Benny Morris: Interviewed in the Atlantic

Historians in the News

Benny Morris, in the course of an interview with Elizabeth Wasserman in the Atlantic (March 25, 2004):

You have said that as a historian and as a realist, you don't concern yourself with the moral implications of the facts that you reveal. But as an Israeli citizen, can you separate those two things? Have you ever felt concerned about the effects that your revelations would have on the morale of your people or on the public perception of Israel?

Morale is something different from morality, but my attitude in the 1980s, when I was looking at the subject and eventually when I published the book, was that what I was discovering wasn't all that terrible and that Israeli society was old enough and strong enough and mature enough to handle it. So the story of '48 which they'd been fed wasn't the complete story; it had a darker side as well. But nations should know their pasts accurately. And in any case, Israel's past wasn't so atrocious that it would suddenly undermine the staying power of society or the belief in its own justness. So on balance, I thought it was then the right thing to do.

I may have been mistaken in one small thing—which may not be that small—and that is the very question of Israel's existence. I assumed in the 1980s that the struggle for Israel's existence had been settled, in the sense that Israel was not going to be destroyed, and that the propaganda aspect of its battle for existence would remain marginal. But in the last few years it seems that this propaganda aspect is more important than I had anticipated. And clearly, what I revealed in the 1980s could be used by enemies of Israel. I didn't anticipate this wave of anti-Israeli feeling, not only in the Arab world but in the rest of the world, too.

Do you think it would have inhibited your work in any way had you anticipated this turn of events?

I don't think it would have inhibited my work, but it would have made me gloomier about my work.

When you wrote the first version of the book, without the benefit of the military and intelligence archives, did you have a feeling that you were missing something? That there were sources you didn't have access to that might substantially alter your view?

Well, I saw a lot of archives. I saw American, British, United Nations archives, and I saw quite a lot of Israeli archives as well. My feeling when I finished the research was that I had gotten the story more or less right, but that there were large gaps remaining and that certainly I needed the benefit of the military archives and intelligence archives to fill in these gaps. The archives which I've seen over the past decade, especially the Israeli military and intelligence archives, have basically confirmed my general understanding of what happened.

So there were no big surprises.

Not really. If anything, I was surprised at just how much had actually been written down, how thorough the Israeli military reporting was about their various actions and what they had done in terms of creating Palestinian refugees. The intelligence reports, largely by Arab intelligence agents working for Israeli intelligence, outlined what was happening in Arab villages, towns, and neighborhoods, and in the mixed towns of Haifa and Jerusalem, almost day by day.

Why do you think they were so thorough? Was that just efficiency? Was it paranoia?

I think it has to do with culture. There's a Jewish tradition of writing things. Jews like to write things. I think there was also a sense of importance among the officials and among the officers involved—and we're talking about hundreds of them—a sense that they were engaged in something of historic importance and that therefore they should write everything down.

Do you think that they wrote these things down with a sense that they must be kept secret, that it would be dangerous to ever let the details of their operations get out to the public?

No, I don't. They took it for granted that everything they were doing was secret, but, unlike today's officials, I don't think they considered how the historian in fifty years' time would see things. In other words, they didn't think of their writing as something that would end up in history books fifty years hence, and that therefore they must be very careful about what they reported. The only person who actually thought in those terms—that the things he wrote down would become fodder for historians—was Ben Gurion.

You go into some detail in your book about Ben Gurion's hyperawareness of the public-relations implications of everything he did, and his caution in expressing support for transfer. You mention that he made disingenuous entries in his diary to throw historians off the scent of his support for transfer. How do you go about interpreting someone who went to such lengths to disguise what he thought?

He doesn't dissemble about everything, but he's very Machiavellian. He's extremely intelligent, and he's very, very careful and serious about the things he puts down on paper. This is clear. Now, how do we know this? We know this because when he meets other people, sometimes these other people also write diary entries about the meetings. And consistently when you compare these entries, these documents, you see that Ben Gurion is always omitting mention of things which in some ways could be seen as morally dubious by later generations of historians. Things like the destruction of Arab villages and the expulsion of Arabs. The man was extremely clever, and I think he understood that he was setting up a state. He understood this more or less from the beginning of his political activity in the beginning of the twentieth century. And I think he understood the way history works, the way propaganda works, the way historians can feed into the political process later in the day. He took great care not to give historians hostages, in the form of intemperate or morally careless or dubious remarks. That doesn't mean that his diaries are all one big pack of lies. They aren't. They're actually very useful, a major source for historians about the whole of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. But you have to be very careful to use them in correlation with other texts.

You place a lot of importance in your revised book on talk of transfer prior to the war, not only among Israelis, but among the British and the Arabs as well. If there was no master plan to expel the Palestinians, why was this pre-war talk so important?

Well, this is a subject of controversy among Israelis today. Did Zionist leadership support the idea of transfer or expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs before the '48 war? Traditionally, Zionist historians rejected the idea. They say there was no consensus, there was no support for transfer of the Arabs before '48 and therefore what happened in '48 was completely haphazard, a function of what happened in the battlefields. And Arabs would say that this isn't true, that the Zionists went into the war with a master plan to expel all the Arabs. As proof of this they point to the discussions about transfer and a consensus during the 1930s and '40s. Now, in the first edition, I didn't give the subject sufficient space or sufficient importance. I noticed that Zionist leaders had occasionally discussed the subject in the 1930s and the 1940s against the backdrop of the persecution of Jews in Europe and against the backdrop of the Holocaust, when there was a driving urgency for the Jews to find a safe haven in Palestine. The Arabs didn't want the Jews to come here, so they populated the land. Therefore in some way they would have to be displaced if there was to be room for those Jews the Zionist movement wanted to save from Europe. We're talking about millions of people. So you can see that there were these discussions and there was support for the idea of transfer. But what emerges from the wider reading that I did during the last few years before producing this new version of the book is that the loose talk, the occasional discussions about the subject, never amounted to anything concrete.

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