If war is the "continuation of politics ... by other means," as German
strategist Karl von Clausewitz famously wrote, then it must be said with equal
certainty that the study of history in our day has become another form of warfare.
No conflict better exemplifies this maxim than that between Arabs and
Israelis. For the last 55 years and more, Zionist and anti-Zionist historians have
waged war in the pages of their books.
Pro-Israel writers look to the past to justify by legal, historic and moral
grounds the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty over the ancient homeland of the
At the same time, Arab writers as well as an international brigade of
Jew-haters have done their best to depict the creation of the State of Israel as a
But the genre of historical writing that has done the most damage to Israel's
image has not been the hatred-filled screeds coming out of the dubious
academic institutions of Cairo and Damascus. It has been the work of Jews who have
come to doubt the justice of Israel's cause that has emboldened its enemies the
most. In the last 20 years, the rise of a new group of Israeli historians,
known as "revisionists," has engendered a bitter debate about Israel's origins
NO TO THE STAINED-GLASS IMAGE
No person is as closely identified with this term as Benny Morris, a one-time
journalist, prolific author and currently a professor of history at B
en-Gurion University. In a number of works on the origin of the Palestinian refugee
issue and Israel's War of Independence, Morris has earned a reputation as
someone with little patience for the stained-glass version of the Zionist narrative.
His research attempted to debunk the notion that all Arab refugees fled the
territory that would become the Jewish state on their own, and that the conduct
of Israel's soldiers and leaders was spotless.
Morris' work was greeted with dismay by many friends of Israel, who rightly
worried that his version of history portrays the Jewish state as being born in
The author reinforced his image as an icon of the Israeli left with his own
anti-establishment behavior. In the late 1980s, Morris was briefly jailed when
he refused to do his Israeli army reserve duty in the territories because he
opposed Israel's presence there.
But ever since the Palestinian Authority rejected Israel's peace offer at the
July 2000 Camp David summit and answered it with a terrorist war of attriti
on, Morris has begun to make statements that have lost him his fans on the left.
The culmination of this process came when the Israeli daily Ha'aretz
published a lengthy interview with the writer on Jan. 9. In it, Morris told journalist
Ari Shavit himself a highly partisan star of the Israeli left that while
his work uncovering Israeli wrongdoing would continue, he was no longer a
supporter of peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Indeed, Morris shocked Shavit by asserting that Israel's first prime
minister, David Ben-Gurion whom Morris has roundly criticized as responsible for
some of the suffering of Palestinian Arabs probably made a mistake by not
completely expelling all of them from the West Bank during the fighting in 1948 and
"A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it," Morris said.
Even more significantly, Morris pointed that all of the bad deeds which he is
prepared to blame on Israelis do not amount to much when compared to the
atrocities carried out elsewhere, as well as to the attempts of the Arabs to
"When you take into account that there was a bloody civil war here and that
we lost 1 percent of the population, you find that we [Israel] behaved very
well," Morris told a dumfounded Shavit.
Morris is, of course, right. While we can debate some of the conclusions he
draws from his research and historians such as the redoubtable Efraim Karsh
have placed many of them in doubt the notion of the 1948 Israelis as morally
perfect was always absurd. Wars are not moral events. Terrible things are
sometimes done even in the name of righteous causes.
Much as Americans were once raised on such tame historical fare as Parson
Weems' life of George Washington that portrayed the first president as a secular
saint, Jews were fed much of the same about Israel's founders. But just as it
does not undermine the legitimacy of the American republic to learn that
Washington wasn't perfect, it won't kill us to learn the same about Ben-Gurion.
Even more importantly, Morris' statements highlight the fact that Israel's
democratic leaders did not act in a vacuum. They were locked in a war of
survival that they'd tried to avoid via compromise against a foe whose purpose was
the annihilation of the Jewish population.
THEY WANT IT ALL
Unlike many of his revisionist colleagues, Morris's hard look at Israelis of
the past has not blinded him to the crimes of the Arabs during Israel's wars
or to their current intentions. And that last point is what has so infuriated
Morris' old friends. He is very clear in saying that Arafat has rejected peace
with Israel on any terms.
"They want it all," Morris said. "Lod and Acre and Jaffa."
As for the Oslo process, Morris is now as cynical about it as he is about the
War of Independence: "Oslo was a deception. Arafat did not change for the
worse. Arafat simply defrauded us. ... He wants to send us back to Europe, to the
sea we came from. ... They can't tolerate the existence of a Jewish state."
Concerning the Palestinians themselves, whatever wrongs they may have
suffered, Morris doesn't sugarcoat their motives likening their widespread support
for terror and the destruction of Israel to the actions of a "serial killer."
"Zionism was not a mistake. The desire to establish a Jewish state here was a
legitimate one, a positive one. But given the character of Islam and given
the character of the Arab nation, it was a mistake to think it would be possible
to establish a tranquil state here," Morris noted.
Unfortunately, the trouble with being so clear-eyed about both the past and
present is that it can leave you with little hope for the future. Morris sees
no chance for peace in our generation against a foe he doesn't hesitate to
describe as "barbaric." Israel and the West have no choice, he says, but to fight
back in a clash of civilizations.
Israelis have no alternative, Morris said, but "to be vigilant, to defend the
country as far as is possible. ... In the end, what will decide their readiness
to accept us will be force alone."
The same chilling conclusion applies to America's struggle against Islamic
If the study of history can teach us anything, it must be to be honest with
ourselves. From the sound of it, ex-peacenik Benny Morris has learned his