Opinion |

Does the 'Father' of the 1948 Ethnic Cleansing Narrative Really Want to Recant His Words?

The Benny Morris of 2016 seems to be doing what he once accused the 'old historians' of doing – interpreting history and downplaying Israeli misdeeds in order to defend Israel’s legitimacy.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
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Palestinian refugees
Palestinian refugees standing outside their tent in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, in 1948. Caro aka Peters sought to upend what she saw as a one-sided debate on 1948 refugees. Credit: AP
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

Our emotions and beliefs can inform our recounting of history. We’ve seen another example of this in the recent contretemps between historians Benny Morris and Daniel Blatman about whether Israel was guilty of ethnic cleansing in 1948 – and what it says about Israel's burden of responsibility regarding the conflict.

Blatman quoted Morris, the "new historian," to back up his claim that Israel had engaged in ethnic cleansing during the 1948 War of Independence. Morris’ reaction was visceral: he attacked Blatman personally, accusing him of having “betrayed his profession” as a historian “when he attributed to me [Morris] things I have never claimed and distorted the events of 1948.”

Benny Morris is the most well known, if not the only prominent, Israeli historian to change his political stripes. In fact, he was the leading new historian of a group of scholars that “sought to reexamine the Zionist enterprise,” as he put it, and whose historiography was “replete with descriptions of savagery by Jewish troops and Zionist political skullduggery.”

The violence of the second intifada, which erupted in 2000, caused him to withdraw his support of the Oslo peace process and become a harsh critic of the Palestinian leadership. It also seems to have affected his interpretation of history and his own works, which – though – he has not disavowed.

But the thing about historiography is that like a writer’s novel, once a historic work is in the public domain, the readers become empowered to interpret the written word and the author loses ownership over them.

The Benny Morris of 2016 can assert that he never claimed that Israel had engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” but that is certainly the impression many readers got from his seminal works like “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” first published in 1988, and “Righteous Victims,” which came out in 2001. Indeed, those were the books that convinced me that Israel had engaged in ethnic cleansing, even if there was never an official order from Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

In a 1988 essay called “The New Historiography,” he wrote that the truth of the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem lay “somewhere in between” Arab propaganda purporting that the Yishuv “had always intended ‘transfer’” and the “Israeli propaganda line” that “the Palestinians fled ‘voluntarily.’” He explained the infamous “Plan D” by which Israel “cleared various areas completely of Arab villages,” adding that “Jewish atrocities and the drive to avenge past misdeeds also contributed significantly to the exodus."

Recalling such statements after reading Morris’ opinion piece and wondering if I, too, were mistaken, I checked with a number of educated people, both left-wing and right-wing, familiar with his work. They all had the same impression about the interpretation of Morris’ early works.

Although he never used the phrase “ethnic cleansing” – the term only came into common usage with the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s – his defense of his research against critics to his right in the late 1990s certainly indicate he was attributing to Israel what the anti-Israel crowd would call ethnic cleansing.

At that time, Prof. Efraim Karsh of King’s College, London, accused Morris of putting words into the mouth of Ben-Gurion that simply weren’t there (similar to what Morris accused Blatman of doing), citing numerous speeches in which Ben-Gurion opposed forced expulsions.

“Karsh appears unaware of the fact that politicians say different things to different audiences at different times and that what distinguishes good from bad historians is the ability to sort out the (heartfelt) wheat from the (propagandistic) chaff,” responded Morris in a review of Karsh’s book “Fabricating Israeli History.”

“Karsh also fails to take note of the fundamental rule that what statesmen, politicians, and generals do is far more telling that what they say and a more certain indicator of their real desires and intentions.”

In “Righteous Victims,” Morris observed that Ben-Gurion’s views on “transfer as a legitimate solution to the Arab problem” did not change after he publicly declared support for forced expulsions in the 1930s, but that “he was aware of the need, for tactical reasons, to be discreet.” Thus, so it seemed, he explained how Ben-Gurion could be responsible for the expulsion of many of the 700,000 Palestinian Arabs without ever issuing an order to that effect.

If this isn’t an indictment of Ben-Gurion, I don’t know what is.

The evolution of Morris’ thinking between 2000 and 2016 is also visible in a 2004 interview with Ari Shavit.

“A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them,” he said. “It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleans the main roads.”

After using the word “cleanse” three times in one sentence, I think Blatman could be forgiven for misunderstanding Morris’ intent.

Morris, of course, is welcome to change his political view. But he, like any other historian, must understand that he has left a paper trail that tells a substantially different narrative than the one he now advocates. The Benny Morris of 2016 seems to be doing what he once accused the “old historians” of doing – interpreting history and downplaying Israeli misdeeds in order to defend Israel’s legitimacy. Unless he repudiates his earlier works – and there are plenty of right-wing historians who would love to see him do that – he should accept that he has made perhaps the most significant contributions to the “ethnic cleansing” narrative, for that narrative is indeed the legacy of those works.

As for me, I miss the old Benny Morris. There was a consistent logic between his findings and his conclusions. Moreover, he put the “savagery by Jewish troops and Zionist political skullduggery” in the context of an existential struggle, and did not use them politically to attack Israel’s legitimacy.

Reinterpreting or ignoring parts of his research that cast Israel in a negative light does not serve the legacy of Morris' early works in the context of Israeli historiography, nor does it offer any chance for either side to think about the conflict outside their own hermetic ideological bubble.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Follow him on Twitter: @stevekhaaretz

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