The Birth of a Nation, 1948

It was Friday, May 14, 1948. I was sitting in the press section of the United Nations General Assembly in its temporary quarters at Flushing Meadow in Queens. I felt my heart thumping. We journalists were waiting impatiently to see who would win a tug of war taking place in Washington.

On one side was President Harry S. Truman, who had told his aides that, with the last British troops leaving Palestine that day, he believed the Jews had a right to declare their own nation, and that he would make sure that the United States would be the first country to recognize it.

On the other side was the State Department, which wanted the land placed in a trusteeship under the United Nations. Secretary of State George Marshall was so passionate in his opposition to a Jewish state that he threatened to vote against the president in the November election. For Truman, who had come to office with the death of Franklin Roosevelt three years earlier, this was to be one of his first true tests of power.

As I sat waiting for the announcement of the decision in Washington, my mind wandered back to the spring and summer of the year before, which I had spent reporting for The New York Herald Tribune. I had traveled in Germany and Austria with the 11 members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. There had been many such committees studying the problems of the Holy Land since the Arab riots of the 1920s; this one was distinguished by having no representatives from Britain, which had been universally hostile to the Zionist cause.

With the members, I visited the camps for displaced persons in Germany and Austria and listened, dumbfounded, as the refugees described the horrors of the war. In particular, I remember visiting the Rothschild Hospital camp in Vienna. Some 100 refugees had just arrived from Romania, many of them children covered with sores and dirt. There was no place to put them but the street; they lay, exhausted, on the paving stones.

A young man approached us, his eyes bloodshot. “In Romania, they killed 30,000 Jews in two hours,” he said, his voice sounding as if it came straight from his guts. “They took Jews to the slaughterhouse and hung them alive the way they hang cows, and they put knives to their throats and split them. Underneath them, they put a sign: Kosher Beef.”

In camp after camp, the committee members asked, “Why do you want to go to Palestine? It’s such a poor country. The Arabs and Jews are always fighting. They don’t have enough food, they don’t have enough water. What is it about Palestine?”

A 16-year-old orphan — actually, we never used the word “orphan” because the term couldn’t convey the horrors these children had been through — gave the most poignant answer. “Everybody has a home,” he said. “The Americans. The British. The French. The Russians. Only we don’t have a home. Don’t ask us. Ask the world.”

A woman tugged the sleeve of my jacket. “You are the only woman with all these men,” she implored. “You will understand me. I saw my husband burned. I don’t want to burn. I want to go home — to Eretz Israel.” The Land of Israel.

“That’s why we’re here,” I told her. “To help solve the problem. But if, Heaven forbid, we fail to find a solution, where would you like to go?”

Her reply: “Back to the crematory.”

It was this committee’s report that led directly to the General Assembly vote of Nov. 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab entities. The Jews accepted this proposal, but the Arabs stormed out and threatened war.

My mind was drawn immediately back to the present of May 1948 as I noticed an American representative to the United Nations, Philip Jessup, hurrying toward the podium. I knew, after talking to his aides, that in his hand he had a speech supporting trusteeship, not statehood, for Israel. The State Department was about to betray the president.

Jessup was halfway up the stairs when an Associated Press reporter handed him a dispatch. Jessup read it, grew white-faced, descended the stairs and then disappeared. The reporter next to me said, “He’s gone to the bathroom.”

I shook my head. “He’s gone home.”

Then we were handed the A.P. report. In Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion had just read the world’s latest proclamation of independence. Eleven minutes later, Harry Truman had recognized Ben-Gurion’s government as the “de facto authority” of the new state.

Israel was born.

Ruth Gruber, the author of Exodus 1947 and Witness.