Why the Mysterious Swede Who Drew Up Israel's Map Favored the Jews

Seventy years after the UN General Assembly approved the Partition Plan, an Israeli researcher has tracked down the forgotten man who drew up the map

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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People gather in the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate after radio broadcasts announce that the United Nations plans for the partition of Palestine and the New Jewish State, November 30, 1947.
People gather in the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate after radio broadcasts announce that the United Nations plans for the partition of Palestine and the New Jewish State, November 30, 1947.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In a remote archive about 5,000 kilometers (more than 3,000 miles) from Jerusalem, the solution to one of the most intriguing questions in the history of the state of Israel languished: What went on in the mind of the person who drew up the partition map that paved the way to the establishment of the state?

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Despite his important role in the shaping of local history, the man – Dr. Paul Mohn – has remained unknown to the Israeli public. No local authority has ever bothered to name a street, square or public building after him. If he is mentioned at all in the history books, it is only in a footnote. There is no doubt that he himself contributed to this obscurity: He was a mysterious, withdrawn and taciturn figure and people who worked with him described him as an individual who aroused “perplexity and fear.”

Dr. Paul Mohn, 1949.Credit: GPO

Now, 70 years after the United Nations General Assembly passed the plan to partition the land of Israel on November 29, 1947, an Israeli researcher has thrown light on the forgotten pro-Zionist Swedish diplomat.

Dr. Elad Ben-Dror of the Bar-Ilan University Middle Eastern Studies department traveled to Sweden to see what he could learn about Mohn, the deputy representative of Sweden on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine that was appointed in 1947.

At Uppsala University in Sweden, Ben-Dror found Mohn’s personal diary. Paging through it, he realized that in it lay valuable information from “behind the scenes” of the Partition Plan.

“I tried to reconcile ideas that are irreconcilable: Hope for Jewish-Arab cooperation and fear of Jewish-Arab animosity,” wrote Mohn in the diary. In other words, the partition of the land, in the format he proposed, was supposed to enable the Jews and the Arabs to live side by side both as friends in peaceful times and as enemies in times of tension. “Should the sides want to live in peace, that could happen with my Partition plan,” he explained. “Should they want to separate and turn their backs on each other – there are also theoretical possibilities for that.”

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A look at the map he drew up illustrates his words. Under Mohn’s proposal, the land is split up into seven parts: the Jerusalem area, which was supposed to come under international control, and six-triangle-shaped areas – three for the Jewish state and three for the Arab state. All these territories were joined together at their corners in a way that preserved the territorial contiguity of each of the two states. These “points of intersection” would make it possible to move without friction within the areas assigned to each of the states.

From the perspective of the Jews, the advantage of Mohn’s map was clear: It gave the future Jewish state 62 percent of the territory of the land, even though demographically the Arab population was double that of the Jews.

What led Mohn to favor the Jews? In his research for a study which will be published in a forthcoming book about UNSCOP, Ben-Dror learned that Mohn’s father, who was a Protestant minister, had been profoundly shocked by the Dreyfus trial in France at the end of the 19th century and instilled in his son an awareness “of the tragic history of the Jewish people.”

Credit: The Nathan Axelrod Newsreel Collection / YouTube

Additionally, Mohn said of himself that he was not particularly sympathetic towards the Arabs’ national aspirations, to which he had been exposed during his diplomatic service in the Middle East during World War II.

He referred to the land of Israel as “the holy land” and in his spare time he liked to pore over the list of Jewish Nobel laureates and probe “the Jewish intellect.” He was also deeply affected by his visits to the displaced persons camps in Europe, where he met Holocaust survivors who were waiting in suspense for the decision to establish the Jewish state.

Toward the end of August 1947, about a week before the date when UNSCOP was supposed to submit its recommendations concerning the future of the land of Israel, “It was learned that the report was also supposed to include some sort of drafting of borders,” wrote Mohn in his memoirs. Thus, nearly at the very last minute he set about the important work of drawing up a map of the land’s partition.

“I was there in order to save the situation,” he noted, and related how he was left on his own until very late at night to transform his “map of patches” into a more readable form.

“On his own, he determined the fate of villages and towns,” says Ben-Dror, relying on testimony of Mohn’s contemporaries. One of them, David Horowitz, the Jewish Agency emissary to the UN, wrote that Mohn is a person “who more than anyone else established the boundaries of the future Hebrew state.”

Mohn’s pro-Zionist view is ever evident in the map. Thus, in part he wanted to make the entire Negev Jewish territory after having formed the impression, he noted, that the Jewish settlement there was “an extraordinary success.” By contrast, of the Bedouin he commented: “They could even have been there for 1,000 years without leaving a trace.”

Ultimately the UN adopted a somewhat more complex version of Mohn’s partition map but it, too, lost its relevance upon the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948. Mohn himself died a decade later, without having seen how in 1967 another nail was hammered into the coffin of the Partition Plan he had articulated.

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