Extraordinary piece on Benny Morris

Extraordinary piece on Benny Morris

David Remnick has written a masterful article about the life and works of Benny Morris, the pioneering Israeli historian, in the May 5, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. Morris refuses to conform to type. He is an unrelenting chronicler of Israel’s original sins who also documents the dark side of Palestinian nationalism. I appreciate Morris’s pessimism but do not share his conclusion that the Palestinians will never accept a peace agreement with Israel. I excerpt this long article below but could not cut it down much further without losing important nuances of this story:

For nearly forty years, Israeli histories and textbooks, with few exceptions, endorsed the notion that the more than seven hundred thousand Arabs who left Palestine as refugees in the years between 1947 and 1950 did so voluntarily or at the urging of their leaders. …

In the late eighties, Israel encountered its first revisionist historians, a group of rigorous young scholars intent on seeing clearly the founding and development of the state, come what may. At the head of that small and diverse movement was Benny Morris, a Sabra and a Cambridge-educated leftist, who, like Israel itself, was born in 1948. His latest book on that pivotal year of war and transformation, “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” (Yale; $32.50), is a commanding, superbly documented, and fair-minded study of the events that, in the wake of the Holocaust, gave a sovereign home to one people and dispossessed another.

Remarkably, the book makes every attempt at depth and balance, even though its author has professed a “cosmic pessimism” about the current situation in the Middle East and has denounced the Palestinian leadership in the harshest terms imaginable….

In 1988, Morris published “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” which revolutionized Israeli historiography and, to a great extent, a nation’s understanding of its own birth. Relying less on testimony than on the newly available documents, Morris described how and why sixty per cent of the Palestinians were uprooted and their society destroyed. It was a far more complex picture than many Israelis were prepared to accept. The book features a map that shows three hundred and eighty-nine Arab villages, from upper Galilee to the Negev Desert. Morris revealed that in forty-nine of these villages the indigenous Arabs were expelled by the Haganah and other Jewish military forces; in sixty-two villages, the Arabs fled out of fear, having heard rumors of attacks and even massacres; in six, the villagers left at the instruction of Palestinian local leaders. …

Morris’s aim was not simply to invert the standard Zionist narrative. He provided a stark picture of the anti-Semitism that infected the Arab leadership, including the influential mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, who refused any compromise with the Zionists and, in the forties, promoted anti-Jewish propaganda from Berlin and recruited Bosnian Muslims for the S.S. Morris quoted the many leaders among the Palestinians and the Arab countries who vowed to eliminate the nascent state of Israel and force the European Jewish arrivals back to where they came from. But he also wrote at length about acts of wartime cruelty committed by the Jewish victors against the Palestinians. … He said that there were about two dozen acts of massacre, some involving four or five executions but others involving many more, at Saliha, Deir Yassin, Lydda, and Dawayima. …

Between 1993 and 1998, amid the optimism of the Oslo Accords and the possibility that the century-long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs might be coming to a negotiated end, Morris worked on a comprehensive survey of the confrontation. The title, “Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001,” attests to the book’s historical and imaginative sympathy both for the Zionists, who acquired a homeland but never a sense of security, and for the Palestinians, whose demand for a homeland remained unsatisfied. Like all Morris’s work, … its attempt at balance is obvious: where there is anti-Arab racism among the Zionist forefathers, it is quoted; where there is venality among the early Palestinian leadership, it, too, is pointed out. …

Yasir Arafat’s rejection of the peace proposals proffered by Ehud Barak in 2000 at Camp David and at Taba, Egypt, coupled with the second intifada, which followed, disillusioned Benny Morris to the point of embitterment. Morris, who has always voted for parties on the left, said that Arafat had “defrauded” the Israelis, and he decided that the Palestinians had no intention of forging a compromise. Morris was not at all persuaded by explanations and press reports claiming that Clinton and Barak had offered Arafat an unfair, hastily prepared deal. Even if Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders, Morris concluded, the Palestinians would consider that only a step in a “phased plan” to eliminate a “crusader state” from sacred Arab lands. After 2000, he said in a 2004 interview with Ha’aretz, “I understood that they were unwilling to accept the two-state solution. They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa.” Morris did criticize the Israeli government for continuing to build on occupied territory, but, especially in his role as pundit and polemicist, he was no longer giving equal weight to two “righteous victims.”

In the Ha’aretz interview, Morris took a tone that was in scant evidence in his earlier journalism or scholarly work. He spoke of a “deep problem in Islam,” of a world in which “life doesn’t have the same value it does in the West.” The Arabs belonged to a “tribal culture” in which “revenge” played a “central part,” a society so lacking in “moral inhibitions” that “if it obtains chemical or biological or atomic weapons, it will use them.”

… He described the Arab world as “barbarian,” and said that the Israeli massacres committed in 1947-48 were “peanuts” compared with those in Bosnia. Then, there was his call to build “something like a cage” for the Palestinians: “I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no other choice. There is a wild animal that has to be locked up in one way or another.” Upon reflection, even Morris was appalled by those words and later apologized.

To some extent, Morris has been writing the same book throughout his scholarly life, and one theme that has been pronounced is that of “transfer.” In all his work, he has explored the thorny question of whether or not Ben-Gurion and his colleagues explicitly endorsed a policy of “transferring”—exiling—the Arab population from Israel.

By the time of the 2004 Ha’aretz interview, Morris had adopted a harsher, more prescriptive tone that was sometimes chilling to the liberal audience that had first welcomed him. Fearing the loss of a Jewish majority and the rise of an Arab fifth column, some right-wing politicians have advocated transferring either the Palestinian Arabs or the Israeli Arabs, or both, to Jordan—a country they refer to as the true Palestinian state. (That was once a theme of Ariel Sharon’s.)

Although Morris does not endorse such a policy—”It is neither moral nor realistic”—he does say that, historically speaking, BenGurion “faltered” in 1948. “If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job,” he told Ha’aretz. “I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all.” Morris acknowledged that ethnic cleansing was “problematic” but later pointed out catastrophic situations in which it could be “beneficial for humanity.” He cited the Turkish expulsion of the Greek minority, Greece’s expulsion of its Turkish minority after the First World War, and the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. …

Four years ago, Morris said that only “apocalyptic” circumstances would demand that Israel carry out a policy of transfer. By January, 2007, writing in the Jerusalem Post, he seemed convinced that apocalypse was around the corner. The United States has been driven to isolationism by its “debacle” in Iraq, Russia and China are “obsessed with Muslim markets,” and Israel, led by a “party hack of a prime minister,” who botched the war with Hezbollah in 2006, will now be “like a rabbit caught in the headlights” as Iran prepares to launch nuclear-tipped Shihab missiles at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva. In this scenario, which Morris implied is nearly inevitable, the Israeli leadership knows that it cannot launch a unilateral attack on Iran, for fear of igniting a “world-embracing” terror campaign….

What is so striking about Morris’s work as a historian is that it does not flatter anyone’s prejudices, least of all his own.

The stridency and darkness of some of his public pronouncements is not a feature of “Righteous Victims,” which is the most useful survey of the conflict, or of “1948,” which is the best history of the first Arab-Israeli wars. In “1948,” the assembled compendium of aspiration, folly, aggression, hypocrisy, deception, bigotry, violence, suffering, and achievement is so comprehensive and multilayered that no reader can emerge without a feeling of unease—which is to say, a sense of the moral and historical intricacy of the conflict.

One of the lingering mythologies that Morris set out to confront in “1948” is the iconography of strength and weakness, the competition between Jews and Palestinians for the role of underdog and chief victim.

There were two wars following the U.N. partition resolution: first, the immediate Palestinian uprising against the Yishuv, and then, after the Palestinian defeat, the coördinated invasion by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Morris concludes that the Arabs were demographically and geopolitically stronger—the Palestinians outnumbered the Jews of the Yishuv two to one, and the surrounding Arab states had a population, all told, of forty million.

But in the years leading to the war the Yishuv had organized political and military institutions that were suited to crisis. Troop call-ups, expert foreign military personnel, and weapons-procurement systems were in place. By contrast, very few Palestinians came from the Hebron, Ramallah, and Nablus areas to aid their fellow Palestinian Arabs in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, and the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys. “The Yishuv had fought not a ‘people,’ ” Morris concludes, “but an assortment of regions, towns, and villages.” When the four Arab armies invaded, on May 15, 1948, they, too, were disorganized and—compared with the Jews, who were fighting for their survival—far less motivated.

About six thousand Jews and twelve thousand Palestinians died in the conflict; the Egyptians lost fourteen hundred men; the Iraqis, Jordanians, and Syrians lost several hundred each. Not long afterward, … the Jewish minorities in the Islamic world—in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Libya—experienced anti-Semitic demonstrations, pogroms, threats, internments, bomb attacks, synagogue fires. This, too, was a product of the war, and half a million Jews, the Sephardim, eventually left Islamic countries for Israel and, largely because of the circumstances of their exile, formed the Likud rank and file. …

If you have the patience, I suggest you go back and read Remnick’s entire article online, which includes the origins of the belief that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

By | 2008-05-09T13:17:00-04:00 May 9th, 2008|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Anonymous May 11, 2008 at 12:00 am - Reply

    Actually, the article gets the origin of the phrase a “land without a people for a people without a land” wrong, it also gets the meaning wrong.

    Here’s a more authoratative article: http://www.meforum.org/article/1877

  2. judith June 15, 2009 at 12:40 am - Reply

    I am anguished that after the unspeakable damage done to Israel’s credibility in the global political arena created by Morris in his writings and taken full advantage of by so-called ‘pro-Palestinian’ forces Morris comes out to basically say that he was wrong. He has caused untold bloodshed and ignorance among Arabs, Israelis, the world community and the Left. He should come out and formally reverse his opinions for all to hear.

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