An evolving historian

Historian Benny Morris has been reviled for exposing Israeli expulsions of Arabs in 1948, but he believes the expulsions were justified and the Palestinians’ end game is Israel’s destruction.

benny morris 311 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
benny morris 311 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 sacred cows.
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.
To this 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 Palestinian refugees.
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.
The 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 war.
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. That’s all.”
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 myths.
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.”
Both 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 somewhere.”
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 accord.
If Palestinians had been forced to leave their homes, surely they had a right to return to those homes – so went Palestinian spin.
Now, suddenly, here was a well-credentialed Israeli historian offering support for the Palestinians’ demand of a right to return to their pre-1948 homes.
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.
Most 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 arguments.
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 seen before.
“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 occupied territories.
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’s findings.
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 provided.
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 post.
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.
This is 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 threat.”
Morris’s fourth book, published in 1999, is called “Righteous Victims.” “Each side believes it is the greater victim,” he says.
“Both 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 Arabs.
But that’s not a criterion for anything.”
Morris 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 Palestine.
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 enterprise.”
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.