04/15/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Israel -- 65 Years Ago

Sixty-five years ago it was far from obvious that Israel would survive; it was even far from obvious that a Jewish state would be created in the first place.

In 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted for a resolution calling for the division of British-controlled Palestine into two states -- one of which would be a Jewish state and one of which would be predominantly Palestinian. Specifically, Palestine would be divided into seven sections, three Jewish and four Arab, with Jerusalem placed under international administration. Jewish representatives accepted the deal; however, both the Arab League as well as the Palestinian organizations rejected the plan.

In the same year, I attended a most remarkable meeting. I was quite aware that I was only invited because I was a member of Mapai (labor party). And, those who convened the meeting wanted to have "someone young" because "after all, it was their future we will be discussing."

The meeting, which took place early in March 1947, was composed of leaders of Mapai, at the time the most powerful party of the Yishuv. Its leader, David Ben Gurion, headed the informal government with the Yishuv. Those assembled were exploring the position these leaders would stroke later that month at a meeting in Jerusalem. The subject: should the Yishuv settle merely for a homeland under continued British rule (couple with more leeway for intracommunity decisions), or should we dare hold out for true independence -- for statehood? In other words, should the Yishuv risk losing the possible, in favor of going for the deal?

The issue was rapidly coming to a head after years of tense negotiations. Numerous proposals had been advanced concerning the disposition of Palestine after World War II. Britain had been governing Palestine since World War I. Faced with growing unrest, Jewish defiance of British rules, some Jewish terrorism, and Arab riots, Britain was growing weary of maintaining its rule. In 1947, Britain dumped the future of Palestine in the lap of the United Nations. Ben Gurion and other Mapai leaders were exploring which of the several proposals before the United Nations they were going to fight for. The offer that seemed the most attainable (although not very much so) was a fair measure of self-government for the Jewish community; the least plausible was statehood.

Ben Gurion opened this part of the meeting by stating with much gusto, as if speaking to a much larger audience, "It is time to finalize our decision one way or the other." He added bluntly, "the time is right for us to take the ultimate risk and demand and fight for the formation of a full-blown state. Anything less will not allow us to realize the dream of Zion, to defend ourselves, to ensure that there will be a land any Jew in the world who seeks refuge will be able to come to unencumbered; that we shall never again be taken like lambs to the slaughter."

Moshe Shertok spoke much more softly. "I realize of course the wonder of having a state all our own. But we could get there gradually, in stages. For now we should limit ourselves to asking for a Jewish homeland within the framework of the British 'Mandate,' which we should insist be extended and truly implemented. Here, we can base ourselves on the British promise included in the Balfour Declaration, which calls for a Jewish homeland, not for a state. This way we are much more likely to win the support of the United Nations and not unnecessarily provoke the Arab nations that surround us."

Ben Gurion reacted impatiently, almost angrily. He argued, with a rising voice, "The time is now. The British Empire has been weakened as a result of the war. The British people are anxious to focus on rebuilding their land and not squandering their resources by holding on to a piece of desert in the Middle East, especially if we make the occupation of Palestine more costly for them. While we may be the first British colony to push them out, I hear rumblings from India and other British colonies, even French ones; the days of empires are numbered."

Ben Gurion continued: "There are reasons to believe, as difficult as this is to imagine, that even the USSR will support us in the UN, hoping that the Jewish state will be left-leaning and support them." After a brief pause, just as someone else was about to speak up, Ben Gurion added, "The British are now negotiating with the U.S. government for a huge loan, and in the U.S. we have more leverage than in Britain."

Shertok responded, "Goldman [a major leader of the American Jewish community] empowered me to let it be known that American Jewish community feels that we should not act impulsively; we should proceed very cautiously." Ben Gurion muttered something dismissively that sounded to me like "...these 'shtetl' [ghetto] Jews."

There was considerable give and take. Someone wanted to know if a really tiny Jewish state would be more acceptable to the United Nations; what if it was limited to the area along the Mediterranean coast?

Many in the room were nodding their heads in approval. They seemed to me to favor Shertok's position but to hold Ben Gurion in great respect, mixed with just a touch of fear.

For a while a heavy silence hung in the room. Then Ben Gurion stood, straightened up, and lifted his head just a bit more than necessary. He looked above the heads of those assembled, toward a place only he could see, and stated resolutely: "I am sure the time has come, and no such opportunity may arise again for centuries, for the dream of the Jewish people to come true. I demand statehood, and we will have to take it from there." He then added almost mysteriously, slowly, in a deep voice, "Netzach Israel Lo Yeshaker" (a nonliteral translation: "Israel's destiny will not be denied").

Nobody protested, nor was a vote conducted. Soon thereafter, Ben Gurion's and Mapai's postion was embraced by the representatives of the Jewish community in Palestine. Israel was born.

For more information, see Amitai Etzioni's book My Brother's Keeper.