The Banana King
Updated: Feb 22
I recently gave a lecture titled, “The Streets of Jerusalem,” and mentioned that many streets in Kiryat Menachem and Kiryat Hayovel are named after Central American countries - such as Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. These countries voted in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan on November 29, 1947, which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel.
After the program, a man asked me, “do you know why these countries voted for the partition plan?” He then proceeded to share with me an abridged version of the fascinating rags to riches story of Sam Zemurray, the Banana King.
In 1891, Sam Zemurray arrived in America as a penniless Russian immigrant. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans almost seventy years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. Starting with nothing but a cart of freckled bananas, Zemurray built a global banana empire and became the largest landowner in Central America, with millions of acres of banana plantations across nine countries in the region. Zemurray led a life of adventure, intrigue and high stakes, and his resume included roles as a hard-nosed businessman, hidden kingmaker and overthrower of two Central American governments, all the while shunning publicity, preferring to keep his name out of the newspapers.
Zemurray met Chaim Weizmann, the president of the Zionist Organization and later the first president of the State of Israel, in 1922 and became an early supporter of the movement to create a Jewish homeland. At the end of World War II, when details emerged of the destruction of six million Jews, Zemurray was implored to help procure ships to break the British blockade, in violation of the White Paper of 1939, and bring many Jews from displaced persons camps in Europe home to British Mandate Palestine. Zemurray’s one condition was that he never be publicly identified, which was carefully observed by all members of the movement. Behind the scenes, he raised money, purchased ships – including the famous Exodus – and secured transit papers and visas to allow the ships and their crews out to sea.
In 1947, the question whether to create the state of Israel had been turned over to the United Nations, where it would be decided by a vote in the General Assembly. The resolution to divide Palestine into two nations – one Arab, one Jewish – required a two-thirds majority to pass. Operating surreptitiously, Zemurray was instrumental in garnering support among many Central American countries.
The first vote, on November 24th, resulted in a deadlock. The second was scheduled for Nov 29th, and Zemurray went back to work, wheedling, cajoling and strong-arming nations that were on the fence. By the time of the final tally, enough countries had changed their vote – Haiti from no to abstain, Nicaragua from abstain to yes – and the Partition Plan was approved. In addition, certain yes votes that might otherwise seem mysterious – Costa Rica, Guatemala, Equador, Panama – suddenly made perfect sense. Behind the creation of the Jewish state, one can detect the unmistakable fingerprints of Sam Zemurray.
Now we know the story behind the Central American countries’ support of the creation of the state of Israel. We can also appreciate why no streets in Israel have been named in honor of Sam Zemurray, as he spent tremendous effort throughout his lifetime shying away from the limelight and avoiding public gaze.
[Rich Cohen’s historical profile, “The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King,” was the primary resource for this article.]
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.