November 29, 1947 — seventy years ago today — was a momentous day in Jewish history. Jews throughout the world sat glued to their radios, listening as the United Nations General Assembly voted for UNGA Resolution 181 (often referred to as the “partition resolution”).
The Jewish community celebrated the resolution’s passage, for it confirmed that Britain would soon depart from Israel and Britain would no longer be able to prevent Jewish immigration. On the other hand, the Arabs rejected the resolution’s recommendations, even though those recommendations – if the Arabs had agreed to them at that time – would have given the Arabs far more than they were legally entitled to under internationally binding law.
Instead, six Arab States promptly went to war to destroy the Jewish State when it declared its independence six months later, In May 1948.
Fast forward seventy years, and many of us have forgotten exactly what UNGA Resolution 181 did, and what it did not do. As we celebrate the positives, it’s time to clear up some of those misconceptions.
Britain’s Departure from Israel: First, the resolution confirmed that colonial Britain – the trustee of the “British Mandate for Palestine” – would soon depart from Israel. This was worth celebrating and of utmost importance, because Britain had illegally slammed the Jewish homeland’s doors shut to Jewish immigration before and during the Holocaust, condemning millions of Jews to death. It was also blockading and preventing the remnant of European Jewry who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust from immigrating into Israel. Commencing in 1946, Britain imprisoned in detention camps in Cyprus, under harsh conditions, some 52,000 surviving Jews who attempted to enter the Jewish homeland. (See “Cyprus Detention Campus,” Yad Vashem Resource Center.) Resolution 181 meant that finally, Holocaust survivors still stuck in Europe, or incarcerated by the British in Cyprus, and the 850,000 Jews fleeing from pogroms in Arab lands, would be able to join the 600,000 Jews in Israel.
UNGA Resolution 181’s preamble “[t]akes note of the declaration by the mandatory Power [Britain] that it plans to complete its evacuation of Palestine by 1 August 1948.” In addition, the recommended partition plan states, in pertinent part, that:
1. The Mandate for Palestine shall terminate as soon as possible but in any case not later than 1 August 1948. 2. The armed forces of the mandatory Power shall be progressively withdrawn from Palestine, the withdrawal to be completed as soon as possible but in any case not later than 1 August 1948. . . . 3. The mandatory Power shall use its best endeavours to ensure than an area situated in the territory of the Jewish State, including a seaport and hinterland adequate to provide facilities for a substantial immigration, shall be evacuated at the earliest possible date and in any event not later than 1 February 1948. . . .
The Jewish People’s Legal Right to Israel Was Established Prior to UNGA Resolution 181: The Jewish people’s legal right to reconstitute the Jewish homeland (state) in Israel was established by internationally binding treaties enacted at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire (which ruled the area for the previous 400 years) lost and relinquished its rights to territories in much of the Middle East. These documents include the San Remo Resolution, incorporated into the Treaty of Sèvres (1920); the Mandate for Palestine (1922) confirmed by all 52 nations of the League of Nations – which designated all of present-day Israel plus present-day Jordan for the Jewish homeland; and the Anglo-American Treaty of 1924 (confirming the Mandate). The mandates designated other areas of the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, etc.) for the Arabs. Well-established legal doctrine (uti posseditis juris) also confirms Israel’s right to the full mandatory area.
Britain subsequently carved off 78% of the area designated for the Jewish homeland to establish Transjordan (now Jordan).
Confirming the Jewish people’s pre-existing rights, when the UN Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) came to study the situation in 1947, prior to UNGA Resolution 181, David Ben Gurion (who later became Israel’s first Prime Minister) told the Commission (original emphasis):
An international undertaking was given to the Jewish people some thirty years ago in the Balfour Declaration and in the Mandate for Palestine, to reconstitute our national home in our ancient homeland. This undertaking originated with the British people and the British Government. It was supported and confirmed by 52 nations, and embodied in an international instrument known as the Mandate for Palestine. The Charter of the United Nations seeks to maintain “justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law”. Is it too presumptuous on our part to expect that the United Nations will see that obligations to the Jewish people too are respected and faithfully carried out in the spirit and the letter? (Statement of David Ben Gurion, Memoranda and Statements Presented by The Jewish Agency for Palestine to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, 1947.)
Middle East scholar Howard Grief likewise summed it up:
There is a widespread misconception . . . that the State of Israel derives its legal existence from the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) of November 29, 1947, popularly known as the Partition Resolution. . . .
Israel’s legal foundation under international law derives not from the 1947 Partition Resolution, which was merely a non-binding recommendation without any force of law, but rather from the San Remo Resolution of April 25, 1920. The latter did have the force of law upon its being incorporated first in the Treaty of Sèvres of August 10, 1920 and then in the first three recitals of the Preamble of the Mandate for Palestine, which was confirmed by the 52 states, all members of the League of Nations, in 1922 and separately by the United States in a 1924 treaty with the United Kingdom. (“Misconceptions Regarding Israel’s Legal Foundation Under International Law,” by Howard Grief.)
Non-Binding Partition Plan / Recommendation: UNGA Resolution 181 contained a “partition plan” – which was merely a non-binding recommendation – to divide the remaining 22% of the area designated for the Jewish homeland into Jewish and Arab states. Resolution 181 clearly stated (original emphasis):
The General Assembly . . . recommends to the United Kingdom, as the mandatory Power for Palestine, and to all other Members of the United Nations the adoption and implementation, with regard to the future government of Palestine, of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union set out below. . .
UNGA Resolution 181’s recommendation grossly contradicted what the Jewish people were entitled to under binding international law. As scholar Howard Grief explained (original emphasis):
. . . the Partition Resolution actually contradicted both the letter and the spirit of the San Remo Resolution, in that the former illegally allotted a substantial portion of Western Palestine for the establishment of an Arab state, territory which the San Remo Resolution had earmarked, on the basis of the historical/biblical formula for determining Palestine’s boundaries for the Jewish National Home and the future independent Jewish State. Furthermore, under the San Remo Resolution the Arabs were generously awarded all the land they needed for their own state or states in the rest of the Middle East or Levant.
Nonetheless, out of desperation, the Jewish Agency in Israel was willing to accept partition due to the urgent needs of the Jews incarcerated in Cyprus, languishing in displaced persons camps in Europe, and in danger of being slaughtered in Arab countries.
Thus, when UNSCOP questioned him about the concept of partition, David Ben Gurion responded that the Jewish Agency “will be ready to consider the question of a Jewish State in an adequate area of Palestine,” while still making it clear that “we are entitled to Palestine as a whole.”
Yet, the Arabs rejected the partition recommendation and went to war to eradicate the Jewish State – and thus the partition recommendation never went into effect, and is void.
Scholar Howard Grief likewise noted that due to desperate situation of world Jewry at the time (original emphasis):
The Jewish Agency decision to accept the illegal Partition Resolution was . . . an act of desperation taken under duress, a condition which legally invalidated its acceptance. . . . In any case, the Arab rejection of the Partition Resolution and the war of aggression the Arabs unleashed against the fledgling Jewish State also invalidated the Jewish acceptance. . . . [A]s early as August 948, . . . the Partition Resolution was already a dead letter by virtue of Arab rejection and war of aggression.
Incredibly, after rejecting the 1947 partition recommendation, and losing repeated wars to eradicate Israel in 1948-1949, 1956, 1967 and 1973, some Arabs still claim today that we should go back to the illegal partition recommendation that they long ago rejected and that has thus been a dead letter for decades.
Non-Binding Jerusalem Recommendation: Jerusalem was within the area designated for the Jewish homeland under legally binding international treaties. Contradicting this binding international law, UNGA Resolution 181 instead recommended making Jerusalem into a “corpus separatum” – a separate international entity. However, again, this was merely a non-binding recommendation, which the Arabs rejected and that never went into effect and is void.
Notably, under UNGA Resolution 181’s own terms, Jerusalem would have become part of Israel 60 years ago. UNGA Resolution 181 stated that the recommended “corpus separatum” special regime would merely be for a very limited time period – and would then be subject to a referendum vote by Jerusalem’s residents. Because Jerusalem has been a majority Jewish city since the 1800s, a vote of Jerusalem’s residents would have made Jerusalem part of Israel.
(UNGA Resolution 181 recommended that the special regime for Jerusalem “shall remain in force in the first instance for a period of ten years” or could be re-examined at an even “earlier date,” and that “The residents of the City shall be then free to express by means of a referendum their wishes as to possible modifications of the regime of the City.”)
Why It’s Important To Clear Up Misconceptions About UNGA Res. 181: It is important to clear up the misconceptions regarding UNGA Resolution 181 and Israel’s foundational documents. This is especially so because anti-Israel groups have been misleadingly citing UNGA Resolution 181 to falsely argue that Israel has no right to Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria.
For instance, at the hostile-to-Israel group J Street’s national conference in February 2017, featured panelist Ziad Abu Zayyad (a BDS advocate, anti-Israel propagandist and former Palestinian Authority Minister) falsely claimed that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would violate UN Resolution 181. (“Highlights Of J Street’s 2017 National Conference: Jerusalem 2017,” Video on J Street’s website.) Similarly, during a televised debate about Jerusalem against a Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) official, American Muslims for Palestine’s representative falsely claimed that Resolution 181 legally turned Jerusalem into a corpus separatum – in other words, not part of Israel. Similarly, anti-Israel groups also often falsely argue that the Jewish presence in Judea/Samaria is illegal due to UNGA Resolution 181.
These arguments by anti-Israel propagandists ignore that UNGA Resolution 181’s partition plan (including the “corpus separatum”) was a mere non-binding recommendation, rejected by the Arabs, and is null and void. Israel’s rights to all of her land including Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria were guaranteed by still valid provisions of preceding legally binding treaties.
Morton A. Klein is President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).