November 29th. Where I grew up it was, for most, an ordinary day sandwiched between recovering from Thanksgiving and preparing for Christmas. For Israelis, though, it holds a special place in our history.
In high school, I used to ride my bicycle down to an unremarkable strip mall some 10 miles from my home where I would meet up with various older friends who could already drive. We all belonged to a local hiking club, and that Lake Success parking lot was where we would carpool up to the hills and mountains that lay further north of Long Island. On the way, I would bicycle pass a rather nondescript sign noting this very average suburban town’s one claim to fame: It hosted the fledgling UN for a few years in what had once been a war-time factory.
But it was there, on November 29th, 1947 that something very special happened. The UN voted on its “partition plan” for dissolving the British Mandate over Palestine, thus paving the way for the formation of the only Jewish state.
Of course, the Arab states, still taken with the goals of the just defeated Third Reich, rejected the very notion that the Jews could live in peace in their native homeland. But for Jews around the world, and especially the Zionists (both Christian and Jew) who had been streaming to the Holy Land for a century, something more than auspicious—something nearly miraculous—had taken place. The nations of the world, newly coalesced into an attempt to undo the horrors that World War II had unleashed, saw the Jews as a nation. A people, like other peoples, who deserved to take their place at the geopolitical table with all the others who were climbing out from under colonial conquest.
The famed Israeli poet, Haim Guri, once noted in a university lecture to a bunch of 20-something students (me amongst them) that the youth of his day had it easier. The sheer weight of choice and nearly unlimited opportunity that we moderns possessed was a difficult burden to bear. For his generation, though, the generation that saw the rebirth of the Israeli people into a modern nation, things were simpler.
In speaking about November 29, 1947 he told us:
“Behind us were the still smoldering ashes of the Shoah. In front of us we knew that we would soon be facing a brutal war for independence. There was little time for thought; the path forward was frightening, but clear.”
Some 50 years after that fateful UN vote, I lived for a while in a simple, nondescript apartment bloc in what was still the rather quiet Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon. The neighborhood had seen not little fighting in the War of Independence. A local park featured a damaged armored vehicle–seemingly frozen in place from that time. Eventually, many Jews whose Old City homes had been taken over by the invading Jordanian army were resettled there. Their children clambered over that tank to play.
My fourth floor walk-up was in a building filled with some of these Jews as well as dozens more of middle-class teachers, clerks, accountants and engineers. Their geographical origins were as varied as their complexions: Russia, Turkey, Yemin, Britain, Morroco, America. A veritable UN. Across the street lay a large elementary school; the clamor from the yard filled all our apartments with the music of youth at play.
That building was on Rechov Kaf-Tet B’November — November 29th Street.