With the Jewish High Holy Days upon us, a calendrical coincidence gives a particular twist to the spirit of self-examination which prevails from Rosh Hashonah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This year, the second day of Rosh Hashonah (which is determined by the Hebrew lunar calendar) marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish diplomat who served as United Nations Mediator in the Middle East in the turbulent period following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Count Bernadotte, nephew of the Swedish king and a political insider, had already earned a prominent place in the ranks of “righteous gentiles” for his relief efforts during the Holocaust. As vice chairman and prime mover of Sweden’s Red Cross during World War II, he provided protective cover for thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Denmark into neutral Sweden. Working with the Stockholm representative of the World Jewish Congress, he arranged the sending of 70,000 food parcels to Jews in concentration camps. And in the final months of the war, with the German military collapsing, Bernadotte negotiated, organized and joined a convoy that crossed into Germany to rescue concentration camp prisoners of various nationalities and religions, including 6,500 Jews. Skirting battlefield conditions, the fabled “white buses” shepherded a total of 20,000 back to Sweden by V-E Day, plus another 10,000 during the next month.
During those final months, Bernadotte’s diplomatic clout was also instrumental in squelching a Nazi plan to bury a mass of incriminating evidence by blowing up the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. By the end of the war, his stature was such that a British correspondent in Stockholm nominated him, along with Winston Churchill, as a potential candidate for the leadership of a United States of Europe.
Three years later, Bernadotte was again confronting a situation of massive human displacement. This time, the DPs were the nearly three quarters of a million Palestinians who had fled their homes in the face of violence, and threats of violence, in the months leading up to the proclamation of the State of Israel and in the period immediately thereafter.
Arriving as the first mediator ever deployed by the United Nations, Bernadotte succeeded in arranging a four-week Arab-Israeli cease-fire, but his initial peace plan was rejected by both sides. His second plan was also wildly unpopular with Israel as it would have ceded the Negev to the Arab State and placed Jerusalem under U.N. control. Even more significantly, it would also have allowed Palestinian refugees to return to their homes – homes often only hundreds of yards away from where they were now stranded as “present absents”, the chillingly Orwellian label applied to them by the newborn state. Not surprisingly, triumphant Zionists wanted to consolidate their victory by preserving the fait accompli that had rid the land of a troublesome population.
On September 17, 1948, members of the infamous Stern Gang, still operational outside the official Israeli military, carried out a roadside attack in the Israeli-controlled sector of Jerusalem, killing Bernadotte and his French military assistant. Official Israeli pursuit of the perpetrators was slow and halfhearted. The man generally acknowledged to have signed off on the hit, Yitzhak Shamir, went on to become a prime minister of Israel decades later.
It’s not hard to figure out why a mensch like Bernadotte languishes in relative obscurity within the pantheon of Holocaust heroes. His later endeavors are deeply embarrassing to unconditional supporters of Israel. To evoke the circumstances of his assassination is to open a Pandora’s Box of unsung death and destruction–a swirling chaos that challenges cherished beliefs and assumptions. But until that box is opened, and the outpouring faced squarely, it will continue to haunt the Holy Land, and no one will sleep in peace.
The extent to which Palestinian flight was deliberately provoked by Zionist militias has become more widely recognized thanks to the work of Israel’s so-called new historians (although some, like Benny Morris, now seem ready to rationalize “transfer”, another Orwellian term). The April 1948 massacre of over 100 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin is merely the tip of an iceberg which sunders claims about pristine military restraint.
More than half a century later, most North American Jews have no more than a hazy notion of who Folke Bernadotte was–assuming they’ve heard of him at all. And, as with so many other issues, assessment among the Jewish cognoscenti varies widely. Hawkish Zionists write him off as prejudiced. Softer supporters of Israel reproach him for being naïve. Independent humanistic Jews will consider him deeply insightful.
Given the “facts on the ground” and behind-the-scenes international maneuvering, Bernadotte’s plan was probably doomed from the beginning. Looking back, it’s hard to assess how it would have worked out in practice. But, certainly, the grim history of the region since then–especially the Occupation phase which began in 1967–has severely shrunk Jewish confidence that the State of Israel is qualified and equipped to serve as an ultimate guarantor of Jewish safety and well-being. And a close, unflinching examination of the half-century military and political track record of Israel’s present leader leads to questions of complicity by silence in allowing an arsonist to pose as firefighter.
Meanwhile, in this period of spiritual penitence and cleansing, I will grieve the loss of Folke Bernadotte, equal-opportunity rescuer, and will continue to believe that his kind of generic conscience represents the only hope for civilization (though maybe quotation marks should be placed around that word nowadays).
I will imagine the world Jewish community being seized by the same kind of self-critical group introspection being touted so widely for the world Muslim community–beginning with acknowledgment of the nature and history of the current Israeli prime minister, and reflection on what his legacy bodes for the future.
And I will pray for a ripple of Jewish awakening to the fact that Palestinians will remember the Nakba as long as Jews remember the Shoah.
DAVID HIMMELSTEIN is a teacher and writer in Montreal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org