Seventy-three years ago Sunday, the United Nations voted to split Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs. Here is what I wrote in my new book, “Saving Israel” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), about the days leading up to this historical decision from the perspectives of members of a secret, illegal operation to provide the Jewish state with an air force and arms:
Flying one of Schwimmer Aviation’s just-released C-46s from a US airbase in Panama to Burbank, Calif., the secret operation’s chief pilot, Sam Lewis, and his best friend, co-pilot Leo Gardner, get into a rare argument: whether the United States will vote for or against the UN committee’s partition recommendation in a few days. Radio operator Eddie Styrak stays out of it, for now.
Leo predicts the US will vote no. He notes that the US State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have increasingly opposed the idea of a Jewish state. He also notes that the British effort to paint the Palestinian-Jews “red” has started to color the way some Americans feel about the issue. Secretary of State George Marshall just wrote a memo to Congress repeating what he heard from the UK’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin: many of the Jews trying to illegally immigrate to Palestine are “communists.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sam says. “Truman loves the Jews. He’ll vote yes.”
Sam and Leo turn to Eddie to break the stalemate. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Eddie says. “It’s presidential elections season and Truman does need the Jewish vote.”
“I’m sure he’s getting a ton of pressure from the Jewish community,” Sam says.
American Jews have sent Truman 35,000 letters urging him to support the creation of a Jewish state. By his own admittance, he has read none of them. He told Senator Claude Pepper (D-Florida): “I put it all in a pile and struck a match to it — I never looked at a single one.”
But Truman’s decision-making is far more complicated than his missive bonfire makes it seem. The president is caught between his best friend and his most valued cabinet member.
Since finding out about the Catastrophe (the Holocaust) in 1945, his best friend, Edward “Eddie” Jacobson, 56, has been imploring Truman to help the Jews.
Jacobson and Truman had been close since they met 42 years earlier in Kansas City. They did their military basic training together and became business partners after World War I. Now a traveling salesman, Jacobson sometimes stops by the White House to catch up with his buddy, the President. The son of poor Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants rarely neglects to bring up the Yishuv.
One of the main reasons Truman has taken little action on this issue rests with his deep respect for his secretary of state. Although not as passionate about this subject as Jacobson, Marshall has been just as determined to influence the president. The architect of the administration’s post-World War II, early-Cold War strategy has made it clear that the State Department believes the formation of a Jewish state would harm America’s interests in the Middle East.
Thus, Truman is torn. This has led to contradictory statements and mixed messages. The president goes back and forth on a weekly basis. Beyond being pulled in opposite directions, he’s conflicted inside. His heart — the heart of a God-fearing, Bible-loving Baptist — beseeches him to side with Jacobson and do more, perhaps a great deal more, for the Jews. His mind — the mind of a practical country judge and World War I artillery commander — favors Marshall.
Even Sam, who remains optimistic about the US voting for the UN Partition Plan, admits that Truman faces a tough choice.
“We should drop leaflets on the White House,” Sam says. “Vote Yes!”
This is something Sam, Leo and Eddie can all agree on: they’d better not.
* * *
FBI agent Bernarr McFadden “Pat” Ptacek’s conviction in investigating the Palestinian-Jews’ arms procurement in the United States intensifies when he hears that the strongest supporter of the UN Partition Plan is the Soviet Union. He recalls what his State Department buddies told him when he started on this assignment: the Russians view a Jewish state as a chance to gain a foothold in the Middle East.
Three days before the decision, the Soviets’ UN representative, Andrei Gromyko, strongly advocates the creation of a Jewish state. A vote against the Partition Plan, he says, would represent a “historical injustice.”
This statement draws clear lines for Pat. He knows which side he is on.
The lines blur again when Pat finds out that, at Truman’s direct insistence, the US delegation to the UN has been working behind the scenes to convince countries that are on the fence to support partition. It remains uncertain whether this effort — coupled with the Jews’ and the Soviets’ — will win over enough votes to yield a two-thirds majority of the UN’s 57 members.
The FBI agent finds it strange that three years after WWII, the Americans are indirectly rejoining the Russians on a pivotal international issue.
Maybe his work, he thinks, could persuade Truman to finally take his State Department’s advice and oppose the creation of a Jewish state. Meeting with his boss, Pat asks for help stopping the weapons shipment to the Yishuv from US seaports, particularly New York and Miami. The FBI gives him all the resources he needs, including a couple dozen agents. Within days, they shut down the Haganah’s arms smuggling.
* * *
When the operation’s leader, Al Schwimmer, wakes up in the Burbank house he rented for his core team on Saturday, November 29, 1947, he feels like a child about to listen to his favorite team — in his case, the New York Yankees — play in the World Series’ decisive game. Later that day, the UN General Assembly is set to vote on whether to adopt its Special Committee’s recommendation to split Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews.
Al’s plan calls for barbecuing, hosting his OZ team and their guests, and listening to the UN vote live on the radio.
“Feels like a national-championship game day,” says Sam, a college-football fan.
“Except your team’s playing for the first time in 2,000 years,” Eddie says.
When the vote starts, everyone goes inside to gather around the radio. They holler when the reporter notes that the UN General Assembly’s six Arab nations walked out in protest. They gasp when the first country — Afghanistan — votes no. They grunt when the second — Argentina — abstains. They cheer as Australia shifts the momentum in the Jews’ favor by casting the first yes vote. The next five countries — Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian SSR, and Canada — all support partition.
Other notable yes votes come from Czechoslovakia, France, Panama, and the Soviet Union.
When the United States’ turn comes up, Leo and a few others hold their breath.
The US votes yes.
Sam whispers to Al that he hopes the US vote indicates that the government will lessen its scrutiny. The latter wants to believe that, but even cautious optimism feels like a luxury he cannot afford.
By a final count of 33 to 13 votes, with 10 abstentions, the UN passes Resolution 181, paving the way for the creation of a Jewish state. The Schwimmer Aviation house erupts. The aviators pump their fists, hug, sing and dance. Their guests — some bewildered, others amused — join in, with more restrained hoopla.
Eddie dances. Sam puts his arm around Leo and leads him back to the yard as if they just beat the Big Ten representative at the Rose Bowl.
“I’ve never been happier to be wrong,” Leo says.
Only Al remains subdued. Watching the celebration, he wonders: How long before this joy turns into grief? How long before the new reality of the manifestation of the Jewish dream deteriorates into a nightmare? The UN may allow the Yishuv to become a full-fledged state, but it is not providing the means for the Jews to defend themselves. As of now, no entity on the planet is willing to do that.
These apprehensions also keep Al’s future friend from joining the thousands of Jews flooding the streets of Tel Aviv and other parts of Palestine with singing, dancing and flag-waving. Yishuv leader David Ben-Gurion fears that although the UN vote marks a dramatic new chapter, it could also spell the beginning of the end.