introduction in its midst of an alien body as is now being contemplated by sponsors of a Jewish state in Palestine.”
New York Times, September 30, 1947
To make clear to the Ad Hoc Committee that what the Times summed up as his “Three Noes,” of “no partition, no Jewish State and no immigration,” were more than theatrical negotiating tactics to secure a more favorable outcome, Husseini delivered an ominous threat. “The Arabs of Palestine,” he promised, “are …solidly determined to oppose, with all the means at its disposal, any scheme that provides for the dissection, segregation or partition of their tiny country or that gives to a minority, on the grounds of creed, special and preferential rights or status.” He then elaborated on precisely what he meant by “all means at its disposal,” serving notice that Arabs of Palestine would not be deterred from “drenching the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood in the lawful defense of all and every inch of it.”
In issuing his threat Jamail Husseini was echoing the words of his cousin and chairman of the Arab Higher Committee, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who several weeks earlier had assured the world that neither of the UNSCOP plans could be carried out without considerable bloodshed. “We Arabs shall not be losers in the last round” he boasted. “We shall be fighting on our own ground and shall be supported not only by seventy million Arabs around the world, but also by four hundred million Moslems.”
The Ad Hoc Committee hearings ended on October 18th on the same note as they began.
Chaim Weizmann, Courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science
Chaim Weizmann, former president of the World Zionist Organization, speaking on behalf of the Jewish Agency, reiterated support for the UNSCOP two-state plan. He expressed hope that its realization would usher in an era of political cooperation. “I retain my belief in the prospect of Jewish-Arab cooperation once a solution based on finality and equality has received the sanction of international consent.” He reminded the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, both of whom still dreamed of having their own state in all of Palestine, of the achievements of that first great city-state republic in history. “The smallness of the state,” he observed, “will be no bar to its full intellectual achievement. Athens was only one small city and the whole world is still its debtor.”
Jamail Husseini, once more speaking for the Arab Higher Committee, repeated his repudiation of the UNSCOP two-state plan and painted a chilling future for a Jewish State were it ever to come to pass:
With the prevalent antagonism of the 70,000,000 Arabs of the Arab world and hundreds of millions of people of the Orient who support the Arab’s just and lawful defense of their own country against the Jewish invasion, a small Jewish state of 1,000,000 people in the heart of this Arab world can have no chance of survival.
Husseini’s promise that the Arab state would be a democratic one, that it would “respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and equality of all persons before the law,” “protect the legitimate rights and interests of all minorities,” and guarantee “freedom of worship and access to holy places…to all,” rang hollow in the face of his threats of violent retaliation.
Finalizing the Two-State Solution
Digesting the three weeks of hearings, the U.N. Ad Hoc Committee would spend the next five weeks refining the UNSCOP two-state plan, making several border modifications. The most significant adjustments expanded the size of the proposed Arab State, adding the seaport city of Jaffa with its ninety-thousand Arab inhabitants, a northern semi-arid swath of the Negev desert with its sizeable Bedouin population, and an extension of the Gaza strip running along the Egyptian frontier almost halfway to the Gulf of Aqaba and bulging out into the Negev. This expansion was mostly designed to include more Arabs in the Arab state and fewer in the Jewish state.
Added to the Jewish state was a stretch of the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea, and a small mountainous area near Safed in Eastern Galilee. The Ad Hoc Committee declined the Jewish Agency’s requests that Western Galilee, and the Western section of Jerusalem outside the walls of the old city with its hundred thousand Jewish residents, be included in the new Jewish state. It also dismissed its appeal for a more equitable sharing of revenues between the two states.
Taking into account the final border adjustments, roughly fifty-six percent of the land mass of Palestine would go to the Jewish state (of which more than sixty percent was desert), forty-three percent to the Arab state, and one-percent to the “Special Regime” of Jerusalem.
The forty-three percent of territory allotted to the Arab state in the amended plan amounted to almost double the size of today’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On November 25th by a vote of 25–13, the U.N. Ad Hoc Committee approved the amended plan for two politically sovereign and independent states — one Arab and one Jewish — bound in economic union, with the city of Jerusalem governed as a U.N. trusteeship.
Casting a Historic Vote
Five days later on November 29th at a few minutes shy of a half-past five in the afternoon, Dr. Oswaldo Aranha, the Brazilian President of the U.N. General Assembly, stepped up to the podium. Aranha gazed out at the vast Flushing Meadows Assembly Hall, that only a few years before housed a skating rink serving residents of the borough of Queens. The transformation was magical. The walls were now blanketed in royal blue drapes that hid its girders. In the distance, hundreds of observers — U.N. staff members, dignitaries, and invitees — sat in anxious suspense in seats that raked halfway up the curved back and side walls. In the well of the auditorium sat five hundred anxious delegates in blue leatherette chairs behind curved walnut tables arranged in semi-circles. As the delegates looked up to the podium, they could not help but see the giant sixty-foot tall and thirty-foot wide map of the world, with its continents accented in bright gold and its borders highlighted by gilt mesh set against large bodies of seas hued in a deep blue. They would have been hard-pressed to identify the tiny, borderless speck of the Holy Land of Palestine, whose fate was now in their hands.
Countless millions across the world huddled around radios as they waited nervously for the live broadcast of the roll call. They had sound reason to be on edge. Passage of the resolution required a two-thirds majority. It was still uncertain whether the supporters had enough votes to secure passage, or opponents (mostly the nine Arab-Muslim member nations) had a sufficient number to block it. The swing votes were in the hands of delegates of smaller nations such as Chile, Haiti, Liberia, Paraguay and the Philippines, which were flip-flopping from one-day to the next. A handful of delegates that had favored partition began to waiver, as the Arab Higher Committee and several of the Arab U.N. member nations ratcheted up threats of war, and the Resolution had failed to include an outside military force to support the Security Council’s mandate to enforce it. Two days earlier, President Aranha was all but certain that the Resolution would fail. Twenty-four hours later he was all but sure it would pass, if only by a very thin margin.
The roll call began at 5:35 pm. It was over in minutes. There were thirty-three in favor, thirteen against and ten abstentions. U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 passed by two votes more than required.
A Prayer of Peace and Friendship
The representative the Jewish Agency, Rabbi Abba Silver, expressed his gratitude to the General Assembly, and its member nations, who made “this noble decision to reestablish the Jewish state and restore the Jewish people to its rightful place in the family of nations.” He affirmed that the Jewish people were “keenly aware of the great responsibilities which the decision of the United Nations has placed upon it,” and promised, “it would do its utmost to merit their confidence, as it moves forward into the new day to fulfill the mandates of its destiny.” Once again, Silver held out an olive branch of peace and cooperation with the Arab neighbors of the Jewish people of Palestine:
We pray for the peace of Palestine. We extend a hand of genuine friendship to the new Arab state which is to be established in Palestine. The Jewish nation in Palestine will be eager to cooperate fully with its Arab neighbor and to contribute within the framework of the economic union to the progress and prosperity of the whole of Palestine. In this historic hour we call upon the Arab people of Palestine and all neighboring Arab countries to join with us in an ear of peaceful and fruitful collaboration.
Before an audience of five thousand at St. Nicholas Arena on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, Chaim Weizmann, already being floated as the President of the new Jewish State, celebrated the U.N. decision as “a victory for international equity and cooperation,” emphasizing that “it is now our primary task to establish relations of peace and harmony with our Arab neighbors and to contribute what we can to the regeneration of the Middle East and the welfare of mankind.”
A Jihad of War and Hate
There was little surprise at the Arab response. The U.N. delegates from the Arab states stalked out of the Assembly Hall in protest. They let it be known they would refuse all cooperation with the implementation of the U.N. two-state plan. As the Times reported the next day, “there was an open thread of warning running through all the Arab delegates’ comments on the Assembly’s action. They spoke of bloodshed to come and said the responsibility would not be theirs, but would be on the shoulders of the countries that had pressed for partition.”
The following day the Arab Higher Committee issued a statement declaring the U.N. decision “null and void.” It announced a three-day general strike as the “first warning of the Arab determination to defeat partition,” and the beginning of a “serious struggle against the Zionist scheme.” It called upon the Arab world to “maintain a complete boycott of all Jews.” In an interview, Dr. Husseini Khalidi, acting Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee, declared that partition “is going to lead to a ‘crusade’ against the Jews.” He warned that any attempt to carry out the decision “may lead to tragedy, may even be a spark that will lead to another world disaster.”
The “crusade” was already underway. Seven Jews had been killed and eight wounded in bus ambushes. Two days later, on the morning of the first day of the General Strike, a mob of several hundred Arabs stormed Jerusalem’s central business district smashing shop windows, looting merchandise and setting fire to shops. Scores of Arab youth from Jaffa went on a similar rampage in the neighboring Jewish-city of Tel Aviv. Attacks spread to Lydda and Safed. By day’s end, eight Jews were dead, including the head of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Trade. An estimated thirty-two Jews were seriously wounded. On the third day of the General Strike, Arab snipers armed with submachine guns, ambushed buses and vehicles along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, making the critical thru-road nearly impassable. Bands of fully-armed Arab militia from cities, towns and villages throughout Palestine began to replace unruly and undisciplined mobs. The Associated Press estimated the Jewish death toll at twenty and counting.
Across the Egyptian frontier, the Council of Ulemas of al-Azhar University of Cairo, the greatly respected center of Moslem learning in the Islamic world, proclaimed a holy war against the nascent Jewish state, calling on “all Moslems throughout the world for Jihad,” reminding the faithful that “jihad is an unconditional obligation, and whoever neglects it is a sinner.” Inflamed by their leaders, several thousand Arab youth marched on the headquarters of the Arab League asking for weapons so they could save Palestine “with our blood.” The Secretary General of the Arab League, Abdel Pasha, not only promised weapons, but training as well for a volunteer jihadist army to assist its brethren militia fighters in Palestine. By the end of December more than six hundred Jihadist volunteers, armed and trained by Syrian and Iraqi officers, had crossed the Syrian and Lebanese borders and joined with local Arab militia in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Safed, Gaza and Haifa.
New York Times, February 23, 1948
In a New Year’s interview, Emil Ghory, a senior member of the Arab Higher Committee, claimed that Arabs were only acting defensively. His only criticism of the attacks by Arabs was that “there were not enough.” He said he did not wish violence, but that matters had gone too far for him to halt it — unless the U.N. decision were reversed and the Mandate was turned over “to the people of the country.” According to the Times, when asked what would become of the Jews of Palestine in that event, Ghory replied that those who were living in Palestine before 1918 would be treated the same. However, those who came afterwards - the vast majority - would be considered “aliens” and given a “special status.”
Specters of the Holocaust
Ghory was speaking for Hajj Amin al-Husseini, Chairman of the Arab Higher Command. Al-Husseini had spent five years in exile in Berlin collaborating with the Nazis. He actively supported its propaganda and military campaigns in the Middle East, including the planned invasion and occupation of Palestine — a campaign that threatened to become reality in the summer and fall of 1942 — a perilous time for the Jews of Palestine and what has come to be to known as the “two-hundred days of dread.” The following year al-Husseini urged the Nazis to bomb the all-Jewish city of Tel Aviv, as well as Jewish settlements throughout Palestine, despite there being little strategic military rationale for the attacks. In a protest speech in November of the same year, delivered in Berlin on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, al-Husseini called for a Middle East implementation of the Nazi policy of Judenrein: “The Arabs, and especially the Muslims must expel the Jews from Arab countries.” He informed the thousands of Muslim immigrant in the audience that, “the most important thing is that they [the Nazis] have found the final solution to the Jewish problem that would remove their harm from the world.” That final solution — the secretive mass-murder of civilian Jews executed by the Nazis — had been known to the world for almost a year, and was certainly well-known to Husseini, who was a self-proclaimed admirer of Heinrich Himmler — the architect of the Holocaust.
New York Times, March 12, 1948
In the months following Ghory’s interview, thousands of Arab volunteers flooded into Palestine to join with bands of local-armed fighters. Those loose formations were led by three military commanders — all of them former Nazi collaborators. Two had been ranking officers in the Wehrmacht. One had parachuted into Palestine to organize pro-Nazi uprisings among local Arabs in anticipation of the expected arrival of invading Wehrmacht troops. The other had assisted in the formation of a Nazi SS mobile-killing unit stationed in Athens with orders to follow behind the Wehrmacht as it advanced across North Africa and crossed the Suez Canal into Palestine. That mobile-killing unit had been modeled after the same units that had previously swept into Poland and Russia behind the Wehrmacht and executed the “Holocaust by Bullets.” Thanks to the defeat of the Wehrmacht at the battle of El-Alamein by British troops in the fall of 1942, that Middle Eastern mobile-killing unit never saw the light of day.
New York Times, February 3, 1948
Those three commanders, along with al-Husseini, now had their second chance for a final solution. After three months of escalating attacks, and with the survival of the emerging Jewish state and Jewish community in Palestine hanging in the balance, Jewish defense forces — a fair number of whose enlistees were recent survivors of the European Holocaust — threw off all constraints and unleashed a life-and-death offensive.
And the rest is history with countless wars and deaths and no solution in sight.
Regrets from Ramallah
In October 2011, soon after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, began his campaign to gain international recognition for the state of Palestine, and its admission as a full-fledged member of the U.N., he agreed to an interview on Israeli television. When asked about the decision of the Palestinian leadership to rebuff the 1947 U.N. two-state plan and launch a war to preempt its implementation, Abbas replied: “I know, I know. It was our mistake. It was our mistake. It was an Arab mistake as a whole.”
What Abbas understood in that rare acknowledgement was that had the Arab Higher Committee accepted that 1947 U.N. two-state plan, the Arabs of Palestine would have had their own state, a state almost double the territory that he was claiming as his people’s just due, and a state long ago welcomed as a full-fledged member of the U.N.
Whether Abbas’ owning up to “our mistake” was a cynical ploy to put him in the good stead of the same international body from which he was seeking recognition and admission, one can only speculate.
Whether Abbas understood that had the Arab Higher Committee accepted the 1947 U.N. two-state plan, instead of launching its Jihadist war against the emerging state of Israel, there would have been no Arab-Israeli War, no Nakba, no endless refugee crisis, no Six-Day War, no occupation, no Yom Kippur War, no Intifadas, no war in Gaza, and on and on, one can only wonder.
Whether Abbas fully understood that “our mistake” was more than a mistake, but an epochal tragedy with epochal consequences, one can only speculate.
And whether Abbas or the leaders of Hamas who govern the Gaza Strip have learned, or ever will, from that tragic mistake, we cannot know, but can only hope.
However, what can be said with a fair amount of confidence is that when Abbas made that candid admission, he must have surely known that had he been able to secure the same deal in 2011 that the United Nations offered the Arabs of Palestine on that late November afternoon in the fall of 1947, when the winds of hope blew in from Jamaica Bay and the flags of those fifty-one nations swirled high above the meadows of Flushing Queens, he would have been able to proclaim to his people that he had pulled off the “real deal of the century.” And in that triumphant feat, his people would have surely memorialized him with a statue on the main square of Ramallah — one as towering as that sixty-foot tall installation on the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair that honored the founding father of the first monarch-free constitutional republic of the modern world.
Instead, almost a decade later, President Mahmoud Abbas would be offered a very sad version of that deal by a President from Queens — an offer to which his only reply would be a “Thousand Noes” and “Three Days of Rage.”
Give unto Beauty for the Ashes
Flushing Meadows was once a sprawling dump site. Every day tons of garbage from the borough of Brooklyn would be hauled in by rail cars. The mountains of burning filth would illuminate the skies at night and create a thick veil of white ashen smog that would loom over the meadows during the day. That ghostly image inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to immortalize it in The Great Gatsby — one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. He called the dump site the “valley of ashes,” describing it as “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.” The white ashen veil that hung over the smoking embers of filth he called “foul dust.” It was a metaphor for a morally broken and corrupted civilization in decline.
Robert Moses, the most audacious master-builder of public works in the twentieth century, was equally inspired by the vast potential beyond the grotesque foothills of garbage spread across more than thirteen-hundred acres of valuable marshlands. Like Fitzgerald’s fictional character, Jay Gatsby, Moses saw beyond the “foul dust” and imagined a world of enchantment and wonder when Flushing Meadows was a pristine green swath of lush marshes. Whether Moses was inspired by The Great Gatsby is unknown. What is known, is that he was inspired by another great work of literature. Reading the Book of Isaiah, he came upon the words, “Give unto the beauty for ashes.” Moved by that biblical image, the Gatsby-like real life character Moses hauled away the garbage, drained the swamps, and created one of the greatest municipal parks in America. His vision gave birth to the 1939 World’s Fair and, a quarter century later, the 1964 World’s Fair, both of which he masterminded.
As one wanders through Flushing Meadows park today there are a few reminders of those two great World’s Fairs. Only two structures have survived. Both are also reminders that, once upon a time, Flushing Meadows was home to the United Nations.
The first is the Unisphere — the world’s largest globe and centerpiece of the 1964 World’s Fair, whose theme was “Peace through Understanding.” A massive, stainless steel ball that rises one-hundred-and-forty feet in air, it rests on the site where the fifty-one flags of the U.N member nations once flew, and before that, the great Perisphere of democracy stood.
The second surviving structure is the nearby two-story building that housed the Fair’s 1939 New York City Pavilion — the one that seven-years later Robert Moses would refurbish and build out as the first headquarters of the U.N. Today, it is home to the Queens Museum of Art. In the space that once housed the General Assembly Hall, sits a nine-thousand square foot panorama-in-miniature of the City of New York. Every building, street, park and bridge constructed before 1992 is replicated in a breathtaking, scaled cityscape. The Panorama was intended as a homage to the city’s twentieth-century municipal infrastructure and to Robert Moses, who played such a colossal role in its shaping and building.
Gazing down from the second floor of the dimly-lit auditorium at that sweeping urban panorama of a city only three-hundred square miles in size, built and inhabited by a melting pot of eight-million immigrants whose contributions in the arts, architecture, finance and sports the world will forever be indebted, calls to mind the great ancient city-state republic that gave us Socrates, Plato and Euripides. It is also a reminder of that wise advice offered, once upon a time in Queens, by Chaim Weizmann to his fellow Zionists and Arab neighbors who both zealously claimed patrimony to the whole of Palestine, that “Athens was only one small city and the whole world is still its debtor.”
One can only hope such advice will someday be heeded by today’s “sole remaining representatives of the Semitic race” and, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, they will find a way on that small ten-thousand square-mile patch of holy land to “Beat their swords into plowshares” and “Give unto beauty for the ashes.”
Today, the Holy Land is once again at the crossroads of hope and tragedy. For the Arabs of Palestine, one road leads to Athens and the other to the valley of the ashes. For the Jews of Israel, one road leads to a return to its founding vision of a Judaic democratic republic and the other to the foul dust of the Roman Empire that wrought its decline and fall.
Robert Leonard Berkowitz is the author of Darker than a Thousand Pogroms, 9/11 and the Holocaust, The Long Damn Summer of ’42 and other essays. They can be found on Medium.com