'Israel Will Decline, and Jews Will Be a Persecuted Minority. Those Who Can Will Flee to America'

The Turks perpetrated genocide against Christians for 30 years, Benny Morris asserts in a new study. And, in conjunction with his retirement at 70, the historian predicts a grim future for Israel

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Benny Morris and his wife Leah at their home in Srigim.
Benny Morris and his wife Leah at their home in Srigim.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

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?

'The Palestinians have no reason to give in, because the Jewish state can’t last. They're bound to win.'

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.

Light punishment

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.

Morris (in foreground) with his unit, on Har Dov, in 1973. “I tended rightward in the political context, not the historiographic one.”Credit: Courtesy of Benny Morris

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.

Morris, bearded, on right, leaving Beirut in the summer of 1982.

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.”

'At the start of the brutality, Christians constituted 20 percent of the population of the Turkish space; at its end, just 2 percent.'

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.

According to Morris, many in the convoys died not of starvation or exhaustion, but were simply murdered by the Turks. One survivor of a massacre that was perpetrated around the port city of Samsun, on the country’s northern coast, related that he had pretended to be dead, and that 660 people had been executed before his eyes: “The guards came up and stripped us of all our clothes, leaving us our shirts and pants only, which were soaked with … blood.” Those who remained were “left without food or water and almost naked.”

A 19-year-old survivor recalled that the convoy with which he was expelled stopped one day and “the guards suddenly opened fire … [then] went about with knives and bayonets making sure that those… shot were dead.” He rolled over in a ditch and feigned being dead. Turks then “stabbed [him] in the arm and back.” Only 300 of 1,000 people survived that massacre, he said.

Morris also checked reports from American naval officers who cruised the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, anchoring in Turkish ports. “They spoke with the local leaders – Turks, Greeks and Armenians – heard what was going on and recorded it in the ships’ logs. It was all very orderly,” he notes. And thus, a century later, he found documentation that no one had previously bothered to examine, about deportation and mass killing of Greeks by the Turks, as reported by Americans who had been in the region by chance.

Morris also found documents written by Germans in 1916, describing the systematic annihilation of tens of thousands of Armenians, whom the Turks had exiled in convoys, but who had somehow reached the Syrian desert alive. “Germans who were in the region at the time had recorded what they saw and sent the reports to their consuls, who passed them on to the German embassy in Istanbul or to Berlin,” he says. Thus he and Ze’evi gained access to additional testimonies about the roundup of Armenians from the camps and villages to which they had been sent following months of slogging, and of their subsequent murder nearby.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is remembered as a leader who left a legacy of secularization and modernization – there’s even a street in Tel Aviv named for him. But your study portrays him quite negatively.

“Somehow his image as an enlightened individual was entrenched and preserved in the West, but he was the one who saw to the liquidation of the last of the Armenians who remained in Turkey, and he also brought about the murder of hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Assyrians, and the exile of many others. Although Ataturk is considered to have been anti-Islamic, he mobilized Islam to execute that scheme, and he is the one who did away with the remnants of the Christian communities in Turkey. Nonetheless, the charge of ethnic cleansing never stuck to him.”

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The Turkish documents concerning Ataturk’s activity are deposited in the Turkish Military Archive in Ankara and are inaccessible to researchers. However, testimonies by Western diplomats and missionaries indicate that he said, in their presence and to them – and more than once in 1922 – that he wanted a Turkey “void of Christians” and that he had ordered the implementation of a policy that would lead to that end, which meant either exile or massacre.

The most powerful evidence Morris found of Ataturk’s involvement lay in the fact that his soldiers carried out “mass slaughters and mass exiles systematically and in several waves – and not one Turk was punished for it,” he says. “Ataturk controlled the actions of his soldiers pretty much absolutely in those years.”

From left to right

Morris’ previous book, called “From Deir Yassin to Camp David” – a collection of essays originally published in English and then translated into Hebrew – does not contain new texts but is a collection of his personal, political and historical essays. It’s a kind of summing up of the Israeli-Arab chapter in Morris’ career. Initially, three decades ago, he was denounced by the right as a “leftist” and a “traitor,” when he uncovered documentation attesting to the fact that, contrary to the accepted official position, many Palestinians did not leave the country of their own volition but were expelled or fled, and some were murdered and raped by Israel Defense Forces soldiers. But at the end of his career, he was labeled a “rightist” and “Bibi’s man” by the left, after making a political switch and, basing himself on the same studies, blamed the Palestinians for the deterioration of the conflict into its present state.

“I tended rightward in the political context, not the historiographic one; I am still a historian and not a politician,” he explains, responding to those who cast aspersions on his professional integrity. “The change I underwent is related to one issue: the Palestinians’ readiness to accept the two-state solution and forgo part of the Land of Israel.”

In the wake of the second intifada, he adds, he understood that the Palestinians would not agree to give up their original demand “to have the whole Land of Israel in their possession and under their sovereignty. There will not be a territorial compromise, there will not be peace on the basis of the country’s division, mainly because the Palestinians cling to their desire to have control of the whole Land of Israel and to eradicate Zionism.”

But what about Israel’s part in the failure of negotiations? Other historians maintain that in 2000, Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a map that would have fragmented the West Bank, and that there was no way he could have agreed to it.

“Anyone who says that Barak and Bill Clinton made the Palestinians an offer they could not agree to is lying. Dennis Ross, the principal negotiator, has already shown in his book that that claim is bullshit. The lack of territorial continuity would only have been between Gaza and the West Bank. They were offered a contiguous territorial bloc of 95 percent of the West Bank, and they rejected it. But the story here is not one plan or another, but the fact that they want 100 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. They were merely playing a game when they said they were ready for a compromise.

“The Zionist national movement did agree to a compromise – in 1937, in 1947, in 1978, in 2000 and in 2008 – on the basis of two states for two peoples. It’s true that at the moment there is a government in Israel that is not ready for a compromise. Some say that if Rabin had lived we would have already reached an agreement with the Palestinians. That’s nonsense. Rabin, too, would not have been capable of bringing about a change in the basic ethos of the Palestinian national movement: that the whole of Palestine is theirs and that the refugees must return to their homes and their land. And if that happens, it will only be on the basis of Israel’s destruction.”

Yitzhak Rabin in 1976.Credit: Suzanne Vlanis / AP

It’s that understanding that prompted him to shift rightward, says Morris. “I became pessimistic on this subject and, to a certain extent, right-wing,” he notes, but immediately qualifies himself: “I still believe that the only just solution for the two sides is the division of the land into two states. I very much regret to say that this is an unrealistic solution that won’t happen.”

You’re the black sheep of the New Historians. Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Ilan Pappe didn’t take your route to the right. So, either you’re the only one who saw the light, or you’re the only one who’s mistaken.

'One of Netanyahu’s big mistakes was that he didn’t bomb the Iranian [nuclear] facilities in 2012.'

“Some of them concluded from the second intifada that Israel is an oppressor state that continues to rule a foreign nation and uses exaggerated force as a response to terrorism. Pappe actually became totally anti-Zionist. I hold a minority view, but in the intellectual world the minority is generally right. The thing is to step into the shoes of both sides and understand their motives, and I think I understand both well. Take Tom Segev, for example, who in his book ‘1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East,’ maintains that we went to war out of greed for land and expansionism, but the truth is that greed was engendered in the wake of the war and not before it.”

Morris’ rightward tilt is accompanied by limited praise for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a rarity among Israeli academics in the humanities. “There is hardly anyone on the horizon who is capable or worthy of replacing Netanyahu and of being a prime minister accepted by the bulk of the nation,” he says.

So you have nothing critical to say about him?

“I am very critical of him on all kinds of issues, such as the management of the residence on Balfour Street and the public corruption that he backs or even embodies. I also do not accept his antidemocratic remarks about Israel’s Arabs. His actions in the area of religion, the expansion of the settlements and the definition of Jewish nationality are alienating American Jewry, most of whom scorn Orthodoxy and extreme nationalism.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman

Another point on which the historian is critical of Netanyahu sounds surprising coming from someone who argues that there is no chance for peace with the Palestinians: “his unwillingness to talk to the Palestinians about a territorial compromise. He doesn’t put anything on the table that will draw them into discussions.”

But you yourself say there’s no one to talk to, so why take issue with Netanyahu on this issue?

“Even if territorial compromise with the Palestinians is not realistic in this generation, as was also the case earlier, you have to play the diplomatic game – even if you know it won’t lead anywhere – in order to retain the West’s sympathy. You have to look like you’re pursuing peace, even if you’re not.”

How do you view Netanyahu’s closeness to Donald Trump?

“I expect that Trump’s downfall and removal, this year or in 2020, will necessarily lead to the weakening, if not the undermining of the United States’ special relationship with Israel, because of Bibi’s total identification with that fool and scoundrel. There’s no need to say that many Jews in America point to a similarity between Trump and Bibi in terms of their attitude toward the law and the gatekeepers. Unintentionally, Netanyahu is working at several levels to bring about the collapse of the ties between Israel and American Jewry and to subvert U.S.-Israeli relations.”

Donald Trump.Credit: Andrew Harnik /AP

On the other hand, Morris lauds Netanyahu for the firm stance he has taken against Iran and its nuclear project. Morris wrote about the subject as early as 1992, in an oped titled “Nuclear Peril: Israel’s Non-Issue,” in The New York Times. However, if it were up to Morris, Israel would have already acted. “One of Netanyahu’s big mistakes was that he didn’t bomb the Iranian [nuclear] facilities in 2012,” he asserts. “That would have generated a flare-up, but Hezbollah and Hamas are not an existential matter, and we could have invaded Lebanon again and done the job more effectively than Ehud Olmert did in 2006.”

Rewriting history

If it were possible to go back in time as “minister of history,” what would you correct?

“If the War of Independence had ended with an absolute separation of populations – the Palestinian Arabs on the east side of the Jordan River and the Jews on the west side – the Middle East would be less volatile and both peoples would have suffered less over the past 70 years. They would have been satisfied with a state of their own, not exactly what they wanted, and we would have received the whole Land of Israel.”

Is what you’re actually saying that Israel should have ethnically cleansed the Arabs in that period?

“I can’t put myself in the shoes of the people from that time and their calculations. David Ben-Gurion wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish state at the end of 1948, and he made sure to hint to his officers that that’s what he would like. But he knew that to order the expulsion of the Arabs was not right at the moment of a state’s rebirth. So he moved between the two extremes. In Lydda and in Ramle he authorized expulsion, but in Nazareth he blocked it. The result was that at the end of the war, 160,000 Arabs remained in Israel.”

And you think it’s unfortunate that this is what happened?

“There are people who think it’s unfortunate. I think that a large Arab minority in the Jewish state, if it identifies with the Palestinian narrative and the Palestinian desire to do away with Israel, as some MKs and [other] elected representatives of the Arab society are doing – that’s a problem. The Israeli Arabs have rights here that are far beyond what the citizens of the Arab states possess, but they automatically get swept up in anti-Zionist propaganda led by Arafat in the past or by Hamas today. In 2000, during the second intifada, we saw riots, stones thrown at cars, road closures, inside Israel, by Israeli Arabs. Thank God it didn’t turn into an actual revolt. Everyone has to make his own reckoning about whether the right thing was done in 1948 or not. I think it would have been better for both sides if we’d separated then.

“The integration of the Arabs into Israeli society and their loyalty to the state should be encouraged… but they themselves aren’t critical of their own actions and talk – only of the Jews. So, if an Arab murders an Arab in an Arab village, they automatically blame the police for not patrolling enough, but they will not blame themselves and say that Arabs murder Arabs because it seems quite natural there.”

You’re talking about an Arab “character” that makes them murder as though there were no context – discrimination in budgets for social programs, exclusion from positions of power.

'I believe that the only just solution for the two sides is two states. I regret to say that this won’t happen.'

“In the Arab world – and the Israeli Arabs are part of it – you find a lack of self-criticism. It’s always the stranger who’s to blame. The Briton, the American, the Russian, the Jew, the Israeli – someone else is to blame for your troubles. They breed much more crime, in comparison to Jewish society. If you were to tell me that they are poorer and therefore they have more property crimes and theft, I would say: That’s right, poor societies breed material crime. But we’re talking about murder in far larger numbers. It’s not a matter of money. It’s the society’s nature.”

The title of your new book contains the word “genocide” to describe what the Turks did to the Christian minority. The title of your previous book contained the name “Deir Yassin.” In Palestinian discourse, there are some who talk about Israel perpetrating a “genocide” against them. Among Israeli historians, such as Daniel Blatman, there are also some who warn that Israel is adopting an ideology that is liable to lead in the end to the perpetration of genocide.

“Those comparisons are generally incorrect and ridiculous. What happened to the Palestinians since 1948 is a certain oppression, which includes, here and there, a small number of crimes – but that happened within the framework of a war between two national movements, at whose door the blame can be laid. It resulted in a certain number of people killed, but that is not genocide, even if Palestinian propaganda talks about that and people like Blatman compare us to the Nazis. One needs to be accurate and stick to the facts. The Nazis murdered six million people who were not fighting them. That is different from killing, in combat, Palestinians who are fighting against you and inflicting casualties.

“Massacres are crimes. In wars people are killed and some are massacred. It’s not nice, but that’s what happens. But when you examine the massacres in other wars, particularly in other civil wars, what happened here in 1948 was a very clean war, all in all. The number of Arabs deliberately murdered among civilians or POWs was about 800. And this in a war that they started and in which they massacred Jews, a war that lasted more than a year.”

Benny Morris.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

And what about the racism, the extremism, the political violence? There are those who warn that signs are emerging here of the kind that were seen in Nazi Germany.

“That’s mainly dumb, incorrect and unfair. I don’t know where Israel is headed. It’s true that it’s becoming right-wing and turning religious, and that doesn’t look good. But we are very far from being like Germany, where there was a strong Nazi movement that murdered people on the streets even before they took power. We’re not there, so we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and make comparisons.”

In the chapter from your last book, called “The Historiography of Deir Yassin,” you address the debate that has raged for decades over what happened in that village on Jerusalem’s western outskirts in April 1948. Why is it that after all these years it still hasn’t been determined whether there was a massacre there or not?

“It’s a semantic debate. If you take 50 prisoners, line them up against a wall and kill them, as happened in the village of Jish [Gush Halav, in Upper Galilee] in 1948, that is a massacre. That didn’t happen in Deir Yassin, where they killed a few here and a few there, seized a few captives and killed them, and there are others who were not killed. Overall, about 100 civilians were killed there. So the question is: Do you lump a few atrocities together and arrive at 100, and call that a massacre, or do you say: A few families were killed here and there, deliberately or not deliberately, in different places and at different moments, so maybe it’s a series of atrocities against civilians and not a massacre?”

What does it mean, then? That there is no one truth?

“There is truth. There are indisputable facts. Historians need to work on the basis of documents and extract from them what clarifies the truth, to discover what occurred and what the facts are. The historian needs to draw on as many sources as he can, such as diaries and memoirs, official reports and testimonies of people on the scene. He must then weight the various pieces of evidence. He must not hide testimony that is not consistent with what he thought should have happened. And in the end, he needs to evaluate which way the majority of the testimonies and the documents tend.”

You are known to have reservations about oral testimonies. But sometimes the childhood memory of the village elder, or the impressions of the veteran fighter offer a better description of what happened than a particular document that was concealed, rewritten or was never written in the first place.

“You need to look at the motives of whoever has written a document, at his interest in promoting one truth and not another. But there’s no doubt that a contemporaneous document, written on the very day that the event occurred, in geographical and chronological proximity to what it is describing, is far more reliable than a person I converse with 50 years later and who has in the meantime heard another thousand versions of the story. There is also the problem of loss of memory or of repression of events that one doesn’t want to remember.”

The case of the “Tantura massacre,” to quote the title of another chapter in your last book, is an example of the difficulty of oral history. Teddy Katz, a peace activist from Kibbutz Magal, who interviewed 135 refugees from Tantura as well as Haganah and IDF soldiers, concluded that soldiers from the Alexandroni Brigade perpetrated a massacre in the coastal village 30 kilometers south of Haifa in May 1948. The unit’s veterans sued him and proved that he had fabricated evidence.

“In the Tantura affair, people seemingly remembered things that happened 40 years earlier, but the documents that are available did not corroborate what they ‘remembered.’ The bottom line is that it’s necessary to stick to the documentation. Because modern bureaucracy is so extensive and produces so much paperwork, if you make enough effort you’ll find it. If there was fire, the smoke will definitely appear. As an internal IDF investigation, as a United Nations observers report, as an entry in an Israeli diary – always, in my experience, documents will pop up in the end, proving or disproving later allegations.”

Unless the IDF Archive or the State Archives decide to censor them…

“There was censorship in the past, and there still is today, even more. That’s a problem that makes it hard to arrive at the truth. Files that were open to me in the 1990s are now closed to other researchers. For example, regarding Deir Yassin, one of the files that was closed then, too, contains the photographs of the victims. That is in the IDF Archive and has never been opened [to researchers]. As a historian, I think that’s awful, because when materials like that are concealed, it’s an attempt to distort the picture of the past, to tilt it and make things appear more rosy. If they are doing this with regard to Deir Yassin, they’re probably doing this in regard to many other documents, as a policy.”

Morris, who’s married and is the father of three children and the grandfather of nine, says he is planning to write a biography “on a subject not related to the conflict.” Asked whether there is anything in his career that he regrets, he replies, “Possibly I should have tempered my language” – referring to some of the things he said in an interview that Ari Shavit conducted with him for this newspaper in January 2004.

In that interview, Morris said, “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing,” and explained, “I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your own people – I prefer ethnic cleansing of others.” He also said, “Something like a cage has to be built for them [the Palestinians]. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal out there that has to be locked up in one way or another.”

My conversation with Morris today quickly slides into realms of deep pessimism. “I don’t see how we get out of it,” he says in reference to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. “Already today there are more Arabs than Jews between the [Mediterranean] sea and the Jordan. The whole territory is unavoidably becoming one state with an Arab majority. Israel still calls itself a Jewish state, but a situation in which we rule an occupied people that has no rights cannot persist in the 21st century, in the modern world. And as soon as they do have rights, the state will no longer be Jewish.”

What will happen?

“This place will decline like a Middle Eastern state with an Arab majority. The violence between the different populations, within the state, will increase. The Arabs will demand the return of the refugees. The Jews will remain a small minority within a large Arab sea of Palestinians, a persecuted or slaughtered minority, as they were when they lived in Arab countries. Those among the Jews who can, will flee to America and the West.”

When do you see this happening?

“The Palestinians look at everything from a broad, long-term perspective. They see that at the moment, there are five-six-seven million Jews here, surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs. They have no reason to give in, because the Jewish state can’t last. They are bound to win. In another 30 to 50 years they will overcome us, come what may.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed

The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op

Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour, a top Islamic Jihad militant was killed following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, on Sunday.

Gazans Are Tired of Pointless Wars and Destruction, and Hamas Listens to Them