Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949,
2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1999.
London: John Murray, 2000.

It would exceed the tolerable bounds of triteness to point out the importance of history to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Pro-Arab and pro-Israel polemics alike revolve around claims about past events, notably the 1967 war which led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 1948 war which both established the state of Israel and created hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. International proposals like the 2003 “Road Map” and unilateral Israeli decisions like the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the construction of the “security fence” through the middle of the West Bank are routinely compared to past partition schemes and evaluated in terms of the proportion of “Mandate Palestine” left to each side, more than half a century after that entity ceased to exist.


So it may not be surprising that controversial comments earlier this year by Benny Morris, Professor of History at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and dean of the “New Historians” who have criticized official Israeli historiography from within, caused a stir unimaginable in Canada, where academic historians are in little danger of becoming controversial celebrities. To promote the release of a new edition of his Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and a Hebrew version of his magisterial Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, Morris gave an interview to Haaretz and wrote an article for the Guardian of London. In the process, he managed both to annoy his old adversaries on the right by announcing his discovery of historic war crimes by the Israeli military and to shock his traditional supporters on the left by retrospectively approving of forcible transfer of Palestinians in the past and speculating about its acceptability in the near future.

Origins: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem

Morris made his professional reputation with the 1988 publication of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, a new edition of which has been issued this year. Morris addressed one of the most sensitive historical issues in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute: did the 700,000 Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 war leave their homes voluntarily under direction from their leaders, as maintained by Israel, or were they the victims of a systematic attempt by the nascent Israeli state to expel and dispossess them? The question seemed to many to go to the heart of the legitimacy of the Zionist project and its responsibility for the subsequent half century of Palestinian suffering.

Relying on declassified Israeli and British documents (Arab regimes being unwilling to share theirs with independent researchers), Morris undermined the traditional Israeli account. The reasons for Arab flight in 1948 were complex, motivated partly by intra-Palestinian disputes, economic collapse and an ordinary breakdown in order in Arab areas after the departure of British troops. However, large movements of refugees from Arab settlements generally occurred in the wake of Israeli attacks and were discouraged by the Arab political leadership. Morris showed that the idea of compulsory transfer of Arabs from Jewish-controlled territory was not the exclusive provenance of right-wingers like Ze’ev Jabotinsky (an admirer of Mussolini and founder of the Revisionist Movement, a lineal forerunner of the now-ruling Likud Party), but was the common, if unspoken, opinion of mainstream Zionist leaders, notably David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. At least after April 1948, commanders of the mainstream Haganah, forerunner of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), including the war hero Yigal Allon, deliberately uprooted Arab settlements.

In the 2004 edition, Morris has supplemented his original sources with newly-released IDF files. These provide more evidence of Haganah/IDF war crimes (rapes and massacres) as well as deliberate expulsions, which Morris concludes resulted from Ben-Gurion’s orders to his military commanders. The language of “cleansing” as a description of the removal of unwanted populations from their land, made notorious by the ethnonationalists of 1990s Yugoslavia, is eerily echoed in the documents of the independence-era Haganah/IDF.

To be fair, Ben-Gurion and other mainstream Zionists did not intend to completely remove Palestinians from the territory of the Jewish state, as the continued existence of a population of Israeli Arabs demonstrates. The treatment of the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter of East Jerusalem (a religious settlement long predating Zionism), which fell to Jordan’s Arab Legion in May 1948, was more thorough. However, Morris’s work does establish an intentional policy of reducing the number of Arab settlements – both to provide land for Jewish immigrants and to improve the demographic balance as was necessary for a state to be both Jewish and democratic.

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem is an essential source for exploring the events of 1948, which led both to the state of Israel and to the “problem” referred to in the title. The exposure of new atrocities, on both sides, is necessary for the completion of the historic record, and a reminder of the awfulness of war. But it is the link between forcible ethnic cleansing and the birth of the new state that raises more troubling, because more difficult, moral issues. The goal of the Zionist movement – a state both democratic and Jewish – had (and has) as its demographic prerequisite a territory largely owned and occupied by Jews. Before 1948, the Yishuv, the organized Jewish settlement in Palestine, was able to acquire 8 per cent of the land, and made up only 55 per cent of the population in the portions of Palestine allocated to it by the United Nations. Afterwards, Jews represented 80 per cent of the population of a larger area, and the land of the refugees was nationalized and reserved for the use of Israel’s Jewish citizens and immigrants. The partition of Palestine, like the border shifts of Eastern Europe or the partition of India occurring at the same time, cannot be separated from the acts of ethnic cleansing that made it possible.

The Long View: Righteous Victims

While The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem focuses on the 1948 pivot of the dispute, Righteous Victims takes a broader perspective, ranging chronologically from the eve of Zionism’s birth in the 1880s to (for the English edition) the election of Ehud Barak in 1999. Righteous Victims is sobering enough, even without the foreknowledge of the bleak years since the autumn of 2000.

The detailed military history in Righteous Victims may be excessive for some readers. Others will be annoyed by the small number of maps (one for each war, and only one for a diplomatic event, viz., the 1948 UN Partition Plan). Morris writes in an omniscient, narrative style, which allows him to avoid the usual polemics, but leaves the reader seeking a broad introduction to the subject without a sense of where Morris’s professional colleagues might disagree with him. Still, Righteous Victims is an excellent introduction to the political and military history of the conflict for the general reader. It illustrates both the truth of Chaim Weizmann’s dictum that the struggle between Jew and Arab is one of “right versus right” and the sordid wrongs committed in the name of each of these rights.

The first four chapters set out the historic path to the birth of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. They give a balanced overview of Jewish life under Muslim rule, narrate the origins of a mass Zionist movement in the Russian pogroms of the late 19th century and trace the counterdevelopment of a Palestinian identity. Although none of the Zionists on the ground literally believed that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land,” the mainstream movement did close its eyes to the intractable problem that the indigenous Arab population presented to the realization of its goals. Anticipating some of the illusions of more recent decades, the Zionists hoped that economic growth would undermine ethnic tension. Within the Yishuv, the most realistic thinking about the Palestinian issue was found at the extremes: Jabotinsky’s Revisionists recognized in Arab nationalism a movement symmetrical to their own, and considered that matters would necessarily be resolved by force, while Brit Shalom sought a binational unitary state. But both groups were effectively marginalized by the mainstream socialist Zionist tradition until the 1970s when Jabotinsky’s heirs came to power in Israel.

The remaining chapters address the major wars and diplomatic developments between the state of Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinian population: the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Egypt-Israeli peace process, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the First Intifada and the 1990s Oslo process. Morris tells his story in the manner of an old-fashioned narrative history, but his biases come out subtly. Morris is most annoyed with those he considers mendacious, and is remarkably generous to extremists on both sides who were prepared to be brutally honest. It is quite clear that he can stand neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Yasser Arafat, and for the same reason (a lack of concern for honesty or consistency), although the 1999-era Morris is more explicit in relation to Netanyahu, whom he labels the most incompetent and mendacious Israeli prime minister. On the other hand, he is able to appreciate the position of the rightist Jabotinsky and even the pro-Nazi Amin al-Husseini, the most prominent Palestinian leader between the wars.

Morris cites a passage written by Jabotinsky in 1923: “ look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervour that any Aztec looked upon Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. Palestine will remain for the Palestinians not a borderland, but their birthplace, the centre and basis of their own national existence.” Jabotinsky’s comparison of the Palestinians to the Aztec and the Sioux implicitly casts his own movement with the Spanish and Americans who displaced them. As a believer in ethnic Darwinism, Jabotinsky saw this as a positive identification. But paradoxically, he was better able to accept the legitimacy of his enemies’ position than his secular and universalist socialist Zionist opponents.

One thing that is striking about this history is the longevity of its principal characters. Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli Prime Minister, first appears in Morris’s account as the leader of a 1953 IDF reprisal on an Arab village resulting in civilian deaths, while the opposition leader, Shimon Peres, shows up to negotiate a 1952 arms deal with France on behalf of his mentor Ben-Gurion. The contemporary Palestinian leadership is similarly long-toothed, with many younger figures being scions of elite families. Also striking is the degree to which each side learns from the other’s tactics. The terrorist scourge facing Israel today is based on tactics developed by the Revisionist militias of the 1940s (Menachem Begin’s Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir’s LHI), with the crucial exception of the suicide bomber, which was originated by Hizbollah after Begin and Sharon’s ill-starred (albeit militarily successful) invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Morris’s chapter on the 1987–90 Intifada is particularly interesting, if depressing in light of current events. The original Intifada was a quantum leap forward in Palestinian national consciousness and discipline. While severe violence was meted out to Palestinian “collaborators,” the Palestinians deliberately refrained from using firearms against Israelis, despite their access to them. The effect was a polarization of Israeli society which, when combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Palestinians’ superpower sponsor, and the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, opened up the possibility of a negotiated peace. The Second Intifada, with its cult of the blood-soaked shahid (martyr), has had the opposite effect of sealing the blood line between the communities and lessening the differentiation within them.

Historic taint or seductive precedent?

Morris himself illustrates this interethnic polarization and increasing intraethnic solidarity. Not surprisingly, Morris’s research did not endear him to the ultrapatriotic Israeli right, and he has been cited (selectively) by pro-Palestinian propagandists. Indeed, Morris’s identification with the left extends beyond his professional work: he was jailed for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories during the First Intifada. The 1999 Righteous Victims, despite its clearheaded account of Muslim Arab society and its occasional appreciation for figures like Jabotinsky, reflected these politics. But the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David and Taba negotiations and the new, far more brutal Intifada have caused Morris, along with much of the rest of the Israeli left, to become far more pessimistic about the possibility of an acceptable compromise with Palestinians.

In 2002, Morris joined the defeated Barak in declaring a belief that the Palestinian leadership had never been serious about peace, and advocating unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank and the annexation of the remainder behind a defensible barrier (the strategy Sharon is now following). In 2004, while remaining committed to openly discussing the historic wrongs committed by the Zionist side, Morris has gone further in his move to the right: citing Ben-Gurion as a positive precedent, he now sees a new forcible transfer as thinkable in the next few years, and talks of Israeli Arabs as a “fifth column” that must be regarded with suspicion. Israeli Arabs, who number in excess of 1.1 million, have indeed protested Israel’s acts in the Occupied Territories through mostly peaceful action, including a general strike in October 2001.

As demonstrated by his revelation of hitherto undocumented atrocities by the Haganah, Morris’s political evolution has not affected his historical work in any simple way. But the indiscriminate rage of the suicide bombers has brought to the surface of Morris’s work the latent ambiguity in the proposition that Israel originated with conscious acts of ethnic cleansing. For those who doubt the legitimacy of the Zionist project, this origin is proof of its taint. But for those committed to the Jewish state, Ben-Gurion’s tough actions in 1948 present a seductive precedent.

In 1948, both the mainstream Zionist movement and the “international community” concluded that Jews could be secure and self-determining only through the partition of Palestine. But that solution, in turn, required that some Palestinians be encouraged to leave their homeland and properties, so that Jewish immigrants could have land and could constitute a stable demographic majority on their side of the partition line.

Today, a much more isolated Israel faces an existential threat from the suicide bombers. Its mainstream, including longtime supporters of accommodation with Palestinian nationalism like Morris, have concluded that the only solution is to unilaterally redraw a line of partition by withdrawing from Gaza and unwanted portions of the West Bank and thereby place its internal enemies on the outside. But now, since the threat is not from armies or states, but potentially from every Arab teenager, the logic of externalizing the threat may ultimately require a more thoroughgoing “cleansing” than Ben-Gurion was prepared to contemplate half a century ago.

So far, this idea has been relegated to the right-wing fringes of Israeli politics. But what will prevent its implementation once expulsion makes the transition from the taboo to the thinkable? Morris’s unrelenting gaze makes us all uncomfortable: worse, it may contribute to something horrible. But it demands our attention. Morris’s books are an excellent starting poing for anyone who wishes to be an informed observer of Israeli/Palestinian politics.