The late 1980’s saw the rise in Israel of a school of “new historians”—younger, Left-leaning academics whose aim was to place under severe question the accepted history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Basing themselves ostensibly on recently declassified documents from the Mandate period and the early days of the state, they systematically redrew the history of Zionism, turning upside down the saga of Israel’s struggle for survival.

Scanted in these revisionist accounts were the Arabs’ outspoken commitment to the destruction of the Jewish national cause; the sustained and repeated Arab efforts to achieve that end from the early 1920’s onward; and the no less sustained efforts of the Jews at peaceful coexistence. Zionism emerged, instead, as an aggressive and expansionist movement, an offshoot of European imperialism at its most rapacious. And if Israel was to be seen as an “aggressive and overbearing military superpower” (in the representative words of one new historian), then the Palestinian Arabs, “by any reckoning, [could] only be seen as the victims.”

Although never exactly reaching mainstream status themselves, the new historians nevertheless exercised a profound impact on mainstream Israeli opinion in the years just prior to the 1993 Oslo peace accords and thereafter. Fatigued by decades of struggle, yearning for normalcy, despairing of any resolution of the conflict with the Arabs, and abashed by the growing anti-Israel mood among “progressive” opinion-makers worldwide, many educated Israelis found themselves receptive to the notion that a large portion of the fault for the conflict lay with their own country’s actions, and might therefore be rectified by a radical change in behavior. If a historic reconciliation with the Arabs could not be achieved through a policy of military deterrence, might not a new start be made by taking positive steps to accommodate Arab demands, by acknowledging Israeli guilt for Arab suffering, and by striving through political and territorial concessions to mitigate the “original sin” of the Jewish state’s very existence?

This mindset helps explain, at least in part, the headlong embrace by so many educated Israelis of the Oslo peace process, and the readiness to see in it the long-sought solution to the problem of Arab intransigence. Once having committed themselves to the idea that peace had broken out, moreover, many Israelis proved unable to relinquish it, even in the face of Yasir Arafat’s brazen flouting of the solemn obligations he undertook on behalf of the Palestinian people at the September 1993 ceremonies on the White House lawn.

Paradoxically, for these true believers in Oslo, Palestinian violence and bad faith made it more necessary than ever to cling to the idea of Jewish culpability. Arab grievance, the thinking seemed to go, being rooted in Israeli aggression, could be overcome only by still further acts of appeasement and concession. As the 90’s wore on, the new historians’ interpretation of the conflict thus became even more deeply entrenched in Israeli thinking, disseminated widely by the media and making its way into the educational curriculum at every level. Not until Arafat launched his all-out intifada in September 2000 did reality at last begin to intrude, and a serious process of reconsideration begin.



Among the new historians, none has been more visible, or more influential, than Benny Morris, a professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. Morris’s 1987 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, was a sensation, rapidly establishing itself as a definitive account of one of the central issues in the entire Arab-Israeli conflict: the flight and dispersion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs at the end of the British Mandate and during the two years of Israel’s war of independence. In Israel’s Border Wars (1993), Morris went on to indict Israel’s response in the early 1950’s to Palestinian and Arab terrorism. More sweepingly, in Righteous Victims (1999), he undertook to describe the entire Palestinian-Zionist conflict ever since 1881 as an anti-colonial struggle by an indigenous population against “a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement . . . intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs.”

With their seemingly authoritative shifting of the blame for the entire conflict onto Zionist shoulders, Morris’s books and essays became powerful weapons in the arsenal of Palestinian propagandists and anti-Israel forces everywhere. But then, suddenly, Morris himself changed. In late 2001, a year into the intifada, he shocked an audience in Berkeley, California by declaring that he now saw things differently. To his stunned listeners, who had come to hear him reinforce his wonted message of Jewish guilt, he announced that the truth was otherwise. Ever since the 1930’s, the Jews had been amenable to a negotiated settlement in the Middle East, while the Palestinians had stubbornly spurned every compromise:

They rejected the Peel commission partition plan of 1937 (a Jewish state in 20 percent of the territory of Palestine, in the area around what is now Tel Aviv and the Galilee). They turned down the 1947 United Nations partition plan (an Arab state in 40 percent of the territory). They did not want to hear about the autonomy plan of [Anwar] Sadat and [Menachem] Begin (part of the 1978 Camp David agreements but never implemented). They evaded accepting Bill Clinton’s generous offer (95 percent of the West Bank).

Nor, as it turned out, was Berkeley a one-time aberration. A few months later, in the leftist London Guardian, Morris warmed to his theme, instructing his readers that “the Zionist movement agreed to give up its dream of a ‘Greater Israel’ and to divide Palestine with the Arabs” as long ago as the 1930’s and 40’s. “Unfortunately,” he went on,

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, perhaps with some Jews being allowed to stay on as a religious minority. In 1988-93, in a brief flicker on the graph, Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization seemed to have acquiesced in the idea of a compromise. But since 2000 the dominant vision of a “Greater Palestine” has surged back to the fore.

“One wonders,” he ended mordantly, “whether the pacific asseverations of 1988-1993 were not merely diplomatic camouflage.”

What was going on? Morris himself would subsequently trace his “serious reexamination” of his political assumptions to “Palestinian behavior during the past three years”—i.e., to the intifada. But he also went further, claiming that his “decades” of studying the conflict had instilled in him “a sense of the instinctive rejectionism that runs like a dark thread through Palestinian history—a rejection, to the point of absurdity, of the history of the Jewish link to the land of Israel; a rejection of the legitimacy of Jewish claims to Palestine; a rejection of the right of the Jewish state to exist.”

But why, then, had it taken him so long to acknowledge a truth he was now claiming to have known for decades? This is a question Morris has yet to address frankly. And it is not the only question that might be asked of him. Without for a moment discounting the significance of his public turnabout, which, given his prominence, is certainly a very welcome development, one is bound to point out that it has not led him seriously to reassess, let alone to retract, any of his previous writings on the sources of the conflict or its main events. He may have discovered an “instinctive rejectionism” among the Palestinians; he has yet to rethink what this means for the conclusions of his own books and essays.



A good place to begin such a rethinking would be with his first and still most influential work, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. A few years ago, Morris made the startling statement that, in preparing this volume, he had had “no access to the materials in the IDFA [Israel Defense Force Archive] or Hagana Archive and precious little to first-hand military materials deposited elsewhere.” Nevertheless, he reassured his readers, “the new materials I have seen over the past few years tend to confirm and reinforce the major lines of description and analysis, and the conclusions, in The Birth.”

This, however, is very damning. What made Morris a “new” historian was precisely the opportunity to study newly available documentary evidence, and on that basis to reevaluate older readings. As Morris himself put it in the introduction to The Birth: “The recent declassification and opening of most Israeli state and private political papers from 1947 to 1949 and the concurrent opening of state papers in Britain . . . and the United States . . . has made possible the writing of a history of what happened on the basis of a large body of primary, contemporary source material.”

Yet now here he was, freely admitting that he had not “had access” to—elsewhere he says he “was not aware of”—the voluminous documents in the archives of the specific Israeli institutions whose actions in 1947-49 formed the burden of his indictment! Misleading his readers, he instead published a book based on partial and thoroughly shoddy research and informed by a preconceived view of his sweepingly revisionist conclusions.

Most damning of all, the documents that Morris failed to consult, far from tending “to confirm and reinforce” his analysis, do quite the opposite. What they confirm, in line with all previous evidence, is that “the Palestinian refugee problem” was the creation of Palestinian and other Arab leaders, not of the Zionists.1

The issue of the refugees of 1947-49 is tied up with the larger question of Zionist attitudes toward the Arabs—another subject on which Morris had a lot to say in his days as a new historian. In fact, he went out of his way to give scholarly credibility to the Arab canard of an age-old Zionist design to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs from their homes. As far back as the mid-1930’s, he wrote, Zionist leaders had despaired of achieving a Jewish majority in Palestine through mass immigration and had instead come to view the expulsion of the Arab population—“transfer,” as it came to be known—as the best means “to establish a Jewish state without an Arab minority, or with as small an Arab minority as possible.” By 1947, despite their formal acceptance of the partition resolution of the United Nations (proposing two states, Arab and Jewish, in Palestine), “large sections of Israeli society” were looking forward to war with the Arabs “as an ideal opportunity to expand the new state’s borders beyond the UN-earmarked partition boundaries and at the expense of the Palestinians.”

Morris adduced no evidence whatsoever for these claims. Nor could he have, for there is none. In reality, far from despairing of mass immigration, Zionist leaders in the 30’s worried about the country’s short-term absorptive capacity should millions of Jews decide to come. In 1947, not one of these leaders evinced the slightest intention of exploiting the UN partition plan as a springboard for territorial expansion. As for an alleged enthusiasm for “transfer,” so flimsy is the evidence for this that Morris was forced to adduce a small number of statements, mostly by David Ben-Gurion, that he either ripped out of context or simply rewrote to say what the speaker plainly did not mean.

A few examples. In an October 1937 letter to his son, Ben-Gurion said: “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 for ourselves and the Arabs in Palestine.” In The Birth, Morris represents Ben-Gurion as saying precisely the opposite: “We must expel Arabs and take their place.” (Tellingly, in his Hebrew-language writings, Morris rendered Ben-Gurion’s words accurately, perhaps because he knew his readers would check the original for themselves.)

Again: on June 7, 1938, Ben-Gurion took part in a meeting of the Jewish Agency executive. Here is a portion of the transcript:

The starting point for a solution of the question of the Arabs in the Jewish state is, in his [i.e., Ben-Gurion’s] view, the need to prepare the ground for an Arab-Jewish agreement.

And here is Morris’s paraphrase of Ben-Gurion’s position at that meeting:

“The starting point for a solution of the Arab problem in the Jewish state” was the conclusion of an agreement with the Arab states that would pave the way for a transfer of the Arabs out of the Jewish state to the Arab countries.

The mention of a transfer agreement is entirely of Morris’s invention.

Finally, here is Ben-Gurion speaking to an Israeli cabinet meeting of June 16, 1948, a month after the establishment of the state:

But war is war. We did not start the war. They made the war. [Arab] Jaffa waged war on us, [Arab] Haifa waged war on us, [Arab] Beit-Shean waged war on us. And I do not want them again to make war.

And here is Morris’s fanciful rendition, complete with an addition of his own:

But war is war. We did not start the war. They made the war. Jaffa went to war against us. So did Haifa. And I do not want those who fled to return. I do not want them again to make war. [emphasis added]

Now that Morris has acknowledged Zionism’s longstanding acceptance of coexistence with the Arabs in a partitioned Palestine, has he disowned the “transfer” canard? That depends on where you look. Already in the late 1990’s he 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. But less than a year ago, in the Guardian, he was still writing baldly:

The idea of transfer is as old as modern Zionism and has accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century. And driving it was an iron logic: there could be no viable Jewish state in all or part of Palestine unless there was a mass displacement of Arab inhabitants.

Morris has squared these contradictory ideas in a novel manner. He now believes, or pretends to believe, that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the notion of a mass displacement of Arabs, as long as it was born of dire necessity. Indeed, he says, over the long term such a displacement might even have been conducive to peace. Thus, he speculates, if Ben-Gurion were alive today, he might “regret his restraint” in 1948, when he “probably could have engineered a comprehensive rather than a partial transfer . . . , but refrained.” Perhaps, according to Morris,

had [Ben-Gurion] gone the whole hog, today’s Middle East would be a healthier, less violent place, with a Jewish state between Jordan and the Mediterranean and a Palestinian Arab state in Transjordan.

The trouble with these musings is that Ben-Gurion did not engineer a partial transfer in 1948; nor, so far as we know, did it ever occur to him to do so; nor did Morris himself charge him with doing so in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. Morris’s bizarre latter-day endorsement of such an idea puts him in company not with Israel’s founding father but with the late Rehavam Ze’evi, a right-wing advocate of population transfer who similarly considered his policy to be compatible with Zionist thinking. He and Morris make strange ideological bedfellows, but, when it comes to their notion of traditional Zionism, they are both dead wrong.



It is not just in connection with the more distant past that Morris’s political conversion seems less than thorough. Indeed, at the very moment when he was speaking in Berkeley and condemning Arafat and the Palestinians for turning their backs on peace, he was also releasing an updated edition of Righteous Victims that offered an account of the latest intifada much more in keeping with his past writings. Here the organized Palestinian violence appears not as another manifestation of the historic Arab/Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence but as a long-overdue act of desperation by a tormented nation against its occupier:

At base, the frustrations and slights endured since the signing in 1993 of the Oslo agreement and, more generally, since the start of the occupation in 1967, had now come home to roost. Indeed, the new intifada seemed to give release to the pent-up anger of the Palestinians since their initial confrontations with Zionism and the catastrophic loss of Palestine in 1948.

Nor did Morris leave any doubt as to where, in his view, the fault for the intifada lay:

Oslo heightened [Palestinian] expectations of an immediate improvement and release from political bondage. But as one government succeeded another in Jerusalem and as partial agreement succeeded partial agreement, nothing seemed to improve; the longed-for sovereignty and economic boom failed to materialize. . . . By September 2000, the masses apparently had reached a point where they could no longer wait.

This happens to be a complete inversion of the truth, as Morris himself obviously knows and as even some prominent Palestinians have had the honesty to admit.2 Arafat’s war was, in fact, an unwelcome development for ordinary Palestinians, who were in the midst of a healthy recovery after several years of a deep economic crisis. So lacking was the appetite for confrontation that, upon Arafat’s return from Camp David in July 2000, his Tanzim militia barely managed to muster some 200 youths in Ramallah for what was supposed to be a “mass welcome for the returning Saladin.” Likewise, the attempt to organize a commercial strike in East Jerusalem in protest against Ehud Barak’s government ended in embarrassing failure, one of many indications that the vast majority of East Jerusalem’s Arab population preferred the continuation of Israeli rule to Palestinian sovereignty.

Not only does Morris know all this, he has even said so, including in the selfsame revised edition of Righteous Victims. There he writes, accurately enough, that “for many Palestinians life had been better under direct Israeli rule” than under Arafat’s “despotic and corrupt” Palestinian Authority. Commenting last year on the collapse of Oslo, moreover, he offered this description of what really happened at Camp David and immediately thereafter: “Barak, a sincere and courageous leader, offered Arafat a reasonable peace agreement. . . . Arafat rejected the offer. . . . Instead of continuing to negotiate, the Palestinians—with the agile Arafat both riding the tiger and pulling the strings behind the scenes—launched the intifada.”

That he can simultaneously entertain, and express, such wildly discrepant views opens Morris to the charge not just of shoddiness but of doublespeak.



This persistent sense of confusion—to use amilder word than doublespeak—reflects the real dilemma in which Morris finds himself. Arafat’s war of terror is what drove this new historian to acknowledge truths about the Arab-Israel conflict to which he had willfully turned a blind eye. He has paid a professional price for his apostasy from his former beliefs, coming under vicious fire from his fellow new historians and, in the process, losing his luster as a hero of the academic Left in Israel and abroad. But he has evidently not yet taken in what it means, intellectually, to surrender the paradigm that for so many decades has informed not only his work but his entire view of the world—of who he is and what he believes.

And herein lies, as well, the emblematic importance of Morris’s case. For his is the dilemma of the Israeli Left in general and the “peace” movement in particular: shocked by the intifada into a recognition of the country’s true situation, but not yet prepared to embrace wholeheartedly the justice of the country’s cause. To this dangerous condition of moral paralysis, the lies and distortions of the new historians have made a significant contribution over the years, and none more significant than that made by Benny Morris. The damage they have done lingers on.


1 For more on this, see my articles in COMMENTARY, “Were the Palestinians Expelled?” (July-August 2000) and “The Palestinians and the ‘Right of Return’ ” (May 2001).

2 Here are the words of Mamduh Nawfal, a leading PLO thinker and Arafat adviser: “The intifada was neither a mass movement detached from the Palestinian Authority nor an instinctive popular uprising. Quite the contrary, it was started by a deliberate decision by the highest echelons of the Authority before being transformed into a popular movement.”


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