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A Response to Benny Morris

Genocide Hides Behind Expulsion

by ADI OPHIR

At some point in the interview, when the reader might think that Benny Morris has already said the most terrible things, he brings up, in passing, the extermination of the Native Americans. Morris contends that their annihilation was unavoidable. "The great American democracy could not have been achieved without the extermination of the Indians. There are cases in which the general and final good justifies difficult and cruel deeds that are carried out in the course of history." Morris seems to know what the general and final good is: the good of the Americans, of course. He knows that this good justifies partial evil. In other words, under specific conditions, specific circumstances, Morris believes that it is possible to justify genocide. In the case of the Indians, it is the existence of the American nation. In the case of the Palestinians, it is the existence of the Jewish state. For Morris, genocide is a matter of circumstances, that can be justified under certain conditions, all according to the perceived threat that the people to be annihilated represent to the people carrying out the genocide, or just to their form of government. The murderers of Rwanda or Serbia, that are standing trial today in international courts for their crimes against humanity, might like to retain Morris as an advisor.

The circumstantial justifications for transfer and for genocide are exactly the same: in some circumstances there’s no choice. It is just a question of the circumstances. Sometimes you have to expel. Sometimes expulsion is not enough, and you must kill, exterminate, destroy. If, for instance, you have to expel, and those expelled insist on returning to their homes, there’s no choice but to eliminate them. Morris documents this solution in his book on Israel’s border wars in the 1950s. A straightforward reading might lead one to think that he is describing the State of Israel’s greatest sin: the sin is not that Israel expelled the Palestinians in the course of a bloody war, when the Jews faced a genuine threat, but that they shot to death anyone that tried to return to their homes, and would not allow the defeated refugees to return to their deserted villages and accept the new authorities, and be citizens, as they allowed the Palestinians that did not flee. But Morris the careful commentator offers a different interpretation from Morris the historian: there was no choice. Not then and not today. He suggests that we see ourselves as remaining for at least another generation in the cycle of expulsion and killing, ready at any moment to take the harshest measures, when required. At the present stage we have to imprison the Palestinians. Under graver conditions we will need to expel them. If circumstances require, and if the "general, final good" justifies it, extermination will be the final solution. Behind the threat of prison and expulsion lies the threat of extermination. You don’t need to read between the lines. He stated it clearly in the interview. Ha’aretz printed it.

It would not be surprising if the Palestinians see in him an irredeemable enemy. For the Palestinians, Morris, along with the many Israelis who enthusiastically accept the logic of transfer and elimination, presents himself as the enemy against whom there is no choice but to fight to the death. "That’s the Israeli mentality," the concerned Palestinian will say, "there’s nothing we can do about it. The Israelis are prepared to do anything in order to negate our presence in their surroundings. There is a problem in the depths of Israeli-ness. The sense of victimhood and persecution takes a central place in the culture of Jewish nationalism. The people standing opposite us are ready to give up the last moral restraints every time that they feel threatened, and they tend to feel threatened whenever they become more aggressive. You can never compromise with people like that. Every compromise is a trap. The Oslo agreements prove it."

And indeed, Morris, with his words, creates the enemy with which one cannot compromise, exactly as the cages of occupation create the suicide terrorist with which one must not, and indeed, cannot any longer, compromise. When Morris speaks of the need for transfer, he is not describing something that already exists, but contributing to its creation. And not only transfer for the Palestinians. Morris suggests that Israelis should live out at least another generation chained to a the roof of a cage in which barbarians and incurable serial killers are imprisoned, and on the horizon he hints at an Armageddon: "in the coming twenty years there could be a nuclear war here." Under such conditions there is something not quite sane about the decision to stay here. According to Morris’s analysis (that uses the language of pathology only to describe the Palestinians, of course), Israel has become the most dangerous place for the Jewish people. If Zionism is motivated first and foremost by a concern for the national existence of the Jewish people, this analysis must lead sane people to emigrate from Israel and leave the people of the "iron wall" to continue alone on the path to their national collapse.

A war to the death, in which one is ready to shed any moral restraint, is the result of a sense of ‘no exit,’ not necessarily a real lack of alternatives. The logic of Morris’s words creates a feeling of no exit for both sides. In his research, Morris is generally careful and responsible, even conservative, sticking to details while avoiding generalities. Morris the interviewee is a lousy historian and an awful sociologist. His generalities about "a problem in the depths of Islam," on "the Arab world as it exists today" and on "the clash of civilizations" are not the result of historical research, but a smokescreen designed to rule out any possibility of such research. His statements about Palestinian society as a sick society deny the fact that if there is sickness there, then the Israelis-soldiers, settlers, politicians, and intellectuals like Morris himself-are the virus. If the Palestinians are serial killers, Israel is the traumatic event that haunts the killer. And this is not because of memories of the 1948 catastrophe (the Nakba). It is not the victims of the Nakba who have turned into suicide terrorists, but their grandchildren, people responding to the current form of Israeli control of the territories.

The trauma is what is happening today. On the day that Morris’s words were published in Ha’aretz, the humanitarian coordinating organization of the UN in Palestine published a strong protest against harm to the civilian population of the old city of Nablus and the destruction of ancient buildings during the course of IDF activities in the city. One day a historian like Benny Morris will arise to document one by one the crimes committed in the course of operations like this one. For the time being, however, Morris himself is contributing to their denial, by discussing them in future tense. The cage whose establishment he calls for is already here, at least since April of 2002. To a certain extent, transfer is here as well. When Morris talks of expulsion, he is dreaming, so it seems, of the return of the trucks of 1948. But under the conditions of Israeli control in the territories today, transfer is being carried out slowly by the ministry of the interior, by the civilian authority, at airports and border crossings, by sophisticated means such as forms, certificates and denial of certificates, and by less sophisticated means such as the destruction of thousands of homes, and checkpoints, and closures, and sieges, that are making the lives of the Palestinians intolerable and leading many of them to try to emigrate in order to survive. Even if the number of new refugees is small for now, the apparatus that can increase their number overnight, is already working.

The most frightening thing in this interview is not the logic of mutual destruction that Morris presents. The most frightening thing is that this logic is creeping into Ha’aretz and peeks out from the front page of its respected Friday supplement. The interviewer and editors thought it proper to interview Morris. They appreciate the fact that he has dropped the vocabulary of political correctness and says what many are thinking but do not dare to say. If there is a sick society here, the publication of this interview is at one and the same time a symptom of the illness and that which nourishes it.

Professor ADI OPHIR teaches philosophy at Tel Aviv University