How We Missed Out on the Swiss Option

A last-minute Arab proposal in 1947 / The Portuguese Jew who supported the Nazis / The death of an Austrian Jew 90 years ago.

A few minutes before the UN General Assembly was set to vote exactly 60 years ago on the proposal to divide Palestine and establish two states there, the delegates were startled by a major surprise: The representative of Lebanon, Camille Chamoun, requested permission to speak and then proposed that the vote be postponed to allow a debate on a new proposal: The Arabs, who up until that point had opposed any form of partition, had changed their stance and were now agreeing to the establishment of two national districts that would be connected by a federative bond, similar to the connection between the states in the United States, or the cantons in Switzerland.

The Jewish district would be home to as few Arabs as possible, while the Arab district would be home to as few Jews as possible, said Chamoun, who would later be elected president of Lebanon. In the first stage, the inhabitants of Palestine would elect a council that would formulate a joint constitution. The representatives of Iran and Syria also requested permission to speak, and supported the Lebanese proposal.

The Syrian representative sounded like the ideal multinational spokesperson: Jews and Arabs would not vote for Jewish or Arab parties, but rather for parties that could express the outlook of anyone. It's like in America, said the Syrian again and again: You have Republicans and Democrats; whether they're Jews or non-Jews has nothing to do with it.

Not many remember the turnaround of the Arabs at the last minute; it was a ploy intended to prevent the vote, but as they saw it, they had moved quite far away from their previous position. The U.S. representative said it was too late. The Lebanese representative's proposal had already been discussed once before and rejected, and now there was just one proposal on the table: to partition the land or not. The vote was in favor of partition, and thus we missed the chance to be the Switzerland of the Middle East.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica extols Moses Bensabat Amzalak as a learned and faithful Jew. An economist and philosophy professor, he headed the Portuguese Academy of Sciences and led the Jewish community in Portugal for 52 years. This is the way he was remembered until the day of his death in 1978 and could have been his image up until today. But now the truth has come to light: The leader of the Jewish community in Portugal was a supporter of Nazi Germany, and the authorities of the Third Reich honored him with a medal of excellence.

This scoop belongs to Antonio Louca, a Portuguese journalist and historian, and to the Swiss historian Isabelle Paccaud. The two first publicized this story about two years ago, but without presenting proof. Yad Vashem historian Dr. Avraham Milgram wrote a doctoral thesis on the Lisbon Jewish community. When he heard the claim that Amzalak had supported the Nazis, he refused to believe it and vociferously defended him. Louca is known as an activist with one of the leftist parties in his country, thus it wasn't surprising that he would seek to slander the capitalist Jew, argued Milgram.

Louca and Paccaud continued poring through the archives and this week, Milgram regretfully acknowledged that he had been mistaken and that they were right. The evidence is included in a book Louca and Paccaud have just published. It seems that Amzalak was a friend and supporter of the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar. Like him, he believed that the Nazis were defending Europe from communism. Amzalak had a newspaper, O Seculo, which gave the Nazis sympathetic coverage.

In January 1935, Amzalak hosted the German ambassador and the latter subsequently recommended to his superiors that Amzalak be awarded the medal of excellence from the German Red Cross. In his letter to the foreign ministry, the ambassador wrote that Amzalak should be awarded the medal despite the fact that he was a Jew, in recognition of his cooperation with Germany. Two years later, in 1937, Amzalak asked the ambassador to send him the medal also in the form of a pin that he could attach to his lapel, and the ambassador complied. O Seculo continued to praise the Nazis. All this is documented in German foreign ministry records. There are also some embarrassing photographs.

In World War II, tens of thousands of refugees managed to escape Europe via Lisbon; many of them were Jews. The World Jewish Congress representative in Portugal got into an argument with Amzalak, and reported to his superiors that Amzalak was a Nazi supporter. The congress froze its ties with Amzalak, but kept the scandal a secret. Amzalak died without ever being forced to explain himself.

It was one of those stirring events that could only occur on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. An Austrian general who had come specially from Damascus was there, as was the military attache from the Hungarian embassy, the head of the Austrian embassy, Israel's ambassador to Jordan and several soldiers who serve in the Austrian unit of a UN force. They had all come to salute the memory of Corporal Nissim Bakmaharash, a soldier in Emperor Franz Josef's army, who had given his life in defense of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He fell in battle 90 years ago this week.

The scion of a renowned rabbinical family from Adrianopol (present-day Edirne in Turkey), he moved with his parents to Brno, which is now part of the Czech Repubic. Over the years, the family adopted the French incarnation - Bemoiras - of its Hebrew name Bakmaharash (an acronym for Ben Kevod Morenu Harav Shimon). His mother Gracia came from the Ben Bassat tribe.

Corporal Nissim served in an artillery battalion; he was an interpreter. Together with his comrades, he tried to help the Turks halt the British advance under General Allenby. He was shot in the head and died from his wounds five days later. This happened not far from Gaza. He was brought to the Mount of Olives for burial; his funeral procession crossed all of Jerusalem. A military band led the way, playing a funeral march.

Apparently, the only thing that makes Corporal Nissim's story stand out is the fact that it ignited the imagination of Dr. Norbert Schwake, a physician and historian, who has researched the history of hospitals in Palestine and currently oversees the German military cemetery in Nazareth. Schwake came across Corporal Nissim's name by chance, and thereafter went to great lengths to uncover his story. It's a hobby of Schwake's, a personal obsession. And he's not alone: Israel's ambassador in Jordan, Yaakov Rosen, an expert on Lawrence of Arabia, is also captivated by such tales.

Schwake left no stone unturned. He dug through archives, pestered registry officials and, as sometimes happens, was blessed with researchers' luck and eventually discovered just where Corporal Nissim is buried on the Mount of Olives and that his grave was without a tombstone: It had disappeared during the period of Jordanian rule.

Good people like Schwake, with a feeling for history and a respect for war casualties, began collecting donations, and so Corporal Nissim was honored with a new tombstone and a small gathering of officers from three countries, who stood around his grave on the 90th anniversary of his death; the abundance of medals on their uniforms glinted in the Jerusalem autumn sun. An Israel Defense Forces officer recited the "El Malei Rahamim" memorial prayer and then all in attendance sang a German song of camaraderie.