Season 2, Episode 35



The British gave up on the Mandate and looked to the United Nations to solve the problem of dividing Palestine between Jews and Arabs. The UN now faced the same dilemma that had plagued the British for thirty years. The Jews were an unstoppable force, determined to renew the Jewish state and ensure unlimited immigration. And the Arabs were an immovable object, rejecting completely anything of the sort. So what would be a just solution for Palestine?


Partition had been raised as an idea during the Arab Revolt of the late 1930s. Since no one had a better idea, and since Britain was unwilling to be helpful anymore, especially in allowing any more Jewish immigration, the UN decided to revisit partition several diplomats, investigations, debates, and investigatory committees later.

There were reasons to oppose partitioning Palestine. No one wanted to piss off the Arabs, since they controlled the oil. No one thought the Jews would win a war against the Arabs anyway. Britain, which was losing its empire all over the world, didn’t want to lose its influence with the Arabs, and didn’t want to support the Jews after their campaign of resistance (and terrorism) against the Mandate. And so the British threw up every roadblock they could against Jewish statehood.

But on the other hand, the United States had a new president, Harry Truman, who was very much in support of creating a Jewish state. Partly out of electoral politics, partly out of genuine humanitarian sympathy for the Holocaust survivors still in Europe, and partly because he had several close Jewish friends. He committed the U.S. to supporting partition. So, too, did America’s arch nemesis, the Soviet Union. 

The Soviet Union saw the strategic advantage in supporting a Jewish socialist state in the Middle East, banking on the idea its ideology would be a natural fit for Soviet influence. Add in the Jews’ need to buy weapons, and that supporting partition would make Britain look bad, and for a quick second in 1947 the USSR supported the plan (Stalin’s anti-Semitism later made Soviet support impossible).

The partition map drawn up by the United Nations divided Palestine into three pieces: a Jewish state, an Arab state, and Jerusalem as an international zone. Strategically, it wasn’t very favorable to the Jews, creating choke points that could be easily cut off by Arab armies. Its territory included a huge minority of Arabs who would, in time, overtake the Jews as the majority population, bringing an end to the Jewish character of the state. Menachem Begin and the Revisionist Zionists rejected the plan; Ben Gurion accepted it. 

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of partition in the form of Resolution 181.


President Harry Truman: favorable to Zionism due to his sympathy for Jewish suffering, his having grown up amidst a Jewish community in Missouri, and his desire to secure the Jewish vote. Though he expressed occasional private misgivings about the Jews as a group, he remained a committed supporter of partition despite the objections of many top officials in the U.S. government. 

Josef Stalin: a virulent anti-Semite, he hated the Jews, murderously, before the 1940s and then again afterwards. But in 1947 he put aside his raging anti-Semitism and saw the strategic advantage of supporting the creation of a socialist Jewish state in the Middle East.

Amos Oz: Israel’s most famous writer was eight years old when the partition vote happened, and later wrote that his father told him the creation of a Jewish state meant that no one could bully him for being Jewish ever again. 


Chaim Weizmann told the UN that the question wasn’t whether Zionism was morally right or wrong; the question was one of justice and injustice. The Arabs argued that partition violated their rights of self-determination, as they were the majority population in Palestine and ought to determine its rule. But due to international sympathy for the plight of the Jews and the recognition that Jews needed a safe haven to live,  the international community was generally supportive of partition. 

The Arabs responded to partition with the same strategy they had long employed against the Jews: violence, promising a “war of annihilation” should a Jewish state be created, including pogroms against Jewish communities throughout the Middle East. This made an even stronger case for establishing a Jewish state, as it clearly wasn’t safe to leave the Jews to fend for themselves in Arab countries.

Partition wasn’t intended to permanently separate Arabs and Jews. The point was to give each of them an independent state to manage their own affairs amongst themselves, but then for the two states, and the two people, to live harmoniously together. It included plans for a joint economy and for the Jewish state to compensate the Arab one for receiving better agricultural land. 


In 1947 a British government official told his Jewish counterpart that there would never be a Jewish state because the UN would never go for it. “Nothing like that ever happened,” he said. “It cannot possibly happen, and will never happen.”

The UN’s partition vote — Resolution 181 — lasted three-minutes, with 33 countries voting in favor, 10 against, and 13 abstentions.

Despite the UN’s support for partition, Chaim Weizmann warned that the road ahead would be difficult: “The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.”

© Jason Harris 2019


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UN partition map. Not the small Arab territory around Tel Aviv — Jaffa was to be included as part of the Arab state. Map from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

UN partition map. Not the small Arab territory around Tel Aviv — Jaffa was to be included as part of the Arab state. Map from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.