The original Morris
In historical perspective, the shadow cast by Morris' post-2004 declarations of contrition might be lost. Despite his own acts of recantation, history will remember the original Morris, and his courageous research.
I was listening to the radio one evening. A retired IDF officer was talking about how Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had once asked him who killed Goliath. "Of course, David did," replied the IDF man. Ben-Gurion responded: "Read the Torah and you'll see that Elhanan was the one who killed Goliath." History, he added, attributes acts of heroism to persons who have power.
The historian Benny Morris, the son of one of the winners, acted differently. He told the story of the vanquished. His book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," restored some proportion by revealing troubling truths. Morris showed that Palestinian refugees were expelled, and that war crimes were committed against them, among other things.
This wasn't easy. "I was treated like an enemy of the state," Morris told Cobi Ben-Simhon (Haaretz, September 20 ). "This image stuck. I was ostracized. I wasn't invited to conferences and, of course, I wasn't offered a university position. It was a tough time. I couldn't support myself and my family."
Morris added that he had been fired by the Jerusalem Post in 1991.
In view of these facts, it's easy to understand why Morris, a talented but ostracized figure, would decide to rejoin the establishment. His reconversion stirred a tempest. Referring to Palestinians in a January 2004 interview with Ari Shavit, Morris opined that "there is a wild animal there that needs to be locked up." The uproar involved allegations and incriminations that constituted a sad contrast to the scientific method deployed by Morris in his important writings. These were claims suited to the somnolent right, not to a historian.
Worse, someone who says "there are times when the general, ultimate good justifies hard, cruel acts that occur in history" scares me. Or a sentence such as: "They said that the kind of things I described could give ammunition to our enemies. Today I see that there is something to that." It's good that Morris didn't think that way when he started out as a historian, else we would have no "Benny Morris" at all. The most ridiculous thing is the way he uses the two Ehuds - Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert - to reinforce his positions. The two acted without coalitions. The first acted like a casino gambler when he told Arafat 'take it or leave it;' the second was just a small step away from being ousted, and his loyal deputy, Tzipi Livni, implored the Palestinians not to reach an agreement with him, since he was governing on borrowed time.
In response to the raging arguments about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, I thought to try an intellectual exercise. One can take two approaches to the dispute, one composed of the silent facts, the other comprised of declarations. Here's what comes out on the track of sheer fact: A people which was, in 1917, a clear majority (90 percent ) of this country, shrank to 66 percent in 1948; it was offered a state on 45 percent of the territory of its homeland, and the Jewish population, a third of the country, was offered 55%. During 1948-1949 this 55 percent swelled to 78 percent in the possession of the Jewish state, accompanied by 750,000 Palestinian refugees. After 19 years, the percentage of the land grab went up to 100 percent.
On the other hand, were an alien to land here, he would think that the fiery, militant Arab declarations come from the Jewish side, because their contents match the facts on the ground; in contrast, the alien would think that the cries of distress and victimization issued by the Jews come from the Palestinians, because their contents match what happened to Palestinians on the ground. The Arabs talk and the Jews act. In historical perspective, the shadow cast by Morris' post-2004 declarations of contrition might be lost. In his day, Galileo "recanted" his research, yet his name is remembered for the sentence 'and still it moves.' Despite his own acts of recantation, history will remember the original Morris, and his courageous research.