Benny Morris’ odyssey from New Historian to radical right supporter of Arab population transfer is one of the stranger political journeys ever made by an Israeli figure (though not an unprecedented one to be sure). Scott Wilson has profiled Morris in the Washington Post noting his evolution from a child of Marxist kibbutz parents; to young Cambridge educated radical historian who turned Israeli historiography on its ear with the revelation of Israel’s forced 1948 expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs; to IDF refusenik who served prison time for refusal to serve in the Territories; to revanchist supporter of Arab population transfer.
Despite Morris’ current racist political views his historical research has hewed remarkably close to the revisionist line hewn by the New Historians. It is remarkable that Morris maintains one framework for his academic work and quite a contradictory one for his political framework. Wilson quotes another historical revisionist, Avi Shlaim who has the more cogent take on Morris’ intellectual mindset:
…It was “a psychological process — the suicide bombings, the violence — that sent him off the rails.”
“There are two Benny Morrises,” he says. “There is the first-rate archival historian whose work is of utmost importance in understanding the Israeli-Arab conflict. And there is the third-rate political analyst who has little understanding of what is driving the modern conflict.”
I am faintly amused by the rightist commenters at this blog who bring up Morris to justify their anti-Arab views as if a so-called liberal like Morris shares their political views and therefore I should as well. These folks don’t have enough subtlety in their positions to make the distinction that Avi Shlaim has made and which is necessary in order to understand the bifurcated intellectual life Benny Morris has chosen for himself.
I found most interesting a parallel between Morris’ father’s life and his own which Wilson did not remark upon:
Morris was born on a kibbutz to British immigrants whose Marxist beliefs placed them on the fringe of the socialist Labor Zionist movement that then dominated politics.
The family spent much of his childhood in Jerusalem and New York, where his father was assigned as an Israeli diplomat.
Later in the article, Morris notes that during his research he found a diplomatic briefing paper meant for Israeli diplomatic missions to refute the notion that the Deir Yassin massacre had taken place:
Israel’s government also had begun declassifying its wartime archives. Sifting through the files, Morris came across a Foreign Ministry document rejecting reports that Jewish militiamen killed more than 100 Arab men, women and children in Deir Yassin, a village on the northern edge of Jerusalem. The memo was essentially a series of talking points distributed to pre-state Jewish diplomatic missions on how to deny what became one of the war’s most notorious events.
It was written by his father.
Morris believes he wrote the memo after turning hawkish following the Arab refusal of the United Nations’ partition of Palestine in November 1947
Like father, like son. Each of their respective psychological-intellectual frameworks embraced an altruistic narrative that envisioned peace and justice for both sides in the conflict. But the framework was not strong enough to withstand a sense of betrayal that ensued for Morris’ father, when the Arabs rejected partition; and for Morris, when the Palestinians began the second Intifada.
The younger Morris’ current political views are indeed odious. As for 1948, he blames Ben Gurion for not pursuing an even more ruthless policy of population transfer than he did. But note the euphemisms he uses to soften his meaning:
“Had the war ended more definitively and logically demographically, everyone would have been better for it,” Morris says amid the battlefields of Israel’s first war. “Not only Israel and the Palestinians, but all of the Middle East.”
…”If the man was already driving out people, maybe he should have gone the whole hog,” Morris says now. “Perhaps in the end population exchanges and transfers, although they may have caused great suffering at the time, may in the long run have been better for everyone concerned.”
As for today, his views seem little removed from those of Avigdor Lieberman:
Morris has come to believe peace with the Palestinians and the larger Arab world may not be possible, especially as radical Islamic movements that deny Israel’s right to exist gain ground in the region.
…He says he can…imagine a day when Israel will have to drive more Arabs from the occupied territories or face expulsion itself.
“We are an outpost of the West, as they see it and as we also see ourselves, in a largely Islamic, backward and in some ways even barbaric area. The Muslims are busy killing people, and killing people for reasons that in the West are regarded as idiotic. There is a problem here with Islam.”
What he neglects to realize is that whatever problem Muslims may or may not have–the problem may also lie in the speaker himself and his betrayal of principles he once held dear.
I’m sorry to hear that Morris is now writing a book about what the future resolution of the conflict should look like:
He soon will begin an examination of whether the Mideast conflict should be resolved by forging a single nation of Arabs and Jews or two states for two peoples.
“Two states is the only solution with an element of justice,” Morris says. “But there are two other realistic solutions — one is that the Jews will kick out all the Arabs across the river, and the other is that the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea. I’m not sure one of them won’t happen.”
Clearly, he has already made up his mind that the only viable solution under the current circumstances is “kicking the Arabs” out. It’s a shameful place that Benny Morris has finally come to. From a son of Marx to a brother of Lieberman.
Ernie Halfdram says
Richard, it comes as a great relief to learn that I’m not the only one falling behind;-)
samuel burke says
Richard, i fear that the jewish question will resurface again, the world wil become more polarized than it is even now on this situation in israel. Sometimes one must realize that one is way out of his league in this game of trying to influence opinions that are that polarized by the strong emotions that this issue brings out. I have come to the conclussion that i am a learner and an observer. In the jewish world that i move in, i do not see this issue surfacing yet, noone is even aware that there is a side that wishes for the israeli state to moderate and make peace, noone is even remotely aware that there are sides being taken in this issue among their own community.
I think that this is mostly beng discussed among the intellectuals in the jewish community, or maybe only among the politically active left. what do you think of ilan Pappé
as a historian? does he tell his version of the truth? does he twist things? i recently listened to him and was curious as to what you think of him?
Richard Silverstein says
I stand somewhere bet. Pappe and Morris in my political & historical views of the conflict. Pappe is too much of a doctrinnaire anti-Zionist for my taste. His arguments are too pat for me. He sees himself as an intellectual provocateur I think, which has its place I suppose esp. considering how closed Israeli academic & political discourse can be.
samuel burke says
Thanks, i am going through lenni brenners book to get a different perspective. i want to see the view from the left.
G-d bless you for posting this Richard.
I’m being attacked on my blog for talking about my grandmother’s 1948 experience and Morris is being used to maliciously invalidate my living grandmother’s first hand account.
I think Morris has become a nihilist – everything he writes is utterly devoid of hope and morality. Morris’ lack of hope for the future fuels his dark imagination as he projects a violent end for our people in the Middle East, and promotes the hardline which tries to facilitate the situations which could precipitate a violent end to Jewish presence in the Middle East. The lack of compromise and hopeless, compassionless outlook is the real enemy.