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Benny Morris' Second Thoughts About Israel: Three Quibbles And A Question
February 04, 2004
An interview in Ha'aretz (January 5) with Benny Morris, dean of Israel's "new historians," has unsettled the Israeli and European Left. Morris's book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1987) argued that in 1948 between 600 and 750 thousand Palestinians were expelled from their homes, while others were massacred, as part of an Israeli policy of encouraging Arabs to leave. But now this controversial historian has had second thoughts about these actions.
When asked by his interviewer Ari Shavit whether Israel's founder and first premier David Ben Gurion was a "transferist," Morris replied:
"Of course Ben Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist."
Moreover, Morris went on,
"Ben Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not come into being." [Survival of the fittest, By Ari Shavit, Ha'aretz January 09, 2004].
Insisting that he is a Zionist rather than a post-Zionist, Morris declares that he does not regret the expulsion of his declared enemies: "When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it's better to destroy."
What makes these remarks noteworthy is that Morris has been a fixture of the Israeli Left through most of his life. From his youth in an Israeli socialist kibbutz, whither his parents had come from England, through his refusal in 1988 as an Israeli soldier to serve in the occupied West Bank, down to his career in exposing Israeli ethnic cleansing, Morris has enjoyed popularity among Israeli peaceniks while being anathema to the Jewish nationalist Right.
His interview with Ha'aretz and his publicized defense of Sharon's Security Wall, intended to separate West Bank Palestinians from Israelis, as being necessary for "a wild animal that has to be locked up in one way or another," have altered his image profoundly.
Morris continues to call himself a leftwing Zionist. But he has begun to find support among Likud supporters both here and in Israel. In the last week, several pro-Israeli hardliners (including my younger son) have recommended to me the interview in Ha'aretz. These acquaintances praise Morris for understanding the geopolitical necessity for what happened to the Palestinians in 1948.
His former critics now admire Morris for letting it be known that "from my point of view the need to establish this [Jewish] state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them."
And when asked whether he had any "problem with that deed," Morris answers that he has none and points out:
"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."
One can of course dismiss such appeals to the "final good" as self-interested pleading by the victor, who thinks it a good thing that the other side should lose. But Morris's assertions also represent a moral improvement over other cases that have been made for Israel. Morris confronts the historical truth: lots and lots of Palestinians were deliberately expelled as a vast ethnic cleansing that preceded the creation of an Israeli state. Those expulsions and in some cases organized terror were instruments by which a transfer of population was effected, one that allowed a Jewish polity and a Jewish country to come into being.
Although Morris does not trivialize this cost, he also says that it was probably necessary to insure the survival of what the founders of Israel wanted and what he himself values as an Israeli patriot. He makes this argument candidly while doing nothing to distort the past.
Never does Morris reach for the smears that Israel's would-be defenders in the U.S. hurl ritualistically at those insolent enough to notice what Morris addresses in his scholarship. He treats the fate of the Palestinians as collateral damage for a Jewish state and underlines the fact that the fate of his group would have likely been worse if the Palestinians had come out on top.
I have three quibbles and a question about Morris' new view.
Quibble One: Morris's identification of the Palestinians with militant Islam is exaggerated. A significant minority of those expelled in 1948 were Maronite Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, and Copts. As late as 1948 there were 400 thousand Palestinian Christians, a figure that has now plummeted to about 60 thousand. The Palestinian affinity for Islamicists has been relatively recent and has resulted from the search for new violent allies in the war against the Israelis.
Quibble Two: Morris's groping for parallels for Israeli ethnic cleansing is inept. American Indians were not expelled but transferred to other parts of the U.S. And anyway it is hard to see how this process contributed to American constitutional government. The Germans, whose booting-out of Eastern Europe Morris elsewhere cites as a successful ethnic cleansing, were the victims of reckless, indiscriminate vengeance, as shown by historian Alfred de Zayas in a detailed history of this atrocity. (See Nemesis at Potsdam London: Routledge, 1977.)
Quibble Three: it is questionable whether the expulsion of the Palestinians really solved Israel's national problems. With millions of hostile Palestinians, who themselves or whose parents were expelled, now massed one to two hundred miles away from Israel, Palestinian grievance continues to fester. I do not have a solution that both sides would accept. But what was done in 1948 does not seem conclusive.
Morris may mean to say that Israelis should treasure their present degree of relative ethnic homogeneity that cost them so much to achieve. Coexisting with an unfriendly ethnicity within the same borders is something no reasonable nation would welcome—and something that Israel's founders decided to avoid.
My Question: why should Palestinians have less of a moral right to be in Israel than Hispanic illegals to be in California or Texas? The Hispanics, who contribute disproportionately to our welfare costs and violent crimes, were not even a pre-existing population in the U.S. whom we displaced. Nor, in many cases, were they invited here. They crashed the gate.
If Israel is entitled pull out every stop to preserve its Jewish national character, why shouldn't others be allowed to do the same to protect their group identity?
Why should Frenchmen who want to send their Islamicist population back to North Africa be attacked as "fascists?" Unlike the Israeli leaders that Morris defends, these French nationalists do not call for ethnic cleansing. They would be quite happy to be able to control future immigration.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, and Multiculturalism And The Politics of Guilt: Toward A Secular Theocracy.