Benny Morris once sold classified ads for The Jerusalem Post, and later covered
education and diplomacy for the newspaper.
But he got the frequent itch
that gnaws at journalists: he wanted to write a book. He loved history, but,
contrary to what critics later said of him, he had no burning wish to destroy
Yet when he wrote the book that brought him infamy –
offering documentary evidence for the first time that Israelis had expelled
Palestinian Arabs from their villages in the 1948 War of Independence – he
upended the conventional version of the country’s history, and shattered
long-standing myths about the fledgling Israel Defense Forces’ treatment of
Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence.
Not surprisingly, Morris paid a
heavy personal and professional price for playing the gadfly.
day, the name Morris induces searing anger among his critics who insist that he
is an Arab propagandist, pro-PLO, and, to top it off, a poor historian. Yet,
significantly, he has admirers: Coby Ben-Simhon of the left-leaning Haaretz
daily described him in a recent article as “one of the most prominent Israeli
historians of our generation.” Morris does not seem overwhelmed by his critics’
attempts to demonize him. But, after all, it is nearly 25 years since he burst
onto the scene. His days as a pariah seem over, but he remains tired from the
lashings he has taken.
It is late October at his home in the isolated
village of Li On in the Elah Valley, a 50-minute drive from both Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem. Li On, according to the Bible, is where the Israelites encamped when
David fought Goliath. Noting that his home is ideal for a writer with its quiet,
out-of-the-way locale, Morris has just been interviewed by Israel TV. His dogs
scurry around the living room. His wife and daughter enter and exit the house,
chatting with him as they pass.
A weary look on his face, the 64-yearold
Morris is now tired of explaining how he became one of Israel’s most notorious
historians, of how his nine books on the Israeli-Arab conflict have left him
despondent after concluding that the conflict has no solution. Critics
misunderstood his motives when he presented his controversial research on
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He had no wish to slaughter sacred cows, he simply
wanted to write good history. And so he tells The Jerusalem Report
, “I will
never write about the Arab-Israeli conflict again.”
He does not need to;
his impact on how Israelis look at their earliest history has been substantial.
Had Morris not come along, Israelis would perhaps have continued to think of
themselves as unblemished heroes.
But he did spend hours poring over
archives, blasting away at those enduring, entrenched sacred cows.
most deep-seated myth, shared by many Israelis, was the conviction that their
parents and grandparents had treated the Arab enemy decently during the 1948
According to this myth, there was no Israeli brutality, no Israeli
expulsion of Arabs, and no violations of the rules of war. Indeed, the IDF
observed a “purity of arms” in its behavior toward the Arabs, a value that
helped Israelis explain to themselves and others why they were morally superior
to the Arabs. But what if Israeli behavior toward the Arabs during the 1948 war
had been less than perfect? When Morris set out to write a book in the 1980s, he
did not intend to demonstrate that the Israelis were bad, or that their
political and military leaders had deliberately concealed Israeli immorality. He
simply wanted to write a book out of a love of history. “I just tried to write history based on what the documents told me.
Morris was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh in central Israel on
December 8, 1948, as Israel’s War of Independence was winding down. Growing up
partly in Israel and partly in the United States (the Foreign Ministry had
posted his diplomat father to New York), Morris attended the prestigious Ramaz
Jewish high school in New York.
To him, New York City was quite the urban
jungle: once he was mugged in a park and on another occasion someone stole his
chessboard. Later, he completed European Studies and European Philosophy at
Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in 1973 and obtained a doctorate in European
Studies from Cambridge University in England, in 1977.
Back in Israel he
wanted to teach but was unable to find a job. After working as a reporter at The
Jerusalem Post, he found that he wanted to do something that he viewed as more
enduring than day-to-day reporting.
In 1982, he began researching a book
on the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Hagana, the underground pre-state
Jewish army in Palestine. After allowing Morris to pore through newly opened
archives for two months, the Palmach archivists came to feel uncomfortable with
sponsoring an outsider, a reporter to boot, to write Palmach history. Preferring
to give one of their own exclusive access to the treasured documents, the
archivists banned Morris from the trove.
While perusing the Palmach
documents, Morris noticed references to the Palestinian refugee issue that he
knew had been the subject of widespread controversy among Israelis. The
controversy had been fueled almost entirely by rumors that passed as gospel.
Without tangible documented evidence, one way or the other, to support the
Israeli or the Palestinian version of events, the rumors morphed into
The myths had it that most of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees
fled their homes due to the war raging around them, fully expecting to return in
the wake of an Arab victory. But other myths had Israeli soldiers expelling
Arabs from a number of sites, including Lydda and Ramle.
With the IDF in
Lebanon as a result of the June 1982 Lebanon War, Morris, still a reporter at
The Post, had been interviewing refugees in the Rashidiya refugee camp near
Tyre. Between his interviews and the references to Palestinian refugees in the
Palmach archives, Morris became intrigued.
“No one had done anything like
this. There were all these Israeli and Palestinian myths and this little-known
history was becoming available to researchers like me.”
The myths stood
side by side for years without any kind of research into why the refugees fled
Israel. Morris noted, “The Israelis had propagated the myth that the
Palestinians were uprooted from their homes during the 1948 war on the advice or
orders from their own leaders, that they left voluntarily, that the Israelis had
not pushed them out. The Arab myth about the refugees was that the Palestinians
had been expelled systematically as a matter of Israeli policy.”
myths, says Morris, “are incorrect – or only very partially correct. The
documents showed me that the true story was more or less in the middle
During the mid-1980s, Morris began writing what would become
one of the most sensational books on Israeli history, “The Birth of the
Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.” Destroying a critical Israeli myth,
Morris showed that not all Palestinians had fled their homes of their own
If Palestinians had been forced to leave their homes, surely they
had a right to return to those homes – so went Palestinian spin.
suddenly, here was a well-credentialed Israeli historian offering support for
the Palestinians’ demand of a right to return to their pre-1948
Fearing that returning Palestinians would destroy the Jewish
state, Israelis refused to acknowledge that right. No wonder Morris was
proclaimed an Arab propagandist. To be sure, he did not argue that it had been
official Israeli policy to expel Palestinians. But he did show that Israeli
commanders carried out a number of expulsions here and there.
shocking of his findings were the incidents that portrayed some Israeli soldiers
as brutal and uncaring, engaging in rape and slaughter, including an especially
brutal incident in Acre when four IDF soldiers raped a woman, then killed her
and her father. Morris also wrote of the wanton murder of hundreds of
Palestinians carried out in execution style.
When the book was published
in 1988, critics angrily insisted that it was too early for historians like
Morris to show Israelis in such a negative light as long as their struggle with
the Arabs continued. Morris, the critics argued, was simply giving ammunition to
the Arabs. He dismissed such criticism at the time; after all, Israel seemed
sufficiently secure to deal with the realities that the documents exhibited. But
24 years later, Benny Morris acknowledges the validity of such
The book led critics to brand Morris a left-winger – and worse
pro-PLO. “When I wrote the book, I was a Zionist, but undoing these Israeli
myths was the sort of thing that left-wingers do, not Zionists. So I was
immediately a pro-PLO writer. But actually all I was trying to do was to write
the truth about what had happened on the basis of documents that people hadn’t
“And since Israelis had been educated on certain myths, it
was difficult for them to break out of it. I hadn’t been educated in those myths
in the sense that I hadn’t studied Middle East studies. I didn’t study Israeli
history. I basically studied European history. I didn’t even grow up here
properly, only part of the time. So I was able to look at the documents, and see
what they said.”
Practically branded an enemy of the state at the time
the book was published, Morris refused to serve in the occupied territories
during the first intifada (late 1980s). He was once again branded a leftwing
lunatic. He felt that the Palestinian fight for independence was legitimate and
that Israeli “oppression” (his word) was not.
But with the second
intifada of 2000-2006, accompanied by a plethora of Palestinian suicide
bombings, Morris concluded that this uprising was aimed at destroying Israel; in
an about-turn, he now came out against IDF soldiers refusing to serve in the
Morris paid a heavy personal price for publishing
his shocking findings. In effect, he had laced into old-school Israeli
historians for whitewashing early Israeli history. In many places he became
persona non grata. Here and there, however, the impact of his findings was felt.
When in 1994 the Defense Ministry Press published an account of Israeli
atrocities during the War of Independence, the admissions seemed the start of a
new transparency. However, by and large, the establishment continued to scoff at
Morris could not get a university position. In 1991, he left The Jerusalem Post as part of a mass walkout of journalists
after a new perceived right-wing turn at the newspaper. He did not get invited
to overseas conferences. Researching and writing other books, he still found it
impossible financially to support his family. He lived from loans that friends
It took six years until Beersheba’s Ben- Gurion University in
1997 offered him a job as professor of Middle East Studies, thanks to the
intervention of then-President Ezer Weizman. Morris still holds that
He seemed to veer further to the right when he declared in a 2004
Haaretz article that under certain conditions, expulsion was not a war crime. In
some cases expulsions could be justified as part of self-defense.
a position he holds to this day. “In 1948 Israel was under an existential threat
and that justified clearing out villages and expelling populations. Better to
expel others than for you to die in a genocidal assault.”
This type of
threat could well be a situation Israel faces again, suggests Morris. He is
thinking of Iran raining missiles down on Israel, nuclear or otherwise. “If you
had a full-scale war here with Iran, Egypt attacking Israel, and then you had
Palestinians behind the lines shooting up convoys, causing general anarchy,
expulsions might be justified if Israel were under such an existential
Morris’s fourth book, published in 1999, is called “Righteous
Victims.” “Each side believes it is the greater victim,” he says.
sides are victims and both of them feel they are right – and righteous. That’s
why I called the book “Righteous Victims.”
“It ’s not important who is
the bigger victim. I don’t really know what that means.
More Jews have
been killed over the years, and certainly in the 20th century, than
But that’s not a criterion for anything.”
acknowledges that over the past decade he has veered to the right. “I came to be
persuaded that the Palestinians do not want a two-state solution. They want all
of Palestine. They will not agree to a Jewish sovereign presence in any part of
It emerged from what I had learned and read about the whole of
the conflict that the Palestinians were very consistent in saying no. They don’t
want a territorial compromise.”
Part of Morris’s weariness over exposing
early Israeli myths stems from his conclusion that the Palestinians do not want
to make peace with Israel. “The people who control politics and policies, both
Fatah and Hamas, don’t want a two-state solution. They don’t want any Jewish
state. They want all of Palestine. Hamas says so openly. Fatah hides it behind
all sorts of slogans. They want the same thing, maybe in stages. This is
consistent. This is how the Palestinians have always regarded the Zionist
Morris is now writing a history of Turkish-Armenian
relations from 1876 to 1924, which will include the Armenian genocide. He will
teach one semester at Harvard in January 2013 on the history of the Zionist-Arab
conflict. Morris seems genuinely relieved that he has shifted research topics –
and to be getting away, at least geographically – from the Palestinian- Israeli
conflict for a while.
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