Is it possible for someone who matter-of-factly supports crimes against humanity to be a good historian? A startling and provocative question, no doubt, but one that inevitably arises upon consideration of the remarkable career of Israeli scholar Benny Morris. A professor in the Middle East Studies department at Ben-Gurion University, Morris is well-known as one of the most important of the “New Historians,” a group that upended traditional Zionist historiography of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In the first edition of his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), Morris conclusively demonstrated, through the mining of newly released Israeli government archives, that the refugees from the 1948 war had, overwhelmingly, fled or been expelled by Israeli forces rather than left as a result of encouragement by Arab leaders, as a previous generation of Israeli propagandists had claimed.
After the release of that book and in subsequent years, with the publication of Israel’s Border Wars (1997) followed by a general history of the conflict, Righteous Victims (1999), Morris was generally lauded by liberals as a historian willing to expose uncomfortable truths about the Israeli past. This Morris, the seemingly liberal Morris, rose to fame at the time of the first Palestinian intifada and the Oslo period that followed, when both support for Palestinian resistance to occupation and new hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict gained traction around the world.
But, like much of the liberal Israeli intelligentsia, Morris was deeply shaken when the second intifada began in the fall of 2000. He accepted the establishment Israeli (and American) claim that the breakdown of the Camp David summit the previous summer was entirely the fault of the Palestinians and that they launched the new intifada because they would never really accept the Jewish presence in Palestine. In an astounding January 2004 interview in the leading Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Morris went much further, arguing that the “ethnic cleansing” – his words – of the Palestinians was justified; that it was not only justified but that Israel’s leader at the time, David Ben-Gurion, didn’t go far enough and should have expelled all the Palestinians then living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; and that today’s Palestinian citizens of Israel are “a time bomb…an emissary of the enemy that is among us.” Morris topped off the tirade by applauding the “clash of civilizations” world view common in the West after September 11, condemning the entire Islamic world as one in which “human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West” and “the people we are fighting…have no moral inhibitions.” In a mad crescendo of bigotry he condemned Palestinians as “barbarians” and Palestinian society as “in the state of being a serial killer. It is a very sick society…. Something like a cage has to be built for them…. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another.”
Of course, not only liberals and leftists but anyone remotely respectful of human rights or common decency was horrified at this and similar jeremiads. But it wasn’t so easy simply to dismiss Morris out of hand. For one thing, his fulminations occurred at the same time as publication of the revised edition of his book on the Palestinian refugee problem. In the new edition Morris gave more credence to critics of the first volume who had accused him of underplaying support for “transfer” (expulsion) among the Zionist leadership. He admitted that “by the early 1930s a full-throated near-consensus in support of the idea began to emerge among the movement’s leaders”; indeed, “transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism – because it sought to transform a land that was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population.”
True, Morris still denied evidence of “a policy or master-plan of expulsion.” But he came much closer to the idea that there didn’t need to be a policy because expulsion was “in the air…accepted as inevitable and natural by the bulk of the Jewish population.” Not only that, but in his new edition Morris documented more instances of Israeli massacres, rapes and expulsions during the war. His politics may have become, well, barbaric, but Morris the empiricist historian, Morris the painstaking comber of archives, continued to report what he found. And those findings, if not always his interpretations of them, were valuable.
Now, with 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Morris has published his magnum opus on the war. So which Morris wins out? The ideologue and bigot, or the careful researcher and historian? Blessedly, the latter – for the most part. The book is, on the whole, a judicious and carefully argued narrative, and hews to the general themes of his earlier, nonpolemical writings on the war.Morris is at his best when explaining the broad strategic context and balance of forces between the contending sides – how it was, for example, that the Yishuv, as the Jewish pre-state community was known, though seemingly outnumbered and outarmed, was able to prevail. Morris contrasts the careful planning for statehood and military preparations of the Yishuv with the haphazard organisation, almost complete lack of planning and near-constant infighting among not only the various Palestinian factions but also among the Arab front-line states.
As Morris demonstrates, the two sides were actually fairly evenly matched at the start of the conflict, but by April-May of 1948, the Jewish forces, primarily because of crucial Czech arms shipments, had not only rough parity in number of soldiers but also in weapons and ammunition. While a UN arms embargo deeply damaged the Arab war effort, causing critical shortages, the Jewish side had become expert at evading it, even as they benefited from the technical expertise of international volunteers and financial donations from the Jewish Diaspora, especially in the United States. Between the UN’s November 1947 partition resolution and the Arab invasion of May 1948, the Zionist leadership carried out a rapid build-up and professionalisation of its armed forces, transforming the Haganah militia into a genuine army; it nearly doubled in size between the May 15 Arab invasion and July, by which point it outnumbered the Arab forces.
Morris continues to deny that there was a master plan to expel the Palestinians, but, as in his previous books on the refugee problem, he presents so much evidence that expulsion was both understood and widely accepted by the Jewish leadership that the lack of a clear, unambiguous order from the top seems almost beside the point. He reports “the near-systematic destruction of villages after conquest and depopulation” that began in April and continued, with occasional lapses, for the rest of the war, on every front. By the late summer of 1948, “a consensus had formed that the refugees were not to be allowed back during the war, and a majority…believed that it was best that they not return after the war either…. If allowed back, returnees would constitute a demographic and political time bomb, with the potential to destabilise the Jewish state.” Morris is also forthright in reporting atrocities. The massacre at Deir Yasin in April 1948, near Jerusalem (carried out primarily by extremist Jewish militias but in concert with the Haganah), is only the most infamous example; the worst concentrations of these were in the northern Galilee in late October. “In the yearlong war,” he says, “Yishuv troops probably murdered some eight hundred civilians and prisoners of war all told.” The Arab side committed atrocities too, of course, but Morris says “the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality.”
It’s only in his final chapter, titled Some Conclusions, that Morris the ideologue really shows his colours. He downplays the nationalist element that dominates the discussion not only in his previous books but also the entirety of this one, switching into full Bernard Lewis, clash-of-civilizations mode, arguing that the conflict was “part of a more general, global struggle between the Islamic East and the West,” with the Arab abhorrence of Zionism “anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia.” He argues, on the one hand, that “the Arab war aim, in both stages of the hostilities, was, at a minimum, to abort the emergence of a Jewish state or to destroy it at inception” – but then has to acknowledge that this wasn’t true: the most powerful military player on the Arab side, Jordan, secretly colluded with Israel, was willing to accept a Jewish state and was primarily concerned with seizing the Arab-populated West Bank and thus preventing formation of a rival Palestinian state, as called for in the UN partition resolution. In perhaps his most outlandish claim, Morris asserts that expulsionist thinking on the part of the Yishuv “was in large part a response to the expulsionist ideology and violent praxis of [Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin] al Husseini and his followers” in the decades leading up to 1948. In other words, expulsion was forced on the Zionist movement – if the Palestinians had not been so ill-mannered as to resist the seizure of their native land, and had instead quietly left when the settlers first arrived, the Zionists would not have had to expel them.
So we return to our original conundrum: can a man seemingly without ethical scruple, who exuberantly supports ethnic cleansing and damns entire religions and ethnicities to perdition, who blames the victims of a historic tragedy for their misfortune, make valuable contributions to historiography? It doesn’t seem possible. And yet Benny Morris, at least by the evidence presented in 1948, seems to have done just that. The political judgments may often be twisted, and the moral sensibility may be damaged beyond repair. But the well-trained historian lives on.
ROANE CAREY is managing editor of The Nation in New York and the editor of The Other Israel and The New Intifada.
This article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.