New Zealand’s role in Israel’s birth
On a summer evening on November 28, 1947, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser, accompanied by some colleagues and cabinet ministers, made his way to a small home near Victoria University of Wellington. Fraser had a big decision to make, and he wanted to discuss it with one of the few people who knew the situation well – my great uncle Isaac Gotlieb (who I am named after).
My cousin told me that the children were rushed upstairs and told to stay quiet so as not to disturb the prime minister as my great uncle convinced him to vote in favor of the Partition Plan for Palestine.
The United Nations was scheduled to vote the next day on whether to allow Jews to have a homeland. In order for Israel to exist, two-thirds of the 56 nations would have to support the motion.
It was not an easy decision for Fraser. Normally, New Zealand looked to the United Kingdom for direction. The small country’s soldiers had fought valiantly alongside British servicemen in World War II, which had ended only two years earlier.
British Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech-Jones had stated that the British government did not wish to be involved in implementing any policy which was not acceptable to both Arabs and Jews. Britain would abstain in the UN vote. Furthermore, Creech-Jones stressed in a message to representatives of the dominions that the plan would likely lead to bloodshed and war since the UN would not be able to keep the peace.
In contrast New Zealand’s nearest neighbor, Australia, came out strongly in favor of the partition. Herbert Vere Evatt, Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, was chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question. He foresaw that the establishment of Israel would be a great victory for the fledgling United Nations.
The New Zealand prime minister was torn. He wanted the United Nations to succeed as an international body. He wanted Britain to be allowed to withdraw from Palestine. But he knew that without an international military presence, the Partition Plan would lead to war. He voiced his concerns to Carl Berendsen, New Zealand’s delegate to the United Nations.
My great uncle Isaac Gotlieb counted Berendsen as a friend and neighbor, though they did not see eye to eye on the issues of Judaism or Zionism. Berendsen’s mother had been born Jewish, but she raised her son as a Christian. And Carl had his doubts about the partition plan.
By November 21, Fraser had made up his mind. He told the British Secretary of State that, “We must support partition as the solution which offers the best possible hope, however small, of dealing with the situation as it exists at the present time.”
However, Berendsen continued pushing the UN to delay the vote until a better solution was found, preferably with the United States committing to send soldiers to the region to enforce the decision.
On November 22, Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first president, sent a telegram to Fraser, stressing that if New Zealand abstained from the committee vote on partition, “through doubt on certain issues,” New Zealand would prejudice the only chance for a decision.
As the deadline for the vote approached, Fraser replied to Weizmann that partition without enforcement was, “futile and seems calculated to lead to bloodshed and chaos.”
By now, Fraser realized that without New Zealand’s vote, the Partition Plan may not receive the necessary two thirds majority. Although he feared the plan was flawed, he knew there was no alternative. So, on the night before the vote, he went to discuss his options with my great uncle.
My great uncle Isaac Gotlieb was a passionate Zionist. In 1943, he became the first head of the New Zealand Zionist Federation. He traveled the country raising money for the Zionist cause, and in 1946, he represented New Zealand at the first World Zionist Convention in Basel. Going by boat from Wellington to Switzerland must have taken him weeks.
But that was not his first trip overseas. Soon after he married my great-aunt Rhina in 1925, they went on a world trip for their honeymoon. The trip of course included Palestine.
Isaac Gotlieb was born in Latvia in 1891 and emigrated to NZ in 1909, having completed his apprenticeship as a carpenter in Wales, and after a few years, in 1924 at the age of 33 opened his own company called The Art Cabinet Co.
He became a very successful businessman. During the depression years, while others went bankrupt, Isaac and his brother Morris flourished.
He mixed in social circles that included Fraser, and other government officials. When the prime minister and his colleagues came to visit my great uncle on the eve of the partition vote, he employed every argument he had to convince them. And it worked.
The following day, November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted on the Partition Plan for Palestine. The plenum went through the countries alphabetically,
Afghanistan – No
Argentina – No
Australia – Yes
New Zealand was the 34th country called. When Berendsen said “Yes” he was the 19th vote in favor of establishing the State of Israel. For the plan to pass a two third majority was required from the countries voting not including those abstaining or absent. This happened after the 22nd vote in favor was recorded.
In the end, the official count was 33 in favor 13 against 10 abstentions and one absent. Thanks to my great uncle, New Zealand had played a historic role in creating our country.
After playing such a pivotal role in this huge miracle I am sure Isaac could not wait to get to visit the new State of Israel. His 25th wedding anniversary was in 1950, so he and Rhina decided to celebrate with a trip to the Holy Land. This would also allow him to be the official representative for the New Zealand Zionist Federation at the First World Zionist Convention following the establishment of the state. The convention was scheduled for February 1951.
They took their daughter Denise with them, and my grandparents Sam and Mary Treister. In July 1950 they left Wellington for the first leg of their journey. They went first to the US where they visited family and caught up with their old friend Berendsen. While in America, Isaac took the opportunity to speak to local Zionist Federations about New Zealand Jewry. At one of those speeches, he met Israel’s ambassador to the US, Abba Eban.
Unfortunately, after the Gotliebs and Triesters arrived in America, they found out that the Zionist Convention had been postponed to July 1951.
They continued on to England and then France , in January 1951, where they met up with the New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland who was in Paris after being in London, where he had attended a Heads of Commonwealth meeting.
Then the Gotliebs and Treisters made their way to France. We actually have 25mm color movies of Isaac, Rhina and Denise with Sam and Mary visiting the Eiffel tower in Paris.
Tragically, on January 27, 1951, on an Alitalia flight from Paris to Rome to catch a connecting flight to Israel, their plane was struck by lightning and crashed. My grandfather Sam, his wife Mary (Isaac’s sister), Isaac’s wife Rhina and their 24-year-old daughter Denise were killed instantly. Isaac survived the crash but died in hospital a week later. Of the 13 passengers on board there were only 4 survivors.
Over the years my father, Arnold Treister, had told us the story of how he had to fly out to Rome, at the age of 25, to identify the bodies of his parents, uncle, aunt and cousin and arrange their funerals. They are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Rome.
We have visited the graves a number of times. It always puzzled me why they were buried in Italy, and not brought back to New Zealand, or taken to Israel, for burial.
Just before COVID-19 broke out I was in New Zealand for father’s 95th birthday and I went through the family file of documents and photos about Isaac Gotlieb. I came across a 1951 telegram exchange between Jewish National Fund (KKL) and their local representatives:
From K.K.L. Rome to Head Office – 2.2.51
“Isaac Gottlieb passed away this morning at 0.25 hours. Air company Alitalia awaiting instructions to transfer corpses of Gottlieb wife daughter to New Zealand.
From head office to Ruben, Wellington – 5.2.51
Overwhelmed tragic loss your president New Zealand Council Isaac Gottlieb wife and daughter. Please convey expression deepest sympathy bereaved family also Zionist Council New Zealand
From Ruben, Wellington to Head Office 5.2.51
Family desire Isaac Rhina Denise Gottlieb remains bring buried in Israel. Advise Rome and us immediately of possibility. Inform Rome of our intention.
From Head Office to K.K.L. Rome – 7.2.51
Family desires transfer Israel remains Isaac Rhina Denise Gottlieb for burial. Please enquire particulars transfer your end and cable. Expenses our responsibility. Meanwhile clearing formalities here.
I never found out why Isaac and his family were not brought to Israel for burial. The Gotliebs were clearly held in high esteem by the JNF as evidenced by the fact that the organization offered to pay expenses to bring them to Israel. Perhaps someone reading this can cast more light on the matter.
This Yom HaAtzma’ut, as you toast Israel’s 75th birthday, spare a thought for the great work of Zionist leaders around the world, who made the State of Israel a reality. And especially for my great-uncle Isaac Gotlieb, and his family, who died on their way to the country they so loved.
I found out that a memorial to my great uncle was established in Kibbutz Gonen, at the bottom of the Golan Heights. The stone and plaque are part of a forest that KKL planted in memory of Isaac in cooperation with the New Zealand Jewish community soon after his death. I have reached out to the kibbutz and was able to tell them the story behind the memorial stone! I am currently in contact KKL Israel and The New Zealand Zionist federation. With their help and support we will hopefully be able to upgrade the site and make a corner of New Zealand in Israel telling the story not just of Isaac Gotlieb but also of a wonderful international relationship going back to the Kiwis part in the battle of Beersheba and their victory in Ein Kara that subsequently lead to “Yes” in the partition plan vote.
Paul Thomas Enright’s thesis “New Zealand’s involvement in the partitioning of Palestine and the creation of Israel” August 2010, University of Otago, New Zealand provided a lot of valuable background information for this blog.