The Lonely Historian

From the archive (legacy material)

Elizabeth Wasserman | The Atlantic | 25 March 2004

Benny Morris discusses the new version of his famously controversial book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, which has left him alienated from both the left and the right.
As a reporter covering the war in Lebanon in 1982, Benny Morris paid his first visit to a Palestinian refugee camp—the Rashidiye Camp, near Tyre. The people there had originally come from the Galilee, and many of them had fled during the war of 1947-48. The stories they told Morris about their flight shook him, and made him want to probe deeper into the question that lay at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict: how did 700,000 Palestinians come to evacuate their homeland during the war of 1947-48, and who was responsible?
Drawing on documents in Israeli, British, American, and UN archives, Morris began the work that he published in 1988 as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. It was one of the most influential books ever published in Israel, a dense and harrowing 400-page account from which neither party in the conflict emerged unscathed.
Israeli leaders had discussed privately the possibility of the “transfer” of large numbers of Arabs out of Palestine before the war, Morris discovered, but ultimately found it too morally repugnant to mention to their international sponsors. When Arabs began to flee from Israeli troops and scramble for the border of their own free will, however, many Israelis viewed it as a godsend and vowed not to allow the refugees to return. “The most spectacular event in the history of Palestine—more spectacular in a sense than the creation of the Jewish State—is the wholesale evacuation of the Arab population,” wrote Israeli Cabinet member Moshe Shertok to the chairman of the World Jewish Congress in 1948. “The reversion to the status quo ante is unthinkable.” Morris also gave a share of the blame for the evacuation to the Palestinians’ own muddled, cynical leaders, who initially encouraged the panicked flight for its propaganda value and in order to create a pretext for intervention by Arab states. But by far the most disturbing data in Birth had to do with the war crimes of the Israeli troops: excruciating detail about the rape, pillage, and massacre of Arab civilians and prisoners of war.
Morris concluded that both the Arab and the Israeli official versions of the story were wrong. Israeli leaders had not, as Arabs charged, masterminded a large-scale expulsion of Palestinians. Nor had the Palestinians simply fled voluntarily from war-torn regions, as Israel claimed. Morris rendered no final verdict on the guilt or innocence of either party, but his assessment was clear: a mass evacuation of Arabs had always been desired by the Israeli leaders, and their permissive and even encouraging attitude in the face of atrocities committed by their troops amounted to a kind of ad hoc policy of expulsion.
Morris’s revelations struck at the heart of Zionist self-esteem, supplanting the heroic myth of the birth of Israel with a story that was morally ambiguous at best. Despite protest from the right, Morris’s rigorous scholarship won him widespread respect in Israel. He published several more scholarly books throughout the nineties, including the popular overview, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, and won a reputation for being the most “objective” Jewish writer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Zionist. His books and his intellectual approach, known as post-Zionism, which involved a re-examination of the legitimacy of Israel’s founding ideals, soon became standard in Israeli high school classrooms and on college campuses worldwide.
But his research on the refugee problem remained incomplete. Israel’s military and intelligence archives from 1947-48 were closed by law for a fifty-year period. It was not until the mid-nineties, when Israeli authorities liberalized the archive laws, that Morris gained access to quantities of this sensitive material. Now he could read day-by-day accounts of goings on in Arab villages and towns during the war as well as exchanges between top-level Israeli authorities. Far from settling the question of responsibility, the new evidence found both parties in the conflict even guiltier. The military’s meticulous records revealed new examples of Israeli troops’ helter-skelter assaults on Arab civilians. At the same time, the documents also revealed many more instances of Arab officials themselves encouraging whole communities to flee. The result of Morris’s second wave of research is The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, a book 240 pages longer than the original and filled with even more data to shock and infuriate both camps.
The most radical aspect of the new edition, however, has less to do with the facts than with the author’s point of view. Over the past few years, Morris has done some considerable revisiting of his own politics. The process began in 2000, when Palestinians responded to Ehud Barak’s attempts at peace-making by launching the second Intifada. Morris came out about his change of heart at a lecture at Berkeley University in 2001. His audience was stunned: the man whose name had become virtually synonymous with post-Zionism, who had gone to prison in 1982 for refusing to serve in the Israeli army, was now taking a stand for his country. Since the 1930s, he told them, the Israelis had sought compromise time and time again; it was the Palestinians’ Arab leaders who had refused every opportunity for peace. Israelis were fighting for their survival against a people who were bent on their destruction. Far from being the brutal oppressors of Palestinian lore, they had shown remarkable restraint under the circumstances.
More disturbing still to his former cohorts is Morris’s current attitude toward the Palestinian exodus. While the right maintains that transfer was never intentional, and the left sees it as an original sin from which Israel can never recover, Morris has alienated himself from both camps with what he sees as the only realistic position. “Transfer,” he writes in Revisited, “was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism—because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population.” In a much-publicized recent interview with Ha’aretz entitled “Survival of the Fittest,” Morris took this position to its logical conclusion. Referring to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s hesitant support for the wartime expulsions, he said:

I think he made a serious historical mistake in 1948. Even though he understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered… If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job. 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.

The irony of having published an even more incriminating version of his famously damning work just as he seeks to vindicate his country is not lost on him. He referred to the book recently as a “double-edged sword.” Lonelier, more despondent, but surer than ever in his convictions, Morris continues to write and to teach history at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva.
I spoke with him by telephone on March 15.
—Elizabeth Wasserman
You have said that as a historian and as a realist, you don’t concern yourself with the moral implications of the facts that you reveal. But as an Israeli citizen, can you separate those two things? Have you ever felt concerned about the effects that your revelations would have on the morale of your people or on the public perception of Israel?
Morale is something different from morality, but my attitude in the 1980s, when I was looking at the subject and eventually when I published the book, was that what I was discovering wasn’t all that terrible and that Israeli society was old enough and strong enough and mature enough to handle it. So the story of ’48 which they’d been fed wasn’t the complete story; it had a darker side as well. But nations should know their pasts accurately. And in any case, Israel’s past wasn’t so atrocious that it would suddenly undermine the staying power of society or the belief in its own justness. So on balance, I thought it was then the right thing to do.
I may have been mistaken in one small thing—which may not be that small—and that is the very question of Israel’s existence. I assumed in the 1980s that the struggle for Israel’s existence had been settled, in the sense that Israel was not going to be destroyed, and that the propaganda aspect of its battle for existence would remain marginal. But in the last few years it seems that this propaganda aspect is more important than I had anticipated. And clearly, what I revealed in the 1980s could be used by enemies of Israel. I didn’t anticipate this wave of anti-Israeli feeling, not only in the Arab world but in the rest of the world, too.
Do you think it would have inhibited your work in any way had you anticipated this turn of events?
I don’t think it would have inhibited my work, but it would have made me gloomier about my work.
When you wrote the first version of the book, without the benefit of the military and intelligence archives, did you have a feeling that you were missing something? That there were sources you didn’t have access to that might substantially alter your view?
Well, I saw a lot of archives. I saw American, British, United Nations archives, and I saw quite a lot of Israeli archives as well. My feeling when I finished the research was that I had gotten the story more or less right, but that there were large gaps remaining and that certainly I needed the benefit of the military archives and intelligence archives to fill in these gaps. The archives which I’ve seen over the past decade, especially the Israeli military and intelligence archives, have basically confirmed my general understanding of what happened.
So there were no big surprises.
Not really. If anything, I was surprised at just how much had actually been written down, how thorough the Israeli military reporting was about their various actions and what they had done in terms of creating Palestinian refugees. The intelligence reports, largely by Arab intelligence agents working for Israeli intelligence, outlined what was happening in Arab villages, towns, and neighborhoods, and in the mixed towns of Haifa and Jerusalem, almost day by day.
Why do you think they were so thorough? Was that just efficiency? Was it paranoia?
I think it has to do with culture. There’s a Jewish tradition of writing things. Jews like to write things. I think there was also a sense of importance among the officials and among the officers involved—and we’re talking about hundreds of them—a sense that they were engaged in something of historic importance and that therefore they should write everything down.
Do you think that they wrote these things down with a sense that they must be kept secret, that it would be dangerous to ever let the details of their operations get out to the public?
No, I don’t. They took it for granted that everything they were doing was secret, but, unlike today’s officials, I don’t think they considered how the historian in fifty years’ time would see things. In other words, they didn’t think of their writing as something that would end up in history books fifty years hence, and that therefore they must be very careful about what they reported. The only person who actually thought in those terms—that the things he wrote down would become fodder for historians—was Ben Gurion.
You go into some detail in your book about Ben Gurion’s hyperawareness of the public-relations implications of everything he did, and his caution in expressing support for transfer. You mention that he made disingenuous entries in his diary to throw historians off the scent of his support for transfer. How do you go about interpreting someone who went to such lengths to disguise what he thought?
He doesn’t dissemble about everything, but he’s very Machiavellian. He’s extremely intelligent, and he’s very, very careful and serious about the things he puts down on paper. This is clear. Now, how do we know this? We know this because when he meets other people, sometimes these other people also write diary entries about the meetings. And consistently when you compare these entries, these documents, you see that Ben Gurion is always omitting mention of things which in some ways could be seen as morally dubious by later generations of historians. Things like the destruction of Arab villages and the expulsion of Arabs. The man was extremely clever, and I think he understood that he was setting up a state. He understood this more or less from the beginning of his political activity in the beginning of the twentieth century. And I think he understood the way history works, the way propaganda works, the way historians can feed into the political process later in the day. He took great care not to give historians hostages, in the form of intemperate or morally careless or dubious remarks. That doesn’t mean that his diaries are all one big pack of lies. They aren’t. They’re actually very useful, a major source for historians about the whole of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. But you have to be very careful to use them in correlation with other texts.
You place a lot of importance in your revised book on talk of transfer prior to the war, not only among Israelis, but among the British and the Arabs as well. If there was no master plan to expel the Palestinians, why was this pre-war talk so important?
Well, this is a subject of controversy among Israelis today. Did Zionist leadership support the idea of transfer or expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs before the ’48 war? Traditionally, Zionist historians rejected the idea. They say there was no consensus, there was no support for transfer of the Arabs before ’48 and therefore what happened in ’48 was completely haphazard, a function of what happened in the battlefields. And Arabs would say that this isn’t true, that the Zionists went into the war with a master plan to expel all the Arabs. As proof of this they point to the discussions about transfer and a consensus during the 1930s and ’40s. Now, in the first edition, I didn’t give the subject sufficient space or sufficient importance. I noticed that Zionist leaders had occasionally discussed the subject in the 1930s and the 1940s against the backdrop of the persecution of Jews in Europe and against the backdrop of the Holocaust, when there was a driving urgency for the Jews to find a safe haven in Palestine. The Arabs didn’t want the Jews to come here, so they populated the land. Therefore in some way they would have to be displaced if there was to be room for those Jews the Zionist movement wanted to save from Europe. We’re talking about millions of people. So you can see that there were these discussions and there was support for the idea of transfer. But what emerges from the wider reading that I did during the last few years before producing this new version of the book is that the loose talk, the occasional discussions about the subject, never amounted to anything concrete.
Because they feared world opinion?
They understood, of course, that talking about it and turning it into something solid like a policy would alienate Western support for Zionism—would antagonize Arabs and the British and so on. This is part of the reason. But I also think it was a moral inhibition to even say the words aloud. I think they were fearful. A very important point I mention in my chapter about the transfer discussions is that they occurred not only in the Zionist leadership but also among the British officials and Arab leaders, like Nuri Sa’id of Iraq and Abdullah of Transjordan, who were considering a solution to the Palestine problem. I think there was a sort of a consensus which was never discussed by all the sides together that there could be no just solution based on partition of Palestine into a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish state without a displacement or a transfer of the Arabs out of the Jewish area. They understood that if you leave a large Arab minority which is hostile to a Jewish state inside the Jewish state, it would be a recipe for disaster and for continuous warfare thereafter. So at least on an intellectual plane, there was an agreement among the three major players in the Palestine problem.
Could the Israelis have done more at any point to solidify support for the idea?
No, because they didn’t really know that anyone understood it, because the British and the Arabs never mentioned it to the Jews. During the Second World War, when whole nations were being destroyed and peoples were pushed here and there, it was more natural to talk about that subject. But this was very brief. The British discussed it occasionally with Arab leaders in ’41 and ’42, but you didn’t hear anyone talking about it in ’46, ’47, or ’48. And Jews would not have raised the possibility, particularly after the Holocaust, because they felt that this would simply alienate everybody.
It seems a cruel irony that the Holocaust would cause Jews to feel even more inhibited about taking drastic measures to ensure their survival. I was surprised by the quotes in your book from several foreign emissaries who outspokenly compared Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany.
You have to consider that this was the mental background of these people. This was one of the things in very recent history that they could refer to. Now, I think the officials who spoke in these terms weren’t people who had actually seen Buchenwald and Auschwitz. They didn’t really know what had happened, they just heard about it in some second- or third-hand way. And apparently the Israelis didn’t know either, because some of them made these comparisons themselves when criticizing their own military actions. But of course the comparisons are absurd. A massacre of twenty or thirty villagers does not bear comparison to the Nazis. Numbers do make a difference.
It seems that Israelis had a lot of trouble with diplomats, that the emissaries they dealt with tended to come away frustrated, if not outright hostile. Do you think that there was something particularly devious or antagonistic about Israeli diplomatic tactics that brought this about?
That’s a very difficult and sensitive point. Firstly, I think the Jews, having lived in exile and as minorities in the Gentile world over the past two thousand years, learned that they had to be very wary and careful of the Gentiles. It was inbred into these Jewish officials, diplomats, ministers, and so on. In 1948, they almost all hailed from Eastern Europe, and they had a lot of fear and suspicion. There was a sense that there’s a good likelihood that the Gentile you’re talking to from the United Nations—the American officer, the Turkish officer, whoever—has anti-Semitism in him. That he isn’t full of good will toward the Jewish state but rather the opposite. And therefore, you must handle him very carefully and even with a certain amount of deceit.
Secondly, we’re talking about a bunch of very clever people who are also manipulative. And clearly, we’re talking about a society that has just undergone the Holocaust and now they face this potential Holocaust at Arab hands. This isn’t some sort of luxury war in Vietnam. It’s a war for their very homes and their very families and their very lives. So they felt that they should employ everything they could, including deception, in order to assure their success and their survival. They would lie a bit. Ben Gurion especially would lie quite bluntly to lots of people about lots of things in the course of ’48 and feel good about it, because he knew that it was much more important, morally speaking, to assure the survival of his people and of his state than to speak truthfully to some guy from Turkey or France.
It seems that one of the major problems Israelis suffered in their negotiations with the UN and the Americans was that they were often held to unreasonably high standards. You quote the American envoy Mark Ethridge, who said that “Israel was a state created upon an ethical concept and should rest upon an ethical base.” This seems to be a theme in Israel’s foreign relations, particularly at that time.
I think that’s true, and I think that happens to be true as well today. But it’s partly of Israel’s making. In other words, Israeli officials—Zionist officials before ’48 and Israeli officials in ’48 and since—have always said, We represent a culture on a higher moral plane. This was true before ’48 for sure, when the Jews never had weapons and were always on the receiving end of suffering. And it was also standard at the time for Westerners like Ethridge and the British to look at the Jews differently from the Arabs, because the Jews were Europeans. They didn’t expect decent behavior from Third World natives, like Arabs, Africans, and so on. They expected them to abide by lower standards of morality. Jews were always held to higher standards.
So it was kind of a no-win situation. They were either condemned by anti-Semites or expected to show restraint because they came from a civilized background.
Yes, there is a no-win situation there. And when I think of Israel’s behavior today in the occupied territories, Israel is behaving with an enormous amount of restraint vis-à-vis the Palestinians and their provocations. The Israelis don’t go around bombing Palestinian buses, though we could probably destroy a thousand Palestinian buses for every bus they destroyed full of civilians in Israel. But we don’t do that. And yet the world community criticizes Israel and doesn’t regard what Israel is doing as restrained.
I want to ask you about the recent change in your politics, from a highly critical to a more pro-Israel view. How do you explain that?
Let me just say something up front: I don’t really regard my views as having changed much.
I still believe that a territorial compromise is necessary, that a two-state solution is the only equitable solution here, and that Israel must withdraw from the territories. What has changed in my views is my perception of the Palestinian side during the past decade. Whereas in the 1990s I was fairly optimistic that the Palestinians had accepted in their hearts the need for a compromise and for a two-state solution, now I’m very doubtful. I don’t think the Palestinians really want to agree to a two-state solution. They want a one-state solution, which means Israel’s destruction and the turning of all of Palestine into one Arab majority state. That’s what has changed in my thinking.
How has this influenced your thinking on the subject of transfer?
From my realization about the Palestinians stems a number of conclusions. If it is true that the Palestinians—historically, monolithically, continuously and probably forever—are disagreeable to a two-state solution, to the acceptance of Israel’s existence, then one has to think afresh about the problem of demography and territory. And what this has led me to conclude is that in 1948, it would probably have been better for everybody to have had all the Palestinians cross the Jordan River rather than having many of them stay on the Israeli side at the end of the war. In other words, if Israel had been established on all the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and the Palestinians had crossed the river and turned Transjordan into a state of their own, both peoples would have probably been happier, and the Middle East would certainly have been a pleasanter place over the next fifty years.
Do you have an idea of how and when this should have come about?
Well, there were expulsions and there was mass movement of population in ’48 in the course of the war, and had this transfer occurred completely rather than partially, that would have been the right moment for it to occur, historically speaking—the only possible moment it probably could have occurred. Later it was already too late. The Palestinians were not going to move of their own volition; Israel was not going to kick anybody else out; and the opportunity for a complete separation between the two peoples, and the establishment of two states—one on each side of the Jordan—was lost.
In conducting research for Revisited you found a lot more evidence that the Arab leaders were partially responsible for promoting the evacuation. What is the significance of this? Should this information affect the Palestinian cause internationally?
It should translate in some way. Look, there is a connection between current policy on the Arab side—the demand for the right of return of the refugees to their homes and lands in Palestine—and the question of who is to blame for what happened in ’48. There’s sort of a formula here that essentially asserts that if the Israelis were by and large to blame for the displacement of the Palestinians, therefore they are guilty and must agree to a full-scale return of the refugees. On the other hand, if the Palestinians have more blame in the flight or the displacement of the Palestinians, their argument for a return of the refugees is diminished. So there is a political significance to the apportioning of blame
Is it fair to say that your books have always been received in the Arab world with suspicion rather than high praise for your revelations of Israeli crimes?
Yes, that is clear. It’s because they sensed that I wasn’t pro-Palestinian, that I was simply trying to write objective, truthful history. They understood this. That’s why the reception of my books in the Arab world was very, very guarded.
You have referred to Arab intellectuals’ approach to the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict in the Middle East as hypocritical. Can you elaborate on this?
A lot of Arab critics have become hot and bothered about the so-called ethnic cleansing of Arabs in 1948. But they neglect to mention that ethnic cleansing is a sport long and consistently practiced by the Arabs, from Muhammad, who ethnically cleansed Arabia of its Jewish tribes back in the seventh century, down to the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which systematically cleansed their communities of Jews. Almost no Jews live in the Arab world today—in Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, etcetera. And, for that matter, there are very few Christian communities in the Arab world. The Arabs between the seventh and the twentieth centuries took care to expel them, massacre them, or forcibly convert them to Islam. An ethnic cleansing of giant proportions is currently under way in the Sudan, and has been for decades. No Arab historian I know of has ever studied or written about these events.
How has the change in your politics affected your relations with your leftist colleagues?
My relations have suffered as a result. Before the recent, as we think of it, change of heart, they were at least courteous. They were suspicious of my basic feeling because they always knew that I wasn’t on the Arab side—I was never pro-Palestinian or pro-Arab, but at least I was producing a history that they enjoyed and made use of. But since I have made these statements blaming the Palestinians for much of what is going on, especially since the year 2000, they’ve been extremely hostile in print and I find that even my colleagues at the university don’t say hello in the corridors. I’m talking about extreme leftists. So in some ways there is a beginning of an embargo or ostracism in the works. It isn’t pleasant, but I think it’s instinctive.
Do you find yourself realigned with any existing body of Israeli or world opinion?
Not really. I think the right—the right meaning the settlers and the Likud and so on—still regards me with deep suspicion and, if you like, horror for revealing things about Israel’s past that may be correct but shouldn’t have been revealed. And the anti-Israeli left, which includes Israeli Jews as well, of course doesn’t like my line. So I am alone. But this has been my situation as a historian since I began my writings, so it’s not that unusual.
What is your outlook for Israel’s future? Are you depressed?
I think I’m basically depressed. I think unless there is a basic change of heart and mind—a change of mindset—among Palestinians and in the Arab world in general about Israel, we’re in for a continuous struggle over the coming decades. Basically what is needed here is a compromise based on two states, and that in effect requires Arab acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy. But so long as there is this view of Israel as a cancer in the Middle East—which like a Crusader’s stake must be uprooted and will be uprooted—there will be no compromise here. It doesn’t matter what agreement is signed or what temporary ceasefires occur. In the long term of history, it’s meaningless. So long as Israel’s legitimacy is questioned, its existence is not assured.