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by Efraim Karsh


Benny Morris, the Israeli "new historian," probably doesn't know it, but it was his book on "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" (1987) that led me more than a decade ago to temporarily shelve my research into the history of Islam and the Middle East and join the debate on the origin of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This happened when, purely by accident, I noticed a glaring contradiction between the English and Hebrew renditions of an October 1937 letter from David Ben-Gurion to his son. The English version had Ben-Gurion say: "We must expel Arabs and take their places"; the Hebrew edition represented him as saying precisely the opposite. An examination of the original document unequivocally settled the matter. It read: "We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption — proven throughout all our activity — that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs."

To ascertain whether this was an isolated case of misrepresentation or a pervasive phenomenon, I undertook to carefully examine all the documentation used by Mr. Morris with regard to early Zionist attitudes toward the Arabs. In quick time, I was taken aback by the systematic falsification of evidence aimed at casting Zionism as "a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement... intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs." This ranged from the more "innocent" act of reading into documents what was not there, to tendentious truncation of source material in a way that distorted its original meaning, to rewriting of original texts to say what they did not mean, as he did with Ben-Gurion's aforementioned letter.

As our exchanges reached ever-growing audiences, Mr. Morris was forced to concede that his "treatment of transfer thinking before 1948 was, indeed, superficial," and that he had "stretched" evidence to make his point. He also removed, in an implicit acknowledgment of their inaccuracy, some of the most egregious misquotes about transfer in "The Birth," and admitted that in writing the book, he had not "had access" to — elsewhere, he says he "was not aware of" — the voluminous documents in the archives of the Israeli institutions whose actions in 1948 formed the main part of his indictment.

This, nevertheless, did not prevent him from claiming, in a revised edition of "The Birth" published in 2004, that "the displacement of Arabs from Palestine or from areas of Palestine that would become the Jewish State was inherent in Zionist ideology" and could be traced back not only to the 1930s, as he claimed before, but to the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl. (True to nature, Mr. Morris based his charge on a truncated paragraph from Herzl's diary, which had already been a feature of Palestinian propaganda for decades, and which referred not to Palestine but rather to Argentina, considered at the time by Herzl as the future site of Jewish resettlement.)

It is doubtful whether Mr. Morris even believed his own thesis. Certainly, in numerous press articles and media appearances over the past eight years, he has totally reversed the core of his historical narrative, claiming that while "the Zionist movement agreed to give up its dream of 'Greater Israel' and to divide Palestine with the Arabs" as long ago as the 1930s and '40s, "the Palestinian national movement, from its inception, has denied the Zionist movement any legitimacy and stuck fast to the vision of a 'Greater Palestine,' meaning a Muslim-Arab populated and Arab-controlled state in all of Palestine."

This belated acknowledgment of the truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict, to which he had willfully turned a blind eye for decades, won Mr. Morris the ire of former allies and admirers — such as the notorious duo Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — who continued to use his academic writings in their Israel-bashing endeavors. After all, it was not the discovery of new documentary evidence that produced Mr. Morris's apparent transformation, but rather the launching (in September 2000) of the Palestinian war of terror; but for all of Yasser Arafat's shortcomings, including his failure to accept Mr. Morris's definition of a "fair" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, his war did not change one iota of the historical record of the 1948 war and its aftermath.

In 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press, $32.50, 544 pages), Mr. Morris attempts to resolve the massive discrepancy between his two totally contradictory historical narratives. He does this by rewriting "The Birth" backward: the same documentation, the same structure, the same course of events. The only difference is that the Palestinians and the Arab states substitute for Israel as the unreconstructed villains.

"Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv," Mr. Morris writes. "This is a mistake. The 1948 war, from the Arabs' perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory."

What this indictment fails to mention is that for decades, Mr. Morris was at the forefront of those rejecting this thesis, dismissing the pan-Arab attempt to destroy the Jewish state at birth as a Zionist myth, and going so far as to misrepresent this genocidal assault as "'a general land grab,' with everyone — Israel, Transjordan, Syria, Egypt, and even Lebanon — bent on preventing the birth of a Palestinian Arab state and carving out chunks of Palestine for themselves."

But old habits die hard, and Mr. Morris cannot resist getting in a dig at Israel's founding father. "Ben-Gurion — a child of Eastern European social democracy and nationalism who knew no Arabic (though, as prime minister, he found time to study ancient Greek, to read Plato in the original, and Spanish, to read 'Don Quixote')," he writes, "had failed fully to appreciate the depth of the Arabs' abhorrence of the Zionist-Jewish presence in Palestine." An odd charge indeed when coming from a person who never bothered to study Arabic himself, let alone the history and culture of Arab and Muslim societies, and who treats the Palestinians in his writings as nothing more than mere objects of Jewish behavior.

In fact, Ben-Gurion took the trouble of learning some Arabic shortly after coming to Palestine in 1906, though the language was of minor importance at the time, when the country was a desolate backyard of the Ottoman Empire, and 10 years later wrote an exhaustive book on the Palestinian Arabs, together with his friend and future Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Aside from meeting numerous Arab and Palestinian leaders of all hues during his long political career, Ben-Gurion was also instrumental in institutionalizing Arabic as Israel's second official language and making it available to all schoolchildren. As for his supposed failure to grasp the depth of Arab hostility to Zionism, here is what Mr. Morris had to say on the matter 18 years ago: "Early on Ben-Gurion understood that the prospective Arab minority represented the major, existential threat to a future Jewish state; and he understood, from at least the mid-1930s... that the Palestinians were implacably opposed to the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine and would resist it to the hilt."

And herein lies the major problem with Mr. Morris's canon of work. He has no problem expressing such wildly discrepant views and is willing to disregard not only the historical facts but his own past claims in the process without ever bothering to bring forward any new evidence. All this provides further proof, if such were needed, of the lack of seriousness of his writings. Twenty-one years ago, while on the left of the political spectrum, he distorted the available evidence so he could blame Zionism for "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem." Now he has come to believe that had the Jews "gone the whole hog," that is, expelled all Arabs from Palestine in 1948, "today's Middle East would be a healthier, less violent place."

Of course, the Zionists never had any intention of doing such a thing, and his speculation is ahistorical. The evidence hasn't changed; only Mr. Morris has changed. And so one can only speculate as to what Mr. Morris's next book on the subject is going to argue. By then, his opinion as to where the blame lies in the Israel-Palestine conflict may well have changed once more, and if "1948" tells us anything, it is that Mr. Morris will have no problem in finding the "facts" to back up whatever his political convictions demand at that time.

Efraim Karsh is head of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Studies at King's College, University of London, and author of "Fabricating Israeli History: The 'New Historians.' Prof. Karsh serves on then Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

This was published in The New York Sun


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