Benny Morris: His career suggests why Israeli historiography is so contentious





For Israel, which dates back roughly to 1800 BC as a destination (Abraham heading to Canaan) and about 1020 BC as a kingdom (the ascension of Saul), 60 years amounts to the blink of an eye.

Yet as the country celebrates six decades of reborn existence on May 14 and books about it cascade into stores, the most important among them, Benny Morris's 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press), reminds us of a revealing bent among Israeli historians: their passion for the "yearbook," that subgenre of history that suggests precision by focusing on just one year or span of years.

"New historians" such as Morris and Tom Segev, who began to question crucial foundational beliefs of Israeli society in the late 1980s, especially favor it. Morris, the subject of enormous commentary by other historians, counts among his works The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1987), Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (1999), and a volume of essays titled 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians (1990). Segev's classics include 1949: The First Israelis (1986) and 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East (2007).

It's as if by crisply saluting the calendar, one can defuse Israel's endlessly controverted history and perhaps reduce the belligerence with which Israeli historians tear one another's work to shreds. But Israeli history can't be saved by tricks of internal architecture from its hermeneutic plight. And the arc of Morris's career suggests the many complexities faced by an Israeli historian of the modern state.

A professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Morris first drew attention with The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, which, according to fellow historians Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, "provided the first documentary evidence to demonstrate Israeli responsibility for the flight of Palestinians from their homes."

Conventional Israeli history held that Palestinians fled their homes in 1948 because their leaders ordered them to do so, confident they'd return once the five Arab countries that attacked Israel on its first day crushed the new state. But in that book, Morris attributed the flight of the Palestinians — called al-naqba, or "the catastrophe," by Arabs — to a mixture of causes. Some fled under direct attack. Some left in panic because they feared an attack. And some followed orders from Palestinian authorities. Morris also shook up standard Israeli history by declaring that Israelis, and not only Palestinians, committed massacres. (In a 2004 revised edition, he maintained those general views.)

In The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris resisted the allegation that Jewish leaders before 1948 approved an official policy of "transfer," or expulsion, that prompted the flight of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, some 60 percent of Palestine's pre-war population. In a much-cited line, Morris stated that "the Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab." Morris also stressed that Palestinian flight ultimately resulted from the war launched in 1947 by Palestinians themselves, followed on May 15, 1948, by the attack on Israel by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan. But few paid attention to that observation.

Israelis on the right denounced Morris as an "Israel hater," while Palestinians thought he didn't go far enough. The Palestinian anthropologist Sharif Kanaana, of Birzeit University, wrote that Morris's view was "more dangerous than the previous line of Israeli propaganda" because it was "more sophisticated."

Over the years, Morris has largely stuck to his scholarly positions, though some have evolved, along with his personal politics. In a 2001 essay, Morris said he'd come to feel that a "virtual consensus" grew among leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of pre-war Palestine, in support of a transfer of peoples to solve the Arab-Jewish problem — a notion endorsed by Britain's 1937 Peel Commission report. He now believes, based on further archival research, that Israeli commanders, witnessing growing Palestinian flight in late 1948, decided to encourage it, with Ben-Gurion's connivance. He still rejects the idea that "any overall expulsory policy decision was taken by the Yishuv's executive bodies … in the course of the 1948 war."...



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