Right of reply / The judgment of history

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Various (Responses to Benny Morris) | Ha’aretz Daily | 16 January 2003

Last week’s interview with historian Benny Morris (“Survival of the fittest” by Ari Shavit, Haaretz Magazine, January 9, 2004) has generated a deluge of readers’ responses. Here are some selected comments:
Squaring the Circle
Benny Morris should be congratulated for his candor with Ari Shavit in squaring the circle between his research findings on 1948 atrocities by the Israel Defense Forces, and the political and moral conclusions he now draws from them. I always suspected that Israeli objections to the Palestinian refugees’ right of return was less connected to demography than to the fear of “the barbarians,” which includes Arab and Mizrahi culture inside Israel. Otherwise how to explain this tolerance for such a substantial number of non-Jewish immigrants from Russia and other countries to Israel in the last two decades, while there is a relentless debate on threats to a Jewish demographic majority? Now Morris lends eloquent proof to this obsession.
Paradoxically his newly elevated status in Israeli right-wing circles, and his preemptive legitimizing of future ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, will give formidable ammunition in establishing Israel’s culpability in the making of the refugee problem in 1948, and in its historical responsibility for bearing its consequences today.
Dr. Salim Tamari
The case for a binational state
How could what Benny Morris calls the ethnic cleansing of another people increase the security of Jews more than Jewish residence in the Diaspora in modern multicultural Western democratic states?
Perhaps it could have – if it hadn’t begun in ethnic cleansing. But, according to Morris, since it did, he changes the argument to say the Jewish state has decreased Jewish security. And so, he says, it should have gone and ethnically cleansed more than it did in order to defend itself better from those from whom it took and ethnically cleansed. And, even more, he says it is the people who were ethnically cleansed, rather than those he says did the ethnic cleansing, who should receive the title (which he assigns) of serial criminals.
It is hard to believe that if what Benny Morris describes as the state’s actions, in combination with his arguments in Haaretz, had been announced to the world in advance, the Zionist movement would have won Jewish and gentile hearts and minds of the British, the League of Nations and UN members, and Europeans and Americans that eventually made the partitioned state possible.
All the while, its purposes and effects have led to nightmares of Jewish insecurity and horror, and Palestinian ethnic cleansing, occupation and exile.
So that now Morris cannot answer Ari Shavit’s basic question that “if Zionism is so dangerous for the Jews and if Zionism makes the Arabs so wretched, maybe it’s a mistake?,” except for the baldest and most sterile denial. And he can answer Shavit’s follow-up question about whether this leaves Israel with just the two choices of “cruel, tragic Zionism, or the foregoing of Zionism,” only with stoical assent.
Rarely in recent years has the case been as powerfully made as Benny Morris has for the right of return of the ethnically cleansed population and for what the U.S. civil rights movement and U.S. society proudly came to call integrationism – Martin Buber’s and Meron Benvenisti’s and Avraham Burg’s binational federationist state with one person and one vote from the coast to the Jordan. Egalitarian and civil rights-based values have given to all aspirant Western societies that they have touched a future of vast relief and new hope.
James Adler
Cambridge, MA
Personal watershed
It is hard to remain indifferent to the riveting interview with Prof. Benny Morris. His remarks about the Israeli-Arab conflict in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular are jolting, stunning, hitting the poor reader over the head like an iron hammer, especially if the reader is part of the peace camp.
The initial impulse is to try to refute Prof. Morris, especially over the eradication, not to say the annihilation, of the hope for conciliation and true peace, today or in the foreseeable future, between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people – on top of which the impression is that he does this with the greatest joy. Afterward the doubt begins to creep in. Maybe he is not exaggerating at all in his apocalyptic forecasts? Maybe he’s simply right, and things will never be better here and peace is a pipedream?
For me, at least, the interview, I am not ashamed to say, marks my personal watershed. It legitimizes earnest soul-searching that I have been engaged in for the past three years and more, relating to the fundamentals of my political beliefs and positions. Those beliefs are now undergoing a serious shock, not to say a sharp change. Thanks to Prof. Morris, or rather because of him, I am finally succeeding in articulating my conclusions to myself, and they are bad, bitter and depressing.
Benny Mizrahi
Ramat Gan
Kosher European terrorism
Benny Morris treats Palestinian terrorism as a singular phenomenon that stems from the culture of Islam and from the fact that the Palestinian society is a “very sick society. Psychologically.” One need not be an historian to know that nearly every liberation movement in the 20th century considered attacks on civilians of the occupying side a legitimate means in the struggle for independence. To make matters more palatable for Morris, we will note that the Irish Republican Army (glatt kosher Europeans), too, did not balk at attacking innocent civilians.
Moreover, as an historian who studies the period in which Israel was established, Morris certainly knows that the struggle of the Yishuv – the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine – against the Arabs also involved deliberate attacks on innocent civilians.
It’s true that the phenomenon of Palestinian terrorism is unusual in its scale and in the fact that hundreds of young people are ready to die together with their victims. From the point of view of moral principle, however, there is no difference between a young Palestinian who blows himself up in a Tel Aviv cafe and a young Irishman who plants a bomb in a London cafe. The bottom line is that, no matter how terrible it sounds (as Morris likes to say), is Morris ready to promise that if the roles were reversed (Palestinian occupation of Israel, with checkpoints, arrests, settlements and all the rest) Israeli youngsters wouldn’t plant bombs in complacent cafes in Ramallah and Nablus?
Yuval Yavneh
Collegial revulsion
As an historian in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, I read with revulsion the interview with my colleague in the department, Prof. Benny Morris. Although I support the basic principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, these freedoms have clear moral and ethical limits, limits that Prof. Morris crudely trampled.
The fundamental problem with what he says lies in the use he makes of the historian’s authority to present a-historical and racist opinions in regard to the Palestinians, the Arab world and the Muslim world as a whole, as justification for a criminal policy that Israel is obliged, in his view, to implement against them in particular.
Prof. Morris gives Israel validation to perpetrate war crimes against the Palestinians, from incarcerating them in a “cage” to killing and finally ethnic cleansing. That validation not only rests on groundless historical arguments, it is also contrary to the basic principles of international law and human rights.
One final comment: Prof. Morris is certainly well aware of the fact that a large proportion of the students at Ben-Gurion University (and in his department) are Palestinian Israelis, those he calls a “fifth column” and a demographic “time bomb.” What we have here, then, is an uninhibited assault not only against Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians in general, but also against the student body at Ben-Gurion University.
Dr. Haggai Ram
New York
Crude rewriting of the past
Birds of a feather flock together. Ari Shavit, who has made his disillusionment over Oslo a profession, went to interview Benny Morris and discovered that the intifada has hurled his interviewee into the gutters of Kahanism and the twisted idea of the population transfer. From a critical documenter of injustices, Morris has abruptly turned into their propagandist. I have no intention of arguing with Morris’ violent doctrine, as I refrain from doing so with Palmach Ze’evi, Benny Elon et al. My basic and inalienable right to live in my home and my homeland is not a subject for debate. Not even in academic garb. Nevertheless, I want to say a word about conformism and bestialization.
The lead of the interview displays deliberate and dishonorable blurring and confusion. The interviewer writes that Morris’ books about the mass expulsion of the country’s Arabs and the destruction of the villages were not written with a critical tone, that as far as Morris is concerned those events were unavoidable, and that he was always a Zionist. The lead also states, in the same breath, that Morris is “considered a radical leftist” and was “boycotted by the Israeli academic establishment.” And to give the salad the final mix, the lead adds, “Two years ago, different voices began to be heard.”
What I want to ask is: Why, then, was Benny Morris boycotted? For what reason was he considered a radical left-winger? And if the leftism that was attributed to him is no more than a slander, why didn’t he bother to refute it? Maybe because his opinion in fact changed only two years ago. If so, all this crude rewriting of the past is hardly appropriate, especially in connection with an historian.
One final word on the elite as the tool of dark nationalist tendencies: Apparently one doesn’t have to be a professor to be a “rhinoceros” of the Ionesco type, but sometimes it helps.
MK Mohammed Barakeh
The Knesset
Like Camus?
In a pathetic attempt to claim that he is still a left-winger, even though he expresses the most extreme right-wing views, Benny Morris seizes on the French philosopher Albert Camus and tries to create the following formula: “Camus was a person of the left, Camus supported French colonial rule in Algeria; I am like Albert Camus, therefore I, too, am a person of the left.” We should stand that equation on its head and examine whether Albert Camus deserves to be considered a left-winger in today’s terms.
Camus was a French settler in Algeria. That was a central facet of his personality, as he himself noted often, giving expression to this position in his most important works. “The Plague” is a depiction of a city that is coping with an epidemic, but not an abstract or imaginary city – it is the city of Oran, in Algeria, and in the city of Oran, as described by Camus, there are many residents, poor and rich, smart and dumb, but all are French. In the book, the Arab population, which constituted the great majority of the city in Camus’ period, too, is erased and disappears completely.
“The Stranger” describes a senseless murder on a beach. But it’s not the murder of an abstract person by another abstract person, it’s the murder of an Algerian Arab by a French settler. Would we in today’s Israel accept the author of such books as someone on the left, without examination or reservation?
And incidentally, when the French left began to support Algerian independence, Camus broke with it.
Hanita Ronen-Shalev
Tel Aviv
Born of rape
The historian Benny Morris uncovered documents that reveal the reality of what happened in 1948 in all its ugliness and monstrousness. However, Benny Morris the person is unwilling and incapable of coping with the moral implications of what he discovered and revealed. Indeed, the State of Israel as it is today could not have arisen if Ben-Gurion had not carried out large-scale ethnic cleansing.
Is our country, whose vistas we know so well, such a wonderful creation that its very existence confers moral justification on that brutal act? I doubt it. By the way, I also doubt that the “American democracy” of our day is such a wonderful creation that it confers moral justification on the annihilation of the Indians, as Morris claims.
That doesn’t mean we have to dismantle Israel or the United States. Even a child born of rape has the right to go on living once he has come into the world. It does mean that the State of Israel should recognize the terrible injustice its establishment inflicted on the Palestinian people and compensate them, and certainly that it should refrain from inflicting further injustices, as we are doing day in and day out, and as Morris recommends that we go on doing more intensively.
Adam Keller
Gang of thieves
Benny Morris revealed the fact that Ben-Gurion was the leader of a gang of thieves that robbed a bank and argues that “there are circumstances in history that justify robbery,” that is, ethnic cleansing. So he’s sorry that Ben-Gurion “got cold feet, made a historic mistake and didn’t complete the work.” He should have robbed the whole treasury.
Morris therefore advocates another big bank job, in order to rectify Ben-Gurion’s blunder. “I support the transfer of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, [but] not at this moment.” He expects (hopes for?) “other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years.”
Benny Morris, you have convinced us and the world that Zionism was and still remains a gang of thieves, which continues to plan the completion of the heist and therefore constitutes a cardinal danger to the peace of the world. What you don’t understand is that if one has executed a successful robbery and gone unpunished, it would be foolish today to plan another robbery for which you will be punished for the first one, too.
And there’s something else you failed to grasp: You explain the Arabs’ hatred for us by saying they are “barbarians” and “serial murderers.” You don’t understand that you and Zionism are not making do with the booty from the previous robbery and intend to complete the work and take from them all that remains, the whole kit and caboodle.
Thanks for revealing the historical facts. The conclusions, though, we won’t take from you, we will draw our own.
Ori Orr
Kiryat Tivon
Proposal vs. proposal
Benny Morris claims that he understood, from the Palestinians’ rejection of Ehud Barak’s proposals in July 2000 and President Clinton’s proposals in December 2000, that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept the two-state solution: “They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa.”
The details of the negotiations, which were made public by a few of the Jewish participants in several books, lead to the opposite conclusion: Arafat didn’t agree to accept Ehud Barak’s demand at Camp David to annex to Israel settlement sausages that would slice the West Bank into three parts, and put forward a counter-proposal for the establishment of a Palestinian state throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Arafat did not demand Lod, Acre and Jaffa.
Ehud Barak rejected Arafat’s proposal, as Arafat rejected Barak’s proposal. Ehud Barak, and afterward Arafat, “accepted” the proposal of President Clinton with reservations. Barak sent President Clinton 20 pages of reservations. I would have expected Prof. Benny Morris to be accurate with his facts. His conclusions, at any rate, are completely groundless.
Roni Weiss
Ramat Gan
Like the Indians?
I was struck by the preposterousness of Benny Morris’s comments in last week’s interview. One would have expected a great deal more critical reflection from such an eminent historian. One of the most egregious examples was his claim that “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”
To what overall good is Morris referring to here? Is he suggesting that the Native Americans really posed an existential threat to American democracy? Despite Morris’s claim, there was no functional relationship between dead Native Americans and democracy in America’s evolution as a nation. In fact, by the time most of the indigenous population had been destroyed following the completion of American westward expansion, undemocratic policies like the Jim Crow laws continued as a matter of course in much of the U.S. It was the rapacious thirst for resources, the racist ideology and xenophobia and particularly the doctrine of Manifest Destiny which made the destruction of the Native Americans an imperative in American policy. It is not American democracy which was dependent on the liquidation of the Native Americans but rather American imperialism, and in this an analogy to Israel can be made.
Eliott Weiss
Tel Aviv