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Drop the myth. Lester Pearson was no friend of Palestine

The myth of Lester B. Pearson as Canada's great statesmen who sowed peace in the Middle East still endures. It's occasionally even invoked by pro-Palestinain advocates. The only problem is that it is completely false. Pearson was complicit in and even encouraged the ethnic genocide of the Palestinian people.

Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, wrote in a recent blog post that, “Lester B. Pearson won a Nobel peace prize for his role in mediating the Suez Crisis in 1956, and for many decades afterwards, many perceived Canada as an 'honest broker' in the Middle East, trusted by both Israel and the Palestinians.”

In fact, Pearson enabled the Zionist movement’s 1947/48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. During the Suez Crisis Pearson’s main concern was disagreement between the U.S. and U.K. over the British-French-Israeli invasion, not Egyptian sovereignty or the plight of that country's people, let alone Palestinians.

Under growing Zionist military pressure after the Second World War, Britain prepared to hand its mandate over Palestine to the newly created UN. In response, the U.S.-dominated international body formed the First Committee on Palestine, which was charged with developing the terms of reference for a committee that would find a solution for the British mandate.

Canada’s Undersecretary of External Affairs, who made his sympathy for Zionism clear in a March 1945 speech, chaired the First Committee that established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in May 1947. At the First Committee, Pearson rejected Arab calls for an immediate end to the British mandate and the establishment of an independent democratic country. He also backed Washington’s push to admit a Jewish Agency representative to First Committee discussions (ultimately both a Jewish Agency and Palestinian representative were admitted). Pearson tried to define UNSCOP largely to facilitate Zionist aspirations.

The Arab Higher Committee wanted the issue of European Jewish refugees excluded from UNSCOP but the Canadian diplomat worked to give the body a mandate "to investigate all questions and issues relevant to the problem of Palestine." A U.S. State Department memo noted that Pearson "proved to be an outstanding chairman for [the First] Committee."

The Canadian Arab Friendship League, on the other hand, complained that the First Committee plan for UNSCOP was "practically irresponsible and an invitation to...acts of terror on the part of Zionism." Arabs, the League continued, would "never refrain from demanding for...Palestine the same freedom presently enjoyed by other Arab states," newly independent from colonial rule.

Opposed to the idea that representatives from Canada, Guatemala, Yugoslavia and other countries should decide their future, Palestinians boycotted UNSCOP. Despite the objection of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Undersecretary Pearson committed Canada to sending a delegate on the UNSCOP mission to Palestine. In justifying his position to External Affairs Minister Louis St. Laurent, Pearson claimed "to have withdrawn our candidate at this moment might have been misinterpreted and have had an adverse effect on the discussion." In fact, Pearson was significantly more willing to follow Washington’s lead than the Prime Minister.

Canada's lead representative on UNSCOP, Ivan C. Rand, pushed for the largest possible Zionist state and is considered the lead author of the majority report in support of partitioning Palestine into ethnically segregated states.

At the end of their mission, the UNSCOP majority and minority reports were sent to the special UN Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question. Not happy with Pearson’s role in the First Committee, the prime minister would not allow the future Nobel laureate to chair the Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question despite Washington's request.

Mackenzie King wrote that Pearson "lent himself perhaps too wholly to the desires of others," a coded reference to the U.S. State Department. Still, he played a major role in the Ad Hoc Committee. At this forum Pearson rejected the Arab countries push to have the International Court of Justice decide whether the UN was allowed to partition Palestine. (Under U.S. pressure, the Ad Hoc Committee voted 21 to 20 -- with 16 abstentions -- against allowing the International Court to adjudicate the matter.)

The Ad Hoc Committee was split into two subcommittees with one focusing on the partition plan and the other on a bi-national state. At the Ad Hoc Committee's Special Committee 1, Pearson worked feverishly to broker a partition agreement acceptable to Washington and Moscow. Preoccupied with the great powers, the indigenous inhabitants' concerns did not trouble the ambitious undersecretary. He dismissed solutions that didn’t involve partition, which effectively meant supporting a Jewish state on Palestinian land.

Responding to a bi-national plan proposed by the Ad Hoc Committee's Special Committee 2, he claimed: "The unitary state proposal meant nothing -- a recommendation 'out of the blue and into the blue.'" Pearson said: "a [Jewish] 'national home' was a sine qua non [essential condition] of any settlement." He later explained: "I have never waivered in my view that a solution to the problem was impossible without the recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine. To me this was always the core of the matter."

Pearson played a central role in Special Committee 1's partition plan. Both the New York Times and Manchester Guardian ran articles about his role in the final stage of negotiations. Dubbed the "Canadian plan" the final Special Committee 1 agreement between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. on how to implement partition was "a result of the tireless efforts of Lester B. Pearson," according to a front-page New York Times article. Some Zionist groups called him "Lord Balfour" of Canada and "rabbi Pearson." In 1960 Pearson received Israel's Medallion of Valour and after stepping down as prime minister in 1968, he received the Theodore Herzl award from the Zionist Organization of America for his "commitment to Jewish freedom and Israel."

By supporting partition he opposed the indigenous population's moral and political claims to sovereignty over their territory. Down from 90 per cent at the start of the British mandate, by the end of 1947 Arabs still made up two-thirds of Palestine's population. Despite making up only a third of the population, under the UN partition plan Jews received most of the territory. Pearson pushed a plan that gave the Zionist state 55 per cent of Palestine despite the Jewish population owning less than seven per cent of the land. According to Israeli historian Illan Pappe, "within the borders of their UN proposed state, they [Jews] owned only eleven percent of the land, and were the minority in every district. In the Negev [desert]...they constituted one percent of the total population."

Undersecretary Pearson was not supported by the prime minister, who wanted to align Canada more closely with London's position. While King was concerned about Britain, other government officials sympathized with the Palestinians. Justice Minister J.L. Isley said he was "gravely concerned" the push for partition did not meet the Arabs "very strong moral and political claims." 

The only Middle East expert at External Affairs, Elizabeth MacCallum, claimed Ottawa supported partition "because we didn't give two hoots for democracy." MacCallum's opinion wasn't popular with Pearson who organized late-night meetings allegedly to make it difficult for her to participate. Despite failing to convince her boss at External Affairs MacCallum displayed sharp foresight. At the time of the partition vote, notes The Rise and Fall of a Middle Power, "MacCallum scribbled a note and passed it to Mike (Pearson) saying the Middle East was now in for '40 years' of war, due to the lack of consultation with the Arab countries." She was prescient, even if she did underestimate the duration of the conflict.

A representative from the Canadian Arab Friendship League explained:

"Our Canadian government at one time also favoured the creation of a federated State of Palestine which had at least some resemblance to a democratic solution....Mr. Lester B. Pearson and Mr. Justice Ivan C. Rand changed that official position of our government. Instead of the democratic solution, these gentlemen did their utmost to impose upon the Arabs the infamous partition scheme. The Arab world, I am sure, will remember them."

A huge boost to the Zionist movements' desire for an ethnically-based state, the UN partition of British Mandate Palestine contributed to the displacement of at least 700,000 Palestinians. Scholar Walid Khalidi complained that UN (partition) Resolution 181 was "a hasty act of granting half of Palestine to an ideological movement that declared openly already in the 1930s its wish to de-Arabize Palestine."

What spurred Pearson's support for Israel? Jewish lobbying played only a small part. The son of a Methodist minister, Pearson's Zionism was partly rooted in Christian teachings. His memoirs refer to Israel as "the land of my Sunday School lessons" where he learned that "the Jews belonged in Palestine." One book on Pearson notes "there was a lot said at Sunday school about the historic home of the Jews but nothing about the Arab inhabitants." At one point Canada's eminent statesman said he knew more about the geography of the Holy Land than of Ontario and in a 1955 speech Pearson called Israel (alongside Greece and Rome) the source of Western values.

More practically, Israel's creation lessened the pressure on a widely anti-Semitic Ottawa to accept post-war Jewish refugees. At the end of the war the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was supposed to help resettle a couple hundred thousand displaced European Jews.

When he was ambassador in Washington, Pearson represented Canada at a number of UNRRA meetings where he faithfully defended the government's position against Jewish immigration. After a meeting to discuss European refugees was moved from Ottawa to Bermuda, None is Too Many notes, "Pearson exultingly wired [Undersecretary Norman] Robertson that the pressure was off and that, 'in the circumstances,' Ottawa was no longer 'a possibility' [to host the meeting]. And, he added, of even greater importance, Canada would not even be asked to take part in the conference." Pearson believed sending Jewish refugees to Palestine was the only sensible solution to their plight.

But the refugee issue was less of a concern than U.S.-British relations. In 1947 Pearson was concerned with Anglo-American disunity over Palestine, more than the Palestinian crisis itself. "I wasn't thinking of trouble in terms of a war in Palestine," he explained. "I was thinking of trouble in terms of a grave difference of opinion between London and Washington. That always gives a Canadian nightmares, of course." Pearson worried that disagreement between Washington and London over Palestine could adversely affect the U.S.-British alliance and the emerging North Atlantic alliance.

Above all else, the ambitious diplomat wanted to align himself and Canada with Washington, the world's emerging hegemon. "Pearson usually coordinated his moves with the Americans," explains Personal Policy Making: Canada's role in the adoption of the Palestine Partition Resolution. To determine their position on the UN Ad Hoc Committee, for instance, Canada's delegation "found it especially important to know the American's position." A member of the Canadian delegation explained: "[we] will have nothing to say until after the United States has spoken."

Of central importance to Canadian support for partition was the belief that a Middle Eastern Jewish state would serve Western interests. An internal report circulated at External Affairs during the UN negotiations explained: "The plan of partition gives to the western powers the opportunity to establish an independent, progressive Jewish state in the Eastern Mediterranean with close economic and cultural ties with the West generally and in particular with the United States."

In a 1952 memo to cabinet, Pearson repeated this thinking. "With the whole Arab world in a state of internal unrest [after the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy in Egypt] and in the grip of mounting anti-western hysteria, Israel is beginning to emerge as the only stable element in the whole Middle East area." He went on to explain how "Israel may assume an important role in Western defence as the southern pivot of current plans for the defence" of the eastern Mediterranean. Pearson supported Israel as a possible western ally in the heart of the oil-producing Middle East.

Pearson does not represent an evenhanded, let alone justice-oriented, policy towards Palestinians. Instead, he should be placed atop a long list of Canadian officials who've aided and abetted their dispossession.

Image: Flickr/Archives de la Ville de Montréal

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