Response to Efraim Karsh

Ephraim Karsh has been maligning me and my writing for two decades now, and I doubt if there is anything I can say or do that will make him happy.  Indeed, if anything, he has grown more venomous and obsessed with the years, as if fueled by a personal animus.  (I don't know its origin.)  Clearly he -- who left Israel decades ago for England's pleasant land -- believes that I -- who live in Israel -- am anti-Zionist to the core and am only pretending otherwise, and nothing I will say or do will persuade him otherwise.

He senses, or purports to sense, dissembling and dishonesty at every turn, and finds an apparent dissonance between my historical writings ("anti-Zionist") and my occasional journalistic forays ("pretend Zionist").  This perception is rooted in his own inability to divorce his (and others') historiography from political beliefs and positions.  Let me reiterate: Historians should try to separate the two, and if they can't, they will produce poor history (a la Ilan Pappe and Karsh).  Injecting one's politics into one's historiography will inevitably lead to politically guided distortion of the history (see my review of Karsh, Palestine Betrayed, in the National Interest [online], which appears to have been the trigger to Karsh's latest bout of venom.)

Karsh, though a skilful writer, sees everything in black and white: The Jews are always good, just, humane, wise; the Arabs are always bad, foolish, brutal, etc.  Hence it is not possible that some Zionists in the 1930s and early 1940s espoused transferring the Arabs out of the area of the Jewish state-to-be or expelled some Arabs in 1948.

But history is complex and often is characterized by shades of gray. bSo Ben-Gurion and Weizmann may have been humanists and socialists/liberals but, given the perils threatening their people (threatening their people's very existence) in the late 1930s and 1940s, and given the Arabs' rejectionism vis-à-vis Jewish statehood (meaning, a rejection of a safe haven for Europe's persecuted and life-threatened Jews), transfer made sense.  And the evidence for the espousal of transfer by both is abundant and clear (for example, in one Jewish Agency Executive session in 1938 Ben-Gurion said that he supported both "voluntary transfer" and, if necessary, "compulsory transfer."  Karsh once even quoted this passage, though, absurdly, then dismissed its import.).

In my work I initially also quoted from Ben-Gurion's letter to his son Amos from October 1937.  Later I stopped referring to it altogether -- not because of Karsh's criticism (he has been harping on my "misquotation" of it for over a decade now), but because the letter is problematic (as Karsh, of course, knows but fails to inform his readers).  Karsh accompanied his piece last Sunday with a photocopy of pages from one of my books.  He would have done better, if honesty was what he aimed at, to have presented his readers with a photocopy of the relevant page in Ben-Gurion's letter (as I did in the Israeli journal Alpayim years ago, when I first rebutted Karsh's charges in this connection.  Karsh throughout his pieces in English attacking me exploits his audiences' ignorance of the original Hebrew texts.).

The problem is that the handwritten page by Ben-Gurion sports a crossed-out line, which leaves the text saying starkly: "We must expel Arabs and take their places."  But if one deciphers what is written in the crossed-out section (as was done by experts in the IDF Archive, where it is deposited), one emerges with the full sentence running: "We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs ..."

The question then is what Ben-Gurion intended to write -- and who crossed out the lines.  If it was Ben-Gurion himself, and with aforethought (but Ben-Gurion was famous for almost never correcting his handrwritten texts), then the sentence must read: "We must expel Arabs ..."  But if it was someone else, with some ulterior motive, or if Ben-Gurion crossed out the words mistakenly and unintentionally, then one may conclude that Ben-Gurion had written and intended the opposite.

There is no way of deciphering who did the crossing out.  Hence, it is a dubious piece of evidence, and is best left ignored.  But when I researched and wrote The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988), I was unaware of the problem, and quoted the text, which Karsh interprets as damning for Ben-Gurion, from a book by Ben-Gurion's official biographer, Shabtai Teveth (as was known to Karsh, who saw my reference in Birth).  Subsequently, I learned of the existence of the problem, looked at the manuscript, and, in my Hebrew edition of Birth (1991), rendered the passage: "We do not wish to ... expel" -- giving Ben-Gurion, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.  Karsh, as is his wont, gives this change a malign spin, but it is unmerited.  In my subsequent works, as I said, I decided that there was no way of resolving what had been Ben-Gurion's intention and simply left out the quotation (which is what I should have done in the first place).  But this quotation, of course, changes nothing, in terms of the history, as there is abundant evidence without it demonstrating Ben-Gurion's support at the time for transfer.  All of which is known, but misrepresented, by Karsh.

Karsh says that at one point I "conceded" that my treatment of Zionist transfer thinking was "superficial" -- by which he means that I had admitted that I was wrong in the whole matter.  Again, Karsh is misrepresenting what I said.  I wrote that the evidence I had amassed and presented (for example, in 1948 and After [1990] and in Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited [2003]) was sufficient and, to my mind, persuasive -- but that the subject did, indeed, require thoroughgoing, deep, separate research, a Ph.D.- or book-worth of research, which I, in my "superficial" treatment had, of course, not done.

Karsh takes me to task for portraying Zionism as "imperialist."  I never have.  This is a lie.  I have always portrayed Zionism as a national liberation ideology and movement of the Jewish people, never subservient to or intentionally furthering the ends of a European imperial power.  It was a movement of Jews and for Jews, never anything else (though for a time, it enjoyed the support of the British, as, subsequently, the Arabs enjoyed the support of the British).  I have called Zionism a "colonizing" movement -- here, at last, Karsh says something truthful -- and perhaps there is a problem in the definition, though since Zionism developed by establishing "colonies" (moshavot), it is not inaccurate.  But it was never a movement of sons of an imperial mother country "colonizing" -- in order to exploit and/or take over -- a distant land.  And I grant that some might interpret my use of "colonizing" in this (mistaken as to Zionism) fashion.

Karsh further takes me to task for calling Zionism an "expansionist" ideology.  The Arabs traditionally portrayed Zionism as grandly expansionist, meaning that it aimed at establishing a Jewish state between the Nile and the Euphrates; they pointed to the Zionist-Israeli flag, with its two blue stripes, as representing this aspiration.  This, of course, is nonsense, and always was.

But the Zionist leaders did want to establish a Jewish state comprehending the whole Land of Israel/Palestine, plus some.  At the end of World War I, Ben-Gurion and his socialist colleague, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, set out the aim as Jewish statehood over Palestine plus the first chain of hills -- Golan, Gilead, Moav, and Edom -- east of the Jordan as well as the territory in southern Lebanon south of the Litani River (the river to be part of Israel).  This was the map Weizmann tabled at the post-war conference in Paris.

And in practice, the Zionist enterprise, between 1882 and 1947, expanded outward from an initial cluster of Jewish settlements in the Coastal Plain and Jordan Valley.  In 1948, assailed by the Palestinian Arab militias and, subsequently, the Arab armies, Israel expanded beyond the UN-designated partition lines of November 1947, adding 2,000 square miles to the territory of the Jewish state -- and in 1967 expanded again, to the banks of the Jordan, and to the eastern fringe of the Golan Heights and the western fringe of the Sinai Peninsula.  The war of 1967 may have been provoked by the Egyptians, and Israel's conquest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem may have been triggered by prior Jordanian artillery fire on Israel, but conquer -- and expand -- Israel did.  But one should also note that, since 1973-75, Israel, and the Zionist enterprise, have been in contraction, first evacuating Sinai, and then parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (though the post-1967 settlement enterprise in the West Bank, and the continued expansion of the settlements, represent a contrary impetus).

The quote allegedly by me that Karsh brandishes about American Indians is simply a misquote -- I never said those words, as I wrote in Haaretz in a commentary published (it's on the internet) a fortnight after the appearance of the original 2004 interview (as, I am sure, Karsh knows.  But, like his fellow Arabs and Islamists, he is wont to trot out this misquote, as other passages from that interview, sans their context, at every opportunity.  Anything to blacken Morris.).

In Karsh's two concatenations of lies and distortions about my books and my person there is one point on which I have to concede that he has struck home (and I predict heneceforward I will never hear the last of it as Karsh will trot it out, time again, to show my incompetence or duplicitousness, perhaps both, take your pick -- whereas I would define it as having second thoughts; and surely a person, even an historian, is allowed to change his mind, occasionally, about something?).  In 1990 (1948 and After) I wrote that the Zionists' "acceptance of partition, in the mid-1930s as in 1947, was tactical, not a change in the Zionist dream."

About the 1930s, specifically about Ben-Gurion and his acceptance of the Peel partition plan of 1937, I am sure I was right.  But about 1947 -- the Zionist leadership and the UN partition plan -- I'm not sure the word "tactical" is accurate or just, and I wouldn't use it today.  As in all things to do with the history of Palestine/Israel, the matter is complex.  Yes, Ben-Gurion and the mainstream of the movement officially, publicly accepted the partition plan (while various important Zionist parties, the Revisionists, Ahdut Haavodah, rejected it).  But, at the same time, given the Arabs' continuous threats of war beforehand should the UN pass the resolution, it is quite likely that Ben-Gurion anticipated that the Arabs would initiate hostilities, which in some sense would void the resolution and the borders it proposed for the Jewish and Arab states.  So I would say that Ben-Gurion and the mainstram in November 1947 in principle resigned themselves to, and accepted the inevitability of, partition, to getting only a (large) part of Palestine for Jewish statehood at that point in time.  Some of them may still, in their hearts, have entertained the idea of expansion throughout Palestine at some distant point in time, perhaps by a subsequent generation.  Or, alternatively, they may have understood that history had rendered its verdict and that partition was inexorable and for keeps.  There is evidence pointing both ways.  In any event, I regret my use of the word "tactical" as relates to 1947 in this connection.  

Lastly, Karsh misinterprets my epigraph at the start of Righteous Victims -- (W.H. Auden) "Those to whom evil is done, Do evil in return."  It does not point to an aggressor but, at least to my thinking, can be said to apply (perhaps in unequal measure) to both parties in the Palestinian-Zionist conflict.