Counterpunch January 16, 2004
Survival of the Fittest?
An Interview with Benny Morris
By ARI SHAVIT
Note: Benny Morris is the dean of Israeli Ďnew historiansí, who have done so much to create a critical vision of Zionism--its expulsion and continuing oppression of the Palestinians, its pressing need for moral and political atonement. His 1987 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, chronicled the Zionist murders, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing that drove 600,000-750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, thus refuting the myth that they fled under the orders of Arab leaders. A second edition of this book is due out this month, chronicling even more massacres, and a previously unsuspected number of rapes and murders of Palestinian women. Thus Morris continues to provide crucial documentation for Palestinians fighting the heritage of Al-Nakba, "The Catastrophe."
an astonishing recent Haíaretz interview, after
summarizing his new research, Morris proceeds to argue for the necessity of
ethnic cleansing in 1948. He faults David Ben-Gurion for failing to expel all
Arab Israelis, and hints that it may be necessary to finish the job in the
future. Though he calls himself a left-wing Zionist, he invokes and praises
the fascist Vladimir Jabotinsky in calling for an
"iron wall" solution to the current crisis. Referring to
nice and clear. Now one can find fault with the analogy, as did one outraged
reader of Haíaretz, who suggested that the
annihilation of the Indians was the prototype for American imperialism, not
the precondition for American democracy. But such arguments are almost beside
the point. Morrisís chilling candor effectively
removes him from the realm of rational argument, and hauls
When momma makes it into a political analogy, somebodyís about to bleed: never get between a colon and his motherland, particularly if his motherland used to be your motherland. Here, Morris leaves Enlightenment universalism for a volkische ethics of blood and bone that has haunted world history from Herder to Milosevic. But another French-Algerian, Jules Roy, answered Camus (and Benny Morris): "It is not a matter of choosing oneís mother over justice. It is a matter of loving justice as much as oneís mother."
Holstun is professor of English at University at
(This interview originally in Haíaretz)
Benny Morris says he was always a Zionist. People were mistaken when they labeled him a post-Zionist, when they thought that his historical study on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was intended to undercut the Zionist enterprise. Nonsense, Morris says, thatís completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book. They didnít read it with the same detachment, the same moral neutrality, with which it was written. So they came to the mistaken conclusion that when Morris describes the cruelest deeds that the Zionist movement perpetrated in 1948 he is actually being condemnatory, that when he describes the large-scale expulsion operations he is being denunciatory. They did not conceive that the great documenter of the sins of Zionism in fact identifies with those sins. That he thinks some of them, at least, were unavoidable.
years ago, different voices began to be heard. The historian who was considered
a radical leftist suddenly maintained that
citizen Morris turned out to be a not completely snow-white dove, historian
Morris continued to work on the Hebrew translation of his massive work
"Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict,
1881-2001," which was written in the old, peace-pursuing style. And at the
same time historian Morris completed the new version of his book on the refugee
problem, which is going to strengthen the hands of those who abominate
books will appear in the coming month. The book on the history of the Zionist-Arab
conflict will be published in Hebrew by Am Oved in
Tel Aviv, while the Cambridge University Press will
publish "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited" (it
originally appeared, under the CUP imprint, in 1987). That book describes in
chilling detail the atrocities of the Nakba. Isnít
Morris ever frightened at the present-day political implications of his
historical study? Isnít he fearful that he has contributed to
short, plump, and very intense. The son of immigrants from
Rape, massacre, transfer
Benny Morris, in the month ahead the new version of your book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem is due to be published. Who will be less pleased with the book - the Israelis or the Palestinians?
"The revised book is a double-edged sword. It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces Archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-state defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.
"At the same time, it turns out that there was a series of orders issued by the Arab Higher Committee and by the Palestinian intermediate levels to remove children, women and the elderly from the villages. So that on the one hand, the book reinforces the accusation against the Zionist side, but on the other hand it also proves that many of those who left the villages did so with the encouragement of the Palestinian leadership itself."
According to your new findings, how many cases of Israeli rape were there in 1948?
"About a dozen. In
According to your findings, how many acts of Israeli massacre were perpetrated in 1948?
"Twenty-four. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others the numbers
were 70, 80, 100. There was also a great deal of
arbitrary killing. Two old men are spotted walking in a field - they are shot.
A woman is found in an abandoned village - she is shot. There are cases such as
worst cases were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds)
and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal
proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war
crimes were perpetrated there. At
"That canít be chance. Itís a pattern. Apparently, various officers who took part in the operation understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads. The fact is that no one was punished for these acts of murder. Ben-Gurion silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres."
What you are telling me here, as though by the way, is that in Operation Hiram there was a comprehensive and explicit expulsion order. Is that right?
One of the revelations in the book is that on October 31, 1948, the commander
of the Northern Front, Moshe Carmel, issued an order in writing to his units to
expedite the removal of the Arab population.
Are you saying that Ben-Gurion was personally responsible for a deliberate and systematic policy of mass expulsion?
"From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer. There is no explicit order of his in writing, there is no orderly comprehensive policy, but there is an atmosphere of [population] transfer. The transfer idea is in the air. The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understands what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created."
Ben-Gurion was a "transferist"?
"Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist."
I donít hear you condemning him.
"Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here."
When ethnic cleansing is justified
Benny Morris, for decades you have been
researching the dark side of Zionism. You are an expert on the atrocities of
"There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I donít think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You canít make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands."
We are talking about the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society.
"A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, itís better to destroy."
There is something chilling about the quiet way in which you say that.
"If you expected me to burst into tears, Iím sorry to disappoint you. I will not do that."
So when the commanders of Operation Dani are standing there and observing the long and terrible column of the 50,000 people expelled from Lod walking eastward, you stand there with them? You justify them?
"I definitely understand them. I understand their motives. I donít think they felt any pangs of conscience, and in their place I wouldnít have felt pangs of conscience. Without that act, they would not have won the war and the state would not have come into being."
You do not condemn them morally?
They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.
"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."
And that was the situation in 1948?
"That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. 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."
The term `to cleanseí is terrible.
"I know it doesnít sound nice but thatís the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed."
What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hard-hearted.
feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy.
I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a
Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible
to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in
"Remember another thing: the Arab people gained a large slice of the planet. Not thanks to its skills or its great virtues, but because it conquered and murdered and forced those it conquered to convert during many generations. But in the end the Arabs have 22 states. The Jewish people did not have even one state. There was no reason in the world why it should not have one state. Therefore, from my point of view, the need to establish this state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them."
And morally speaking, you have no problem with that deed?
"That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history."
And in our case it effectively justifies a population transfer.
"Thatís what emerges."
And you take that in stride? War crimes? Massacres? The burning fields and the devastated villages of the Nakba?
have to put things in proportion. These are small war crimes. All told, if we
take all the massacres and all the executions of 1948, we come to about 800 who
were killed. In comparison to the massacres that were perpetrated in
The next transfer
You went through an interesting process. You went to research Ben-Gurion and the Zionist establishment critically, but in the end you actually identify with them. You are as tough in your words as they were in their deeds.
"You may be right. Because I investigated the conflict in depth, I was forced to cope with the in-depth questions that those people coped with. I understood the problematic character of the situation they faced and maybe I adopted part of their universe of concepts. But I do not identify with Ben-Gurion. I think he made a serious historical mistake in 1948. Even though he understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered."
Iím not sure I understand. Are you saying that Ben-Gurion erred in expelling too few Arabs?
he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job.
I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct
types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less
suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had
carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country - the whole
I find it hard to believe what I am hearing.
the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be
because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because
he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and
In his place, would you have expelled them all? All the Arabs in the country?
"But I am not a statesman. I do not put myself in his place. But as an historian, I assert that a mistake was made here. Yes. The non-completion of the transfer was a mistake."
And today? Do you advocate a transfer today?
you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs
from the West Bank,
Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?
Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization
has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential
fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to
undermine the state. So that if
Besides being tough, you are also very gloomy. You werenít always like that, were you?
turning point began after 2000. I wasnít a great optimist even before that.
True, I always voted Labor or Meretz
or Sheli [a dovish party of the late 1970s], and in
1988 I refused to serve in the territories and was jailed for it, but I always
doubted the intentions of the Palestinians. The events of
If thatís so, then the whole
Do you really believe Arafat wants to throw us into the sea?
wants to send us back to
If so, the two-state solution is not viable; even if a peace treaty is signed, it will soon collapse.
"Ideologically, I support the two-state solution. Itís the only alternative to the expulsion of the Jews or the expulsion of the Palestinians or total destruction. But in practice, in this generation, a settlement of that kind will not hold water. At least 30 to 40 percent of the Palestinian public and at least 30 to 40 percent of the heart of every Palestinian will not accept it. After a short break, terrorism will erupt again and the war will resume."
Your prognosis doesnít leave much room for hope, does it?
hard for me, too. There is not going to be peace in the present generation.
There will not be a solution. We are doomed to live by the sword. Iím already
fairly old, but for my children that is especially bleak. I donít know if they
will want to go on living in a place where there is no hope. Even if
Arenít your harsh words an over-reaction to three hard years of terrorism?
"The bombing of the buses and restaurants really shook me. They made me understand the depth of the hatred for us. They made me understand that the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim hostility toward Jewish existence here is taking us to the brink of destruction. I donít see the suicide bombings as isolated acts. They express the deep will of the Palestinian people. That is what the majority of the Palestinians want. They want what happened to the bus to happen to all of us."
Yet we, too, bear responsibility for the violence and the hatred: the occupation, the roadblocks, the closures, maybe even the Nakba itself.
donít have to tell me that. I have researched Palestinian history. I understand
the reasons for the hatred very well. The Palestinians are retaliating now not
only for yesterdayís closure but for the Nakba as
well. But that is not a sufficient explanation. The peoples of Africa were
oppressed by the European powers no less than the Palestinians were oppressed
by us, but nevertheless I donít see African terrorism in
Are you trying to argue that Palestinian terrorism derives from some sort of deep cultural problem?
"There is a deep problem in Islam. Itís a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesnít have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien. A world that makes those who are not part of the camp of Islam fair game. Revenge is also important here. Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them have no moral inhibitions. If it obtains chemical or biological or atomic weapons, it will use them. If it is able, it will also commit genocide."
I want to insist on my point: A large part of the responsibility for the hatred of the Palestinians rests with us. After all, you yourself showed us that the Palestinians experienced a historical catastrophe.
"True. But when one has to deal with a serial killer, itís not so important to discover why he became a serial killer. Whatís important is to imprison the murderer or to execute him."
Explain the image: Who is the serial killer in the analogy?
"The barbarians who want to take our lives. The people the Palestinian society sends to carry out the terrorist attacks, and in some way the Palestinian society itself as well. At the moment, that society is in the state of being a serial killer. It is a very sick society. It should be treated the way we treat individuals who are serial killers."
What does that mean? What should we do tomorrow morning?
"We have to try to heal the Palestinians. Maybe over the years the establishment of a Palestinian state will help in the healing process. But in the meantime, until the medicine is found, they have to be contained so that they will not succeed in murdering us."
To fence them in? To place them under closure?
"Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."
War of barbarians
Benny Morris, have you joined the right wing?
"No, no. I still think of myself as left-wing. I still support in principle two states for two peoples."
But you donít believe that this solution will last. You donít believe in peace.
"In my opinion, we will not have peace, no."
Then what is your solution?
"In this generation there is apparently no solution. To be vigilant, to defend the country as far as is possible."
The iron wall approach?
"Yes. An iron wall is a good image. An iron wall is the most reasonable policy for the coming generation. My colleague Avi Shlein described this well: What Jabotinsky proposed is what Ben-Gurion adopted. In the 1950s, there was a dispute between Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett. Ben-Gurion argued that the Arabs understand only force and that ultimate force is the one thing that will persuade them to accept our presence here. He was right. Thatís not to say that we donít need diplomacy. Both toward the West and for our own conscience, itís important that we strive for a political solution. But in the end, what will decide their readiness to accept us will be force alone. Only the recognition that they are not capable of defeating us."
For a left-winger, you sound very much like a right-winger, wouldnít you say?
"Iím trying to be realistic. I know it doesnít always sound politically correct, but I think that political correctness poisons history in any case. It impedes our ability to see the truth. And I also identify with Albert Camus. He was considered a left-winger and a person of high morals, but when he referred to the Algerian problem he placed his mother ahead of morality. Preserving my people is more important than universal moral concepts."
Are you a neo-conservative? Do you read the current historical reality in the terms of Samuel Huntington?
think there is a clash between civilizations here [as
The Muslims are barbarians, then?
"I think the values I mentioned earlier are values of barbarians - the attitude toward democracy, freedom, openness; the attitude toward human life. In that sense they are barbarians. The Arab world as it is today is barbarian."
And in your view these new barbarians are truly
The West is stronger but itís not clear whether it knows how to repulse this
wave of hatred. The phenomenon of the mass Muslim penetration into the West and
their settlement there is creating a dangerous internal threat. A similar
process took place in
Is it really all that dramatic? Is the West truly in danger?
I think that the war between the civilizations is the main characteristic of
the 21st century. I think President Bush is wrong when he denies the very
existence of that war. Itís not only a matter of bin Laden. This is a struggle
against a whole world that espouses different values. And we are on the front
line. Exactly like the Crusaders, we are the vulnerable branch of
The situation as you describe it is extremely harsh. You are not entirely convinced that we can survive here, are you?
"The possibility of annihilation exists."
Would you describe yourself as an apocalyptic person?
"The whole Zionist project is apocalyptic. It exists within hostile surroundings and in a certain sense its existence is unreasonable. It wasnít reasonable for it to succeed in 1881 and it wasnít reasonable for it to succeed in 1948 and itís not reasonable that it will succeed now. Nevertheless, it has come this far. In a certain way it is miraculous. I live the events of 1948, and 1948 projects itself on what could happen here. Yes, I think of Armageddon. Itís possible. Within the next 20 years there could be an atomic war here."
If Zionism is so dangerous for the Jews and if Zionism makes the Arabs so wretched, maybe itís a mistake?
"No, 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 that it would be possible to establish a tranquil state here that lives in harmony with its surroundings."
Which leaves us, nevertheless, with two possibilities: either a cruel, tragic Zionism, or the forgoing of Zionism.
"Yes. Thatís so. You have pared it down, but thatís correct."
Would you agree that this historical reality is intolerable, that there is something inhuman about it?
But thatís so for the Jewish people, not the Palestinians. A people that
suffered for 2,000 years, that went through the Holocaust, arrives at its
patrimony but is thrust into a renewed round of bloodshed, that is perhaps the
road to annihilation. In terms of cosmic justice, thatís terrible. Itís far
more shocking than what happened in 1948 to a small part of the Arab nation
that was then in
So what you are telling me is that you live the Palestinian Nakba of the past less than you live the possible Jewish Nakba of the future?
"Yes. Destruction could be the end of this process. It could be the end of the Zionist experiment. And thatís what really depresses and scares me."
The title of the book you are now publishing in Hebrew is "Victims." In the end, then, your argument is that of the two victims of this conflict, we are the bigger one.
"Yes. Exactly. We are the greater victims in the course of history and we are also the greater potential victim. Even though we are oppressing the Palestinians, we are the weaker side here. We are a small minority in a large sea of hostile Arabs who want to eliminate us. So itís possible than when their desire is realized, everyone will understand what I am saying to you now. Everyone will understand we are the true victims. But by then it will be too late."