Benny Morris’s War on History

Benny Morris, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009).

This book is a disgrace.

One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine ConflictIt is difficult to understand why a reputable publisher like Yale University Press would wish to have its name on a book that is so dishonest, ill-informed, and pursues an obvious political agenda.  Perhaps the clue can be found on the back cover: Morris’s previous book, 1948, sold more than 12,000 copies in hardcover, we are told.  Yale Press must have been anxious to repeat such a success, especially in these harsh times when people think hard before spending money on luxury items such as books, but commercial considerations cannot make up for a decision to publish a work devoid of scholarly merit.  To illustrate the point, in the first half of the book, dedicated to the pre-1948 period, Morris did not bother to read and quote from a single journal, magazine, or other public document produced by any of the associations advocating bi-nationalism at the time (Brith Shalom, Kedma Mizraha, the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement, Ihud, or Hashomer Hatza’ir).   He uses mostly secondary sources — a couple of books on Judah Magnes and a general survey on bi-nationalism written 40 years ago — with an occasional mention of archival material that in all likelihood was gathered while working on previous projects.  Key secondary and well-known sources, such as studies by Aharon Cohen, Elkana Margalit, Aharon Kedar, Shalom Ratzabi, and others, are not even mentioned let along discussed.

Why pretend that this book represents original research?  The answer can be found in the first page.  The very opening words invoke the spectre that is haunting Morris, the spectre of “Palestinian Arab Islamic fundamentalists.”  This bogeyman makes its appearance repeatedly, apparently as part of the overall “Islamic world’s assault on the West” (p. 6).  The entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been re-written by Morris to reflect the ever-present, uncompromising, never-changing opposition of fundamentalist Muslims to Jewish presence in the country (and to the West in general — on p. 156, Morris warns it to expect Hamas suicide bombers on its doorstep, seriously. . . .).

Any manifestations of Arab secular nationalism, quest for human and political rights, opposition to occupation, campaigns to prevent or reverse dispossession, demands for equality are nothing but disguises for the operation of this fundamental and fundamentalist force.

The book is littered with terms of dismissal and contempt for all those who refuse to admit what became obvious to Morris with the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second Intifada.  No one would manage to deceive the vigilant researcher.  His language is revealing, replete with deep suspicions: the espousal by Palestinians of any position other than total elimination of the Jewish state is “superficial” (p. 1).  Those advocating a one-state solution are emerging “from the closet” (p. 2), and before they came up openly with their program they engaged in “duplicitous advocacy” (p. 2) of other solutions.  They raise “misleading” (p. 3) questions, present “cagey” (p. 3) arguments.  The desire to see Israel disappear is “camouflaged” (p. 14).  They produce a “whopper of truly gargantuan dimensions” (p. 18).  Those who deny the Muslim character of the Palestinian quest construct “a propagandistic device, wholly lacking in substance and sincerity” (p. 25), and so on and so forth.  In the face of such massive deception, we should feel really fortunate Morris is riding to the rescue.

But is he equipped for the task?  For a start, he is based in Israel.  Why should that matter is not obvious, but those who displease Morris are described as detached Western intellectuals addressing metropolitan liberal-left crowds, or as a “diaspora Jew” (p. 9, reference to Tony Judt), or, if Israelis — such as Amos Elon — disqualified for having “decamped to a villa in Tuscany” (p. 10).  Judt is also taken to task for not having written academically on the Middle East; his critic, former Israeli academic Omer Bartov, who has also ‘decamped’ to greener pastures (Rhode Island), faces no such censure even though he never wrote academically about the Middle East either (he is a historian of modern Germany).  No details on Bartov’s housing situation are offered, for some reason.

In his rush to demolish arguments he does not like, Morris is not satisfied with reporting the debate on Judt’s seminal 2003 piece, advocating a bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He quotes approvingly what he regards as a definitive argument against the supposed singling out of Israel by Judt.  Michael Walzer asks Judt: why start the fight against nationalism with Israel, the Jewish state, why not with France, Germany, Sweden, and so on?  That this argument is bogus should be clear even to those not privileged enough to deal with “advanced studies” in Princeton.

In France, the likes of Zinedine Zidane (of Muslim Algerian background) or of Thierry Henry (of Caribbean ancestry) are entitled to full equality and share in national wealth and power no less than the descendants of the ancient Gauls, even if they have no ethnic linkage to them at all, or to the Catholic Church.  In Sweden, the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (of Bosnian Muslim origin) are entitled to full enjoyment of citizenship rights as the descendants of the Nordic tribes of ancient times.  This is not the case in Israel, in which citizenship and access to resources are determined to a large extent by ethnic origin and religious affiliation, and in which civic nationalism that encompasses all citizens regardless of ethnicity and faith does not exist.  Even countries that may give preference in the acquisition of citizenship to ethnic kin of the majority group (Germany, Hungary) do not do that at the expense of indigenous non-German or non-Magyar groups, as is the case in Israel.

To fail to see this basic distinction is not just philosophically shaky but also plainly dishonest.  But this is not surprising.  Half-truths and distortions are common in the book.  To illustrate, let me give three examples:

1. On pp. 124-26, Morris dismisses the notion that the PLO declaration of independence in 1988 constituted the acceptance of a two-state solution or implied recognition of Israel: it did not mention Israel, did not identify the boundaries of the state of Palestine, and retained a focus on Palestinian rights only.  Sounds outrageous indeed, until we realize that another document, written 40 years before that, was guilty of the same sins: it did not mention Palestine or a Palestinian state (or right to it), did not identify any boundaries, and remained focused solely on specific historical rights (of Jews).  That document is known as the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.   Can it be the case that Morris is unfamiliar with that text?

2. On p. 129, Morris repeats the canard that he himself helped disseminate, in the New York Review of Books, that Yasser Arafat called for the destruction of Israel in a speech in a Johannesburg mosque in 1994, as he called for a continuation of a ‘Jihad.’  What Morris ‘forgets’ to tell his readers is that Arafat repeatedly mentioned in the same speech a process of negotiations with Israel (and prime minister Rabin in particular) as a way to liberate Jerusalem, that he did not mention at all or call for any armed activities, and that he explicitly asserted that Jerusalem belonged with the 1967 occupied territories and excluded from this definition pre-1967 Israel.

3. At various points Morris asserts that Arafat rejected the two-state solution at the Camp David summit of 2000, while all participants have made it clear that what Arafat rejected was the specific proposals presented by Prime Minister Barak, which sought to incorporate about 10% of the occupied West Bank into Israel and fragment the rest into various non-contiguous blocks.  At no point did Arafat reject the goal of the two-state solution, but rather the Israeli version (which was improved upon later in the Taba negotiations, though still fell short of Palestinian demands).  He sought to extract better terms from the US and Israel and has managed to do that up to a point, as Morris, if forced to, would acknowledge (in other words, Arafat behaved completely rationally as a negotiator, even if he ended overplaying his hand).  In fact, in a rare moment of honesty (p. 174), Morris admits that his entire construction of Arafat as a deceitful politician, who used his public support for the two-state solution to sneak in the one- state solution in a phased manner, falls apart when we examine his refusal to accept the Barak-Clinton offer (why didn’t Arafat accept it and then proceeded with his ‘real’ goal — the destruction of Israel?  Morris cannot really answer).

What is Morris’s main thesis?

It is that Palestinian opposition to Zionism and to the State of Israel is essentially motivated by contempt and hatred for Jews, stemming from the low esteem in which they are held in Islam.  Muslims cannot tolerate the notion that Jews can occupy a powerful position in a land they consider their own.  They are not willing to reach any compromises, divide sovereignty, share power, or otherwise give up any of what they regard as their rightful possession.  All modern talk about democracy, human rights, representation, national self-determination, equality, and the like is nothing but a disguise for their true intention: destruction of Jewish presence in the country.  Only gullible Westerners and naïve Jews would fall for this trick.

In presenting this thesis, Morris does not seem to have found a single cliché in the Orientalist lexicon that he didn’t like.  Muslims in general, Arabs in particular, are a primitive and bloodthirsty pogromist bunch who reject modernity, despise democracy, have no interest in rights (except their own), have reactionary gender and sex attitudes, practice dictatorship over their own people and others, worship power, are tribal, parochial, clannish, and yet seek global domination at the same time.  This long list of attributes (spread throughout the book) reads as if Morris waited for the chance to hit back at one of his greatest enemies: Western intellectuals of liberal-left persuasions, who do not understand the predicament of loyal Westerners like Morris and fellow Israelis, stuck in a villa in the jungle (to use Ehud Barak’s term).  He seems to anticipate, with relish, the accusation of being an Orientalist.  What better way to show those wimps that he doesn’t give a damn about their precious sensitivities?

What are the problems with his thesis?

To begin with, if he were right, we would expect Muslims (and Islamic themes) to be in the forefront of the struggle against the modern Jewish settlement of Palestine.  In fact, from its earliest days in the 1880s to the end of the Ottoman period in 1917, relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine did not exhibit any prominence of Islam or anti-Jewish prejudice.  As shown in works by Assaf, Be’eri, Mandel, and others, day-to-day relations gradually settled down and took the form of normal neighborly relations of co-existence, occasional friendships, but also hostilities, in ways not very different from relations between local people of different backgrounds, or between local Muslims and the German Templars who had settled in the country shortly before the first wave of Jewish Eastern European immigration.

Political opposition to Zionism was not led by Muslim religious figures, nor did it express any particular concern with the Jewish identity of the settlers or the Islamic identity of the population and the country.  It focused on the perceived threat posed to the ability of the local population to run its own life independently of foreign control.  And, it targeted two issues for particular concern: land transfers and immigration, both of which were consistently at the core of Palestinian national mobilization for the subsequent 50-60 years.  Neither more nor less, as could be expected of any normal group of people faced with the prospect of an influx of foreigners.  That the settlers did not regard themselves as foreigners, and in their minds they were returning to the land of their ancestors, made no difference to the concerns of the locals: can anyone think of a different response offered by ANY indigenous group in Asia, Africa, or the Americas to the prospect of European-originated settlement?

In fact, Zionist officials were perfectly aware that Islam had nothing to do with hostility to their project.  They variously attributed it to jealousy, incitement by Ottoman bureaucrats, Christian priests and businessmen fearful of Jewish competition, and landowners seeking to raise the price of land before they sold it to Jews.  While they generally played down the role of political concerns, some of them were not blind to them, as displayed in the landmark articles by Ahad Ha’am from 1891 (“Truth from the Land of Israel”) and Yitzhak Epstein (“The Hidden Question”) from 1908, neither of which is quoted or even mentioned by Morris: why spoil a good argument with historical facts?

Even after the Balfour Declaration and the beginning of the British Mandate — which gave Jewish settlement a much more explicit political content — the role of Islam was subdued, and elements in the Zionist leadership sought to recruit (and even create) various Islamic associations to counteract what they saw as the pernicious influence of urban, Christian-inspired nationalism.  It is only in the late 1920s that Islamic symbols began to play a more important role.  This was due to the attention directed to the holy places by the Zionist Revisionist movement and its aggressive campaign to increase access to the Western Wall, and the consequent counter-mobilization in defense of the Islamic holy places led by Amin al-Husseini.   Even then the focus was on Islamic places and symbols as part of the national inheritance of all Palestinians rather than as a specific concern of Muslims.

The amazing thing in all this discussion is that Morris proceeds as if what Jews and Zionists did — campaigned for, advocated, practiced — had no impact whatsoever on Palestinians’ concerns and actions: in his portrayal of the situation, Palestinians were merely giving expression to deeply-held convictions and acting out their prejudices, xenophobic sentiments, and militant religious beliefs.  Morris does not see any relation between their experiences of the Jewish settlement project and their responses.

The same approach is displayed in his discussion of post-Oslo developments.  In his eyes, the rise of the one-state solution and of Hamas as a political leadership has nothing to do with what has been happening on the ground in the last 15 years: the continuation of massive settlement in the occupied territories, land confiscation, house demolitions, the multiplication of road blocks and their impact on people’s ability to conduct normal lives, the huge number of prisoners, the thousands of dead and wounded, the failure of the Palestinian Authority to extract any concessions from Israel that would improve the occupied Palestinians’ lives.  In other words, the failure of the Oslo process to help its intended beneficiaries, and the continued sabotage of the two-state solution by the Israeli military and political leadership, are completely unrelated to the rise of quests for alternative political solutions.  To believe Morris, all this is irrelevant: Hamas is merely expressing the eternal Islamic opposition to any non-Islamic political presence on what Muslims regard as their sole property.  But if that is the case, why do such sentiments rise to the surface and gain popular support only at some times and not others?  Why have the fortunes of Hamas risen and fallen depending on what it does and what its opponents do, rather than reflecting a constant set of beliefs and popular acceptance?  That this analysis is devoid of any sense of history and politics should be obvious to all interested observers.

And that is the fundamental problem with Morris: Israel — as the Zionist settlement project before it — does not really exist as an active agent.  Nothing it does matters.  It is eternally the compromising, accommodating, reasonable partner, because it says so.  It makes all the right noises and uses the right terminology.  But these pesky Palestinians do not accept its word for it and insist on looking at Israeli practices which are of no interest and no relevance for Morris.  In a ‘clash of civilizations,’ it is WHO the parties are that matters, not WHAT they actually do.  Can this be taken as a serious scholarly approach?

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born academic based in South Africa.