Though India had formally recognized Israel in 1950, it took decades before it established full diplomatic ties with the country in early 1990s. The foundation of India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine was laid by Mahatma Gandhi who, though sympathised with the Jews for their persecution, was never in favour of a forced state of Israel in Palestine against the wishes of Palestinians and Arabs. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister religiously followed this line and India voted against the resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly for partition of Palestine between the Arabs and the Jews that led to formation of Israel as an independent state on May 14, 1948.
Before the scheduled day of UN vote on November 29, 1947, the Jewish leaders were holding hectic parleys and were lobbying with the UN member countries to vote in favour of the partition. To gain India’s support, the Jewish leadership convinced the best known Jewish face of the time, Albert Einstein, to bring India on board. Nehru respected Einstein as a scientist and humanist.
According to an analysis of communication between Nehru and Einstein on the issue, analysed by Israeli professor and historian Benny Morris, published in The Guardian, the Jewish leaders urged Einstein to write to Nehru hoping it could do the “miracle of persuading India to vote in favour of a Jewish state.”
Einstein wrote to Nehru on June 13, 1947. His four page letter touched themes like persecution of the Jews since the ancient times and recent massacre by Adolf Hitler and compared the Jews with the untouchables of India, something that Mahatma Gandhi had written about in past. Praising India for abolishing Untouchability, he called India to stand for the rights “an ancient people with roots are in the East who have been victims of persecution and discrimination for centuries”, invoking “justice and inequality”.
Though Einstein was not in favour of a nation state and had long advocated for an Arab-Jewish state than a Jewish state where the Arabs and the Jews would live together in peace, the communication says he was forced to change his opinion, “The Jewish people alone has for centuries been in the anomalous position of being victimised and hounded as a people, though bereft of all the rights and protections which even the smallest people normally has. Zionism (the movement to establish Israel) offered the means of ending this discrimination. Through the return to the land to which they were bound by close historic ties, Jews sought to abolish their pariah status among peoples.”
Making the case of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Einstein wrote that “one of the most extraordinary features of the Jewish rebuilding of Palestine was that the influx of Jewish pioneers resulted not in the displacement and impoverishment of the local Arab population but in its phenomenal increase and greater prosperity.”
But Einstein’s appeal failed to convince Nehru to leave India’s principled stand for the Palestinian cause and vote in favour of Palestine’s partition for the proposed Jewish state.
In reply to Einstein’s letter, he wrote back on July 11, 1947, “I confess that while I have a very great deal of sympathy for the Jews I feel sympathy for the Arabs also. I know that the Jews have done a wonderful piece of work in Palestine and have raised the standards of the people there, but one question troubles me. After all these remarkable achievements, why have they failed to gain the goodwill of the Arabs? Why do they want to compel the Arabs to submit against their will to certain demands [i.e., partition and Jewish statehood]?”
Nehru also made it clear to Einstein that apart from India’s principled stand, it was also because of India’s policy concerns on domestic and international developments which could not allow India to vote in favour of Israel, “National leaders, unfortunately, had to pursue essentially selfish policies. Each country thinks of its own interest first. If it so happens that some international policy fits in with the national policy of the country, then that nation uses brave language about international betterment. But as soon as that international policy seems to run counter to national interests or selfishness, then a host of reasons are found not to follow that international policy.”
India, which was going to celebrate its first Independence Day a month later, on August 15, 1947, had a sizeable Muslim population which was opposed to the Jewish occupation of Palestine. Besides, the wounds of India’s partition along the religion lines were still fresh. Also, a war with Pakistan was looming large and India needed international support including from the Arab nations.
The UNGA resolution on division of Palestine was passed with a mandate of 33 votes while 13 member countries, including India, voted against it. All six Arab member countries of the UN staged walk-out highlighting the fact that the partition was not acceptable to the Arab nations.
10 countries along with Britain abstained from voting. The British stand was bizarre because it was an ill-conceived and half-baked British document only, known as 1917 Balfour Declaration that gave rise to the whole Palestine-Israel issue as we see it today. The British stand was that anything inimical to the interests of the existing non-Jewish communities would not be acceptable while advocating for Jewish homeland in the British Mandate of Palestine, something that made it to abstain from voting 30 years later. Nehru’s was also against the Balfour Declaration because it sought to create a Jewish nation in Palestine which was not “empty and uninhabited and was already a home to Arabs.”