Morris: Righteous Victims

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VOL. 30

2000/01

No. 3
P. 109
Recent Books
Morris: Righteous Victims
FULL TEXT

    At the beginning of this massive book, Benny Morris, a recognized scholar of the Palestinian refugee question and Israeli-Arab interactions to 1956, inscribes on a separate page a stanza from the poem "September 1, 1939," by W. H. Auden: "I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
    This excerpt is the key to understanding the identity of Morris's "righteous victims." In principle, they could be either Israelis or Palestinians. In fact, they are Jews generally, Israelis specifically, persecuted throughout most of their history under Islam, which "has traditionally exhibited a deep xenophobia" toward Christians and Jews (p. 9). This attitude and concomitant scorn toward dhimmis redounded against Muslims when Zionists gained the upper hand in Palestine and when Jews from Arab lands brought with them to Israel their hostility to Arabs and especially Muslims (p. 13). The hostility of Jews/Israelis toward Palestinians resulted not only from their victimization in a holocaust that stemmed from "the two thousand years of Christian--and, to a lesser degree, Islamic--persecution that preceded it" (p. 655), but also from Palestinian/Arab lack of empathy for the Jewish experience, "an insensitivity to the plight of the Jews [that] heightened Jewish antagonism toward them" (p. 655). Thus, Arabs, Muslim unless noted otherwise, are at least partially to blame for Jewish behavior that might otherwise be condemned outright, and the Holocaust was, albeit to a lesser degree, the result of Islamic attitudes toward Jews.
    Morris's opening and his conclusion establish the underlying tone of this book. Though capable of noting objective historical conditions and Israeli attitudes and behavior that induced Arab resistance, Morris generally falls back on a defensive, often confusing explanation in his concluding remarks. His discussion of the Jewish experience under Islam, for example, cites the more balanced studies of Norman Stillman (The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book, Jewish Publication Society of America) and Bernard Lewis (The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press), but his judgments invariably mirror the influence of the tract written by Bat Ye'or (The Dhimmis: Jews and Christians under Islam, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).
    Similarly, his first two chapters include extensive coverage of Zionist-Arab interactions and mutual hostility between 1881 and 1914, with Arabs defending their land against Zionists who claimed it as theirs and treated the Arabs as inferiors and as obstacles to their colonization movement (p. 49). Zionists' ability to avoid "seeing" Palestinian Arabs was a self-defense mechanism to block doubt about the legitimacy of their enterprise coupled with a colonist mentality that could ignore the "natives" (Morris's quotes, p. 654). But despite the presence of the Arabs, until the 1920s the Jews were right in seeing themselves as the "only 'nation' or 'people' in the country: The Arabs simply did not exist as a Palestinian people--as another competing nationalism" (p. 654). Still, Zionist defense of the lands they owned prior to 1914 led at times to murderous Arab attacks with "clear 'nationalist' undertones" (p. 655) by people who nonetheless could never "fathom the centrality of the Land of Israel to Judaism partly . . . because it was not central to their own identity, as a 'national' collective, until well into the twentieth century" (p. 655).
    Morris's contradiction of himself in the above lines on the same page is not unusual. His "objective" analysis falls victim to his need to justify Zionism, even when using a source invalidating his conclusions as in his chapter on World War I. His depiction of the war in the Middle East and British policy is frequently good, but Morris presents Sharif Husayn of Mecca as welcoming the Jewish influx to Palestine that would result from the Balfour Declaration, implying that he knew of and accepted its provisions (p. 76). He uses George Antonius's The Arab Awakening to portray David Hogarth as honestly assuring Hussein that the declaration would guarantee Palestinian political rights when in fact the declaration denied Arab political rights. Hogarth deliberately misrepresented the declaration to Husayn and withheld from him Zionist goals, points Antonius makes and Morris ignores while citing him. As is often the case, Morris uses extensive quotes without comments, leaving in this chapter the impression that Faysal showed "infidelity" to Zionism in contrast to Britain's "fidelity" in redeeming their promises to the Arabs (p. 82).
    Morris's chapter on World War I ends not after the peace treaties but in 1930 in the aftermath of the Western Wall riots, and the killing of Jews in Hebron. His next chapter on the Arab Revolt of 1936 has good coverage of the revolt, especially its military aspects. Here Morris evaluates the idea of transfer of Arabs out of Palestine, introduced by the Peel Commission's recommendation that the Arab population be transferred from the proposed Jewish state. He observes that the idea was widespread but not allowed to be made public because, as in other cases, Zionists did not wish to disclose their true aims. But when Morris returns to the question of transfer in his conclusion, he remarks first that the Zionists did not discuss the issue "publicly or with frequency" after the Peel report was not implemented; on the next page he says that despite the rejection of the Peel report "the floodgates . . . opened for the Yishuv to think about transfer" (pp. 658-59).
    The focus of this book is its treatment of wars. In chapters 3-13, only three do not have the word "war" in their titles. Of those, one focuses on the Suez crisis, another on the intifada; only two concentrate on negotiations. This is a book about conflict. Morris appears more comfortable fitting discussion of political issues into a military framework than considering such issues on their own. When discussing the 1940s, the subject of his earliest research, Morris is clearly at home. Chapter five is the book's longest; sixty-eight of its ninety-eight pages covering World War II and Israeli independence treat the battles of 1947-48 and the 1949 armistices.
    In the following chapter, covering 1949-56, he also considers an area of his previous research. Here, he notes briefly David Ben-Gurion's rebuff of Arab peace overtures but has little on the activist-moderate tensions of the early 1950s that led to Moshe Sharett's ouster from the government. In contrast to Morris's Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956 (1993), all Israeli military actions in this chapter are retaliatory; no mention of Israeli provocations. Although Morris occasionally notes Israeli excesses, such as when he presents Sharett as criticizing certain actions, he then introduces Moshe Dayan to defend them.
    This defensiveness carries over to the chapter on the 1967 war, buttressed by hyperbole: "If the destruction of Israel was not Arab policy [his emphasis] before, after 1956 it most certainly was" (p. 301). Once said, Morris has no discussion of Arab policy in the early 1960s and erroneously links Fatah with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 (p. 303, cf 364). He jumps from 1958 to 1967 and a highly detailed chapter on the war and its aftermath followed by chapters on the War of Attrition and the 1973 war; Morris is fascinated by logistics and details of combat. His chapter on Camp David, "The Israeli-Egyptian Peace, 1977-1979," adequately covers the negotiations and the attitudes of participants, but he erroneously suggests that Palestinians later wished they had accepted "the autonomy offered at Camp David" (p. 477), never noting that it was not offered and would have been totally unacceptable, as he states elsewhere (p. 487).
    Chapters 4 through 10 are the heart of the book and can be read with profit, especially by military historians. If discussion of battles does not disturb Morris, guerrilla actions and civil conflict do. His treatment of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is fair, but he is clearly uneasy in his analysis of the brutal Israeli-Shi`i war waged southern Lebanon in the late 1980s. Though acknowledging Israeli torture and occasional execution of suspects, Morris states that "Israel's liberal and democratic norms" prevented it from implementing a harsher policy, such as mass executions. He then outlines Israeli practices that included wholesale torture along with bombings that killed many people, justified by a Shin Bet officer and implicitly by Morris, as the only way to "stay sane . . . Lebanon gave us Lebanonization, levantinization" (pp. 553-56). As with the Palestinians, the Lebanese can be responsible for Israeli excesses.
    Morris's chapters on the intifada and the Oslo accords of the 1990s are relatively brief but offer a more balanced treatment of issues, such as the linkage between Likud settlement policies and Hamas terrorism, than is found elsewhere in the book. Here, his criticism of Israeli retaliation is more open.
    Morris ends with Ehud Barak's election in May 1999, after an incisive, derogatory overview of Benjamin Netanyahu's era as prime minister. He then adds his concluding, tortured attempts to explain the Zionist/Israeli policies and Arab actions toward Israel noted above. Here he openly accepts Ben-Gurion's activist policy of the 1950s as successful, something he never states in his chapter on the period; Israeli power forced Arabs to concede Israel's existence and advanced peace. Ultimately, however, he is pessimistic, marveling at Israel's successes but wondering if the country can survive.
    Righteous Victims is a sprawling, disorganized work, uneven in its coverage of issues, ultimately governed by emotions of guilt and anger. Within the framework of the "nationalist-revisionist" debate in Israel, Morris, though capable of revisionist analysis, is here at heart a nationalist in the conclusions he draws from his findings and where he places ultimate responsibility. Despite the book's scholarly apparatus, it stands as an appeal aimed at a popular audience. It has the quality of a first draft that did not encounter the editorial supervision one would expect from a reputable publisher. What seems clear is how Benny Morris feels about the subjects of his research within the Zionist-Arab conflict and how the portent of a real Israeli-Palestinian accord that might restrict Israel's military freedom of action instills alarm in some who advocated peace in the past.


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Charles D. Smith is a professor of history in the Near Eastern Studies department at the University of Arizona, Tucson. The fourth edition of his Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict was recently published by Palgrave.