Like little stars.
In 1988, historian Benny Morris sent shock waves through Israeli society with a book called “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” which, through a careful inspection of previously classified Israeli archives, revealed that Israel bore significant blame for the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians during the war of 1948 that created the modern state of Israel — blame that the establishment had always denied. That same year Morris, an outspoken opponent of Israel’s occupation of the territories it captured in the 1967 war, refused his mandatory military service in the West Bank as the Palestinian intifada began. He landed in prison.
A decade and a half has gone by, and once again Morris is scandalizing Israel — but this time in a totally different way. Now, even as he releases an updated version of his book, he is defending what with brutal honesty he describes as the “ethnic cleansing” that brought the Jewish state into existence. In a recent interview with the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Morris not only justified the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians from Israel, but also said that then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion failed in his task by not expelling all Arabs from the nascent Jewish state: “If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job.”
Morris went on to say that renewed expulsions of the Palestinians — those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and even those who are Israeli citizens — could be “entirely reasonable” in circumstances that are “liable to be realized in five or 10 years.” Unwavering Arab hatred of Israel, he argued, meant that the best way to deal with the Palestinians for now is to “build something like a cage” for them (some would argue this is already happening with the ongoing construction of the so-called “separation wall.”) The Arab and Muslim world, in his eyes, consists of barbarians who don’t appreciate the value of human life, barbarians knocking on the gates of the civilized West.
Of course, anyone can make bold and inflammatory statements, and when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many people do. What makes Morris’ statements seem so outrageous is that they are apparently not the words of a fanatic. They are the words of someone who has thought a great deal about his beliefs, someone who seems to be logical and rational, someone who was not only raised as a liberal, but who also still claims to hold leftist ideals and to vote for progressive Israeli politicians.
Morris does not retract anything he wrote in the original 1988 book. Indeed, the updated edition, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited” (just published by Cambridge University Press) proves the Israelis to be even more culpable. Drawing on 300 pages of new material from recently declassified documents, Morris has found evidence of no less than 24 Israeli massacres of Palestinians, with the numbers of victims ranging from four or five to 70 to 100. The infamous massacre at Deir Yassein, Morris reports, was just one of many. He also reports a dozen cases of rape.
More crucially, Morris concludes that these atrocities did not occur in a vacuum: they were the result of a clearly understood policy, coming from Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion, to expel or “transfer” Palestinians out of their ancestral land, land that was to become Israel. Explicit military orders were given in some cases to expel the populations of Palestinian villages. It’s true that Morris also finds documentation in Israeli archives of Arab orders to evacuate women and children, and at times men, from some villages, offering some support for the long-held Israeli position that the Palestinians simply left because Arab leaders told them to before the fighting began, promising that they would soon return after a great Arab victory. But if the book places some blame for the flight of the refugees on the Arab leadership, that blame is far outweighed by that born by the Israelis.
But despite these harrowing findings, Moris says he remains an unapologetic Zionist — indeed, he says he was always one, even in his first book, popular belief to the contrary. He never questioned the legitimacy of the founding of the state, blood-drenched and founded on ethnic cleansing though he acknowledged it was. Morris can be harshly critical of Israel, particularly its role as occupying power. In “Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001,” one of the best histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he wrote, “Israelis liked to believe, and tell the world, that they were running an ‘enlightened’ or ‘benign’ occupation, qualitatively different from other military occupations the world had seen. The truth was radically different. Like all occupations, Israel’s was founded on brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation.” Yet even as Morris challenges the Israeli establishment, he never questions its right to exist.
Do Morris’ extreme views reflect mainstream Israeli beliefs? Yes and no. Like many other Israeli liberals, Morris’ optimism about peace, and whether the Palestinians really wanted it, was shaken by the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 — after the Oslo peace accords and the Camp David talks had convinced many that a resolution was at hand. With the collapse of the Camp David talks amid mutual acrimony and the escalation of violence, in particular the rise of suicide bombings within Israel, many Israeli peaceniks became disillusioned, feeling that they had found no true “partner for peace” in the Palestinians. Many Palestinians, on the other hand, argue that they wanted peace and a two-state solution, but that the terms offered by Israeli negotiators — and the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land that continued unabated throughout the Oslo period — showed that Israelis were the ones who weren’t ready for a just peace.
“You go to have coffee with your equally liberal friends, you talk peace and human rights and Palestinian independence, and if you are lucky the place blows up only after you leave,” says Tom Segev, an Israeli author who like Morris was dubbed a “new historian” for writing books that challenged the traditional Israeli version of history. “So you are frustrated and angry and, worst of all, you feel stupid. This is what terrorism does to free people and to free countries as well.”
Morris’ hawkish views started to come to light after the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out in 2000. In columns in the British paper the Guardian, Morris lambasted the Palestinian leaders, particularly Yasser Arafat, for their failure to sign a final-status agreement with Israel, and blaming the increasingly violent intifada (and Israel’s increasingly violent reprisals) on the Palestinian desire to destroy the Jewish state. Then came an interview between Morris and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — whose offer Arafat rejected — in which Barak stated that culturally, Arabs just didn’t understand the principle of honesty. Conservative Jewish publications like Commentary began running stories about Morris’ apparent conversion to their side.
“Benny has always attracted controversy,” says Ian Black, the Guardian’s former Middle East correspondent, who also coauthored a book with Morris about the history of Israeli intelligence agencies. “He’s a controversialist and to some extent relishes it.”
Morris’s conversion may be more dramatic, and more agonizingly paradoxical because of his willingness to admit the bloodshed at the heart of the Zionist project, but it is representative of the change many Israelis have gone through in the last three years.
“Although his case is high-profile and very visible, the phenomenon is a broader one,” Black says. “It’s clear that Benny’s own revision of his views, a much more conservative twist in his own intellectual odyssey, is born of the disappointment, the disillusionment that there isn’t a viable partner on the Palestinian side. He’s fairly representative of a wider trend.”
Until the Haaretz interview two weeks ago, anyway. Although Morris had in other publications mentioned the idea of transfer (the euphemism generally used to mean the deportation of the Palestinian population out of the occupied territories), broaching such a taboo subject in one of Israel’s most popular newspapers set off a new wave of controversy. This time, it seemed, his comments went beyond the pale. Soon afterward, Haaretz printed dozens of letters from Jews and Arabs alike, almost universally condemning his comments.
When I tell Black, who hadn’t read the interview, about Morris’ comments, he exclaims, “I didn’t realize he had gone that far.” After reading the interview, Black e-mailed me this about his old friend: “I disagree strongly with the views expressed.”
“Basically I think Benny Morris flipped out as result of three years of terrorism,” says Segev. He added sympathetically, “Happens to many of us.”
Avi Shlaim, another of Israel’s “new historians” — and a post-Zionist who has publicly disagreed with Morris on several occasions — puts it in starker terms: “He is typical of the left in concluding that there is no Palestinian peace partner — but not in his call for transfer and racist views.”
When I speak by telephone to Morris himself, he doesn’t take back any of his earlier statements, although the language he uses is not as provocative as in the Haaretz interview. No talk of putting the Palestinians into “a cage,” for instance. He speaks briskly, but his tone generally remains even, his English accent (his parents emigrated from Britain) crisp and genteel.
But the contradictions in such an inherently contradictory man are immediately evident. In one sentence he calls for Israel’s unilateral dismantling of all the settlements, and an Israeli military withdrawal to the 1967 “Green Line.” In another, he suggests that Palestinians in 1948 should have left their homes voluntarily and moved to Jordan to found a state there. One is struck by his many broad generalizations about Arabs and Muslims, citing readings and surveys without ever mentioning in-depth conversations with real people, human beings, friends. Whether this is the result of shell shock or some other factor, Morris’ ideal world is clearly one of total separation from Arabs, and he insists that they have always wanted the exact same thing.
Most notable are Morris’ own feelings about how his views mesh with those of mainstream Israeli society, and the proof he offers that he should not be marginalized: “Most people who’ve called me and written me on e-mail have been favorable to extremely favorable, including left-wingers. They’ve gone out of their way to say, ‘You’ve said things we would never say, but we actually agree with most of everything.’”
After your first book was written in 1988, there was quite an uproar, especially among the Israeli establishment.
They didn’t like what I wrote. They thought it was anti-Zionist. They prevented me from getting a job in a university for many years. They were very angry, partly because if what I wrote was true, what they’d been writing over the years was untrue. But eventually the Israeli establishment accepted me in some way. I have a job in a university; my books are taught in all the universities and accepted more or less as dogma.
Over this period of 20 years, this period I’ve been injected into the Israeli establishment, the establishment has generally been drifting leftwards — it’s becoming more postmodern, post-Zionist. So I still am not accepted by a large number of scholars in the establishment today as well. Especially in my university, Ben-Gurion, there’s a whole host of postmodern scholars who dislike my writings, who have always disliked my writings, even before the year 2000. Even before my supposed switch. Even though I was writing about the nasty things that Jews had done to Arabs, they said that I wasn’t writing it in a condemnatory enough tone.
Does the conservative establishment treat you differently now?
Yes. They have at last come to realize that I am the Zionist I always said I was. That I believe in the existence of the Jewish state and its perpetuation.
How did that ostracism affect you over the years?
Oh, it’s made me a very bitter person. [Laughs.] I’m joking. In terms of my writings and in terms of my personality, I don’t think it’s had any great effect on me, no.
Did your approach to writing this newer version of the book change with your change in political views?
I’m not sure that my political views have changed. I think I’m still on the left in that I don’t want a “Greater Israel” — I want two states. I think the right solution here is two states for two people, along more or less the 1967 borders: We shouldn’t have the settlements there, we should uproot them; we shouldn’t have the army there; we should not be in occupation. They should have their capital in East Jerusalem; the city should be divided, and so on.
The problem is not in my beliefs, but that [the Palestinians] do not want that — that is the problem. They do want the West Bank, but only as a stage in their liberation of all Palestine. That’s the problem.
But I don’t think it has affected my historical writing. You’ll find some differences in the conclusion, which I think tries to put what happened in ’48 into a wider context of the whole conflict, which I didn’t really do in the original edition. But I don’t really think that you’ll find much changed in the substance of the book — except, as I say, more [Israeli] expulsions, more atrocities, and also more Arab orders for people to leave.
I agree that even in reading your first book you always presented yourself as a Zionist. But your recent statements have shocked many people on the left in Israel.
[Laughs.] Well, I probably like to be provocative; I suppose that’s why I started writing about such a subject to begin with. But as you say, I was always a Zionist. I think I say things a little more bluntly and certainly in a less politically correct manner than is acceptable in Israeli middle-class Ashkenazi academic circles. One doesn’t talk about the potential disloyalty of Israel’s Arabs. One doesn’t say that perhaps it would have been better had all of them crossed the Jordan, and then we could have had two states, and then perhaps there would have been more peace instead of less peace, and less suffering rather than more suffering in ’48. A lot of people on the left believe these things but don’t say them — you’re not supposed to say them. That’s what’s so shocking — not my opinions, but actually saying these things, which a lot of people do think.
What kinds of responses have you received, from friends, from family?
This intifada has opened people’s eyes to the depths of Arab hatred for Israel, and probably the inevitability of their desire for Israel’s ultimate destruction and replacement by a Muslim Arab state. I think people understand they were offered a two-state solution, a historic compromise. They rejected it. They went to the sword, which also includes awful terrorist elements, which really represents what they want.
A minority [of Israelis] disagrees [with me], and a small minority is extremely angry, especially Israeli Arabs, who think that the things I said might be considered racist. But I think the majority is with me.
Some have said that that kind of talk, whether it’s what people are thinking or not, will ultimately just provoke Arabs. It can be used as proof that Israel is a country that doesn’t really want to accept Arabs.
You may be right. People also spoke the same way about my book about the refugees. They said, “Well, it may be true that what happened, happened — there were massacres and expulsions — but you really shouldn’t say it, because it’s going to provoke Arabs and be uncomfortable for us in diplomatic forums and so on.” There are always arguments against people telling the truth, or saying things the way they actually see them. The same applies to this. I think it’s better that people face what I consider to be realities.
And the reality of Arab hatred and intransigence, and the ultimate desire to destroy us, is something Israelis must understand. It may change in a generation, but it’s not going to change tomorrow, and this is the way the Arabs think today under Arafat. I think Israelis must know this, must get used to this. And this may mean, down the road, new difficulties, new wars, and even perhaps an expulsion. People should face reality, or what I think is reality — and this is a problem for a lot of people.
But doesn’t it seem that there have been changes in the overall Arab mentality since 1948? For example, the recent Geneva accords, or the proposal initiated by the Saudis and approved by the Arab League. It seems they have left some real room for negotiation, even on the Palestinians’ ‘right of return.’
The Arab League said they would normalize their relations with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution — but they also insist on implementation of U.N. Resolution 194, from December 1948, which endorses the right of return of the refugees. This is something that Palestinians and the Arab states refuse to waive. They insist on it continuously. Even in the Geneva accords, which was signed by unofficial peaceniks on both fronts, they don’t waive the right of return. This is the great fear of Israelis, that this is the mechanism by which they want to undermine and dissolve the state of Israel. There are 4 million refugees out there; if they are allowed to return, piecemeal or all together, the state of Israel will no longer be a Jewish state. There will be an Arab majority here. Jews understand that this would be suicide.
You talked about the shift in the Arab attitudes over time, and there is something in that. Ultimately the vision of Ben-Gurion and [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky [a conservative Israeli leader] was that over the generations, faced with Israeli power, the Arabs would eventually succumb, in the sense of accepting the inevitable, accepting Israel’s existence. It’s true that Egypt made peace with Israel, and Jordan made peace with Israel, and Palestinians also entered the Oslo peace process. So in the 1990s, when I wrote “Righteous Victims” [a history of the Arab-Zionist conflict since the 19th century] it seemed to be bringing us towards ultimate Arab acceptance of Israel’s existence, and peace in the area. That’s what it looked like. What has happened since 2000 is that there has been a resurgence of Arab antagonism and unwillingness to make peace with Israel.
Now, it’s possible that Israel has also contributed to the growth [of Palestinian terrorism]. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that these organizations, which want Israel’s demise — as bloody as possible, in fact — do have a commanding presence among the Palestinian public. There was progress in the late 1970s and the ’90s, but there has also been regression.
Why does that mean that there’s no hope for an ultimate resolution?
In this generation, I think that the Palestinians are not willing, deep in their hearts, to make peace with the Jewish state. They simply can’t accept that this is a just solution to what happened. They believe that the Jews are a robber state and have taken their land, with the support of America and Western Europe.
I’m willing to give it a try, leaving the territories, but I don’t really think it’ll work. I think we should give it a try for various moral and political reasons, but I don’t think it’s going to work, because I don’t think the Arabs are ready for such a division of the land and such a peace settlement. They’ll say, “Fine, we’ve got this part, let’s now get Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and so on.” Will they actually clamp down on their extremists and terrorists? They won’t. They haven’t done it until now. They won’t do it in the future.
The way you talk about the failure of Oslo suggests that it was doomed from the start, that the Palestinians just weren’t willing now to accept peace. Does Israel also share the blame for ensuring that Oslo failed — for example, because of the steady increase in Jewish settlements in the territories?
I don’t know if Israel did more than the Palestinians, or less. I think there probably were some Palestinians who were sincere during the 1990s, that they were willing to agree to a two-state solution, towards which Oslo was supposed to lead. I don’t think this is the case in the leadership, which means basically Arafat. Let’s be quite frank — Arafat kills or jails or distances anybody who objects to his policies on major issues. Arafat, the fount of power there, he was playing us along. I am certain of this. And I think what he set out to do in Oslo was to gain a state without actually accepting Israel alongside it. Not to give the imprimatur to that settlement. And that’s what happened when Barak said to him in 2000, “OK, this is the moment of decision, now you have to affix your signature to this and comply with the two-state solution.” Arafat basically said no. He rejected it.
Yet you’re arguing that the whole idea of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank was merely a steppingstone to conquering the whole territory of Israel. So why didn’t he sign?
That poses a dilemma. Because if this is true, why didn’t Arafat in 2000 take what was being offered by Barak and Clinton — take the West Bank and Gaza state? And then, once he had it, establish power in whatever way he could, and from there use it as a base against Israel for the next stage? One could ask that. It’s a legitimate question.
But the most important thing is that he would have had to put his signature, internationally, in front of everybody, to an agreement of this sort, accepting Israel’s existence. And no further claims. That was part of Barak’s demands. They could not claim anything — not refugees, nothing — after they signed the agreement. That was to be the end of the conflict. I think simply, constitutionally, he could not put his name to it, even though tactically he probably should have.
As you’ve mentioned, the Palestinian refugee issue is one of the most intractable problems facing negotiators. In your Haaretz interview, you said that perhaps Ben-Gurion had made a mistake by not expelling all Palestinians beyond the river Jordan. I have a hard time understanding how creating even more refugees would actually have helped Israel.
[Laughs.] Well, this is speculation. There’s no way of knowing how the future looks. What I’m saying is, if all the Palestinians had been pushed across the Jordan, or left voluntarily, and established a state in Jordan — a state of their own in territory which used to be the kingdom of Jordan, they would have had a state of their own. They would have had independence. They would have had a uniform population, more or less, a Palestinian Arab population. They wouldn’t have had to live under Jewish domination in any way. They would have felt better!
Now, you’re saying they might have continued the war afterwards, and maybe they would have. I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be a Hamas and an Islamic Jihad, to continue from the other side of the Jordan. But it’s still an easier and morally clearer war, for both sides, if the population were separated this way — on the one side there were Jews, and on the one side there were Arabs. What the war left behind is a large Arab minority [in Israel], which is potentially a fifth column, a large Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which we ended up taking over in 1967, which we can’t take over and we can’t throw up.
That would have required an enormous number of people to give up their rights to the land where they had been living for generations, to people who were coming in as outsiders–
They said that anyhow. I don’t know what would have happened. This is just speculation. I may be wrong, but as a historian, it looks to me as if Israel would have been a better place and the Palestinians would have lived better on the other side in their own state. The future would have looked better for everybody.
You speak of looking at things as a historian. But I was struck by your tendency in the Haaretz interview to make broad and sweeping generalizations. For example, you compared the Arab and Muslim world to the barbarians knocking at the gates of Rome, or the West. Why did you move from looking at things in a more complex way, case by case, to these broad declarations?
I think historians work on both levels. I think I’ve looked at things on a detailed, case-by-case, local level, with my work on the refugees, for example. But historians are also called upon occasionally to stop looking at the details on the map and start looking at the whole map. My take is that the world is entering a period that will be characterized by nonconventional warfare between the West, the Christian-Jewish West, and the Islamic world. I think there will be a lot of casualties in this world war. I think it will be a large-scale war in terms of casualties and in terms of the space that it covers.
I don’t know if it’s all of Islam, or all of the Arab states. In this sense you may be right, the generalization may not be in place. I think there is some sort of subtle struggle in the Muslim and Arab world between moderates and radicals, but I think that basically the radicals are setting the tone. And Islam in a sense is different from Western religions, in that it occupies people’s souls and translates into their politics. In the West, perhaps it was like that in the Middle Ages, and in Judaism, perhaps it was like that 2,000 years ago. But the Jews and Christians have thrown off religion as dictating their lives and their political and social beings. In Islam it’s not that way. It’s a major component of their identity, and their political identity. That’s why I’m not sure if the difference between radical Muslims and moderate Muslims is a realistic one.
It seems like when discussing 1948 and Israel’s creation — the displacement of the Palestinians, the massacres that took place by Israelis — that you’re able to rationalize these acts ultimately as being necessary, or excusable, for the sake of creating the nation. Yet when Arabs or Muslims today commit atrocities for a cause, you write them off as barbarians. Do you see any inconsistency there?
I don’t necessarily think so. Well, of course, if you’re talking about people who are trying to kill me, when someone is bombing you and your family at the present, it’s much more difficult for me to rationalize that than something that happened 50 years ago that was also done on behalf of my side. That’s on one level.
On another level, I believe transfer was necessary for the creation of the state of Israel, but there’s never any excuse for the massacres, the rapes — those were just war crimes. The transfer is what I think there was a necessity for. And, to put it into context, the massacres that were committed were relatively small. Only about 800 people killed — compared to what the Russians did to the Germans at Stalingrad, compared to what took place in Bosnia, that’s not that much.
At one time, you actually refused to serve in the territories. Why?
Because my feeling at the time was that the first intifada, the Arab rebellion in the West Bank, was a non-lethal rebellion. They used rocks and so on, but they didn’t shoot and they didn’t kill Israeli civilians in buses in Tel Aviv. They basically threw stones at soldiers, trying to shake off these soldiers that were occupying them. My sympathies were with the rebels. I thought the Arabs really meant what they said and they were out to liberate the West Bank and Gaza from military occupation. I thought that was just. And therefore, I refused to fight them.
What do you think of today’s refuseniks [Israelis who refuse to serve in the territories for ideological purposes]?
I don’t agree with them. I’m not going to march and shout [at them] and so on, but I think they are mistaken. I think they are projecting backwards to the thinking and motives of the Arabs which existed in 1988, which don’t exist today. I think the Arabs are after our state, and they are after our blood. I think anyone who doesn’t serve now is doing something wrong.
Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.More Christopher Farah.
Like little stars.
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