This article by Benny Morris is a perfect example of the interplay between learned but uncritical academic research and mainstream Israeli hasbara, to which it lends credence. Benny Morris is a good journeyman historian. He sticks close to the facts and basically “tells a story.” What has always confounded his readers is the discrepancy between what Morris the historian uncovers and the views of the Morris the right-wing political commentator that seem to jump over his own research to justify the crimes that have been committed.
Thus, on the one hand, he is credited as the first major “New” Israeli historian to document Israel’s creation of the “refugee problem,” to describe Israel’s campaign ethnic cleansing and repression in 1948, and to uncover the massacres of Palestinians that took place all unflinching looks at some very dark chapters of Zionist history. On the other hand, however, he nullified the implications and significance of those crimes. In a famous 2004 interview in Ha’aretz, Morris said: “In certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands… There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. 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 people—I prefer ethnic cleansing… A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.”
Now, in this latest piece he wrote in reaction to Gideon Levy’s criticism, he returns to those broad generalization bordering on hasbara: “I said then and I say now that the Jewish community in 1948 had two possibilities: Either that the Arabs would commit genocide against them – and I have no doubt that an Arab victory in 1948 would have ended with mass slaughter of Jews – or the Jews, to defend themselves, would expel Arabs, or at least prevent those who fled and were expelled from returning. The Jews chose not to be massacred, and rightly so. But even ethnic cleansing according to the meaning of the term as it has been defined in recent decades, based on the actions of the Serbs in the 1990s in Bosnia… was not carried out here. What happened here was a struggle between two peoples who both claimed the right to the same land.”
Three comments (among many possible): First, Morris’s analysis and conclusions follow from his analytical framework and personal ideology: Zionism. He is careful as Morris the historian to go with the facts even if they contradict his views, but his views are more informed by his personal acceptance of the Zionist narrative than by the very facts he uncovers. Actually, Morris is TOO close to the facts. The question whether Zionism was genuinely” a struggle between two peoples who both claimed the right to the same land,” which leads to his conclusions, or a unilateral settler colonial enterprise to take over the country from the indigenous (my view), which leads to very different interpretation of the same facts, is crucial. Morris uncritically accepts the Zionist framework even while his own research contradicts it. Thus the jump: from facts to unrelated opinions — the crucial middle ground, a critical analytical perspective, is lacking, and without it, Morris cannot integrate his two sides.
Second, Morris is known as a careful and meticulous researcher, but has often been criticized (1) for using mainly Israeli/Zionist written sources to the exclusion of Arabic ones; and (2) for not utilizing oral history, especially from Palestinian sources, a common shortcoming of conventional historians who do not see oral history as written “fact.”
And third, despite his meticulous fact-finding, Morris does not hesitate to use such broad terms as “the Arabs” to describe not only a complex Palestinian society with differing parties and factions but the entire Arab world. This, in fact, nullifies nuances, distorts history and imposes easy (and self-serving) generalization over complex analysis.
All this would be of interest only to fellow academics if approaches such as Morris’s which give preference to ideology over analysis did not have the unfortunate ability to lend Zionist hasbara any academic credence. The struggle for justice in Palestine involves layers on layers of convoluted hasbara, making it very hard to fight, as this Facebook post indicates — if you made it to the end.