A Chameleon, Nevertheless
While I am relieved to hear that Benny Morris is not entertaining any flip flops in the near future, his rebuttal to my American Thinker article fails to answer the central question I posed: How can he in good conscience (not to mention the minimum academic or intellectual integrity) espouse the views he presently claims to uphold without retracting his previous writings on the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian war of terror in September 2000, Morris has been playing an intricate game of Jekyll-and-Hyde. In press articles and media appearances, he blames the Palestinians for initiating and perpetuating the conflict since the 1920s and 1930s. In his books, he casts Israel in the role of the regional villain, as he has done for decades.
The 2001 paperback edition of his history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Righteous Victims, opens with a famous quote by the poet W.H. Auden - "Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return" - that leaves no doubt as to which side is the aggressor and which is the victim. Zionism, he explains therein, is a "colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement... intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs."
Three years later, in the revised edition of his influential book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, he added a special chapter peddling the longstanding Arab canard that "the displacement of Arabs from Palestine... was inherent in Zionist ideology" and can be traced back to the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
How can this possibly square with his present day public statements squarely putting blame for the conflict on "the instinctive rejectionism that runs like a dark thread through Palestinian history"?
Morris would have us believe that this decade-long doublespeak has never existed; that his simultaneous articulation of pro-Israel rhetoric and anti-Israel propaganda, masqueraded as meticulously researched historiography, is but a figment of imagination of "a febrile and obsessive mind." To which one can only respond with one of his favorite words: balderdash.
Consider, for example, Morris's emphatic oath of allegiance to the Zionist ideal - "the establishment and perpetuation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the historic patrimony of the Jewish people" (a definition readers will be hard pressed to find in his books) - and its simultaneous derision as a "colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement."
Keenly aware that the latter libel - the standard Arab depiction of the Jewish national cause since the early 1920s - might not wash well with his present cohort of Israel sympathizers, yet reluctant to disown anything he ever wrote, Morris performs his trademark textual acrobatics in an attempt to square this impossible circle. "Zionism was never, as the Arabs charged, a 'colonialist' or 'imperialist' movement," he argues, "but it did proceed by establishing colonies (moshavot) in Palestine and expanding from them outward, to encompass as much of Palestine as possible."
So it has all been a matter of misunderstood semantics. Zionism is not a colonialist movement à la the Arabs, only a movement establishing and expanding colonies. But if the Land of Israel is the historic patrimony of the Jewish people, as Morris now admits, there is surely nothing wrong in the existence of Jewish localities there. Why then should communal villages, agricultural settlements, and rural communities (as moshavot would be translated in non-archaic Hebrew) be described as colonies? By this reckoning, the 1909 establishment of Tel Aviv would also qualify as such.
The truth, of course, is that in describing Zionism as "a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement" Morris meant precisely that: an offshoot of European imperialism at its most rapacious, which, as he put it a couple of pages later, "managed to avoid 'seeing' the Arabs, of whom there were about half a million in the country around 1880, about seven hundred thousand in 1914, and 1.25 million in 1947," in line with "the routine European colonist's mental obliteration of the 'natives'."
But Morris doesn't stop here. Having stigmatized the Zionist founding fathers as quintessential European-type colonialists, he would not discard the other part of this Arab canard, which he has been peddling for decades, namely, that they were also unreconstructed ethnic cleansers "intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs."
I have been battling this defamation of Zionism's very essence for quite some time, showing time and again the extraordinary lengths to which Morris would go by way of fabricating Israeli history (see here, here, here, here, and here). I will therefore confine myself to one telling example of his professional misconduct.
In an October 1937 letter to his son David Ben-Gurion said: "We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption - proven throughout all our activity - that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs." In The Birth Morris represents Ben-Gurion as saying precisely the opposite: "We must expel Arabs and take their places."
(Tellingly, in his Hebrew language writings, Morris rendered Ben-Gurion's words accurately, perhaps because he knew his readers could check the original for themselves.)
Over the years Morris was forced to concede that his "treatment of transfer thinking before 1948 was, indeed, superficial," and that he had "stretched" evidence to make his point. He even removed this quote for the revised addition of The Birth in an implicit acknowledgment of its inaccuracy, and rendered it correctly in Righteous Victims. Yet this doesn't prevent him from reiterating the ethnic cleansing canard in his American Thinker article. Only now he is not only sympathetic to this (supposed) Zionist grand design but he also argues that "had all of Palestine's Arabs crossed the Jordan River eastward in 1948 and established their own state in Transjordan, alongside a Jewish state west of the Jordan, the history of Israeli-Arab relations would have been more tranquil."
This, of course, is a euphemism for the comprehensive ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs, who obviously had no reason whatsoever to leave their homes and "cross the Jordan river eastward," where they had no chance of establishing their own state given that this territory was already an existing state: the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan (latterly Jordan).
Yet this is emblematic of Morris's chameleon-like doublespeak of the past decade. Acknowledging (in his public statements) Zionism's longstanding acceptance of coexistence with the Arabs in a partitioned Palestine, yet reluctant to disown his defamation of this movement as intrinsically disposed to ethnic-cleansing, he squared these contradictory ideas in a novel manner: by condoning the practice so long as it is born of dire necessity. "[W]hen the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide - the annihilation of your people - I prefer ethnic cleansing," he explained in an infamous interview a few years ago.
You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands... 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.
Morris is, of course, perfectly entitled to express such Darwinist views, but to project this outlook onto Zionism's founding fathers, whose value system and worldview were the complete opposite, is absurd and thoroughly dishonest.
Alongside his distortion of Jewish actions during the 1948 war, Morris now whitewashes the Palestinian/Arab assault on the nascent state of Israel. He no longer speaks about "genocide" and "annihilation" as the attack's goal, but rather about a war "which the Jews believed aimed at their annihilation" and for which the Palestinians "suffered the consequences." Never mind that the entire Arab world - from Hajj Amin Husseini, leader of the Palestinian Arabs, and his top henchmen (Jamal and Abdel Qader Husseini), to Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, to the Syrian, Lebanese, and Iraqi heads of state - were openly frank about their intention to obliterate the Jewish national cause; not to mention the infamous threat by Arab League Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Azzam (on October 11, 1947) that the establishment of a Jewish state would unleash "a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades."
How is one to interpret this whitewashing? As an indication of an imminent flip flop, or as yet another customary piece of doublespeak? Be that as it may, this euphemism is far less ostentatious than the extraordinary claim that Israel colluded with the invading Arab states to prevent the birth of a Palestinian Arab state.
In his American Thinker article Morris emphatically denies that he has ever written any such thing, or that he has ever dismissed the Zionist acceptance of the November 1947 partition resolution as a ruse. Let his text speak for itself:
The acceptance of partition, in the mid-1930s as in 1947, was tactical, not a change in the Zionist dream [of "Greater Israel"] (1948 and After, p. 9)
What ensued, once Israel declared its independence on 14 May 1948 and the Arab states invaded on 15 May, was "a general land grab," with everyone - Israel, Transjordan, Syria, Egypt, and even Lebanon - bent on preventing the birth of a Palestinian Arab state and carving out chunks of Palestine for themselves. (1948 and After, p.11)
Morris is equally untruthful with his readers regarding the untold damage done by his books to the Jewish state. "Both Arabs and Jews were able, by cherry picking, to buttress their positions by selectively quoting this or that passage," he writes in his rebuttal, but his aim as a historian is ostensibly "to illuminate what happened, and let the chips fall where they may."
This self-righteous pretence couldn't be further from the truth. One would be hard pressed to find Jews cherry picking from The Birth to buttress their position, save for those who are eager to defame their own country and/or people. For why should any Jew in the right state of mind wish to cherry pick Morris's systematic defamation of the Jewish national movement and the creation of the Jewish state? As for the Arabs and their worldwide supporters - they need not cherry pick but can easily truckload scores if not hundreds of Morris (mis)quotes buttressing their cause.
In one point, however, Morris is right on spot: his historiographical fabrications continue to be massively used by Israel's enemies, and none more so than his fabricated Ben-Gurion quote "We must expel Arabs" - splashed over countless websites and twits (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here ). To Morris, apparently, this means getting the story right.
Morris has temerity to bemoan his supposed longstanding persecution by Israel's academic and political establishments, apparently oblivious to the irony of landing a professorship at the university named after the person whose reputation he has most systematically maligned - the Ben-Gurion family, not surprisingly, protested the appointment. Nor does he seem to be perturbed by the scandalous irregularity attending his instatement - with the country's head of state riding roughshod over proper academic procedures. Most academics would welcome such "persecution."
Indeed, so deeply is Morris's self-righteous victimization complex ingrained that any doubt of his theatrical embellishments is taken as an act of war. "To me, the most offensive part of Karsh's article pertains to what happened on the main thoroughfare of Kingsway, London, on my way to a lecture last month at the LSE," he laments. "Karsh wrote that instead of 'debating' with the thugs in the street, I made my way 'like a criminal,' unresponsively, to the LSE lecture."
I wrote no such thing. Rather, I quoted the account of one of the activists who confronted Morris on the street before attending his lecture, published on a London-based pro-Palestinian website, to which I provided the relevant link. This, however, is an integral, indeed elementary part of accurate reporting. Since the incident was not relayed by an independent source of information but only by Morris himself, I had to weigh his account against that of his (admittedly politicized) critics. My familiarity with campus life in the UK and Morris's tenuous relationship with facts leads me to doubt his version of events, not least since his lecture, by his own account (it was videotaped, hence its description had to conform to reality to a greater extent) passed smoothly - despite the presence in the audience of some of the "Muslim thugs" accosting him in the street who took part in the "lengthy Q and A" that followed the lecture. As one of them described:
Morris took questions in blocks of three for about an hour. This enabled him to evade many questions altogether, or give only part replies... As time went on Morris seemed to become more flippant with his responses - wrongly playing to what he thought the audience wanted. This clearly angered many in the audience; and shouts of "Answer the Question" became frequent and loud. At one point Morris referred to the Palestine Papers and dismissed these as US diplomatic cables; he repeated again they were US diplomatic cables which caused huge laughter and anger in equal proportions from the audience. Audience members pointed out loudly that the Palestine Papers were internal documents of the Palestinian Authority and [had] nothing to do with US diplomatic cables. Not for the first time during the evening Morris's factual foundations were found to be rotten.
It is true that Morris was called racist (a fact readily admitted by his critics, who handed out flyers containing a string of his more damning quotes), perhaps even a fascist. But these have been standard pejoratives on western campuses for decades. Israeli students use the F word in their political exchanges as a matter of course; Israeli academics routinely badmouth right-of-center politicians and peers as fascists; leftist students at Ben-Gurion University, Morris's home institution, were photographed giving Heil Hitler Nazi salutes to pro-Zionist students at a campus rally. Morris himself has repeatedly defamed Ben-Gurion (among other Zionist leaders) as an unreconstructed ethnic cleanser - a far harsher indictment than fascist. Surely he can take a few drops of his own medicine without evoking Nazi metaphors or prophesying the looming end of British and West European way of life.
The Book of Proverbs famously quips that "He that hideth his sins, shall not prosper: but he that shall confess, and forsake them, shall obtain mercy." Morris has neither confessed nor forsaken his anti-Israel writings and has, moreover, hidden them behind a smoke screen of simultaneous pro-Israel rhetoric. Yet he has prospered, big time. As another biblical verse puts it: "Eyes have they, but they see not."
Efraim Karsh is research professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London, director of the Middle East Forum (Philadelphia), and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.