The unlikely Canadian who helped create the State of Israel

Ivan Rand helped draft the 1946 blueprint on Palestine’s future. Despite an antisemitic streak, by most accounts he ‘tipped the scales’ for Israel

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As a private citizen, Justice Ivan Rand was not the most open-minded about people different than him.

The white, Anglo-Saxon protestant refused for over 30 years to have anything to do with his sister’s Catholic, Acadian husband. While dean of the Western University law school, he rejected a candidate for the faculty because, he felt, London, Ont., didn’t want “too many Jews.”

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As a judge on the newly minted Supreme Court of Canada, Rand was something else.

His groundbreaking rulings in the 1940s and 50s defended the rights of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, refuted Quebec’s persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and bolstered the right of Communists to free speech.

But most striking in light of today’s headlines is his largely forgotten work on a historic United Nations committee, tasked in 1947 with drafting a blueprint for the future of Palestine. Led in large part by Rand, the 11-man group’s majority called for the partition of the contested territory into Jewish and Arab states, an idea seen as a Zionist victory at the time but which is still the policy of numerous countries and even the Palestinian Authority. The UN general assembly adopted the panel’s advice, though what followed has been one of the world’s most intractable, bloody conflicts.

“They spent less than 40 days on their mission, but their work radically changed the course of history for the Jewish nation and for the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine,” wrote Israeli historian Elad Ben-Dror in a 2021 book on the topic.

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Rand was by most accounts key to it all. “The one who tipped the scales was the Canadian representative,” wrote Uri Milstein, another Israeli historian.

He deeply felt the plight of the Jewish

With a new war raging over the Gaza strip, Israel’s opponents are again questioning its right to exist — the central issue Rand and his 10 international colleagues wrestled with 76 years ago. While Hamas calls in its charter for the obliteration of the Jewish state, even some Canadian and other Western critics have recently championed Palestinian freedom “from the river to the sea,” often viewed as a call for a single Palestinian state where Israel and the territories now exist.

Academics, meanwhile, continue to debate whether Rand’s UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was a pro-Zionist foregone conclusion, or a balanced examination of a turbulent, complex situation.

Ben-Dror suggests Rand himself had Zionist leanings. But lawyer William Kaplan, whose biography, Canadian Maverick, paints a detailed portrait of the judge, says the evidence suggests he harboured no biases going into the assignment and indeed knew little about the situation at all.

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“He went there as a fiercely independent judge of the Supreme Court of Canada to find a solution to this intractable problem,” Kaplan said in an interview.

Rand’s journey to the heart of global politics was a somewhat unlikely one. The son of a New Brunswick railway mechanic, he eventually attended Harvard law school, practised in small-town Alberta, later headed the CN Rail legal department and had a short stint as New Brunswick attorney general. He was named in 1943 to the Supreme Court, which had only just taken over as Canada’s court of final resort from the U.K.’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Rand made his mark there, writing a string of civil liberties decisions decades before fundamental human rights were written into Canada’s Constitution.

In arbitrating an end to a heated strike at the Ford plant in Windsor, Ont., he also introduced a key labour-law principle still known as the Rand formula, requiring employees in most unionized workplaces to pay union dues, but not necessarily join their union.

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A man of great charisma Rand evidently was not. According to Kaplan’s book, American Ralph Bunche, a top UN official, described the Canadian as “an elderly, crotchety gentleman.” Rand “carried himself with an almost melancholy air, a bit stooped, as if always meditating an abstruse point of the law,” wrote Jorge García-Granados, Guatemala’s UNSCOP representative.

Not uncommon for the time, Rand was an “intolerant bigot” about French-Canadians, Catholics, Jews and other non-Anglos, Kaplan wrote. But the author stresses that the judge was a man of contradictions whose towering accomplishments easily outweighed the flaws.

His moment of international renown came after the British government grew tired of overseeing Palestine under the “mandate” it was awarded after the First World War, and asked the fledgling UN to come up with an alternate solution.

Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration — promising Jews a “national home” in Palestine without impinging on the rights of its existing occupants — had been endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922. Hundreds of thousands of Jews — many anxious to escape the persecution they’d faced for centuries in Europe – made their way to the region, part of the Zionist movement. But by the end of the Second World War, British forces were severely limiting Jewish immigration, as the Arabs who had lived in Palestine for centuries angrily opposed any further influx.

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The UN created the special committee to investigate a way out of the volatile situation, naming Canada as a member along with Australia, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, Holland, India, Iran, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. The great powers kept to the sidelines.

Their task was to weigh two discordant viewpoints.

Jews considered Palestine to be their ancient homeland, needed especially to settle many of the Holocaust survivors living in miserable conditions in European displaced-persons camps. Countries such as Canada and the U.S. — riven by antisemitism — refused to accept many of those refugees, even after the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. The Arabs cited the fact they had lived in Palestine for hundreds of years and — after being ruled by the Ottoman empire for centuries — had a right finally to their own sovereign state encompassing the whole area.

Tel Aviv residents celebrate the UN decision to create a Jewish state by dividing Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, November 29, 1947.
Tel Aviv residents celebrate the UN decision to create a Jewish state by dividing Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, November 29, 1947. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

But the committee had a problem in balancing the duelling perspectives. Convinced that the panel was predisposed to the Zionist side, Palestinian leaders and most Arab countries boycotted the committee and its investigation.

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In the vacuum left by the absent Arab representatives, Jewish advocates worked vigorously to lobby the international group, while their intelligence operatives kept a covert eye on committee members.

Rand was briefed before heading overseas by Elizabeth MacCallum, a pro-Arab official of the then External Affairs Department, writes Kaplan in Canadian Maverick.

The Mackenzie King government publicly supported Zionism, but behind the scenes had no firm position, partly because of its eagerness to support Britain, which opposed partition, says University of Calgary historian David Bercuson, author of a book on Canada’s role in the Palestine question.

To the extent ordinary Canadians cared about the conflict at all, he says, many soured on the Zionists after the Irgun, an extremist Jewish militant group, bombed the British mandate’s headquarters in 1946, killing 91 people.

Regardless, Rand insisted on having free rein and appeared to take on the job with an open mind, said Bercuson.

As the committee made its way across Palestine, David Horowitz, one of the two Jewish liaison officers, focused his attention on Rand and by most accounts won him over.

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The Canadian grew to admire Jewish development of the arid land — a success often referred to as “making the desert bloom” — empathized with survivors of the Holocaust and was underwhelmed by the less-developed and less-progressive Arab communities the committee visited, experts suggest.

“He deeply felt the plight of the Jewish,” says Israeli historian Ben-Dror. “Rand signed on to the entire Zionist narrative.”

When the committee returned to Geneva, they had a month to come up with recommendations but struggled to reach a consensus. Iran, India and Yugoslavia issued a minority report proposing a single federal state with Arab and Jewish parts.

The majority report spearheaded by Rand and Sweden’s Emil Sandstrom called for Palestine to be split into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Jews receiving the largest chunk of territory, and an economic union between the two countries. Jerusalem would fall under international control. Though the Jewish population was half that of the Arab community, the report reasoned that the new Jewish state needed room to accommodate more of the Holocaust survivors languishing in DP camps.

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Rand was “by far the main contributor to the partition scheme,” Léon Mayrand, the Canadian alternate on the committee, reported to External Affairs. “Everyone surmised correctly that Rand had turned the scales,” wrote Horowitz later, Kaplan’s book notes.

But were he and his colleagues bound to side with the Zionists from the start? Was the fix always in and the committee just window dressing? That’s the argument of Arab politicians and historians, such as eminent scholar Walid Khalidi, as well as some Western academics. The domination of the committee by nine European and “settler-colonial” countries made it friendly turf for the Jewish cause, one sign of a “lingering imperialism,” argued Queen’s University law professor Ardi Imseis in a 2021 paper.

But Ben-Dror contends the committee arrived in Palestine evenly split between supporters of the Zionists and the Palestinians, giving each side “equal potential for tipping the committee in their direction.”

If the goal of the whole exercise was to fashion a stable future for the Holy Land, of course, the opposite transpired.

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When the British pulled out of Palestine in May 1948, Israel declared independence. A day later, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq attacked the new nation, launching the first of three Arab-Israeli wars over the next 25 years. With hundreds of thousands of Arabs displaced by the 1948 fighting, Palestinians remember the episode as the Nakba — Arabic for catastrophe.

The Palestinian Arab state proposed by Canada’s Rand and his colleagues has never come to fruition.

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