Commentary Magazine


Topic: General Assembly’s Special Political Committee

There Could Have Been Two Independence Days

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

Today is the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which commemorates something as close to a miracle as we are ever likely to see — the re-creation of an ancient state in the Land in which it stood 2,000 years before, the resurrection of an ancient language to provide for common discourse, the ingathering of millions of exiles who had no other place to live, the creation of a democracy that extended citizenship not only to Jews but also to Arabs in the midst of an Arab war to destroy the state, the safeguarding of all holy places of all religions and the provision of free access to them, the creation and maintenance of a free and vibrant civil society while under continuous terrorist attack and multiple genocidal wars, and the growth of the nation from a third-world economy into one of the most technologically advanced in the world. It is no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hillel Halkin, that “for all its shortcomings and mistakes, Israel is and will always be one of the most glorious historical adventures in the history of mankind.”

But didn’t this new state cause the creation of a new group of refugees, whose own plight remains unresolved 62 years later? The short answer is “no,” but the longer answer is one that many have forgotten or in some cases may not have been permitted to know. The Jewish Press excerpts on its front page Israeli UN Ambassador Abba Eban’s November 17, 1958, speech to the General Assembly’s Special Political Committee (worth reading in its entirety), which began as follows:

The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948. … If there had been no war against Israel, with its consequent harvest of bloodshed, misery, panic and flight, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today.

Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged. …

“This will be a war of extermination,” declared the secretary-general of the Arab League speaking for the governments of six Arab states, “it will be a momentous massacre to be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.”

The assault began on the last day of November 1947. From then until the expiration of the British Mandate in May 1948 the Arab states, in concert with Palestine Arab leaders, plunged the land into turmoil and chaos. On the day of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, supported by contingents from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, crossed their frontiers and marched against Israel.

The tragedy of the Palestinians is that they could have been celebrating today the 62nd anniversary of their own state as well. But 62 years ago, they rejected a two-state solution and commenced the first of multiple wars to extinguish the other one. They have rejected multiple offers of a state since then. Six decades after their first war, they are left without a state but with the refugees created by their attempt to destroy the Jewish one. It is a nakba, but it is not one that Israel caused.

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