Benny Morris: The Lonely Historian

Historians in the News

Jonathan Tepperman, in the NYT (April 17, 2004):

Benny Morris is used to making enemies. When his first groundbreaking book appeared in 1988, marshaling evidence that Israel's founders had deliberately — and often violently — forced Arabs to flee during the war for independence, Mr. Morris was reviled and called an anti-Zionist. For years he was unable to find work as a professor in Israel; when he finally landed a job at Ben-Gurion University, named for Israel's first prime minister, Ben-Gurion's son tried to have the radical young historian fired.

Sixteen years later, Mr. Morris is again being denounced, only this time for defending Israel's attempts to rid the country of its Arabs in 1948, arguing that"ethnic cleansing" was justified because Israel's existence was threatened.

His comments, in a new book published earlier this year as well as in Israeli newspapers and interviews, have not only provoked outrage but have also put Mr. Morris at the center of a bitter controversy over Israeli history and the future of the peace process.

"Ethnic cleansing has a bad name, and rightly so, but in 1948 it was justified because the 650,000 Jews who lived here were under existential threat," Mr. Morris said recently as he sat in the high-ceilinged lobby of the King David Hotel here."It was the only way to win that war."

If Ben-Gurion bore any moral responsibility for expelling the Palestinians, Mr. Morris added, it was for not having been more thorough. Having decided on transfer, he said, Israel's leaders should have resolved to"do it properly."

"Don't leave 20 percent of the Arabs still in Israel," he said, creating"a time bomb for the future."

Mr. Morris, 55, is aware how discomforting his views are:"I'm not saying it's nice, I'm not saying it's pleasant."

And he stops short of endorsing transfer today, calling it"morally wrong and politically impractical" short of what he calls an existential threat to Israel.

But he does say, somewhat wistfully, that"had all the Palestinians crossed the Jordan River in 1948, either voluntarily or under compulsion, there would have been a complete separation between the two people, which would have taken some of the causation out of the continued warfare."

Such views — and the suggestion that ethnic cleansing cannot be ruled out as a legitimate strategy in the future — have almost entirely isolated Mr. Morris: he now finds himself rejected by his former comrades on the left and still shunned by the right.

Ilan Pappe, a professor at Haifa University who was also part of the generation of leftist revisionist historians, called Mr. Morris's statements proof that he is"a bigoted thinker, very narrow-minded."

Anita Shapira, a Zionist historian at Tel Aviv University and a longtime critic of Mr. Morris, said"he still has this inclination to look for any detail that can show the unsavory side of the Israeli army or politics, and to exaggerate it out of proportion."

His is a lonely position."It's a bit unpleasant," Mr. Morris concedes,"when you walk in the corridors at Ben-Gurion University, and some of your colleagues don't say hello to you. It's been awkward."...


To the Editor:

Re "An Israeli Who's Got Everybody Outraged," by Jonathan D. Tepperman (Arts & Ideas, April 17), about my views on Israel's past and present:

To expel armed thugs who are trying to murder you in your home is not a war crime. And this is ultimately what happened to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who tried to destroy Israel in 1948. But massacre and rape are crimes, and their perpetrators are to be reviled.

Israel indeed has "a moral obligation" to compromise. I continue to oppose the settlements and believe that a two-state solution is just and practical. But I fear that the Palestinians want all of Palestine. That is why they rejected the Clinton-Barak proposals in 2000 as they did the Peel Commission proposals in 1937 and the United Nations partition resolution in 1947 and insist on the refugees' "right of return" to Israel, which would spell instant death for the Jewish state.

The Middle East peace process did not just "collapse," as Mr. Tepperman would have it; it was bombed and bludgeoned and knifed to death by Yasir Arafat.

Jerusalem, April 17, 2004

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