Benny Morris: How His History of Israel Is at Odds with His New Role as a Hardliner

Historians in the News

In a long and explosive interview in Haaretz in January 2004, Benny Morris, the revisionist Israeli historian, explains how he reconciles his defense of Zionism with his research, which demonstrates that war atrocities were associated with the founding of Israel.

His latest book is, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001.

Benny Morris, in the month ahead the new version of your book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem is due to be published. Who will be less pleased with the book - the Israelis or the Palestinians?

"The revised book is a double-edged sword. It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces Archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-state defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.

"At the same time, it turns out that there was a series of orders issued by the Arab Higher Committee and by the Palestinian intermediate levels to remove children, women and the elderly from the villages. So that on the one hand, the book reinforces the accusation against the Zionist side, but on the other hand it also proves that many of those who left the villages did so with the encouragement of the Palestinian leadership itself."...

Are you saying that Ben-Gurion was personally responsible for a deliberate and systematic policy of mass expulsion?

"From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer. There is no explicit order of his in writing, there is no orderly comprehensive policy, but there is an atmosphere of [population] transfer. The transfer idea is in the air. The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understands what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created."

Ben-Gurion was a"transferist"?

"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."

I don't hear you condemning him.

"Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here."

Benny Morris, for decades you have been researching the dark side of Zionism. You are an expert on the atrocities of 1948. In the end, do you in effect justify all this? Are you an advocate of the transfer of 1948?

"There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands."

We are talking about the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society.

"A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it's better to destroy."

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Ben - 1/23/2004

Is Benny Morris liberal or conservative? Does it really matter? The bottom line is that he represents a repellent racism. Morriss has a new article in Haaretz today where he tries to argue that he is not in favor of ethnic expulsion. He doesn't make a very good case for himself, but he does succeed in making a number of utterly false and transparently racist claims about Islam in general and Arabs in particular.

Donald - 1/22/2004

'Liberals mugged by reality" are merely liberals who've forgotten (if they ever knew) the values that supposedly distinguish Western civilization from barbarism. A man who thinks his group has the right to ethnically cleanse the people already inhabiting a land so his group can own it is a fairly typical ethnocentric human rights abuser.

If conservatives want to claim this attitude at their own they are welcome to do so.

David - 1/19/2004

It's been said a conservative is just a Liberal that has been mugged. That's what Benny Morris is, a Liberal mugged by reality. And there are many, especially since the Oslo, and since 9/11.

Don Williams - 1/16/2004

I'm referring to Benny Morris's last statement:
""A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it's better to destroy."

N. Kear - 1/14/2004

The Nation of Israel is the one prosperous, rule-of-law democratic island in a sea of despotism, squalor and fanaticism. This book, however, only serves to reinforce the fact that Israel itself was born out of violence, murder and terrorism on the part of its adherents - first against the British and Arabs in the old mandate and subsequently against the Palestinian Arabs after the 1948 independence. Of course, we like to characterize today the Haganah and the stern gangs and others like them as "freedom fighters," whose cause was just The fact is, however, that much of their activity was purely terrorist in nature. Does this matter much a half-century later? Probably not. Interestingly, there was avid support among the U.S Jewish community in the late forties for such activities, somewhat similar to Irish American support for the IRA in more recent times. The latter, however, has seemingly dried up, due, presumably, to a dramatic change in international acceptance of terrorism.