Cutting through the bullshit.

Monday, 12 March 2007

The Israeli national conscience

When he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 in 1987, historian Benny Morris

…found himself on a path that led to academic acclaim, an Israeli jail cell for refusing army call-up orders to perform reserve duty…

Scott Wilson writes in today’s Washington Post,

His conclusion that the Palestinian exodus was not entirely voluntary pricked the Israeli national conscience and gave moral weight to the claims of about 700,000 original refugees demanding to return to their homes. For decades, Israel has fiercely resisted this claim for a right of return, fearing an influx of Arab Palestinians that would threaten Israel's Jewish majority.

Now this is a very strange argument: The Palestinians who left the area that was later to become the State of Israel in 1948 and 1949 did so voluntarily, so that annuls their right of return. You hear this all the time. It’s a fundamental part of the Zionist narrative. And of course thanks to Israel’s ‘New historians’ Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé, we now know it is utter rubbish. Not that facts are relevant.

Hairsplitting sometimes occurs in Zionist discourse. For example, the famous United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, beloved of all adherents of the two state ‘solution’, calls for ‘Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict’. Some of Israel’s more ardent apologists, like Ted Lapkin, the Director of Policy Analysis at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), consider that Israel has fulfilled this requirement by withdrawing from the Sinai in 1982. Cynical as it may sound, technically, you can read the resolution that way.

So in much the same way, it’s irrelevant that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says ‘Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country’ (Art 13(2)) because it wasn’t proclaimed until 10 December 1948 (‘Human Rights Day’), months and months after Israel declared independence.

What might be relevant, however, is that many Israelis leave the country to travel or study or work, without compulsion. They are not loaded onto the backs of trucks at gunpoint. They depart entirely of their own free will. And yet they quite reasonably expect to be welcomed back in their country of citizenship, even if they are actually immigrants, even if they retain or acquire other nationalities. The difference of course is that those people are Jews and the demand for the right of return is for Arabs. And they say Israel isn’t racist!

Anyway, in Morris’s view,

"If the man [David ben Gurion] was already driving out people, maybe he should have gone the whole hog," Morris says now. "Perhaps in the end population exchanges and transfers, although they may have caused great suffering at the time, may in the long run have been better for everyone concerned."

The article is not the first time he has articulated this view. When he told to Ari Shavit ‘There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing.’ in an interview in Ha’aretz in 2004, it was a revelation.

"Had the war ended more definitively and logically demographically, everyone would have been better for it," Morris says amid the battlefields of Israel's first war. "Not only Israel and the Palestinians, but all of the Middle East."

He told Scott Wilson, "The problem that existed here in 1947 remains today -- the Arabs don't accept Israel's presence…A major switch in mind-set must occur for peace to come. That is the sine qua non of any peace agreement. All the rest -- the road map, the peace process -- is just footwork."

And yet, echoing Theodore Herzl’s formulation in The Jewish state, ‘a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism’,

"We are an outpost of the West, as they see it and as we also see ourselves, in a largely Islamic, backward and in some ways even barbaric area," Morris says in his trademark strafing-fire delivery. "The Muslims are busy killing people, and killing people for reasons that in the West are regarded as idiotic. There is a problem here with Islam."

So how, one might ask, does it come to pass that it’s ‘the Muslims’ whose ‘mind-set’ must switch? In ‘the West’, many don’t regard it as idiotic to deploy violence, even terrorist methods, to evict a coloniser. Indeed, it’s a fundamental element of the American national myth, and the Israeli nationalist myth, as well, as a matter of fact. On the other hand, many have enunciated the view that Israel’s wanton rampaging around the West Bank is not only politically and morally reprehensible, but actively counterproductive. But that would only be the case if there were a real intention to have a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians who live there at some stage. If the intent is to make their lives so miserable that the survivors are happy to leave, then perhaps it’s not as idiotic as all that.

"Two states is the only solution with an element of justice," Morris says. "But there are two other realistic solutions -- one is that the Jews will kick out all the Arabs across the river, and the other is that the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea. I'm not sure one of them won't happen."

He holds out hope that a stable Palestinian state might one day emerge and ease hostilities. But he says he can just as easily imagine a day when Israel will have to drive more Arabs from the occupied territories or face expulsion itself.

Some say that Palestinians will be able to exercise their right to self determination in their little Bantustans if Israel ever tires of the peace process and decides the time has come for some kind of peace instead. That might be ‘an element of justice’, although it’s hard to see how anyone can seriously claim it is actually just. But I think it’s clear that Morris does not hold much hope for this outcome. In fact, it almost seems as if he prefers one of those ‘other realistic solutions’ and it’s not the one where ‘the Arabs’ push the Jews into the sea.


  1. I look forward to Morris' next book. Israel's Secret War was fascinating (albeit rather radicalizing).

    What I found terribly disturbing in the WaPo article was the way Morris found his own father providing counterfactual spin for the Dir Yassin massacre. A person's foundation of truth often is embeded in their family of origin. How was his view of truth distorted by that situation? It is an alarming thought for me.

  2. I'm in awe of anyone who blogs and finds time to read books, as well. I need to get away from the computer for a few days if I want to read anything, and then it takes a week or more to catch up when I get back!

    Living in a family where your parent is a propagandist? I don't know how that would affect you. A journalist's or a teacher's child should know.

  3. A propagandist who portrays an opinion is one thing; an advertiser would be of the same ilk - somewhat icky, but making a living. Morris' dad, on the other hand, who whitewashed a massacre by claiming it did not happen - he's a beast of a whole nother color. I'd group Morris Sr. along with the tobacco industry executives who claimed that there was no great harm in smoking despite knowing otherwise. And if any of their children came out with the history of safe smoking - no, I wouldn't trust it much. I would scrutinize anything they had to say, especially if it turns out that their opinions exonerate their fathers'... Morris' eventual conclusion.

    And books - they're the best. I find blogs difficult to communicate on. (But I did find the flowers - hidden under a flash-blocker.)

  4. Well, Shunra, I'm not sure I'm so confident about where to draw the line. It seems to me that what's going to rub off on a kid, if anything, is not the substance but the fact that the parent is involved in fomenting delusion.

    I think one of the things that makes Morris's work valuable is precisely that we know he doesn't have a political agenda to make the nakba seem worse than it was. And he makes it seem bad enough. From that foundation, Pappe's work, for example, gains additional credibility.

  5. Were you listening in to the conversation I had with my husband? He said the exact same thing.

    Including the Pappe comparison.


  6. My hearing's not that good anymore. Great minds think alike?

    If you want to have little personal exchanges like this, please consider emailing me.

    BTW, I'm not sure what a flash blocker is, but I'm glad you found the flowers.

  7. You said 'we know he doesn't have a political agenda to make the nakba seem worse than it was.'

    Actually, Morris might be following, or at least contributing to a political agenda. A while back Pappe wrote about those who are in the process of ethnically cleansing Palestine now, seeking justification for it by referring to the previous ethnic cleansing and how well that worked. I think this might be the conversation Morris might be contributing to – after all he said in the Shavitt interview in 2004 that Ben Gurion should have completed the job.

    This is essentially the argument that Joel Beinin made in his review of Morris ‘No More Tears: Benny Morris and the Road Back from Liberal Zionism’ Middle East Report 230.

    On other news, Pappe is fleeing the country (OK, slightly dramatic), heading to Exeter University, as Israel is an increasingly uncomfortable place for radicals.

  8. If what you're saying is that Morris actually does have an incentive to make the 1948 ethnic cleansing seem worse than it was so that the ongoing slow motion ethnic cleansing would pale in comparison, I think you may have a point. He is certainly making the point these days that the implementation of Plan Dalet did not go far enough and envisages further large scale 'transfer' should some 'crisis' justify it. I'm inclined to think he's right to say it would take some serious crisis to make it acceptable to the 'international community'. And I’m not even sure that would work. As Pappe points out, the ethnic cleansing of 1948 took place under the noses of the Red Cross and was reported on a daily basis in the NY Times. It didn’t seem to worry anybody back then. But I think it might now. People have a surprisingly high tolerance for cognitive dissonance, but I’m not sure it would actually go quite that far. One of the methods they are using now that Cook talks about in that video I posted yesterday is that by refusing to build an Arabic medium university in Israel and making things as difficult as possible for Bir Zeit students, a lot of Palestinians go to Jordan and elsewhere to study, marry and settle there. For the time being these quiet forms of ethnic cleansing, coupled with ‘disengagement’, may satisfy the Zionists. They have shown a capacity for patience on this. If so, then Morris would not really have that much of a motivation, but still, the worse the original Nakba looks, the less of an atrocity whatever the next one will appear.

    Thanks for the link to the Beinin article. I’ll try to find time to read it, or reread it. I usually read the free articles in MERIP when they come out. Pappe mentioned that he was jumping ship in one of those Amsterdam lectures he gave in January that I linked to and I read somewhere that he’d accepted a job in Exeter the other day. He said something somewhere in the last couple of days that he would see if it was ‘possible’ for him to live outside of Israel. I certainly don’t blame him. I’d certainly feel uncomfortable living as a Jew in Israel, but then I wasn’t born there.

    Speaking of Pappe, he’s been saying that it’s a distortion to call the Nakba a nakba, because from his knowledge of Arabic, strictly speaking, a nakba is an agentless natural disaster, like an earthquake or something. I don’t know if its meaning is really that restricted. In any case, that’s what the victims call it and everyone knows what they mean.

  9. Hi Ernie, on your last point - the use of the term 'Nakba', there is a bit of discussion of that among Palestinians. This is for precisely the reason that Pappe mentions - that it removes the idea of human agency from the process.

    This is not just the agency of Israelis, but also the agency of Palestinians to resist and analyse what happened. Thus it is seen by some as a disempowering word.

    There's a good discussion of this in 'One event, two signs' by Ghassan Khadar.

    If nothing else this article shows the level of sophistication of Palestinian analysis of the Nakba. Israeli debate, by being caught up in the infantile 'Did it really happen?' argument seems miles behind.

  10. Thanks for that link, David, although there was an ‘s’ at the end that didn’t belong there, so if anyone reading this wants to follow it, the Hassan Khader article is at:

    As a matter of fact, though, I didn’t find that it illuminated the issue a great deal. He writes, ‘The backlash against the sign, nakba, offers proof that the Palestinian narrative has reached the age of maturity.’ But he doesn’t actually discuss the nature of the backlash or any debate about what a more appropriate sign might be. He himself objects to nkaba on the grounds that it seems to absolve not the colonisers, but the leaders of the Palestinian resistance, for the expulsion of 1948.

    Furthermore, he makes this puzzling statement, ‘What occurred five decades ago, apart from the human drama, was that Palestinian sovereignty over the land was violently wrested away and supplanted by a model for exclusive Jewish statehood.’ As far as I’m aware, Israeli was declared on the date of the withdrawal of the British mandate on 14 May 1948. Prior to the League of Nations Mandate, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire for quite some time. I’ve never heard of a period of Palestinian sovereignty over any part of Palestine.

    Anyhow, you mention a bit of discussion taking place among Palestinians. Do you have any links that address the issue more directly, and more recently than 1998?

  11. I too join Ernie is being in awe of yr reader who also had time to read Morris' book. I'm sorry to say I haven't had time to read anything of his though I have read a number of interviews in the media which convey his thinking well (too well, I'm afraid).

  12. Hi Ernie, sorry about the delay, I'm a bit of a hopeless correspondent. I found the interesting thing about the article precisely that the author did move beyond the blame game - while not absolving Israel of blame. He points out that the use of the term 'Nakba' accords to Palestinians the position of passive victims - then and through the repetition of the sign, now.

    There was an expolosion of articles and writing in 1998 with the anniversary. Following that, Salim Tamari has written some article(s) on the Nakba and its use in collective memory, as ahas Laleh Khalili. However, I'd be unsurprised if, with the intifada such discussion have gone into abeyance.

  13. David, I've had that Beinin article open in a browser tab for weeks. I hope to get around to it soon! I've tried googling those two names and haven't found anything relevant to the use of the term 'Nakba', although there were a few subscriber only links that I couldn't read. If you have a specific reference, that might be helpful, but please don't go to any serious trouble. It's just a casual interest for me. As far as I can tell most people remain content with the existing term and it's not a debate I want to buy into.

    Richard, thanks for dropping by. You must be crushed that Soros has lost his bottle. After reading his NYRB article, I can't see that it would have made a great deal of difference. His principal concern is US and Israeli 'national interests' and has bought into all the mythology about kidnappings and Hamas refusing to recognise Israel's existence, as opposed to 'right to exist', etc. Same as AIPAC. The thing was so inconsequential, I decided it wasn't even worth a blog entry.