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Benny Morris and the Palestinian transfer bogeyman


What is behind the talk about transfer of Palestinians?

The specter of "transfer" - mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, is haunting public debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, transfer in any form is advocated only by the tiny Moledeth party headed by Benny Elon, and by the fanatic followers of Rabbi Kahanah. Moledeth advocates "voluntary" transfer without explaining how the unwilling Palestinians would be induced to "volunarily" leave. The Kahana-ites are willing to use force. Together, these groups might represent 5% of the Israeli electorate. The Israeli government has never announced any policy of transfer, and few Palestinians have left the West Bank and Gaza strip, even during the worst days of the violence and Israeli repressive measures it elicited. So why is everyone talking about transfer of Palestinians as though it is a fact and an integral part of Zionist ideology?

A poll showed taken early in 2002, at the height of the current violence, showed that only a minority of Israelis advocate transfer. No transfer has taken place since the start of the Intifada. Some Palestinians have emigrated due to the impossible economic and security situation and continuing chaos in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, despite claims of "ethnic cleansing" and transfer in Jerusalem and in all the occupied territories, and despite the ugly and pointless house demolition policy, more Palestinian Arabs live in Jerusalem and more Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza than have ever lived there before.

Nonetheless, the topic of transfer is a wonderful conversation piece for self-appointed right-wing super patriots and anti-Zionists. Some of the super-patriots advocate transfer as a wishful thinking solution that would create a state with a Jewish majority between the Jordan river and the sea. They would have their Greater Israel cake and eat it too. In order to legitimize the idea of transfer, they offer "proof" that transfer was always part of Zionist ideology, a "proof" that is based on bending history out of shape, a favorite occupation of extremists. Others simply want to project a macho image of a Zionist bogeyman, which they think will frighten Palestinians. The anti-Zionists, always anxious to show up Israel as a racist state, seize on these utterances as proof of the nefarious nature of the Zionist enterprise.

So it has come about that commentators of almost all persuasions treat transfer "ideology" as a part of Zionism, and assume that transfer of Palestinians in the current Intifada is either an accomplished fact, or an announced policy of the Israeli government. If it didn't happen yet, it is rumored to happen, it could happen, it is about to happen.

Benny Morris is one of the most surprising advocates of transfer ideology. Beginning with "Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1948," published in 1987, Morris has written several books and articles about the creation of the refugee problem in 1948 and related issues. In them, he carefully documented expulsions of Palestinians and massacres. He claimed that these were part of an unwritten policy. In his own books, especially in Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris was careful to say that there was no evidence of a coordinated policy of transfer and expulsion, though he might appear to contradict himself in successive paragraphs. He also documented the pleas of the Zionist leadership with the Arabs of Haifa to remain in Haifa. Not surprisingly though, the facts that Morris gathered were used by many to make a case against "racist" Israeli policy.

Morris surprised everyone not long ago in a lecture at Berkeley University, followed by interviews and articles in the Israeli and foreign press, in which he justified the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, tried to show that "transfer ideology" was always a part of Zionism, and claimed that the current crisis between Israel and the Palestinians might ultimately prove to be solvable only by transfer. His latest pronouncement on this issue appeared in an interview given in Ha'aretz newspaper on January 9th.

TIkkun Magazine was quick to provide readers of its email newsletter with a rejoinder by Professor Adi Ophir. Surprisingly, the rejoinder does not take issue with Morris's contention that transfer and expulsion were preplanned in 1948 and were part of Zionist ideology. Rather, Ophir chooses to fantasize that transfer is occurring or about to occur right now, and that this indicates a sickness in Israeli society. An anonymous hand at Tikkun, carries Ophir's message one step further, and claims that the transfer which they allege is occurring, indicates a fundamental flaw in "the Zionist vision."

Remember this old joke about Soviet Russia? Boris and Ivan are waiting in a long queue to get potatoes. Obviously, there will not be any potatoes left by the time it is their turn to be served.

"Wait," says Boris, "I have an idea."

He tacks up a sign that says "A fresh shipment of salami is being distributed at #27 October Revolution Boulevard." Immediately, the queue empties out as people rush off to get salami. Ivan congratulates Boris.

Boris says "Wait here."

Ivan says "Where are you going?"

Boris says "Didn't you hear? They are distributing salami at the Peasants and Workers Coop, Number 27 October Revolution Boulevard. I'm going to get some."

Reality is as absurd as humor. A small group of people invented an ideology that they attributed to Zionism and invented events that have not yet occurred, and some of them are now decrying both the imaginary events and the imaginary ideology that they themselves invented.

Morris presents no evidence that the initial flight of Palestinians was instigated under orders or as
part of a plan. Had transfer been part of the Zionist ideology, there surely would have been a general order, as well as specific orders for expulsion from the beginning of the Palestinian - Jewish war in January 1948. Instead, Morris says:

"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."

What does "projecting a message of transfer" mean? Was it a sort of aura that surrounded Ben-Gurion? Perhaps it was radiated by his unruly hair, which formed a sort of antenna of Ben-Gurion-thought. If there were no orders, it proves, according to Morris, that there must have been a consensus, so no orders were required. A Greek claims that telegraph wires discovered in archeological digs prove that the ancient Greeks invented the telegraph. A Jew counters that no telegraph wires were found in ancient Israel, proving that we had wireless. This is the logic of Morris's argument.

If "transfer" had been in the air, someone would remember it. Veterans of 1948 with whom I have spoken remember no such atmosphere of transfer. Transfer was always part of the ideology of revisionist Zionists and some labor party activists. However, it was not part of the official ideology of the labor-aligned political movements that supported the Haganah and the Palmach. The Mapam party, which made up about 20% of the electorate, supported a binational state. Rather, as the war developed, there was a resigned attitude that "in war you do what you have to do" and an unwillingness to ponder or discuss the ideological implications of what was happening.

The historical record bears out the subjective impressions. The Revisionist massacre in Deir Yassin was greeted with horror by the Zionist executive and by rank and file, and was held up as an example of how not to behave. As Morris documents, early in the conflict, Labor party leaders pleaded with the Arabs of Haifa not to leave. It is impossible for an objective observer to conclude from the record either that "transfer was in the air" or that it was part of mainstream Zionist ideology or that it was planned in advance. The policy that Arabs who left could not return grew out of the reality of the conflict, as did the orders for expulsion that were issued in specific cases such as Lod and Ramlah. In 1948, transfer, expulsion and population exchange were "standard operating procedure" in wars. The Czechs had expelled Sudeten Germans, and the Poles expelled Germans from East Prussia. The new states of Pakistan and India exchanged millions of citizens of the 'wrong' religion. Nobody concluded from this that Czech or Polish or Indian or Pakistani nationalism was inherently racist.

All the major examples of expulsion that were done under military orders come relatively late in the miltary campaign of 1948. About a third of the refugees had left by May 15, 1948 and perhaps half had departed by July 1948, but the first instance of mass expulsion by the IDF/Haganah occurred in Lod and Ramla in July of 1948, and Operation Hiram, mentioned by Morris in the interview, occurred in October 1948. In Beersheva, Safed Haifa and other towns, nobody expelled the Arab population. They left of their own accord. The flight and expulsion of the refugees was not due to a planned policy or an ideology. It occurred as a result of the conflict, and instances of expulsion were protested by the Mapam party and others in the Israeli government, as Morris documented in his books.

Even if we were to accept Morris's claim that there was a mass expulsion in 1948, or that it was part of Zionist ideology, it would hardly be justification for advocating transfer today. The United States was founded as a slave-owning society, and the fact of slavery was recognized in the constitution and in property laws. Nonetheless, nobody would use the history of slavery in the United States to justify the renewal of slavery today.

Adi Ophir, commenting on Morris, is disturbed about the possibility of transfer in the current phase of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He writes:

" To a certain extent, transfer is here as well. When Morris talks of expulsion, he is dreaming, so it seems, of the return of the trucks of 1948. But under the conditions of Israeli control in the territories today, transfer is being carried out slowly by the ministry of the interior, by the civilian authority, at airports and border crossings, by sophisticated means such as forms, certificates and denial of certificates, and by less sophisticated means such as the destruction of thousands of homes, and checkpoints, and closures, and sieges, that are making the lives of the Palestinians intolerable and leading many of them to try to emigrate in order to survive. "

There is, however, no evidence of a mass migration of Palestinians, and there is no evidence that there are less Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza strip than there were in 2000. Of course, the violence initiated by the Palestinians in September 2000 created terrible living conditions. People caught in the cross-fire of Israeli and Palestinian forces in Beit Jala fled their homes. People who are unable to get to work because of closures often left if they could. But the closures are the result of terror attacks, like the one perpetrated on January 14 at the Erez crossing. The relationship between closures and attacks is not accidental. The attacks have the aim of instigating the closures and disrupting Palestinian-Israeli economic cooperation. The attack on Erez in particular, was aimed at disrupting work at the joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial park in Erez. The Palestinian extremist groups, for their own ends, are creating their own motivation for transfer. That is hardly a function of anything that happens in Israeli society.

Professor Ophir claims that Morris "says what many are thinking but do not dare to say." However, poll after poll shows that transfer is supported only by a minority of Israelis, and even Morris asserts that he does not support it under present circumstances.

Morris seems to be saying at times that transfer was always part of Zionst ideology, but in this interview, he implies, correctly, that Zionists believed that a state could be established without a violent conflict:

"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."

In his rebuttal, Professor Ophir does not say anything at all about the relationship of transfer to Zionist ideology. However, an anonymous hand at Tikkun ignored Ophir's careful presentation and inserted their own "summary." They wrote:

"Adi Ophir, a professor at Tel Aviv University, argues that Morris' perspective is morally unacceptable and reveals some tragic flaws in the Zionist vision."

Morris did not say he supports transfer now, but Ophir says that not only does Morris favor it, but that the Israeli government is about to do it, and that Israelis support it. Ophir never mentions the Zionist vision, and never mentions any tragic flaws in the Zionist vision. That is added by Tikkun. We can see the anatomy of a rumor, of a blood libel. How the seed is hatched, and how each successive commentator helps it grow, until a virtual reality is created where none exists. The entire non-issue of transfer is based on successive distortion of facts and positions, of which Tikkun's editorializing was only the last stage.

If Tikkun is disappointed with the Zionist vision, they should come out and say so. They should not hide behind a supposed summary of what someone else wrote, when he didn't write it, nor should they hide behind the pious declaration that "Neither of their perspectives represents that of the Tikkun Community or of our editor Rabbi Michael Lerner:" If it is not the views of Tikkun, whose view is it? If it is not the Tikkun view, then Tikkun should explain what their view of Zionism really is. Are they prepared to join Benny Morris and others in the fabrication of history to "prove" that Zionism always advocated transfer? Do they exclude yourselves from this Zionism that supposedly advocates ethnic cleansing as part of its "vision," or are they prepared to say "Yes, we are monsters too?"

Tikkun's views on Benny Morris and transfer would not be so important if they were not representative of the general hysteria surrounding this issue. The Arab Association for Human Rights also issued an angry press release about transfer based on Morris's article and some statements by politicians. They generalized from the transfer of Palestinians beyond the Green line to the transfer of Israeli Arabs, and convincing themselves that "[T]he recent developments show that Israel’s security measures are not only aimed at the Palestinians from the Palestinian Authorities but at its own citizens as well." But there were no developments at all, only talk about transfer and demographics, and people convincing themselves that there were "developments."

Ami Isseroff

See also The Palestinian Refugees

Tikkun Newsletter - January 2004
Must Zionism Lead to Ethnic Cleansing?

Benny Morris vs. Adi Ophir

In a recent interview published in Ha'aretz, Israeli "new historian" Benny Morris considers the possibility that the problem with Ben Gurion is that he didn't finish the job by expelling all Palestinians in 1947-49. Long reviled by the Israeli Right, Morris' newest version of his work on the original expulsion of Palestinians reveals yet more details of Israeli atrocities against Palestinian civilians. Yet far from being shocked, Morris seems to justify the human rights abuses as historically necessary. In fact, since the beginning of the second Intifada Morris has increasingly identified with right-wing interpretations of the current reality even though his historical research continues to validate the perspective that Israeli actions between 1947-49 were far worse than most Jews have been willing to acknowledge.

Adi Ophir, a professor at Tel Aviv University, argues that Morris' perspective is morally unacceptable and reveals some tragic flaws in the Zionist vision. We've taken these two separate pieces and justaposed them to create a debate which is only in cyberspace but never took place face to face. Benny Morris has been a frequent contributor to Tikkun magazine. Adi Ophir is a member of the Tikkun Editorial Advisory Board. Neither of their perspectives represents that of the Tikkun Community or of our editor Rabbi Michael Lerner—which is true of most of what we print in the magazine and put on our website's "Current Discussions" section.

Survival of the Fittest
An interview with Benny Morris
By Ari Shavit
in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz 9 January 2004

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, that's completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book. They didn't 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. Two years ago, different voices began to be heard. The historian who was considered a radical leftist suddenly maintained that Israel had no one to talk to. The researcher who was accused of being an Israel hater (and was boycotted by the Israeli academic establishment) began to publish articles in favor of Israel in the British paper The Guardian.

Whereas 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 Israel. So that in the past two years citizen Morris and historian Morris worked as though there is no connection between them, as though one was trying to save what the other insists on eradicating

Both 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. Isn't Morris ever frightened at the present-day political implications of his historical study? Isn't he fearful that he has contributed to Israel becoming almost a pariah state? After a few moments of evasion, Morris admits that he is. Sometimes he really is frightened. Sometimes he asks himself what he has wrought.

He is short, plump, and very intense. The son of immigrants from England, he was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh and was a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement. In the past, he was a reporter for the Jerusalem Post and refused to do military service in the territories. He is now a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. But sitting in his armchair in his Jerusalem apartment, he does not don the mantle of the cautious academic. Far from it: Morris spews out his words, rapidly and energetically, sometimes spilling over into English. He doesn't think twice before firing off the sharpest, most shocking statements, which are anything but politically correct. He describes horrific war crimes offhandedly, paints apocalyptic visions with a smile on his lips. He gives the observer the feeling that this agitated individual, who with his own hands opened the Zionist Pandora's box, is still having difficulty coping with what he found in it, still finding it hard to deal with the internal contradictions that are his lot and the lot of us all.

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 Acre four soldiers raped a girl and murdered her and her father. In Jaffa, soldiers of the Kiryati Brigade raped one girl and tried to rape several more. At Hunin, which is in the Galilee, two girls were raped and then murdered. There were one or two cases of rape at Tantura, south of Haifa. There was one case of rape at Qula, in the center of the country. At the village of Abu Shusha, near Kibbutz Gezer [in the Ramle area] there were four female prisoners, one of whom was raped a number of times. And there were other cases. Usually more than one soldier was involved. Usually there were one or two Palestinian girls. In a large proportion of the cases the event ended with murder. Because neither the victims nor the rapists liked to report these events, we have to assume that the dozen cases of rape that were reported, which I found, are not the whole story. They are just the tip of the iceberg."

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 the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved.

"The 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 Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was a unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.

"That can't be chance. It's 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?

"Yes. 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. Carmel took this action immediately after a visit by Ben-Gurion to the Northern Command in Nazareth. There is no doubt in my mind that this order originated with Ben-Gurion. Just as the expulsion order for the city of Lod, which was signed by Yitzhak Rabin, was issued immediately after Ben-Gurion visited the headquarters of Operation Dani [July 1948]."

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 don't 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 1948. In the end, do you in effect justify all this? Are you an advocate of the transfer of 1948?

"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 don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can't 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, it's better to destroy."

There is something chilling about the quiet way in which you say that.

"If you expected me to burst into tears, I'm 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 don't think they felt any pangs of conscience, and in their place I wouldn't 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 cleanse' is terrible.

"I know it doesn't sound nice but that's 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.

"I 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 Palestine] was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war.

"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.

"That's what emerges."

And you take that in stride? War crimes? Massacres? The burning fields and the devastated villages of the Nakba?

"You 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 Bosnia, that's peanuts. In comparison to the massacres the Russians perpetrated against the Germans at Stalingrad, that's chicken feed. When you take into account that there was a bloody civil war here and that we lost an entire 1 percent of the population, you find that we behaved very well."

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."

I'm not sure I understand. Are you saying that Ben-Gurion erred in expelling too few Arabs?

"If 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 Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion—rather than a partial one—he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations."

I find it hard to believe what I am hearing.

"If 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 Gaza and within Israel itself."

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?

"If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential."

Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?

"The 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 Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."

Cultural dementia

Besides being tough, you are also very gloomy. You weren't always like that, were you?

"My turning point began after 2000. I wasn't 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 Camp David and what followed in their wake turned the doubt into certainty. When the Palestinians rejected the proposal of [prime minister Ehud] Barak in July 2000 and the Clinton proposal in December 2000, I understood that they are unwilling to accept the two-state solution. They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa."

If that's so, then the whole Oslo process was mistaken and there is a basic flaw in the entire worldview of the Israeli peace movement.

"Oslo had to be tried. But today it has to be clear that from the Palestinian point of view, Oslo was a deception. [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat did not change for the worse, Arafat simply defrauded us. He was never sincere in his readiness for compromise and conciliation."

Do you really believe Arafat wants to throw us into the sea?

"He wants to send us back to Europe, to the sea we came from. He truly sees us as a Crusader state and he thinks about the Crusader precedent and wishes us a Crusader end. I'm certain that Israeli intelligence has unequivocal information proving that in internal conversations Arafat talks seriously about the phased plan [which would eliminate Israel in stages]. But the problem is not just Arafat. The entire Palestinian national elite is prone to see us as Crusaders and is driven by the phased plan. That's why the Palestinians are not honestly ready to forgo the right of return. They are preserving it as an instrument with which they will destroy the Jewish state when the time comes. They can't tolerate the existence of a Jewish state—not in 80 percent of the country and not in 30 percent. From their point of view, the Palestinian state must cover the whole Land of Israel."

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. It's 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 doesn't leave much room for hope, does it?

"It's 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. I'm already fairly old, but for my children that is especially bleak. I don't know if they will want to go on living in a place where there is no hope. Even if Israel is not destroyed, we won't see a good, normal life here in the decades ahead."

Aren't 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 don't 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.

"You don't 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 yesterday's 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 don't see African terrorism in London, Paris or Brussels. The Germans killed far more of us than we killed the Palestinians, but we aren't blowing up buses in Munich and Nuremberg. So there is something else here, something deeper, that has to do with Islam and Arab culture."

Are you trying to argue that Palestinian terrorism derives from some sort of deep cultural problem?

"There is a deep problem in Islam. It's a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn't 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, it's not so important to discover why he became a serial killer. What's 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 don't believe that this solution will last. You don't 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. That's not to say that we don't need diplomacy. Both toward the West and for our own conscience, it's 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, wouldn't you say?

"I'm trying to be realistic. I know it doesn't 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?

"I think there is a clash between civilizations here [as Huntington argues]. I think the West today resembles the Roman Empire of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries: The barbarians are attacking it and they may also destroy it."

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 threatening the Rome of our time?

"Yes. The West is stronger but it's 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 Rome. They let the barbarians in and they toppled the empire from within."

Is it really all that dramatic? Is the West truly in danger?

"Yes. 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. It's 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 Europe in this place."

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 wasn't reasonable for it to succeed in 1881 and it wasn't reasonable for it to succeed in 1948 and it's 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. It's 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 it's 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. That's so You have pared it down, but that's correct."

Would you agree that this historical reality is intolerable, that there is something inhuman about it?

"Yes. But that's 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, that's terrible. It's far more shocking than what happened in 1948 to a small partof the Arab nation that was then in Palestine."

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 that's what really depresses and scares me."

Adi Ophir Responds
Genocide hides behind expulsion
Response to an interview with Benny Morris in the Ha'aretz supplement
Jan. 9, 2004

At some point in the interview, when the reader might think that Benny Morris has already said the most terrible things, he brings up, in passing, the extermination of the Native Americans. Morris contends that their annihilation was unavoidable. "The great American democracy could not have been achieved without the extermination of the Indians. There are cases in which the general and final good justifies difficult and cruel deeds that are carried out in the course of history." Morris seems to know what the general and final good is: the good of the Americans, of course. He knows that this good justifies partial evil. In other words, under specific conditions, specific circumstances, Morris believes that it is possible to justify genocide. In the case of the Indians, it is the existence of the American nation. In the case of the Palestinians, it is the existence of the Jewish state. For Morris, genocide is a matter of circumstances, that can be justified under certain conditions, all according to the perceived threat that the people to be annihilated represent to the people carrying out the genocide, or just to their form of government. The murderers of Rwanda or Serbia, that are standing trial today in international courts for their crimes against humanity, might like to retain Morris as an advisor.

The circumstantial justifications for transfer and for genocide are exactly the same: in some circumstances there's no choice. It is just a question of the circumstances. Sometimes you have to expel. Sometimes expulsion is not enough, and you must kill, exterminate, destroy. If, for instance, you have to expel, and those expelled insist on returning to their homes, there no choice but to eliminate them. Morris documents this solution in his book on Israel's border wars in the 1950s. A straightforward reading might lead one to think that he is describing the State of Israel's greatest sin: the sin is not that Israel expelled the Palestinians in the course of a bloody war, when the Jews faced a genuine threat, but that they shot to death anyone that tried to return to their homes, and would not allow the defeated refugees to return to their deserted villages and accept the new authorities, and be citizens, as they allowed the Palestinians that did not flee. But Morris the careful commentator offers a different interpretation from Morris the historian: there was no choice. Not then and not today. He suggests that we see ourselves as remaining for at least another generation in the cycle of expulsion and killing, ready at any moment to take the harshest measures, when required. At the present stage we have to imprison the Palestinians. Under graver conditions we will need to expel them. If circumstances require, and if the "general, final good" justifies it, extermination will be the final solution. Behind the threat of prison and expulsion lies the threat of extermination. You don't need to read between the lines. He stated it clearly in the interview. Ha'aretz printed it.

It would not be surprising if the Palestinians see in him an irredeemable enemy. For the Palestinians, Morris, along with the many Israelis who enthusiastically accept the logic of transfer and elimination, presents himself as the enemy against whom there is no choice but to fight to the death. "That the Israeli mentality," the concerned Palestinian will say, "there's nothing we can do about it. The Israelis are prepared to do anything in order to negate our presence in their surroundings. There is a problem in the depths of Israeli-ness. The sense of victimhood and persecution takes a central place in the culture of Jewish nationalism. The people standing opposite us are ready to give up the last moral restraints every time that they feel threatened, and they tend to feel threatened whenever they become more aggressive. You can never compromise with people like that. Every compromise is a trap. The Oslo agreements prove it." And indeed, Morris, with his words, creates the enemy with which one cannot compromise, exactly as the cages of occupation create the suicide terrorist with which one must not, and indeed, cannot any longer, compromise. When Morris speaks of the need for transfer, he is not describing something that already exists, but contributing to its creation. And not only transfer for the Palestinians. Morris suggests that Israelis should live out at least another generation chained to a the roof of a cage in which barbarians and incurable serial killers are imprisoned, and on the horizon he hints at an Armageddon: In the coming twenty years there could be a nuclear war here. Under such conditions there is something not quite sane about the decision to stay here. According to Morris' analysis (that uses the language of pathology only to describe the Palestinians, of course), Israel has become the most dangerous place for the Jewish people. If Zionism is motivated first and foremost by a concern for the national existence of the Jewish people, this analysis must lead sane people to emigrate from Israel and leave the people of the "iron wall" to continue alone on the path to their national collapse.

A war to the death, in which one is ready to shed any moral restraint, is the result of a sense of "no exit," not necessarily a real lack of alternatives. The logic of Morris' words creates a feeling of no exit for both sides. In his research, Morris is generally careful and responsible, even conservative, sticking to details while avoiding generalities. Morris the interviewee is a lousy historian and an awful sociologist. His generalities about "a problem in the depths of Islam," on "the Arab world as it exists today," and on "the clash of civilizations" are not the result of historical research, but a smokescreen designed to rule out any possibility of such research. His statements about Palestinian society as a sick society deny the fact that if there is sickness there, then the Israelis—soldiers, settlers, politicians, and intellectuals like Morris himself—are the virus. If the Palestinians are serial killers, Israel is the traumatic event that haunts the killer. And this is not because of memories of the 1948 catastrophe (the Nakba). It is not the victims of the Nakba who have turned into suicide terrorists, but their grandchildren, people responding to the current form of Israeli control of the territories. The trauma is what is happening today. On the day that Morris' words were published in Ha'aretz, the humanitarian coordinating organization of the UN in Palestine published a strong protest against harm to the civilian population of the old city of Nablus and the destruction of ancient buildings during the course of IDF activities in the city. One day a historian like Benny Morris will arise to document one by one the crimes committed in the course of operations like this one. For the time being, however, Morris himself is contributing to their denial, by discussing them in future tense. The cage whose establishment he calls for is already here, at least since April of 2002. To a certain extent, transfer is here as well. When Morris talks of expulsion, he is dreaming, so it seems, of the return of the trucks of 1948. But under the conditions of Israeli control in the territories today, transfer is being carried out slowly by the ministry of the interior, by the civilian authority, at airports and border crossings, by sophisticated means such as forms, certificates and denial of certificates, and by less sophisticated means such as the destruction of thousands of homes, and checkpoints, and closures, and sieges, that are making the lives of the Palestinians intolerable and leading many of them to try to emigrate in order to survive. Even if the number of new refugees is small for now, the apparatus that can increase their number overnight, is already working. The most frightening thing in this interview is not the logic of mutual destruction that Morris presents. The most frightening thing is that this logic is creeping into Ha'aretz and peeks out from the front page of its respected Friday supplement. The interviewer and editors thought it proper to interview Morris. They appreciate the fact that he has dropped the vocabulary of political correctness and says what many are thinking but do not dare to say. If there is a sick society here, the publication of this interview is at one and the same time a symptom of the illness and that which nourishes it.

Professor Adi Ophir teaches philosophy at Tel Aviv University

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Replies: 5 comments


you write:

"There is, however, no evidence of a mass migration of Palestinians, and there is no evidence that there are less Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza strip than there were in 2000."

I do, however, recall reports on large-scale Palestinian emigration, mostly of the educated middle class, and of its social consequences, such as the further radicalization of the entire Palestinian society. My own impression is that the Palestinian diaspora here, in Continental Europe, is growing with each day. I'd be very grateful for clarification.

Posted by Miranda @ 01/15/2004 10:32 PM CST

In reply to Miranda's letter, the clarification is in the continution of the very same paragraph:
Of course, the violence initiated by the Palestinians in September 2000 created terrible living conditions. People caught in the cross-fire of Israeli and Palestinian forces in Beit Jala fled their homes. People who are unable to get to work because of closures often left if they could.
Despite the loss of some of the intellectual elite - a process that started in 1992, there are more Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than there were in 2000. There are 3.7 Million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza according to the Palestine Authority - see Jerusalem Post, Jan 1 2004 http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid
In 2001, the total estimate was about 3.4 million. See http://www.pcbs.org/english/abs_pal/abs_pal3/tab16.htm.

So there are rumors of expulsion, and your "feelings" and so on, but the fact is, there is no expulsion. A relatively small number of intellectuals left, but that is not the result of any Israeli transfer policy.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Moderator @ 01/16/2004 09:52 PM CST

Mr. Morris is correct that 21st Century political correctness prevents people from seeing or accepting the truth. Population transfer has taken place all through human history. If Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then that means they were transferred from there at some point. And, if the Bible is the reference that justifies it being the Jewish homeland, then note how the Jewish people came to the land in the first place. G-d commanded them to kill or transfer the existing populations. Our modern political correctness has no true appreciation of human history. While the truth is often unpleasant and difficult, it is none the less the truth. Also, in perspective of some of the greatest tragedies (and atrocities) in human history, what may or may not have occurred in 1948 is mild in comparison. That sounds cold-hearted, but in many ways, history is cold-hearted. As Mr. Morris said, sometimes the choice is destroy or be destroyed. And I'm afraid that today's political correctness is leading the Jewish people to that point again.

Posted by Stephen @ 01/16/2004 10:03 PM CST

The difference between politics & history
There is a continuous process of exile of Christian Arabs from all of the Muslim Middle east & Palestine too. The reasons for it are in the nature of Muslim - Christian relations. There were 60.000 Christians in 1948 in Isael & 125.ooo now. The promientMuslims too send their children to study in Europe & to keep them out of trouble & fighting ( Arafat's wife & her family -for example ).But while Christians leave to stay, Muslims are biding their time & can return
so it is not transfer we are talking about.
Benny Morris is talking out of sheer desparation. Having no answer he is "realistically" delirious. He is not the only one exept that, not being historians, the others donot think in terms of rewriting history or repeting the past.
In 1948 the refugees had where to go - the West bank, Gaza, Lebanon & Jordan. Now the borders are closed & will not open - the Arabs also learn from history & from Benny Morris.
As to genocide as a solution B.M. is at fault as a historian. There is no proof of a mass genocide of the Kanaanites & there were plenty of digs in their sites. Israeli villages parallelled Kanaanite cities & gradually conquerred them. King David has taken Jerusalem & bought the Temple mount from Aravna the Jebusite whom it served earlier as a threshing site. He was spposed to have genosided him. The Bible was an orally preserved text untill it was written down hundreds of years later, & it may have tried to hide intermarriage with the Kanaanites & their absorbtion into Israel & Judea.
The USA could have arisen without mas killings & starving out of the Native Americans. It would have then 3% to 5% of them instead o just 1%. There was no necessity for it & certainly no Justification. They were not killed in Canada & they are a majority in Mexico.
We are condemned to making history instead of repeating it - as the historian would have us do.
The worst one sided compromise is better the the crimes BM justifies in the past & proposes for the future. There are two possibilities: Either the Palestinians will be impressed by the changes in the Middle East & stop terror & leave Sharon no choice but to deal. Or Sharon or whoever comes next in the Likud will impose minimal borders on the & fence them in.
There is no chance of the left returning to power without a previous change in Palestinian behaviour & then it will not be easy either

Posted by Mordechai Kafry, Kibutz Galon @ 01/20/2004 04:06 AM CST

thanks for the clarification, Ami

Posted by Miranda @ 01/26/2004 04:51 AM CST

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