Last week vandals on the wall of a classroom at UCLA’s Bunch Hall “liberated Palestine from river to sea”. The phrase has been used by groups such as Hamas to call for an end to Israel. It is unclear who did the tagging, and the university quickly wiped out the graffiti. but this Is Explain what the name of the building is, Ralph J., the first black person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunch must have thought of the message.
While Banche is a forgotten figure for many today—even on the campus of UCLA, where the Center for African American Studies is named for him—he was an integral part of Israel’s birth and Supported the creation of a Jewish state in 1948. Yet he never lost sight of the plight of the Palestinian people or the interests of the Arab states in the region. Indeed, in the late 1940s, Bunch was attacked by one of his childhood heroes, the famous NAACP leader and scholar W.E.B. Dubois. Inadequate Supported Israel and also focused on Arab demands.
Most importantly, Bunch believed in political compromise and the importance of seeing all people as worthy of respect and honor. At a time when polarization and disputes are reaching new heights in the United States and abroad, and the notion of a middle ground seems questionable to many, Bunche stands in his unequivocal belief in the power of mediation and mutual respect.
Ralph Bunch, a native Angelou, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his important role as a mediator between the young Israeli state on the one hand and Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon on the other. A then-new United Nations official, Bunch went on to have an illustrious career as a diplomat, nonpartisan international troubleshooter and civil rights activist.
Banche’s Middle East ceasefire talks during the winter of 1949 were widely seen as a dramatic success, even 70 years earlier, as a difficult conflict. So famous at the time that he won Best Picture at the 1951 Oscars, Bunche was introduced by Fred Astaire as “the man who achieved the miracle of peace in Palestine”.
In the end, Astaire overtook. Permanent peace has proved elusive. Yet the Bunch came as close as anyone to achieving it, and their involvement in this area was not limited to the armistice agreement they so painstakingly negotiated in 1949. In fact, after his death in 1971, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir noted that there was “hardly” anyone outside Israel who had been so closely associated with the State of Israel since its emergence. ”
The role of the Bunch in Palestine began even before the birth of Israel. When the British Mandate for Palestine was ending after World War II and Britain asked the United Nations to handle the thorny issue of Palestine, Bunche was part of a team that traveled to the region to seek a solution.
The Special Committee on Palestine was integral to the decision of the United Nations General Assembly in November 1947 to vote to divide the region into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. This decision was almost immediately rejected by the Arab states, but it led to Israel’s declaration of independence six months later.
Then in 1956, Banche was a key figure during the Suez Crisis, when France, Britain and Israel conspired to invade Egypt in the wake of Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The resulting emergency turned against the Allies as President Eisenhower, angered by the invasion, endured the overwhelming power of America to stop it. The United Nations General Assembly took the field under Bunch’s direction, authorizing the first major use of UN peacekeepers.
During this period – and beyond – Bunche remained a well-known figure at the United Nations for Israeli, Arab and American officials to manage ever-increasing tensions in the region. Banche found both the Arabs and the Israelis disappointed. He often complained of being dragged back into the endless conflict of the Middle East. In 1947 he said that the only thing that was certain was that “the British have messed things up.” But Banche was also proud of his achievements there and believed that it was the duty of the international community to try and re-try for a lasting and just solution.
“I’m a professional optimist,” Bunch once said. “i.e. is optimistic in the sense of assuming that there is no problem … that cannot be solved and, therefore, you have to maintain it.”
Today, The Bunch deserves to be much more than a footnote in history. Those who attacked Bunch Hall certainly weren’t thinking about the symbolism of desecrating the building on which, the UCLA class of 1927, Bunch himself was so proud of. (He visited the complex for the dedication in 1969, with one of his heroes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, posing in front of the tall tower.)
It is impossible to say with certainty what Ralph Bunche would think of the state of the Arab-Israeli conflict were he alive today – other than to shake his head at the fact that it is going on 70 years later. But he would certainly say that only through dialogue and not destruction can a permanent solution be found.
Kal Raustiala is a professor of law and director of the Berkel Center for International Relations at UCLA and the author of the forthcoming book “The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the UN, and the Fight to End Empire.”