A WINDOW IN HISTORY: 
REVISITING RESOLUTION 181

by Avi Davis
The holiday of Thanksgiving and the festival of Chanukah share some interesting similarities.  Both are anteceded by specific events;  both are celebratory symbols of survival and endurance;  both have come to represent hope and the promise of a better
day. This year an unusual calenderic alignment has been both overlapping with the anniversary of yet another historic event. 
Fifty-five years ago, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations past Resolution 181, the legislative act that partitioned Mandatory Palestine into two states one Jewish, the other Arab.  It is a day remembered as one of the few times in post-war history where
the United States and Soviet Union were in agreement on a major international issue.  How this happened and what motivations lay behind their leaders' decisions in a story worth recalling.

Joseph Stalin's calculations were fairly simple.  The end of the Second World War left the Soviets with no influence in the Middle East.  The great oil reserves of Saudia Arabia and Iraq had fallen under the patronage of the United States and Britain and companies from both were heavily represented there.  Stalin had no love for Jews and was plotting anti-Semitic purges of his own. But in the socialist leanings of the Jewish Agency he percieved an opportunity to obtain an ideological and strategic foothold. 
From Stalin's point of view, the establishment of a modern Jewish State was more likely to eliminate western influence than was a backward Arab regime.  He also knew that the likely outbreak of war would destabilize the region affording Moscow an opportunity to step in as a potential peace keeper.  Throughout 1947 he therefore instructed his U.N. representatives to vigorously attack Britain's anti-immigration policy which had condemned hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees to years in internment camps.  U.N. Ambassador Andrei Gromyko became such an enthusiastic Zionist supporter in the months leading up to the vote
that the British delegation began referring to him as 'Theodor', after the founder of the Zionist movement.

The real struggle over partition however, did not take place at the United Nations.  It took place in the White House.  For most members of the Truman administration there was seemingly little strategic value in supporting the establishment of a fledgling Jewish State.  Such a state, it was argued, would be militarily weak and would instantly become economically dependent on the West.  The damage that support for such a decision could do to American oil interests in the Gulf would be incalculable.  A vigorous campaign to thwart the creation of Israel was therefore launched by the State Department, the Department of Defense
and oil executives.  James Forrestal, the Secretary of Defense, augmented his concern for the oil gap by openly portraying Zionist pressure as a scourge.  No group in this country, he told the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, should be permitted to influence our policy to the point where it could endanger our national security Secretary of State George C. Marshall, a war
time leader and one of the most respected politicians in the country, remained publicly uncommitted to partition, yet in private relentlessly lobbied Truman for the support of an alternative - a bi-national unitary state.

Truman obviously had many considerations to balance.  The United States' post-war economy, rejuvenated by the return of the GI's looked likely to outstrip available domestic oil supplies within ten years.  The future necessity for importing oil in huge   quantities could therefore not be ignored.  Soviet expansionism also needed to be checked in Central Asia, which would require
the support of the Arab countries.  Yet Truman, unlike Roosevelt and many of his predecessors, believed that history was the final
all-important judge of performance, not the poll.  At the time, he naturally could not forsee that Israel would one day develop into
a world leader in high technology or that it would become a vital military and strategic ally of the United States in a notoriously unstable region.  What he understood was that the Jewish people in Palestine and the thousands of refugees still languishing in internment camps would face grave injustice if the long held promise of statehood was not fulfilled.

I was not committed in any particular formula of statehood in Palestine or to any particular timetable, he later wrote.  My
essential purpose was to bring about the redemption of the pledge of the Balfour Declaration and the rescue of at least some of
the victims of Nazism.  I am sorry to say that among my own people there were those who were inclined to be anti-Semitic.  On October 9, 1947 he was informed that the Arab league had instructed its member nations to dispatch troops to the Palestine borders.  This raised his ire and therefore he threw his support whole-heartedly behind partition. 

By the time Resolution 181 came to a vote in the General Assembly on November 29, 1947, despite intense lobbying efforts for
the Arabs, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  With joint superpower backing, passage was assured. 

This remarkable event, uniting the two adversaries on a subject which would divide them bitterly in succeeding years pried open
a window for the Jewish People that would likely have remained shut for at least another half century.  Today the event resonates.  Partition may have failed but the divergent motivations of Stalin and Truman are mirrored in the way Europe and the United States now relate to Israel and its current struggles. 
Europe - consumed with oil interests, spheres of influence in growing anti-Semitism; the United States - recognizing that its committment to Israel is not only a strategic issue but a moral one. 

An old maxim concerning diplomatic relations suggests that countries don't have friends, they have interests.  In 1947 this was proven wrong.  Countries do have friends.  In that year an entire people owed its future to the friendship of one man who stood courageously against powerful partisan interests and clearly appreciated his opportunity to alter the course of history.  That level
of courage and foresight should not be forgotten and it is certainly a cause for both thankfulness and celebration on this otherwise mournful Chanukah/Thanksgiving.


Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and the senior editorial columnist for the on-line magazine JewsWeek.com.
FREEMAN CENTER FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES: http://www.freeman.org
Read THE MACCABEAN ONLINE:
http://www.freeman.org/online.htm
Return to Archives Page