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The Man In The Middle

June 2024
5min read

On Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, we should remember the role a black American played in its creation

He was an African-American with no previous experience or special interest in Palestine. He evinced no special warmth for either Zionist or pan-Arab positions. He was working for a new and untested international organization. He was little known to the general public before 1948, and it’s reasonable to suspect that his name rings no bell today with most Israelis or Americans.

But during the May 1998 celebration of a half-century of Israel’s independence, Ralph Bunche ought to be recalled with respect by Israelis, American Jews, and in fact Americans of every faith and color. If President Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel eleven minutes after it was proclaimed gave an enormous psychological and diplomatic boost to its embattled creators (see “Present at the Creation Again?” American Heritage , April 1994), Bunche did an equally important job in giving that recognition practical force by getting de facto boundaries set for the infant nation.

In 1941 Bunche, age thirty-eight, belonged to a group of gifted African-American scholars on the graduate faculty of Washington’s Howard University. Raised in Los Angeles by a strong-willed grandmother who encouraged educational achievement, he earned a bachelor’s degree at U.C.L.A. and went from there to advanced work in political science at Harvard. His specialty was in an “international” field, the reaction of African peoples to European colonial rule.

World War II provided an escape from an academic life for which Bunche had aptitude but little zest. He went to work for the Office of Strategic Services as a specialist in African matters. Next stop was the State Department, which had him work on the plans for the United Nations, then in the process of being created.

In April 1947, as a savant on problems of decolonization and with a reputation as a prodigious worker, Bunche was named the U.N. Secretary General’s special assistant to the representative to the eleven-nation U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), charged with making recommendations for the area’s future after Great Britain completed its announced pullout in 1948. That plunged him straight into the maelstrom.

In his first year of involvement Bunche learned that everyone concerned had a stake and an agenda, none of them capable of reconciliation. UNSCOP’s options boiled down to three: creation of a single Jewish-Arab federated state; partition into separate Jewish and Arab states; or a U.N. trusteeship, which would stick the new organization with the job Britain had found impossible: controlling Arab-Jewish clashes. The Jewish Agency for Palestine, the moderate Zionist body that was the unofficial voice of the approximately six hundred thousand Jewish settlers, would accept partition because even a small independent state would have control over immigration and so provide asylum (denied by the British) to the wretched survivors of the Holocaust. But two Jewish “underground” organizations, the Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lechi (the latter known in English as the Stern Group or the Stern Gang—one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist gangster), rejected anything less than Jewish control over all of biblical Israel, and they were already in an anti-British campaign that included bombings and assassinations.

The resident Arabs and neighboring Arab countries flatly opposed any kind of Jewish state. The British Foreign Office, still a major Mideast player, leaned toward the Arab position. So did the U.S. State Department when not overridden by Truman’s pro-partition sentiments. The Soviet Union also favored partition. So did U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie.

Whatever Bunche favored, he kept it to himself as he dashed from one fact-finding interview to another with Arab and Jewish leaders. “I am now a Near East expert,” he confided to a correspondent, “completely befuddled.” Bundle’s discretion, capacity for continuous work “at a terrific pace,” and personality “incapable of flamboyance,” according to his Howard University colleague Kenneth Clark, earned him the job of drafting both the majority pro-partition and the minority pro-federation reports for a divided UNSCOP. When both were submitted, he sighed happily: “The Palestine episode is over.” Never had he been so wrong. The U.N. adopted the majority report, but as the British let go, Jews and Arabs in Palestine struggled to seize the advantage. The Haganah, the Jewish Agency’s “army,” battled Palestinian irregulars armed by Arab kingdoms. Thousands died on both sides, but by April the Jews controlled important major cities.

Then, immediately following the proclamation of independence on May 14, 1948, the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, and Egypt launched a full-scale invasion to crush the young nation. Israel was fighting for its life, but the U.N.’s concern was almost equally great. If its decision could be instantly annulled by force, it was already on its way to the paralyzed ineffectuality that had killed the old League of Nations.

An African-American could readily respond to the plight of both peoples. But Bunche favored neither.

So the U.N. called for a cease-fire and named a mediator to explore possible avenues toward a permanent peace. He was Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross. And Trygve Lie chose Ralph Bunche as his special representative on Bernadotte’s staff. So ended Bundle’s brief hope of emancipation from the Palestine problem.

By June both the Arabs and the Israelis had little choice but to agree to a month-long truce. The Israelis had suffered losses and needed to regroup; the Arabs were beginning to learn what they would not publicly admit: that they couldn’t militarily eliminate the Jewish state. Bernadotte plunged ahead with a proposal to rearrange the original partition plan and give the Negev, the huge southern region of present-day Israel and its outlet to the Red Sea, to an Arab state that would be joined to Transjordan. Neither state would be economically independent, and Jewish immigration would be left in U.N. control, but the thousands of Palestinian Arabs who had fled the fighting zones would be repatriated. Even in a later, modified version, Bernadotte’s plan struck Israel as an outrageous betrayal. Bunche seems to have had little input into the scheme, being busy at the time supervising the deployment of truce teams to monitor the cease-fire, a dangerous assignment that put him often in the line of sniper fire. “We risk our lives out here every day,” he wrote home.

He did not exaggerate. On September 17 he flew from mediation headquarters on the Greek island of Rhodes to the Lod airport, where he was supposed to meet Bernadotte and ride into Jerusalem. His plane was late; Bernadotte went on ahead alone and at a roadblock was shot dead by three members of the Stern Group. Bunche became the acting mediator. In the midst of chaos and hate, the chances for peace now lay in his hands.

Early in his tenure Bunche loyally backed the Bernadotte plan. This earned him cascades of obloquy from pro-Israeli liberals who accused him of anti-Semitism. The charges were unfair. Bunche’s record shows clear sympathy for the Arabs as victims of colonialism and for the Jews as sufferers of persecution; an African-American could readily respond to the plight of both peoples. But if he understood both sides, he favored neither. Fortunately for Israel, however, in the face of new military realities Bunche did begin to distance himself from Bernadotte’s solution. Fresh fighting between truces yielded big gains for the Israeli Army; the world would have to recognize the permanence of the upstart rebels. In addition, the political scene changed when the U.N. General Assembly ordered the warring parties to negotiate a formal cessation of hostilities along lines of demarcation that would in effect be Israel’s guaranteed frontiers.

Ralph Bunche brought those boundaries into existence. He did so in a set of separate armistice talks between Israel and each of its invaders, beginning with Egypt. His major contribution was unbelievable energy and will. Rhodes’s Hotel des Roses fortunately offered no diversions (other than Ping-Pong and pool) to distract the delegations, so in day after day of nonstop effort he would move back and forth between Israeli and Egyptian teams, listening imperturbably, recapitulating, rephrasing, clarifying, and narrowing gaps on questions of pullbacks, weaponry, and timing.

On February 24, 1949, the Egyptian-Israeli armistice was finalized. Bunche hosted an evening’s entertainment at which the Israeli colonel Yigal Yadin beat his Egyptian counterpart at billiards. As the party broke up, at 4:30 A.M. , Yadin smiled a thank-you at Bunche and said simply: “Patience pays.” The Egyptian talks provided a pattern that was followed to yield agreements with Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria in succeeding months.

Abba Eban, Israel’s first representative to the U.N., who had his disagreements with Bunche, wrote in 1992 that “the life of Israel still flows, for the greater part, in channels of legitimacy and authority that Bunche had conjured out of the turmoil of 1949.” Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his work and died in 1971 after a further distinguished career at the U.N. and outspoken support of the American civil rights revolution. He would be happy to know that Israel now has permanent treaties with Jordan and Egypt—and sad to learn that outstanding issues like the fate of Jerusalem and the political future of the Palestinians everywhere remain unsettled while innocent blood is spilled on both sides.

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