On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, soon to be the first prime minister of Israel, gave the first public reading of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. With an eye toward wooing the powerful United States, the first draft had liberally cribbed from the American declaration, directly invoking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Revisions, arguments, and more revisions ensued; but Ben-Gurion’s words retained a strongly international flavor, and—strikingly—appealed repeatedly to the then-new United Nations.
Israel’s birth 75 years ago this month followed a long and violent struggle over land and sovereignty. There were cheers in the streets but also, the New York Times reported, the “rumbling of guns” as fighting flared around the region. For Zionists, who gained a state, it was a long-awaited day of celebration. For Arabs, who bitterly opposed the prospect of a Jewish state in their midst, it was the “Nakba,” or catastrophe.
The events took place in the Middle East, but it was a story, mainly, of European colonialism. Tel Aviv, where Ben-Gurion shared the declaration, had been ruled by Britain since 1920. British control of the former Ottoman territory of Palestine stemmed from a post-World War I decision by the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, to hand the colonies of vanquished states to the victors via a system known as the “mandates.”
It took World War II to force Britain to give up control of the Palestine mandate. And it took the brand-new United Nations, in turn, to create the state of Israel. The story of that process—and its chief architect, the Black American diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ralph Bunche—is now largely forgotten, but can help us understand the persistence and intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.
Bunche’s involvement in what he called “the problem of Palestine” grew out of a lifelong commitment to anticolonialism and racial justice. He strongly believed in the right of all peoples to self-determination. But in Palestine, he faced a vexing problem—that of two peoples, both claiming the same land—that challenged his undying belief in the power of reason and cooperation to create peace.
Born in Detroit in 1904, and raised mostly in Los Angeles, Bunche was a very successful student at Thomas Jefferson High School, just south of downtown L.A. After studying at UCLA, where he also played basketball, and then at Harvard, where he earned a PhD in political science, Bunche, barely 25, became a professor at Howard University.
His scholarly specialty was African colonialism—and unlike most of his peers, he studied it on the ground. His dissertation compared how two French West African territories moved toward independence. He found that the mandate system the League had devised rarely made any difference.
Bunche had been teaching at Howard for over a decade when, in 1941, with war raging around the globe, the Roosevelt administration asked him to join what became the Office of Strategic Services (and later the Central Intelligence Agency). Bunche’s task was to help prepare for conflict in an Africa the colonial powers—mainly the Allies—had spent the past half century brutally carving up.
The Africa front swiftly faded in importance, however, and he moved to the State Department, where he helped design what became the United Nations. At first the phrase simply referred to the Allies. But it soon became shorthand for the postwar peace organization the U.S. was proposing, which would recast the international order by creating a novel system of collective security—one much more effective, FDR hoped, than that of the League.
As a staunch opponent of empire, Bunche fought hard to make sure the new U.N. Charter would facilitate independence for the hundreds of millions in Asia and Africa still under foreign domination. Despite his criticism of the mandates, he helped design the U.N. system of “trusteeship,” which updated and improved the League’s system.
At the end of the war, Bunche joined the staff of the new U.N. Shortly after his arrival Britain, exhausted by years of conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, proposed to hand the problem to the U.N. Here was a chance for the new organization to help a colony achieve self-governance. The only question was how. Trygve Lie, the secretary-general of the U.N., viewed Bunche, who had expertise in colonial rule and was a fast learner with political acumen and legendary negotiating prowess, as the best person to address the challenge.
His first task was to lead a “Special Committee on Palestine” in the summer of 1947 to recommend a solution. U.N. leadership stocked the committee with a motley assortment of diplomats drawn from a dozen states. Some were openly anti-Semitic—and even saw the prospect of a Jewish state as a chance to send their own Jewish citizens to Palestine. The U.N. diplomats tried to make sense of the complex situation but often bumbled. One literally fell into the Tomb of Nicodemus. In a letter home to his wife, Ruth, Bunche called them “just about the worst crew I have ever had to deal with.”
The U.N. team toured the region, interviewing leaders and common farmers alike, some of whom were actually Jewish spies in disguise. Jerusalem, full of barbed wire and barricades, was tense and hot. There was intermittent fighting between Arabs and Jews. The only thing the two sides could agree on, Bunche later said, was that “the British must go.”
The U.N. committee’s final report, largely drafted by Bunche, offered two options. The majority of committee members proposed to divide Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish; the minority to create a single, binational state. In November 1947, the U.N. approved the majority recommendation, partitioning Palestine into “independent Arab and Jewish States” which would come into existence two months after British forces departed, “but in any case not later than 1 October 1948.”
Fighting flared anew in the wake of the momentous decision. Arab states, viewing the U.N. resolution as illegitimate, refused to implement it. Many around the world questioned how—or whether—the land could ever be peacefully divided. But Bunche and his colleagues had cast the die. When Jewish leaders gathered to proclaim Israel’s independence in May of 1948, they repeatedly invoked the U.N.’s core role. “Recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable,” they declared. Diplomatic recognitions soon rolled in, with the U.S. first out of the gate. Everyone was “startled” by Harry Truman’s rapid recognition of Israel, Bunche noted in his diary—even many American diplomats.
Ralph Bunche’s work for the U.N. was decisive for Israel’s birth; it was decisive for its survival, too. When, a few months later, the chief U.N. mediator in the region was gunned down in broad daylight by Jewish extremists, Bunche—having narrowly missed being assassinated himself—took the reins of the negotiation process between Arab and Jews.
Over months in a shuttered hotel on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes he met with the warring sides. He used charm, deft-maneuvering, and arm-twisting, as well as many games at the billiards table, to help forge a series of armistices that quelled the fighting. Bunche was often frustrated—to Ruth he wrote, “I talk, argue, and threaten these stubborn people day and night in an effort to reach agreement”—but his hard work paid off. Indeed, the following year it netted him the Nobel Peace Prize. From a ticker tape parade down Broadway to meeting Harry Truman to presenting the Best Picture Award onstage at the 1951 Oscars, Bunche was now a rare and revered Black diplomatic celebrity.
Ralph Bunche was a self-proclaimed “professional optimist.” Were he alive today, he would likely be deeply troubled by the conflict that still besets the Middle East. Early on he recognized that a just resolution to what he called “the refugee problem”—the Palestinians displaced from their lands—was essential to any lasting peace. The two-state solution of his original U.N. proposal has, of course, never been realized, despite the widespread recognition of the state of Palestine in recent years. The occupation and settlement of the West Bank continues. Israeli democracy itself is under threat today, increasingly riven by intense internal struggle and violence.
But even 75 years after Israel’s birth, Bunche would surely not give up on the prospects for peace. “Peace,” like war, he said at UCLA in 1969, “can only be won by bold and courageous initiatives”— and by taking “some deliberate risks.”