A large stack of pages lies on the desk of Benny Morris in his home in Srigim, a residential community near Beit Shemesh. Seven-hundred pages, to be precise. On the top one is an ominous title, in English – “The Thirty-Year Genocide.” Morris worked on his new study for nine years, with co-author Prof. Dror Ze’evi, his colleague in the Middle East studies department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva.
As always with Morris, this latest work is rife with sensational discoveries – the kind that generate a furor that moves quickly from the academic world to the political arena. This time, though, Morris’ topic is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I’m done with the Jews-and-Arabs nonsense; I’ve written enough about that subject,” he says with a smile.
Morris’ barbs are aimed at another nation, in Israel’s neighborhood: Turkey. On the agenda is a genocide that went on for 30 years, between 1894 and 1924, and claimed between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Christian victims, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. The perpetrators, according to Morris, were the Turks and their Muslim helpers, who included Kurds, Circassians, Chechens and Arabs.
“The general public is familiar, if at all, only with the Armenian genocide, which occurred in 1915-1916,” he points out. “In the new study we argue, and show, that that massacre was not a one-off event but part of a deeper and broader sequence of events, which went on for three decades, with the aim of eliminating the Christian minority in Turkey,” Morris says, adding, “Three Turkish regimes were involved, from the Ottoman Empire to Ataturk’s republic.” The result was appalling: At the start of the brutality, Christians constituted 20 percent of the population of the Turkish space; at its end, just 2 percent.
A massacre takes place over a period of years, and only in 2019 do two Israeli historians tell the world about it?
Morris: “It is quite amazing, but I think this is the first time this subject has been studied. Until now, almost everyone has focused exclusively on the Armenians, because they are an enlightened, educated people who produced historians who wrote about what they endured. The modern Greeks apparently had no such tradition, so ordinary people don’t know anything about what happened. Hundreds of thousands of them were murdered. So were half the Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire; their number dwindled from 600,000 to 300,000.”
Asked specifically about the number “between 1.5 million and 2.5 million,” which is cited in the book, Morris admits that “all the numbers, including our estimates, are problematic.” The figures, he says, are based on the work of Turkish, Greek and Armenian historians and statisticians, who examined how many of their people lived in Turkey before and after the period in question, how many were expelled and how many simply vanished.
“Our conclusion that between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians were murdered, from 1894 to 1924, is a cautious estimate,” Morris says.
Last month, Morris celebrated his 70th birthday. Not long before, a ceremony to mark his retirement from academia was held at Ben-Gurion University. Morris was born in the year of Israel’s establishment, in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, north of Netanya, to parents from England who immigrated to Palestine for Zionist reasons. He grew up in Jerusalem and afterward accompanied his parents to New York, where his father was an envoy in Israel’s foreign service. After high school he returned to Israel and did his army service in the Nahal Brigade. He saw action on the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War. He was wounded by Egyptian shelling during the subsequent War of Attrition.
As a reservist, Morris was jailed for refusing to serve in the territories during the first intifada. “I did what I felt was the right thing to do in 1988,” he says. “The first intifada was violent but not lethal. It was a popular revolt. People threw stones and a few people were killed. But all told, about 1,000 Palestinians were killed and Jews were not killed, because the Palestinians barely used firearms. They said they didn’t want to live under a military government and Israeli oppression. I refused to take part in that oppression when my battalion was posted to the casbah in Nablus. I was jailed for a few weeks. That’s a light punishment. In other armies refusing an order can land you in prison for years.”
Would you have also refused to serve in the second intifada?
“No. In the second intifada I was against refusing an order, because it wasn’t just a rebellion against the Israeli occupation but also an attempt to bring Israel to a state of collapse. Many of the terrorist attacks took place on our side of the border and included mass killings. There was terrorist warfare against Israel. To refuse to serve in that situation is not right. At the same time, I am one of those who don’t want to man checkpoints or burst into homes in the middle of the night and turn the closets inside out in a search for weapons. That is very unpleasant work and morally problematic. But the Arab desire to destroy Israel is also morally problematic.”
He took up the study history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and did his Ph.D. in modern European history at Cambridge. In 1978, he began working as a journalist at The Jerusalem Post, but discovered that he was more interested in historical investigations than in reportage. While perusing the archives of the Palmach, the pre-state commando force, he came across documents dealing with the Palestinian refugees. The formative moment that transformed him from a journalist into a historian occurred there, among the shelves of the archive, when he found the order of expulsion that Yitzhak Rabin issued for the residents of Lod during the 1948 war.
“I realized that this was volatile material that undermined Zionist historiography in general and changed the picture, so that there weren’t just good guys and bad guys here, but two sides that did things that were wrong and ugly,” he says. That was the origin of his first book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” whose first edition was published in 1988 (with a revised and expanded version appearing in 2004). Like all his books, it was written and first published in English and afterward translated into Hebrew.
At around the same time that his book appeared, Morris coined the term “New Historians” to refer to the work of a group of ground-breaking researchers, headed by him, who were offering a dissenting reading of the history of the conflict – “subversive, revisionist, that looks anew at everything that happened in 1948,” as he describes it today. It’s a reading that shows also the dark side of those who were “handsome of forelock and countenance” (as poet Haim Gouri described his Palmach comrades in the poem “The Song of Friendship”), and places on the table words like “massacre” and “expulsion.”
In the 30 years that followed, Morris pursued his in-depth study of Israel’s relations with its neighbors and became one of the country’s leading historians. “I feel old, the title ‘New Historian’ no longer fits me. How can you be new at the age of 70?” he avers.
Still, the new study shows that he continues to adhere to his original way of writing history, which entails scouring every archive in search of truth that was blurred, erased or rewritten by those with vested interests.
“The Turkish archives were censored by generations of Turks, starting from World War I, when the leaders who were engaged in genocide burned or hid incriminating documentation,” Morris says. In the generations that followed, the Turks “reorganized” their archives and “cleared it of the damning material and of the worst things.” (Dror Ze’evi went through the Turkish archives.)
The new book, to be published in April by Harvard University Press, does not make for easy reading. It contains testimony about mass murder, deadly expulsions, mass rape, abductions and coerced religious conversions. For decades, the evidence was concealed amid thousands of Turkish, American, British and German documents written by officials, diplomats, travelers, military officers, missionaries and businessmen who roamed the area and reported in real time about what they witnessed.
One of them was the British diplomat Gerald Fitzmaurice, who visited the city of Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, in early 1896, a few months after about 7,000 of its Armenian residents were massacred. Urfa, he wrote, had “the aspect of a town which had been… laid waste by some scourge more terrible than any war or siege. The shops with their windows and doors broken in, lay empty and deserted, practically no grown males were visible… and only a few ill-clad and ill-fed children and women, with a scared look on their faces, were to be seen moving about apparently in search of… dry bread.”
According to other reports about the massacre, also quoted in the new book, Turkish troops accompanied by an enraged Muslim mob attacked an Armenian cathedral in the city and opened fired on the worshippers, shouting that now Jesus could prove that he was a greater prophet than Mohammed. Afterward, they set the church ablaze. Some of the worshippers managed to escape via the roof; others were taken out as corpses, in bags filled with bones and ashes.
Some Greek historians claim that about a million of their countrymen were murdered in Turkey between 1914 and 1924. However, these allegations are unknown to the general public, and no one besides Morris and Ze’evi has alleged that the massacre of the Greeks and the Assyrians was part of a scheme that went on for three decades. This contention is based on an estimate that there were about two million Greeks in Turkey before World War I and that only about half of them ended up in Greece as exiles during and after the war. “Those that didn’t reach Greece were murdered, they claim,” Morris says. There is no way to verify that figure, and he and Ze’evi estimate that they numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
In June 1922, American missionaries reported from the Pontus region on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea that all the villages there, which had been inhabited by Greeks, were empty. About 70,000 of the expelled Greeks were estimated to have passed through the city of Sivas, to the west, at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 a week. The women and children seen there were “hungry, cold, sick, almost naked … so that they almost didn’t look human.” A woman from the Bafra area related that she had seen children who had frozen to death. Another missionary, who reached Sivas in August 1921, said, “We crossed Anatolia under a blazing sun, passing groups… driven by Turkish gendarmes. The dead bodies of those who had dropped during the hard tramp were lying by the roadside. Vultures had eaten parts of the flesh so that in most cases mere skeletons remained.”
Subsequently, this same missionary encountered deportees in the area of Harpoot as well, which she described as “a city full of starving, sick, wretched human wrecks.” In her words, “These people were trying to make soup of grass and considered themselves fortunate when they could secure a sheep’s ear to add… I shall never forget the look of a black hairy sheep’s ear floating in boiling water … and these poor wretches trying to obtain nourishment by eating it.” She added that the Turks had starved them in the course of a march of 800 kilometers. Only those who had money to bribe the guards survived. Those without money died by the roadside. In many places, thirsty under the hot sun, they were prevented from drinking water by the guards.