Times they aren't a-changin'
Israeli racism toward people of color is not new: an example dating as far back 1947.
On March 8, 1949, a civilian plane belonging to Air France took off from Lod. Shortly after takeoff, a malfunction was discovered and the plane was forced to make an emergency landing at the Beirut airport. One of the passengers was Levi Eshkol, one of the leaders of the Mapai party at the time. Negotiations were being held then between Israel and Lebanon on a cease-fire agreement, so Israel turned to the United Nations mediator who was coordinating the talks, Ralph Bunche, and asked him to help get the plane and its passengers released. The mediator got involved, the passengers were freed, and Bunche took care to note the details of the incident in his diary.
Ralph Bunche's diary is a fascinating document that has not been published to date; Elad Ben-Dror, a lecturer in the Middle Eastern studies department at Bar-Ilan University, was permitted to read it and based upon it a large part of a new study ("The Mediator: Ralph Bunche and the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1947-1949," Ben-Gurion Institute, in Hebrew ).
Shortly after he first arrived in Palestine, in the summer of 1947, Bunche aroused the suspicion of Moshe Shertok, the "foreign minister" of the Zionist movement. Shertok recognized in the African-American diplomat "a Negro complex" and wrote to Golda Meyerson: "We are now dealing with Negroes who are afraid the Jewish state will harm their standing." Shertok explained: "If a Jewish state is founded the question of a Negro state will arise (in the United States ). They will start yelling at Negroes: Go to Liberia."
Bunche met with Chaim Weizmann, among others, and told him excitedly that the things Weizmann had said about the fate of the Jewish people inspired empathy in him, based on his racial identity. Bunche was the son of a barber, and had always lived with the awareness that he had to try harder than any white person. He managed to get into graduate school at Harvard University, but even after he was already a senior official at the State Department and the UN, he would still have trouble at times getting rooms at hotels that were restricted to whites. The academic study of racism was the subject of his doctorate; on more than one occasion he referred to hatred of Jews, and stated: "A wise Negro can never be an anti-Semite."
In the usual division between Israel-haters and friends, Bunche is considered a friend: Israeli children planted trees in his name, and Bunche kept the certificates he received about the plantings among his papers. In 1947 Bunche coordinated the work of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, whose recommendations preceded the partition resolution of November 29, 1947, and so he may be counted among the individuals to whom Israel owes its existence.
But according to Elad Ben-Dror's research, at issue is an optical illusion: The documents preserved in Bunche's archive show that he held the worldview of Judah Leib Magnes, one of the fathers of the idea of a binational state. Bunche consulted him frequently, advocated on his behalf, and tried to bring about the establishment of a Jewish-Arab confederation. Only gradually and unwillingly did he agree to partition the country and establish a Jewish state. According to Ben-Dror, the proposals of the hated Swedish mediator Folke Bernadotte were also largely conceived as the product of Bunche's thinking and influence; mere chance kept the American from paying for them with his life.
Bernadotte left Rhodes on September 16, 1949, and landed in Jerusalem the next day, after layovers in Beirut and Damascus. Bunche was supposed to fly with him, but was held up en route, because of a problem with his secretary's passport. After landing at Qalandiyah, which was then in the Jordanian part of Jerusalem, he was detained at the Mandelbaum Gate checkpoint by an Israeli security guard who did not know English. Bernadotte waited for him for half an hour, and finally left to attend a preexisting appointment. In the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, the Swedish diplomat was shot to death by a member of the Lehi underground militia. The man sitting next to him in the car, a French colonel, was also killed in the gunfire. Had Bunche arrived on time, he would have been sitting beside Bernadotte. He felt ever after that his life had been saved on that day.
He viewed diplomacy as a professional challenge, and sought, generally without bias, the limits of the possible. "My patience toward the Arabs is running out," he wrote on one occasion. [Quotations from the unpublished Bunche diary were translated from the Hebrew by Haaretz.] "Frequently they talk like children. Ahmed Shukeiri for instance said that the Arabs treat the Jewish prisoners of war so well that all the Jewish soldiers want to be taken prisoner." About the Israeli delegation to the cease-fire talks Bunche wrote: "Moshe Dayan and Reuven Shiloah are a much more likable team than Walter Eytan and Yigael Yadin." The Green Line agreements he came up with in 1949 gave the Middle East 20 years of relative sanity. His success earned Bunche a Nobel Peace Prize.
In the midst of it all he managed to do the nearly impossible: maintain his sense of humor. In a letter to his wife he wrote: "You wouldn't believe what it's like holding these monkeys together, pushing them and coming out with an agreement. I swear I will never go back to the Palestine issue."
Had he kept his "oath," he might have spared himself great heartbreak. But Bunche went on dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict, and in 1967 was a partner to the UN secretary-general's moves that hastened the Six-Day War; the Green Line, the greatest achievement in Bunche's lifetime, was erased and he was a partner to its erasure, with his bare hands. He died in 1971. To the very end, he considered the Six-Day War a personal tragedy.