70th Anniversary of Israel’s Admission to the UN: The Historic Abba Eban Speech
On May 5, 1949, the Ad Hoc Political Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations met to hear the words of Israel’s envoy, Abba Eban. No other nation had been forced to argue in its own favor for admission to the UN; only upon the Jewish state was such a requirement imposed. It was elevated by the defeated Arab nations that had collectively initiated a war against the new-born state. So they sought to annihilate Israel diplomatically, having failed to do so militarily on the battlefield.
Fortunately for Israel, the man charged with pleading on her behalf at the UN was the politically sophisticated, academically polished, and intellectually gifted Eban.
Originally from South Africa, he had been a professor of Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew literature at the University of Cambridge; a British army officer in Palestine; and a Zionist activist globally. Supporting the obstructionist efforts of the Arab countries, Great Britain suggested that Israel’s admission to the UN be conditioned on the resolution of the status of Jerusalem and the situation of the Palestinian refugees. In his speech, Eban made a fierce defense of Israel’s right to be accepted as an equal among the nations, and denounced the undue politicization of the application.
“Rarely in history had a people so small in all the attributes of physical power surmounted so many ordeals and adversities in its path to independence. It had emerged out of mortal danger into the clear prospect of survival,” he observed.
“The imagination and sentiment of the world had been profoundly impressed by the spectacle of Israel’s swift consolidation. Israel had now secured recognition by an overwhelming majority of other States, in all the five Continents, in the Old World and the New,” said Eban, and stressed the democratic nature of the nascent country: “It had conducted the only democratic election with full popular participation which this part of the Near East had seen for several years. It had established a legislature based on popular suffrage. It had formed a government dedicated to the principles of parliamentary democracy and social reform.”
He also noted the election as head of state of David Ben-Gurion, “the most respected and venerated citizen to symbolize both Israel’s concern for international prestige and its vision of scientific humanism.”
Eban highlighted the disproportionate attention that Israel’s case had raised. “No less than eighty-nine meetings of the Security Council had been devoted to the Palestine question; and at the end of this unprecedentedly minute investigation, the Security Council decided that, ‘in its judgment Israel is a peace-loving State able and willing to fulfill its obligations under the Charter.’”
However, Israel was required to address two issues resulting from the conflict, something that had not been required of any other state seeking membership, so Eban cited the cases of Pakistan and Yemen to highlight the injustice.
As he noted, “The Pakistan Representative was not interrogated on his intentions with regard to Kashmir. He was not called upon to explain his country’s intentions with regard to the eleven million refugees who were rendered homeless through the establishment of his State. On the same occasion, when the application of Yemen for membership in the United Nations was considered by the First Committee, there was no discussion as to whether an officially sponsored policy of organized slavery conformed with the Charter’s requirements on fundamental human rights.”
Furthermore, Eban sought to clarify the purpose of the meeting: “We are not here, I understand, to find solutions to the problems of Jerusalem or the Arab refugees. That task has been allocated to the Conciliation Commission with which my Government is in the closest and most formal contact at this moment. One question and one question alone is relevant: is Israel eligible for membership within the meaning of Article 4 of the Charter?”
Concluding, Eban compared the situation of his country with that of a man attacked by seven gangsters in a dark street who is then dragged to court and finds his assailants sitting on the bench to judge him. Once again, he urged the committee to favorably consider Israel’s membership application.
By then, Mr. Eban had been talking for a long time. Previously, the Ad Hoc Committee paused, debated whether to continue with the session or interrupt it to go to lunch, and chose to remain in the room. But at this point, after two and a half hours of listening to the Israeli envoy, the committee president closed the meeting with fine irony: He thanked the speaker “for his endurance” and suggested that the committee “apply for admission to the restaurant.” Six days later, the General Assembly voted in favor of Israel’s entry into the UN.
Clearly, there were other reasons why Israel was admitted to the UN. But it is no less true that Abba Eban´s focused, passionate, brilliant, and gracious oratory contributed decisively to this development.
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs.