Monday, January 12, 2004

What to Make of Benny Morris?

If you haven't read the most recent interview with Benny Morris in Haaretz, you are in for a bit of a shock. And a shock on too many levels to really explain. Morris, as you may remember (or choose not to remember) is one of the Israeli revisionist historians that emerged in the past decade to challenge the conventional history of the State of Israel and Zionism. In particular, the focus was what they saw as the darker side of Zionism and the plight of the Palestinian Arabs. Needless to say, people like Edward Said spoke glowingly of the new historians, and in particular Morris, and this new history was embraced by those who would make Israel to be a pariah. I have always thought of these historians as people enabled and perhaps seduced by Oslo and who, in the spirit of 'peace' were happy to speak ill of Israel's past and current practices in an effort share some common ground with those on the other side. Yet when that gesture was not reciprocated by the Palestinian intelligentsia but rather used as a propaganda tool to further turn world opinion against not just Israel but its very legitimacy, these new historians began to turn and realize that they had been had.

Perhaps that explains some of it, but Morris is pretty complex and I do not necessarily trust him. However, he clearly seems to get what this conflict is about:
"[Arafat] wants to send us back to Europe, to the sea we came from. He truly sees us as a Crusader state and he thinks about the Crusader precedent and wishes us a Crusader end. I'm certain that Israeli intelligence has unequivocal information proving that in internal conversations Arafat talks seriously about the phased plan [which would eliminate Israel in stages]. But the problem is not just Arafat. The entire Palestinian national elite is prone to see us as Crusaders and is driven by the phased plan. That's why the Palestinians are not honestly ready to forgo the right of return. They are preserving it as an instrument with which they will destroy the Jewish state when the time comes. They can't tolerate the existence of a Jewish state - not in 80 percent of the country and not in 30 percent. From their point of view, the Palestinian state must cover the whole Land of Israel."

And to him, the problem goes far beyond the conflict with the Palestinians.
"There is a deep problem in Islam. It's a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn't have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien. A world that makes those who are not part of the camp of Islam fair game. Revenge is also important here. Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them have no moral inhibitions. If it obtains chemical or biological or atomic weapons, it will use them. If it is able, it will also commit genocide."

You can see the tone of this interview. Throughout, he argues for the extremist of measures in dealing with this conflict. Not only does he argue for the wall, but that Ben Gurion's failure in 1948 was to have not made Israel Arab-free. And this 'conversion' by Morris seems to be real. He has written for the Guardian (that 'Jew-loving' British magazine) over the past few years and has been quite explicit about his thoughts. And there is a very funny (not intentionally, of course) incident reported awhile back where Morris went to speak at Berkeley. The organizers and crowd were enthusiastically awaiting the old-Morris, and instead got a hawk deeply critical of Arafat and Palestinian society. The result was a bitter Q&A that left both sides resigned never to talk to each other again.

This most recent particular interview seems to also have resonated with liberal hawks in this country who have supported Bush in the war on terror. Michael Totten (one of my favorites) sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Total War (i.e., Israel as faced with the choices of its own annihilation and extreme measures), agrees with Morris' assessment and believes the US may now be facing the same thing Israel has faced for its entire existence and more. Others like Roger Simon, similarly see what happened to Morris as what happens to anyone (and in this case, a liberal) when the blinders come off when faced with an enemy bent on your destruction. So when the Haaretz interviewer (for whom the blinders remain on) insists that the responsibility of Palestinian hatred rests with Israel, I couldn't have been more surprised to see Morris say that "that is not a sufficient explanation. The peoples of Africa were oppressed by the European powers no less than the Palestinians were oppressed by us, but nevertheless I don't see African terrorism in London, Paris or Brussels. The Germans killed far more of us than we killed the Palestinians, but we aren't blowing up buses in Munich and Nuremberg. So there is something else here, something deeper, that has to do with Islam and Arab culture."

So what is the problem? Read the first part of the interview. It has to do with Morris' new book, which is an update of his prior book. With new access to never before seen documents, Morris now 'uncovers' new atrocities committed by Israel in 1948...rape, murder, forced expulsions. Not just by the Irgun and the Stern gang, but the Hagannah and some, by the orders of Ben Gurion (at least with respect to "cleansing"...his term, not mine).

In fact, Morris talks about cleansing a lot. He is a cleanser. He believes in it. And says that Ben Gurion was too...and the term was one that they used then. But what a term to use! He notes that it is not politically correct to say that. That is an understatement. It is reviled. Yet it is also distorted. When I grew up, cleansing meant what happened in the Holocaust .... Extermination. Yet somehow, in the past decade, it has come to encompass relocation. Forced relocation is a horrible thing, and people die (ever heard of the Armenians?), but I don't doubt that the Jews of Europe would have greatly preferred that to their ultimate fate. It only they had let us live. But now, cleansing means something more...but that dilution has in no way reduced the moral indignation associated with its accusers. So that makes me wonder why Morris embraces the term so readily, so often. Who is he trying to incite and why?

And when he talks about this cleansing, does he talk about the cleansing of the Arab lands of 500,000 Jews that occurred at the same time? That was a fact he left out in his edition 10 years ago. Did he include that now? I don't know.

And when he talks about these new atrocities he uncovers (which he goes on to say are not really significant in the scheme of things or in absolute numbers), does he talk about the Etzion Block?, Ben Yehuda Street?, the Mount Scopus convoy? Has he spent time uncovering other Arab atrocities?

And why now? Why talk about this now? Maybe the Haaretz interview skewed things doubt they have an agenda. But I came away from this particular interview particularly worried. I see nothing good coming from it.


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