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'New Historian' Shifts from Old View of Israel

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Benny Morris
Israeli Historian
Monday, March 12, 2007; 2:00 PM

Israeli "new historian" Benny Morris was online Monday, March 12, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his books and changing views that have driven him away from the critical perspective of Israeli history that he helped create.

Benny Morris, Veteran 'New Historian' of the Modern Jewish State's Founding, Finds Himself Ideologically Back Where It All Began (Post, March 11)

The transcript follows.

Morris is the author of eight books on Israel's founding, including "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1998" and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.

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Benny Morris: hi everyone

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Falls Church, Va.: I couldn't help but notice that in the news today, Israel has recalled its ambassador to El Salvador after he was found "bound, drunk, and nude" in downtown San Salvador. No real question here, but I thought you might find it entertaining.

Benny Morris: Well, this is what diplomats are supposed to do, entertain, and I hope Israel is doing its best to keep up its end.

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Stewartstown, Pa.: I can sympathize with the basic idea of Zionism: the creation of a Jewish homeland where Jews would not be in danger of persecution. But I don't understand the blindness of most Zionists concerning the Arabs. How could they be surprised at the Arab resistance to Israel's creation? In no other place in the world is it accepted that a people have an inherent right to establish a nation on land they possessed 2,000 years ago, regardless of the wishes of the majority of the present day inhabitants of the land. How then did the Zionists expect the Arabs to accept that Jews had a "right" to a nation in Palestine?

Benny Morris: I don't think the Zionists, by and large, at the end of the Nineteenth and in the early Twentieth century, were blind. They realized the land was inhabited (fairly sparsely: There were then 450,000-600,000 Arabs; today the country has a population of 10 million) but knew the Arab inhabitants at the time were not nationally conscious or minded; they grew so progressively from the 1920s on, under the impact of Zionism. And secondly, the Zionists truly believed they would bring progress and development to Palestine and that the Arab inhabitants, as well as the Jewish settlers, would benefit. Lastly, the Zionists looked around and saw that the Arabs had an enormous stretch of land from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf and thought maybe they would be generous and allow the Jews 0.0005 percent of that stretch for their homeland. They were, of course, wrong. So today we have 22 and a half Arab states and one Jewish states, and most Arabs believe they should have 23 states and the Jews none.

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Re: Churchill's recent revelations: It has been reported recently that Churchill said that some of the problems of the Jews were of their own making -- this said at the time when the Jews were being exterminated in the death camps. Did this sort of view spring from his upper-class milieu, where these feelings about the Jews were so prevalent at that time, or did Churchill's feelings go much deeper -- have some personal experience, perhaps?

Benny Morris: I assume Churchill shared the outlook, at least in part, of his class and milieu. But he was impressed by the Zionist settlers and enterprise (and Haim Weizmann) and traditionally was pro-Zionist and a philo-Semite, and had good Jewish friends. And he acted to promote a Jewish state, generally with consistency, from WWI until 1948 and by and large was 'friendly' to Israel in its first decade, during his second term as prime minister.

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Greenville, S.C.: The issue of "transfer" is never mentioned in the U.S. media, so I have a question regarding a Haaretz article from October 5, 2005, which stated that "some 46 percent of Israel's Jewish citizens favor transferring Palestinians out of the territories, while 31 percent favor transferring Israeli Arabs out of the country, according to the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies' annual national security public opinion poll."

Questions: (1) Where are the Palestinians supposed to be transferred to? (2) How is this transfer to take place? (3) What if no one outside of Israel wants them? (4) Is "transfer" a euphemism for genocide? Thanks.

Benny Morris: No, transfer is not a euphemism for genocide. The word traditionally was used in reference to a desire to move some or all of the Arabs out of the area that was to become a Jewish state (for example, the British royal commission, chaired by Lord Peel, in July 1937 proposed that Palestine be partitioned into two states, with the Jews receiving 20 percent of the country. The commission added that all or some of the Arabs should be transferred out of that 20 percent, to make it homogeneous and make space for Jewish immigrants. Their calculation was, as they formulated it, that a large Arab minority would destabilize the Jewish state and cause continuous trouble -- and that no peace settlement, without such a transfer, would last). This thinking, incidentally, was shared by many British officials and by Arab potentates, such as King Abdullah of Jordan and the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri as-Said.

But transferring, or forcibly expelling (one of the variants) a population gradually has lost its luster as a means of assuring stability and peace, and is regarded as immoral. But that of course leave us the problem of a disaffected and possibly rebellious, violent minority.

Opinion polls are unreliable and produce different results at different times. When Arab terrorism and violence in general is on the upsurge, I'm sure more Israelis favor kicking them out (either from Israel proper or the occupied territories); when terrorism decreases, few Israelis probably would support the idea.

In the 1930s the German minority helped to destabilize and ultimately destroy the Republic of Czechoslovakia, at Hitler's bidding. And when the Allies won, they expelled that minority, the Sudeten Germans, to Germany (and no one in Britain or the U.S. objected). It probably caused vast suffering, but since 1945 there has been no German minority problem undermining Czechoslovakia or European peace. The same occurred between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, and the expulsion and exchange of minorities resulted in lasting peace between two peoples who had been at each other's throats for centuries. It's worth keeping this in mind -- while opposing the idea of forcible expulsion on sturdy moral grounds.

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washingtonpost.com: Do you see a parallel between your father's "hawk" sensibilities after the partition refusal and your own experience with the second intifada?

Benny Morris: I don't know. My father, Yaakoiv Morrism began adult life as a Marxist and ended up drifting to the right when confronted with the persistent Arab rejectionism re: any compromise with the Jews.

I still believe and hope that a compromise based on two states is feasible, though it becomes daily less so as Arab rejectionism, under Hamas, the bin Ladens of this world, etc. deepens. And Israel's settlements in the occupied territories have done nothing to help (making the prospect of Israeli withdrawal that much more difficult -- though the withdrawal from and uprooting of the settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005 shows that such an uprooting still is possible).

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washingtonpost.com: Given your shift in views, would you change anything about your earlier works, or for that matter your decision to spend time in jail rather than in the Israeli military?

Benny Morris: The fact is I have changed nothing in my histories -- and my rewriting of "Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," originally published in 1988 and revised and expanded and published in 2004, I believe, bears little trace of changed political views. The revised story still is the product of what the documents tell us happened.

No, I wouldn't change my action -- jail -- in 1988 in protest against the occupation (or at least, in demonstrating my unwillingness to take part in it). But I definitely criticized those (handful of) Israelis who refused military service in the Second Intifada -- some of them going to jail -- because in my view that Intifada was, in effect, an assault on Israel's existence as well as against its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Each suicide bomber demonstrated, in microcosm, what he wanted as the fate of Israel, and bombers were cheered on by Palestinian society in general -- when one successfully exploded in an Israeli bus, there were street celebrations and the handing out of candy to passersby in Ramallah and Nablus.

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Washington:"In no other place in the world is it accepted that a people have an inherent right to establish a nation on land they possessed 2,000 years ago, regardless of the wishes of the majority of the present day inhabitants of the land."

Regarding an earlier posting -- my understanding is that those people driven by Zionism or some other reason purchased the land from the current inhabitants. Isn't that so?

Benny Morris: Perfectly true. Between 1881 and 1947, all of the land acquired by the Zionist movement was through purchase, almost invariably from Arabs (and sometimes from Arabs who, during the daytime, were loudly calling for the destruction of the Zionist enterprise). The German consul in Jerusalem in 1933 pointed this out in one of his dispatches -- that by daytime the Arab nationalist leaders damned Zionism and at night sold land to the Jews. All the leading families -- those who led the Palestinian Arab national movement, the Husseinis and Nashashibis and Budeiries and Khalidis, etc. -- sold land. This casts a giant question mark over the sincerity or depth of their "nationalism," and says something about Palestinian Arab nationalism during the 1920-1940s, as does the enormous number of Arabs ready to help Israel's security services or to actually, physically build the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1960s-1990s. All the settlements were built by Arab laborers.

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Westport, Conn.: Is a one-state Arab and Jewish nation acceptable to neither side? Wouldn't an inclusive, secular nation elevate both Israelis and Palestinians above the rank of clients always seeking powerful patrons to advance their cause? Why is the idea of a secular, bi- (or multi-) ethnic nation so disliked by all concerned?

Benny Morris: There is no such thing as an "Arab and Jewish nation." They are two different very different peoples or nations (different language, different religion, different history, different culture, different value system, etc.). What you are suggesting is that perhaps they could join together in one political framework, one state.

I doubt it, precisely because they are so different and also because they have this unfortunate 100-year history of conflict, which has left deep scars on each. The Zionists came to Palestine\the Land of Israel to re-establish a Jewish state, not to live in a state with Arabs or inevitably -- given Arab birth rates -- with an Arab majority. The Jews in the past 1,400 years have had the experience of living as a minority in a succession of Arab Empires and states -- and never enjoyed it. They always were second-class citizens -- discriminated against, often oppressed, occasionally massacred. If that was the only option offered, most Israeli Jews by far would prefer to emigrate to the West, where they would enjoy better lives in every sense (freedoms, prosperity, culturally, etc.). (Who in his right mind would prefer living in an Arab state? Indeed, many, perhaps most Arabs probably would like to move to Western Europe or North America; I haven't seen any Westerners seeking to move to Arab states (not that Arab states and societies would welcome Westerners moving in.)) But I think most Israeli Jews still want to live in a Jewish state, and where it is now, in their ancient land.

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Washington: The transfer of minority populations as a means to obtain peace has a checkered history. Wilson was convinced at Versailles that "irredentist" populations were the cause of WWI and sought to draw borders to prevent it -- he failed. The movements of people you mentioned earlier in the chat probably did less to preserve peace than other elements of European security, including the superpower polarity of the Cold War. Do you seriously believe it was the absence of the Sudeten Germans that prevented World War III? Whether or not it is either fair or practical, the voluntary mass movement of several million Arabs simply is not in the cards. The involuntary expulsion of Arabs -- or Jews -- as you say, remains one potential outcome of the hostilities. How would you rate the probabilities of each?

Benny Morris: You are right that a massive transfer of Arabs probably is not in the cards and is unrealistic -- unless the Middle East is overtaken by unimaginable cataclysms (like a nuclear war). And expelling Arabs would be immoral. But ultimately, if the Arabs persist in their rejection of a Jewish state, a massive expulsion of population -- Israel's Jews -- is a real (and immoral) possibility.

I disagree with your historical assertions. The fact is that the Greek expulsion of Turks from Thrace and the Turkish expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor (and Istanbul), and the regulated exchanges of population that followed, solved the two countries' main minority problems -- and they have not warred because of them since (except in Cyprus, where intermixed populations had remained in place). There was no Cold War/Superpower background then.

And the expulsion of all the German minorities in central and eastern Europe without a doubt helped pacify Europe (as did the prospect of mutually assured destruction).

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Philadelphia: This may be a naive question, yet when you mentioned the purchase of land: what if Israel says to the Arabs, you're right, this is your land, we'll buy it from you, and Israel provides some purchase price, perhaps in goods and services to Arab residents, and the land then belongs to Israel? I know many Arabs won't buy that, buy maybe a lot will? What do I know? You know better.

Benny Morris: The question -- at least as it relates to the past -- is one of depth of national commitment. The fact is that from 1881 to 1947 (and again in various places in the West Bank after 1967) Arabs sold land to Jews on a massive scale. Jews did not, would not and did not sell land to Arabs -- and this says something about Palestinian Arab "nationalism," at least at the time.

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Princeton, N.J.: I am 68 years old and I have been an unqualified supporter of the state of Israel since its founding. That doesn't mean I support the policies of every government of Israel. I regard each and every settler as a cancer on the body of the state of Israel. Forget the rabble of the Palestinians. The settlers are bad for Israel.

Benny Morris: Cancer is a strong word. Many Jews regard Judea and Samaria as their "heartland," the place Judaism and the Jewish people were born. (Would an America give up Virginia and Philadelphia and Boston if that served the cause of Peace?) They don't want to give it up, and settlement was the way they (and successive Israeli governments) sought to hold on to these territories.

But most Israelis, myself included, realize that these territories are inhabited by Arabs who also have a right to self-determination and do not want to live under a foreign military boot, and that peace between the Israelis and Arabs is only possible if Israel gives up the bulk of the territories (and, necessarily, uproots the settlements). It's a matter of practical common sense -- as well as, in part, justice -- though it is also "just" that a people should live in and rule the territory in which they were born as a people.

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Washington: I hope you read your transcript of this live discussion, because your racism towards Arabs shows. I have been closely observing the events in the Middle East for some years now, and Israel's racist attitude towards its neighbor states seems to be the root of all problems. If Israelis hate Arabs so much, why try to carve a homeland that is surrounded by Arab states?

Benny Morris: No, I don't think racism shows. Not at all. I think peoples are different (much as people are different) and they have different cultures and different scales of values. It may be politically incorrect to say this -- I'm sure you so regard it -- but it happens to be true. Not everyone is a Norwegian.

And that, incidentally, is one of the reasons for the failure of the neocon policy toward Iraq and the Arab world -- not everyone wants or appreciates democracy.

You can export democracy (the Allies did so successfully in Germany, Japan and Italy after World War II) -- but it requires a culture and society that is receptive. Iraqi society is not. I'm sure you will call this racism -- I prefer to call it common sense and realism.

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Wyckoff, N.J.: At the end of every academic year, millions of graduating university students in many countries throughout the world are (or know they will be) forcibly expelled without compensations from their dorm rooms or other dwelling places, which subsequently are occupied by others. Nobody complains about this. If compensation is on offer to those Arabs who left their dwellings in 1948, why the outcry?

Benny Morris: Because people like to live, or return to, the land they believe is theirs. Roots.

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Stewartstown, Pa.: In response to Washington's post above, I realize that Zionists purchased a great deal of land, but I have looked at maps that show the extent of Jewish owned land in Palestine in 1947, and the area is only a fraction of what became Israel. When I said "against the will of the present day inhabitants" I was referring to the fact that when the U.N. voted to partition Palestine, the majority of the people of Palestine were Arabs who did not want the land to be partitioned, yet Israel was established anyway and came to encompass far more than the Zionist-owned land of 1947. There is a huge difference between buying land and establishing a sovereign nation on that land. Ted Turner owns thousands of acres of land in the U.S. and no one has a problem with that, but if he declared his land to be an independent nation, the U.S. government and most Americans vehemently would object and argue that he did not have a right to do so.

Benny Morris: I don't know about Turner. And you're right -- the Jews owned about 7 percent of Palestine's land surface in 1947. But the Arabs owned only about 30 percent -- the remainder was state land (if you like, Ottoman lands that reverted to the British Mandate Government and, in 1948, to the successor states: Israel, and in smaller measure Jordan).

But the whole subject of property ownership is a red herring. The U.N. -- the world community -- in 1947 confronted a political (not proprietary) problem and decided that the Jews deserved a (very small) country of their own and the Arabs had enormous countries that were theirs. The Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states rejected the U.N. resolution (General Assembly Resolutiuon 181, of Nov. 29, 1947) and launched a war to destroy the Jewish state. But the Jews won -- and expanded their territory from the 6,000 square miles earmarked by the resolution to 8,000 square miles. This has nothing to do with who privately owned what plot of land.

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Princeton, N.J.: But practically no Jews lived in the West Bank before they were enticed there by the government with offers of money and dwellings.

Benny Morris: Sure, the government did some enticing and settled Jews on state lands. But Jews -- the government and private groups -- also bought land from Arabs, and the Arabs sold land (and houses in Jerusalem, etc.).

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San Francisco: Despite all the talk of possible Israeli compromise on the West Bank territories, would I be wrong to say that there has been a continual extension of settlements and related infrastructure, such as roads, that basically negates (and is meant to negate) future compromise?

Benny Morris: Yes. The settlements steadily have expanded as has the road network, and this makes a two-state settlement that much more difficult to attain.

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Falls Church, Va.: In response to your earlier answer, "They are two different very different peoples or nations (different language, different religion, different history, different culture, different value system, etc.) ... The Zionists came to Palestine-the Land of Israel to re-establish a Jewish state, not to live in a state with Arabs"

Mr. Morris, isn't this precisely the reason why Israel cannot regard itself as to be both a Jewish and Democratic state when 20 percent of its citizens are a minority and only have equal rights on paper? Your statement that Arabs have a different "value system" really makes one think that you do not see them as equal and therefore feel they do not deserve to be treated with the same equality and respect that you give Israel's Jewish citizens, to say nothing about the Palestinian Refugees or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. How can the Palestinians find a partner for peace when it seems clear that many Israelis don't even treat their Palestinian Arab citizens with the same equality in its own state?

Benny Morris: It's not true that the Israeli Arabs enjoy rights only on paper -- they have all the basic rights of citizenship (voting, to say what they like, to be elected to parliament, etc.) and attendant services (social benefits, medical care). Indeed, Israel's Arabs enjoy more and better basic rights than Arab citizens in any Arab country.

It also is true that they suffer from certain discrimination, but some of it is inbuilt into the situation -- they do not serve in the army (thereby gaining three years in which they can earn money, which Israeli Jewish conscripts lose) and they lose certain benefits that accrue to army veterans. Given the continued state of war between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs (and much of the surrounding Arab world -- and the Israeli Arabs see themselves as part of this Palestinian people fighting Israel) it is only natural that they are regarded by many Israelis with some suspicion (a potential Fifth Column? Possible terrorists?). They also are not given entry into many industrial concerns (which produce weaponry or parts of weapons -- many if not most Israeli industries do work for the defense establishment.). So an Israeli Arab engineering graduate often finds difficulty in finding a job. This is discrimination -- but it can't be helped, it's built into the situation.

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Tampa, Fla.: You pointed out how the early Zionists bought land from Arab landowners. Can Arabs buy land from Jewish landowners? Or does Israeli law prohibit this?

Benny Morris: Certain land cannot be bought by Arabs -- JNF land. Other land can be.

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Reality, U.S.: I am Jewish. Isn't it true that the same resolution making Israel a State required a Palestinian State with its capital in East Jerusalem? Yes or no? Because the answer is yes, I think we need to get after the closing of all -- as in 100 percent -- of the settlements in the West Bank, and give the Palestinians East Jerusalem as their nation's capital. Jews are not allowed to hold another race in bondage, and we have been since 1948.

Benny Morris: It's untrue. U.N. resolution 181 of November 1947 earmarked all of Jerusalem (and Bethlehem) as an international area, a corpus separatum not part of the Jewish or Arab states. But in the course of the 1948 war, Israel took over the western half of the city, and the Jordanians the eastern half (as well as the West Bank). The Jordanians did not allow the Palestinian Arabs to establish a state of their own and annexed the area. In the 1967 war Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem and, in turn, would not allow the Palestinians to establish a state there. But in the year 2000 Israel (and the U.S.) offered the Palestinians just that -- and they refused and, as in 1947, went to war (the Second Intifada). They have mainly themselves to blame if they have no state.

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Washington: The Palestinians have used terrorism against civilians as their tool of expression. Do you think they would have achieved more or had more sympathy from the world had they (like Dalai Lama and Tibet) used only nonviolent means?

Benny Morris: They would have achieved less. Look how far the Dalai Lama has gotten in freeing Tibet by non-violent means.

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Benny Morris: Many thanks for the questions.

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