Atlanta Jews Recall U.N. Vote Establishing Israel
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Atlanta Jews Recall U.N. Vote Establishing Israel

Before and after the Palestine Partition Plan Atlanta Jewry united in celebration of the U.N. vote on Nov. 29, 1947.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

The process leading to the United Nations’ approval of the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states Nov. 29, 1947, is important to understand.

On Jan. 4, 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was founded in Washington with American and British members. The goal was to study Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine and the well-being of the peoples living there.

The committee was to consult with Arab and Jewish representatives and make recommendations “as may be necessary.”

The report was published in April 1946 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The main point was to admit 100,000 Jews to Palestine from displaced persons camps immediately.

The plan was never implemented because Britain expected the United States to provide financial support in case of an Arab revolt. President Harry Truman said no to such funding, and that was the end of the committee report.

On May 15, 1947, after all types of consultations for over a year, the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine was formed with representatives of 11 countries. The United States and Britain were not among them.

In October 1946, Rebecca Affachiner, the Betsy Ross of Israel and one of my heroes, wrote a note that can be found in her archives in Jerusalem. “Although the British have been kind to me personally, I know that it is time for them to release Palestine to the Jewish people.”

A friend to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Britain’s former high commissioner in Palestine, Harold MacMichael, Affachiner heard news reports that the British had given up on making peace between the Jews and the Arabs and had decided to return the Mandate of Palestine to the United Nations.

When UNSCOP began to meet in Jerusalem, the sessions were held at the YMCA. Affachiner somehow obtained a ticket and observed a portion of the proceedings.

UNSCOP issued its report Sept. 3, 1947. The termination of the British Mandate was to be completed as soon as possible. The key recommendation was to divide Palestine into two states, an Arab one and a Jewish one.

That recommendation is the partition plan the United Nations took up for a vote Nov. 29, 1947.

A friend of our entire family, Dr. Shulamit Schwartz Nardi, who lived in Jerusalem and was a special aide to the presidents of Israel beginning with Zalman Shazar, once explained to me how the American Zionists and their highly placed friends helped organize the campaign throughout 1947 to promote the passage of the partition plan.

“I went to work in the early 1940s for the noted Zionist Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, a Cleveland rabbi who took a stronger position on statehood than the noted Rabbi Stephen Wise. Both were exceptional leaders, but each had his own philosophy,” Nardi said.

“Silver, a staunch Republican, saw to it that various publications were developed which would let the English-speaking world know about the land of Israel. Our most successful publication was (Walter) Lowdermilk’s book on how the Jews had developed the agriculture of Eretz Yisrael; 20,000 were printed and distributed throughout the world.

“We were one of the main lobbying groups to ensure the passing of the partition plan. We had great help from Herbert Bayard Swope, a noted journalist and financier, who had created a news service as a rival to JTA.”

Swope was the one who wrote to Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill in the fall of 1945 to ask him to travel to the Middle East and get the real story. The letter is in the Rose Library at the Woodruff Library at Emory University.

After the UNSCOP report was issued in September 1947, American rabbis were blanketed with materials that could be used in their High Holiday sermons.

My grandfather Rav Tuvia Geffen (Rabbi Tobias Geffen) at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta knew a lot about what was transpiring in Eretz Yisrael because he read the Tag Morning Journal daily after it arrived on the train from New York. The Yiddish newspaper had correspondents in Palestine who wrote with more accuracy than the secular daily papers possessed.

Rabbi Tobias Geffen

Rabbi Hyman Friedman, the associate rabbi at Shearith Israel and a leader of Atlanta Mizrahi, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah gave a stirring speech in English about Eretz Yisrael as our homeland.

Rav Geffen, the senior rabbi, gave his sermon in Yiddish. He stressed that “we have waited a long time for our own nation. G-d has promised us that we will return to Eretz Yisrael, and this seems to be the moment.”

Recently, I watched a clip from a documentary made by the Toldot Yisrael film company on the birth of Israel through the eyes of those who participated in this major event in our history.

I listened as Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, in his eloquent manner, made the case before the United Nations for the importance of a Jewish state. His evidence stemmed from the divine promise of ancient days, the longing for the return to Eretz Yisrael from the Middle Ages and the great hope for a nation in modern times.

Then he stressed the horrible deaths of 6 million Jews during World War II, and he pointed out that refugees were living in displaced persons camps throughout Europe and needed a home.

David Ben-Gurion had asked Silver to give this address rather than do so himself. Silver wonderfully rose to the challenge.

What happened in Atlanta when the partition plan passed Nov. 29, 1947?

The joyousness in Atlanta was quite memorable, according to The Southern Israelite (the AJT’s predecessor).

McGill, who had seen Hitler march into Vienna and now saw the approval of the partition to establish Jewish and Arab states, wrote several articles in the Atlanta Constitution about why statehood for the Jewish people was so important.

Announced throughout the city were two pro-partition events: a service at Ahavath Achim Synagogue and a joyous program at the Progressive Club, both on Dec. 7.

AA Rabbi Harry Epstein, Rabbi Geffen, Rabbi Friedman and Congregation Or VeShalom Rabbi Joseph Cohen were all present at the Ahavath Achim event.

Rabbi David Marx of The Temple, who retired as senior rabbi in 1946, was not present, but the executive director of the Southern Zionist Organization, Temple member Adalbert Friedman, was.

(It is amazing how Rabbi Marx’s successor, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild began the movement of The Temple to have an interest in Israel. In 1950 he and Rabbi Epstein flew to Israel together, and they headed the Federation campaign that year.)

“A moving service was held at Ahavath Achim,” The Southern Israelite reported about the Dec. 7 festivities. “The worshipers were invited to decorate their cars in blue and white and form a motorcade to the Progressive Club.”

More than 1,000 people were there, and Sol Benamy, the Southern Zionist president, read a letter from the national president of the American Zionist Organization.

The Southern Israelite indicated that members of Young Judaea were present.

My only memory is that several members of Young Judaea, including myself, were asked to sing Israeli songs and dance Israeli dances. All I recall, we danced while dressed in white. Whoever else was there, please let me know.

A week later a national UJA emergency conference was held in Atlantic City, N.J. Representing Atlanta were Meyer Balser, Abe Goldstein, David Slann, Mendel Zaban, Edward Rothberg and Edward M. Kahn.

The national fundraising goal set to support Israel’s birth was $250 million. Atlanta’s share was $1 million. In a few weeks in December and early January, Atlanta Jewry reached that goal.

I’m not sure how many rabbis’ diaries are out there from that period. In our family, we are fortunate that our patriarch, Rav Tuvia, kept a daily diary in Yiddish from 1940 to 1965. His daughter Helen Geffen Ziff, of blessed memory, began to translate those diaries before her death in Jerusalem.

His entry for Motzei Shabbat on Nov. 29, 1947, includes the following:

“A good and healthy week for all Jewry and for us. Today we heard good news over the radio that the U.N. passed with a two-thirds majority to divide Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one. This is very important news since it is the beginning of the revival of the Jewish people. We refer to it as the revival because now the Jewish people will begin the return to their own country in Palestine. Congratulations with the blessing of mazel tov for the Jewish people in the whole world.”

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