Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Benny Morris in Berkeley

This is a team post by Noah K. and Noah S.

On Wednesday, January 28, the University of California-Berkeley's Doe Library hosted Israeli historian Benny Morris. BM was a leading figure among the "New Historians" of the 1980s, a group of scholars who with access to newly opened IDF archives, challenged the then prevailing myths and dogma of Zionist historiography. In 1988, BM published his landmark study The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, which he updated and reissued in 2004. Surrounded by an eager crowd comfortably ensconced on the sofas of the Morrison Room of Doe Library, Morris spoke about his new book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. Morris is often described as a "leftist," and his early work, by presenting the conclusion that thousands of Palestinian Arabs left their homes unwillingly during the 1948 war, must have been warmly received by many critics of the official narrative. Now, he is said to have shifted to the center, perhaps only reflecting the reconfiguration of Israeli politics in the last several decades. Is this new book he's hawking a "centrist" book? At no point in the lecture did BM expressly contradict any of the arguments made in his first book on the refugee problem. The book aims to set his old story of the birth of the refugee problem into a complete narrative of the war, really two wars, a civil war, and a war between the Jews and the Arab states after the initial civil conflict was decided. So the creation of the refugee problem loses something of its status as original sin when set against the backdrop of massacres on both sides -- the kind that BM argues "naturally" occur in civil war -- and against his careful description of the evolution of the war aims of the various parties involved. BM was at a pains to present himself as a dispassionate historian, who writes history "from the documents," and with his conclusions undermines the accounts of Arab propagandists and vulgar Israeli nationalists. He wowed the crowd with dates and figures, citing chapter and verse, but he also made recourse to comparative examples in world history.

He began with his most controversial historical claims. It is a matter of dispute among historians of the Arab-Israeli war about whether the war was, for the Arab armies, jihad, i.e., holy war against infidels. BM seemed convinced that there was sufficient evidence for an answer in the affirmative. He cited Arab generals who compared their war against the Jews to the Muslim struggle against Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Sunni religious authorities who issued fatwas against Palestinian Jews just months before the Egyptian invasion. The second, related, claim is that the Arab armies were motivated to a certain extent by antisemitism. He presented very little evidence for the latter argument. He did mention that these arguments were probably responsible for the fact that the publisher that originally commissioned the manuscript—Metropolitan Press—ended up not publishing the book. (Yale University Press did.) More on this below.

BM moved on to a chronological account of the two stages of the '48 war: 1) the civil war between Arab and Jewish militias in Palestine (April/May), and 2) the conventional war between the Jewish armies and Arab state armies.

Appropriately, the first question he addressed had to do with war aims. On the Jewish side, BM argued that the original war aim of the Jewish militias in April, 1948, was mere survival and the eventual establishment of a Jewish state. However, as the war progressed, two further aims developed: territorial expansion (past the borders originally allotted in the U.N. partition plan of 1947); and the aim of ridding the area that would eventually become the Jewish state of Arabs, who presented a fifth column. Regarding the third aim, BM differentiated between expulsion—when Jewish soldiers came to Arab villages and commanded residents to leave their homes within x hours—and flight—when Arabs fled their homes in the course of a Jewish attack on their village (Arab militias were based in Arab villages). However, after Arab refugees are not allowed back to their homes after 1948, one could plausibly claim that the whole event was a de facto expulsion. There was no central command on the expulsion issue from Jewish authorities, BM said; some Jewish generals decided not to expel, which account for the fact that at the end of the war, there were 650,000 Jews and still 150,000 Arabs within Israeli borders (who became citizens of the new state).

"Arab" war aims are more difficult to assess, BM continued, because a) there was no central control among Palestinian Arab militias, and b) Arab archives are closed. What he could say was the following: Common war aims among all Arab armies was 1) the prevention of creation of a Jewish state, and 2) the conquest of as much land as possible in Palestine. BM dismissed the argument that a further aim was to "drive the Jews into the sea" for lack of documentary evidence. He further dismissed the official Arab claim that their goal was to save the Palestinian Arab population.

Moving on to the specific aims of the individual Arab states, BM noted that early on King Abdullah of Jordan accepted the inevitability of Israel's creation and aimed instead "only" to take West Bank for itself. Jordan's aim therefore was not to fight Jews, though it ends up happening anyway. Lebanon, too, despite official propaganda never invaded Jewish territory. These examples throw a wrench in the arguments of Zionist historians who claim that all Arab states wanted to destroy Israel in 1948. Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi armies did invade Jewish territory.

BM then addressed the "David and Goliath" myth of traditional Zionist historiography (that the small Jewish army was David compared to the Goliath of the Arab states). It is true, BM said, that in territory and population, Arab states were larger. However, the strength of societies also based on economic power—the yishuv was semi-industrial—as well as on "motivation"—whereas Arab soldiers often traveled long distances to fight their enemy, Jews were fighting for their lives on their own territory. The Holocaust had lent a further sense of urgency. Also, Arabs knew they could flee and live, while Jews felt "at death's door," according to BM. Further, the Jews had better ammunition. Once the U.N. imposed embargo on arms sales to warring parties in the Middle East, the Arab states lost supplies, while the Jewish militias had been stockpiling arms on the black market through Czechoslovakia all along and continued re-supplying throughout the war.

At the tail end of his talk, BM revisited the issue of "war crimes": massacres and the refugee problem. On massacres: BM cited numbers of 800-900 dead Arabs resulting from around two dozen discrete massacres (murders of civilians by Jewish soldiers outside of fighting). There were also massacres of Jews by Arab soldiers, BM said. However, the great disparity between the two numbers was a direct result of the fact that the Jewish militias took 400 Arab towns and settlements, whereas the Arab states conquered only 12 Jewish settlements/kibbutzim. This argument makes numerical sense only if one accepts the argument that massacres are a natural by-product of all wars. BM attempted to put the massacres of the 1948 war into "comparative perspective" by noting that there were days in the Yugoslavian war in which Serbs massacred over 9,000 civilians in just two days. (The number of Bosnians killed there is normally estimated at 8,000.) If there was one point, where, we think, he may have slipped up enough to allow the audience a glimpse of his ideological orientation, it was here. Sure the Hagganah, et al., killed 800 or 900 Arab non-combatants in 1947-8, but the Serbs in Srebrenica in 1995, killed 9,000 in a day! Curiously, he began to call the victims of that massacre "Croats," but caught himself, and said, "I think, no, they were Bosnians." The brutal facts of war, in all their precise and gory details, which BM had so far actually seemed to relish bringing out into the sterile light of our library seemed suddenly less important than the dignity of the Jewish state's first generation

On the refugee problem after the war: There were actually two refugee problems – Palestinian Arabs stranded in Arab countries after fleeing homes in Palestine, and Arab Jews stranded in Arab countries that no longer want them there after 1948. The main difference between these two groups is that the latter were absorbed into Israel, whereas the former group is only partially absorbed into various host countries. BM argued that this situation for the Palestinian Arab refugee was historically anomalous, as normally refugees are assimilated into host countries by second or third generation. Instead, now there are 4.5-5 million Palestinian Arab "refugees" who live off U.N. and other aid.

Explaining why there were expulsions and voluntary flight of Palestinian Arabs:

1) Zionists' explanation for the refugee problem was that the Arab states had a advised Palestinian Arabs to flee their homes in order to clear the battlefield for pan-Arab armies, or in order to justify their invasion of the territory.

2) Arab states' explanation for the refugee problem was that the Zionists had designed from the beginning to dispossess and expel the Arabs.

Truth, BM claimed, lies in between. Most Arabs fled from fighting, not because they were advised to by Arab states or forcibly expelled by Jewish soldiers.

By and large, this lecture was about the historian's craft. Amos once told me that he saw BM on Israeli TV arguing with Ilan Pappe -- another of the so-called New Historians. Pappe told BM, "You're not an historian!" And BM, becoming very agitated, retorted in his Anglophone Hebrew, "I'm not an historian?" Indeed, when Pappe came up in the Q&A, BM discussed Pappe's use of Ben-Gurion's diary in order to demonstrate that his rival isn't in fact an historian. An historian, BM, emphasized, writes history from documents. And in the case of the 1948 war, the documents of the yishuv and the fledgling Israeli state, are all we have to work with. The Arab documents haven't seen the light of day, and they aren't likely to soon. We only perceive the Arab position(s) through western eyes: contemporary diplomatic and intelligence assessments. This is the sad reality of the totalitarian political culture in the Arab states. These are the facts. Inevitably, for the history we write, this is for the worse. Then, BM literally threw his hands up. This sense of helplessness in the face of the perceived inadequacy of one, albeit, a massive, crucial segment of the sources, struck me as worth quarreling with. Is Morris giving up too easy? Take the 1967 war and the Soviet role in that conflict as an example. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez have recently written a book Foxbats Over Dimona: the Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, which reinterprets official Soviet documents, known for years, in order to rewrite the story of the outbreak of that war, arguing that the USSR was by May 1967 directly intervening with its military in an effort to prevent Israel from producing operational nuclear weapons. However, it was an oral source, I recall, which originally sent Ginor and Remez reviewing old official documents, looking for new ones, and challenging the historiography of '67. A recent veterans' newsletter of some kind published a Ukrainian marine's memory of his unit's orders to invade Israel by way of Haifa if and when the Israelis crossed certain red lines. Would BM's methodology allow him to be sensitive to similar material?

6 comments:

Rebecca said...

Thank you for this report on his talk. The book sounds very interesting. What was the response of the audience?

Ginor- said...

Many thanks for citing our book "Foxbats over Dimona", especially since you correctly state our position that the absence, suppression, or prostitution of archival evidence must not be allowed to excise entire chapters from history. We expanded on this in a response to Morris's generally favorable review of "Foxbats" in "The New Republic," http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/41713.html .

However, while we do indeed stress the importance of carefully checked alternative sources such as participants' testimonies (not necessarily oral), it is not entirely accurate that the Soviet and post-Soviet documents which we did quote were all long since known, and only reinterpreted in our book. The ones that yielded the most dramatic disclosures actually surfaced quite recently, and often inadvertently.

Some important new evidence, both official and other, which emerged after the completion of "Foxbats" is presented in a follow-up paper, http://www.meriajournal.com/en/asp/journal/2008/september/remez/index.asp#_edn50 .

Noah and Noah, we'll be glad to discuss this further if you contact us at foxbats.over.dimona@gmail.com

Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez

Amos said...

Very good summary. You're right that Benny Morris is deeply skeptical of oral sources and memoirs, in part because they've been so unreliable in the historiography of the Israeli-Arab conflict. I still think that this cautious stance is preferable to the alternative. In time, the documentation will surface.

CanuckAnalyst said...

Sounds like classic Benny to me - what does the new book cover that he didn't already discuss in Birth of the Refugee Problem? I think BM is a superb scholar, very familiar with the archives and quick to cut through a lot of bullshit. I had the privilege of having him as my thesis supervisor at Ben-Gurion U. His work is crucial in this day and age when the Palestinian narrative ("We were poor fellahin plowing our fields, the Jewish militas showed up and kicked us out) is becoming increasingly powerful. I also remember the debate btwn BM and Ilan Pappe that Amos recounted - we actually watched it together. What stood out for me was that Ilan Pappe repeatedly accused Benny Morris of working for "israeli intelligence". What a douche bag.

One thing that will have to be examined more closely is the contention that Arab sources are off limits. Some people are working on research based on Arab diaries and private papers - Laila Parsons at McGill is doing research on Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the commander of the Syrian-backed Arab Liberation Army, which is based on these kinds of sources. Should be interesting. Of course, Israeli/Jewish scholars are unlikely to be granted the kind of access that Oxford Arabists enjoy.

Nobody said...

At the tail end of his talk, BM revisited the issue of "war crimes": massacres and the refugee problem. On massacres: BM cited numbers of 800-900 dead Arabs resulting from around two dozen discrete massacres (murders of civilians by Jewish soldiers outside of fighting). There were also massacres of Jews by Arab soldiers, BM said. However, the great disparity between the two numbers was a direct result of the fact that the Jewish militias took 400 Arab towns and settlements, whereas the Arab states conquered only 12 Jewish settlements/kibbutzim. This argument makes numerical sense only if one accepts the argument that massacres are a natural by-product of all wars. BM attempted to put the massacres of the 1948 war into "comparative perspective" by noting that there were days in the Yugoslavian war in which Serbs massacred over 9,000 civilians in just two days.

The death toll is indeed very small by any standards. In particular by the standards of the Middle East itself. I am not sure as to why Morris should have ventured as far as Yugoslavia. We have Darfur or Saada at this very moment and another one is just over in Iraq. The Palestinians themselves were involved in a few wars in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. Bearing in mind that the war of 1948 happened when satellite TV, HRW and others were not even in their infancy, there seems to have existed a surprising degree of self restraint on the part of the Jewish forces that took part in the fighting.

Nobody said...

BM then addressed the "David and Goliath" myth of traditional Zionist historiography (that the small Jewish army was David compared to the Goliath of the Arab states). It is true, BM said, that in territory and population, Arab states were larger. However, the strength of societies also based on economic power—the yishuv was semi-industrial—as well as on "motivation"—whereas Arab soldiers often traveled long distances to fight their enemy, Jews were fighting for their lives on their own territory.

But was not this the difference between David and Goliath in the original story?