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Benny Morris: 1948 - A book that can make a difference


Morris, Benny
1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, 524 pages

Rghtly or wrongly, Benny Morris is recognized by many as the dean of Israeli historians of the First Arab-Israel War. At least, it is true for English speaking readers. If so, his latest book should cause an upheaval in that field. This is not a dry academic issue about historiography of events that are past and irrelevant. The history and perception of that war is vital to an understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For that war, at least, we have to agree with William Faulkner, who said, "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past."

Since the 1980s, Israeli new historians have made much of the world look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of a single. "narrative." It states that the Arabs of Palestine were minding their own business in 1948, when they were attacked and expelled by superior Jewish forces for no reason whatever, according to a preconceived racist plan that was 'understood' if not put in writing or announced officially. A terrible historical injustice was done - "Ethnic Cleansing." Leaving aside for a moment whether real history can be written as part of a political polemic - Zionist or anti-Zionist, the real question is "What really happened?"

One new historian did more than anyone else to build that story by supplying facts. Benny Morris's book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee problem: 1948" seemed to provide the facts, the quotes and the indictment to prove the point. Not long ago, Morris published a revision of the original book. If anything, it strengthened the original case.

If an Israeli wrote that it is so, then outsiders could hardly argue. If Benny Morris claimed that Ben Gurion wrote "We must expel the Arabs and take their place," we can hardly blame Sari Nusseibeh for quoting it. However, Ben-Gurion never wrote any such thing, and in fact had written the opposite.

The Benny Morris version (as told in Classik Comix summaries and excerpts by Ilan Pappe and others) of the creation of Israel became orthodox dogma: The accepted "narrative" in much of academia, especially in Europe. In a period when facts and evidence were discarded by post-rational "historians" in favor of "narratives," Morris, with his copious references and seeming balance, appeared to provide a respectable bridge that could convince even the despised pedants who insisted on silly things like proof and data.

Morris is always convincing and authoritative, though he is often argues both sides of a point convincingly. On his book about the Palestinian refugee problem, he wrote that there was no plan to expel the Arabs. But the next paragraph or a previous paragraph made it clear that he believes that there was a Zionist plan to expel the Arabs. He states that there was no Zionist transfer ideology, but offers evidence that there was. Over and over, he contradicted himself. Perhaps he was really struggling to find the truth, but it confused his readers. Harry S Truman remarked:

"No two historians ever agree on what happened, and the damn thing is they both think they're telling the truth."

But what can one do when faced with a historian who doesn't even agree with himself?

At some point in his career Benny Morris must have had an apotheosis, like Paul on the road to Damascus, but he will not admit it. He has long since renounced the "post-Zionist" narrative in numerous articles, interviews, lectures and letters, but he always insists that he has never changed his mind. For example (from Benny Morris tears apart Walt and Mearsheimer):

...it is true that Israel's troops, and especially its officer corps, have always been of a far higher caliber than the Arabs' counterparts; and it is true that the motivation of Israel's troops--often with their backs to the wall--has generally been superior to that of their Arab foes. But this is still a far cry from implying, as Mearsheimer and Walt do, regarding the war in 1947-1949, that Israel won its wars because "the Zionists had larger, better-equipped" forces than the Arabs.

But Professors Walt and Mearsheimer can justifiably protest that it was Benny Morris himself who implied repeatedly that the Zionists had larger and better-equipped forces, especially, but not only, in 1948. The Jews, according to Morris (in different books) had 100,000 troops under arms, or 25,000 troops at the start of hostilities, or 35,000. A veritable Juggernaut, whereas the Arabs had only about 10,000 or 20,000 troops or whatever. He also asserted falsely that experts were all agreed that the Jews would win the war.

"all observersóJewish, British, Palestinian Arab, and external Arab--agreed on the eve of the war that the Palestinians were incapable of beating the Zionists or of withstanding Zionist assault. The Palestinians were simply too weak

(Morris, Benny (2004), The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK p 33). Can we really blame Walt and Mearsheimer? However, a CIA report had insisted that the Palestinian Arabs would beat the Jews even without the help of the Arab states The Consequences of Partition of Palestine - CIA Report. Morris himself had quoted George Marshall warning the Jews that they would lose the war.

Almost all the old Benny Morris is erased and effaced in "1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War." Morris states flat out, at last, with a minimum of hedging (considering that it is Morris), that there was no plan for expulsion of the Arabs of Israel, that Plan D, was not a plan for expulsion of the Arabs, and that the "Zionist" forces were absurdly deficient in manpower, equipment and training on the eve of the Arab invasion. He documents numerous cases in which tiny forces of Jewish defenders held off battalions of the Egyptian army, such as the battles of Negba and Yad Mordechai. He cites the CIA study which predicted Jewish defeat. He reminds his readers, though a bit elliptically, that the leader of the Palestinians, the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al Husayni was a Nazi. He makes it clear that the Arab war was motivated by a Jihad ideology and that the Arab states, despite the fuzzy nature of their goals and divisive conduct of the war, would have destroyed Israel had they been able to do so.

Some of the difference from previous accounts is due to the fact that Morris has now given a large part of the other part of the picture that he omitted in his earlier books about the Palestinian Arab refugees. There are always two sides to any "narrative." If you tell the story of World War II and leave out the part about Hitler being a Nazi, it looks very different.

In many cases, however, Morris actually contradicts his own earlier conclusions in this book, though he never has the grace to say "I was wrong," and being Morris, he always hedges his conclusions. He reveals that at the start of the Arab invasion the supposedly numerous and superior Haganah numbered 16,500 combat troops in total. This too is probably an exaggeration. This number must be compared against over 20,000 invading troops of the Arab armies, plus the ALA and an unkown number of irregular Palestinian troops. The Arab armies had tanks, artillery and aircraft. Israel had none. What happened to the earlier estimates, which "proved" the superiority of the Zionists? Morris compared apples and pears in his earlier books.

The 25,000 or 35,000 Haganah troops that Morris cited earlier included trainees, office personnel, home guard troops and headquarters staff, as against the entire invading force of the Arab armies - all active combat troops. Even the Haganah/IDF "combat" troops included a lot of older people who were untrained and would never have been in any regular army, such as those sent to relieve the old city of Jerusalem, and immigrants who could not even speak Hebrew, such as those sent to fight at Latrun.. Morris reminds himself at last, though only at the end of the book, that there were Jewish refugees as well, created by an Arab plan that was put into action even before the start of the war. There were also Jewish Palestinian refugees, since no Jews could live in any area conquered by the Arabs. The Jews were evicted, but they were absorbed instead of being put in camps. He puts the blame for the Palestine refugee problem on the Arab states, which refused to absorb them, in contrast to the tremendous efforts made by Israel to absorb Jewish immigrants.

Morris still hasn't given up on the numbers game, since he insists that the Arab states had "only" 65,000 troops in Israel and the Palestinian areas at the peak of the war, while the IDF had over 100,000 troops by the end of the war. Once again, he is comparing Arab active combat troops - an expeditionary force - to total numbers of enlisted Israeli troops, including office staff, home guard and trainees. He also wastes a lot of paper explaining that the Arab aircraft and armor were in poor repair. Since he also tells us that at the start of Arab invasion the Israelis were helpless against Arab air attacks because they had no combat aircraft and no anti-aircraft guns, he should have reached the obvious conclusion from his own data. The Arabs had enough aircraft to bomb Tel Aviv. The Jews had none. As in earlier books, the colorful but marginal Joseph Weitz and his fatuous "transfer committee" are given quite a bit of space by Morris. He neglects to note, as he had done earlier, that this "transfer committee" was never given any official status. Morris as always, always has to take a gratuitous snipe or two at the mythical "conventional Zionist historiography."

Morris being Morris, we may also have some anxiety that the "Arab quotes" in his current book might be just as bogus as some of the "Zionist quotes" of his earlier books. He doesn't resolve or even really address the claims of many, including Arabs, that Arab leaders had called on Palestinian refugees to leave Palestine and make way for the Arab armies. Sometimes he also seems to "round off corners" in favor of the Jewish side, just as he sometimes does (and did) so for the Arab side. In many cases, he also seems to tell the same story quite differently than he did in his earlier books, with no explanation. That does not inspire confidence.

Morris's history is comprehensive but not complete. He misses some issues entirely and seems to blur or dismiss some others. Morris quite often starts a story in the middle, so it is impossible for the uninformed reader to understand the motivations for an Israeli or Arab action. For example, the Israeli Operation Kilshonwhich thrust into Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem looks like naked aggressive opportunism as does the conquest of the Katamonim. But the story reads differently if you learn that these Arab neighborhoods and the British army camps (manned by Arab legion) were the source of repeated attacks and attempts to conquer Jewish neighborhoods.

Morris is not as tendentious as many historians of the 1948 war. He did not title his book, "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine," nor did he call it "Zion redeemed." But Morris is tendentious, and confusingly, as noted, he is often tendentious in opposing directions. There was a Zionist plot to evict the Arabs, there was no plot, there was a Zionist "transfer ideology" or, as he tells us in this book, transfer was not ever a part of Zionist ideology.

Morris has not entirely decided between writing history and writing narrative. In some of his earlier books he generated a kind of pro-Palestinian "narrative," omitting some vital facts, "touching up" a few quotes here and a few events there to obtain an effect. It looked like solid history, but it was not quite that. In this book and in Righteous Victims, he seems to have had more respect for balance and fact, but the "narrative" strain still creeps in.

Morris's book should not be compared to the efforts of people like Ilan Pappe, or Avi Shlaim who write "narratives" or polemics. As post structuralists point out, there is no hierarchy among narratives. My personal version is as true for me as your personal version is for you. They are therefore incapable of being falsified. This has a great advantage for anyone who wants to market an expedient and simple story to compete with the truth. If all history is narratives, then the Margaret Mitchell version of the Civil War can become valid history along with Bruce Catton, and "The Empire Strikes Back" is as valid a narrative as "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." But historiography went beyond the narrative a long time ago. Thucydides, however imperfect, marked the separation of the "narratives" of the epic poems and the Bible from history, and since then, they should have stayed separate and grown farther apart.

Recording of history, while not always perfect, has to be based on facts that can be verifiable or falsifiable, and must be evaluated accordingly. History is not written to be an edifying tale but to tell what happened. Narratives have some truth value as records that include historical events. They are not all myth. Moreover, as records of what groups believe that they believe, they have historical value in themselves.

A narrative is not even what one person or collective remembers of history -- their part of the "Rashomon." It is what you tell the judge and yourself in order to justify your actions in the bar fights of history, regardless of what you know is really true. "Your honor, I was standing there minding my own business, when first thing I know..." It has people in white hats on one side and people in black hats on the other. A narrative is what you want your children to believe about you and about their ancestors.

For one person, a narrative can be a coherent story of what they felt and what they saw and why they acted as they did, even if it is not entirely true. For a collective, a narrative must be a fiction, because different people acted in different ways for different reasons or for no reason other than the unpredictable irrationality of human behavior. Some Zionists were leftists and opposed to transfer or expulsion of Arabs. Some favored it. Some Israeli soldiers were kind to Arabs. Some were mean and sadistic, either by nature, or because they had just had a very bad day. A lot of people were having quite a few bad days in Israel around May of 1948. From their point of view in their narrative, each side is "right" and each side has justice on its side. Perhaps history should not be used to make such judgments, but we have to agree that only one set of facts actually happened. In the real world, Ben-Gurion never wrote to his son, "We must expel the Arabs." It certainly wasn't an authentic part of the Palestinian narrative in 1948, since they had no way of knowing about it even if it had happened.

But narratives are not history and the fashioning of narratives is not historiography. There is a gulf between the most careless history and the best intentioned narrative that cannot be bridged. There can be an infinity of "alternative narratives" about history, but in actual history, only one set of infinitely complex events happened. It is the difficult business of writers of history to provide as complete and veridical picture as possible of that set of events. "Alternative" histories are still waiting to happen in the alternative universe and are useful only as amusement.

The last chapter of "1948" is somewhat odd. It is a "conclusion" that brings into evidence facts, quotes and themes that are not mentioned earlier, and that would have illuminated some of the earlier events. Bellicose statements of Arab leaders on the eve of the war appear for the first time. Suddenly ("meanwhile, back at the ranch") we are told about the persecution and expulsion of Jews from Arab lands that had begun before the war even started. It is as though Morris wrote a manuscript by hand, and then decided there were important things missing from it. That problem should have been solved with word processor software, and much of the last chapter should have gone into the body of the book. The last chapter reads like a halting attempt, in fits and starts, to fashion the war "story" into a "Zionist narrative." It is valuable however, because it allows Morris to make some definitive summary statements. Some of those conclusions belong properly to history. Some of them belong to political and polemical debates about "Who was right?" While that may not be, from the purist's point of view, a legitimate concern of history, it is naive to suppose that a book of this sort would not be grist for the mills of polemicists. From the pragmatic point of view, it was wise for Morris to explain what Morris thinks it all means, rather than leaving it to others to use his work to defend their sometimes very peculiar views.

Benny Morris has made quite a journey, even if he won't admit it. When all is said and done, the picture he presents of 1948 is quite a lot closer to what many of us thought happened in 1948 than the caricatures of the New Historians or the fatuous heroics of books like Exodus and some of the early Zionist historical accounts of the war.

Morris did not travel on his journey alone and unassisted, though to audiences who read only English it may seem so. The "New Historians" provoked a counter-reaction, most which was more nuanced, more specialized and more thoughtful than the high profile and simplistic arguments made by people like Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim. Historians like Yoav Gelber and Anita Shapira, neither of whom get enough attention abroad, have dealt in a serious way with the events of the 1948 war, with the questions about Zionism raised by New Historians and post Zionists, and with the problems of historiography. Changes in academic disciplines usually come about not because one person changes his or her mind, but because a different group or new generation casts the issues in a different form.

But make no mistake, Morris writes history, and not narrative fiction or "faction" (a compound of fact and fiction - the label is equally useful for factional polemics) Morris's "1948" is not "narrative." It is not the Aeneid of the Palestinian Jews or the "Gone with the Wind" of the Palestinian Arabs. This book, like all of Morris's other works, must be, and deserves to be, judged according to the objective criteria applied to history.

While this may not be the best possible book about the 1948 Arab Israeli War, it is probably the best comprehensive history we have now in English. It takes a giant step forward in presenting to English reading audiences of a new generation a more authentic, nuanced and balanced picture of "what really happened." If you are interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict at all, this book is a must read. For those who are just looking for spurious "evidence" and "talking points" to support an anti-Israel "narrative," this book still provides some interesting materials, just as it now provides fuel for one-sided Zionist advocates. Any reasonably balanced account can be deconstructed to suit the purposes of polemics. So if you are a fanatic, don't worry, you will get your money's worth and you won't have to change your ideas. For those who respect Morris as the dean of historians of the Israeli War of Independence (AKA First Arab Israeli War or 1948 Arab Israeli war) this book should change the perception of the "narrative" of this key event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the understanding of what the conflict is really about and what Zionism is.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 1 Comment

A point well put; the book is not quite in either category, history or narrative, and combines elements of both.

You say "It is the difficult business of writers of history to provide as complete and veridical picture as possible of that set of events." But the challenge is far more to do with "what is the whole truth?" than with "what is true?". The choices historians make concern which facts to select or omit from an infinite supply of facts, and also in what order and with which words to present the selected facts (for any such choice will be "read" a certain way, even if unintended - so they would do well to think carefully about what the reader will take from their writing, not just about some pure notion of the "intrinsic content" of their writing). Indeed, moral judgments are usually inevitably conveyed in any writing. Thus "veridical" is more elusive a notion than you imply. Another example of this is that much history writing is about the motives of the involved parties, and this demands inferences, empathies, guesswork and assumptions from the writer; it is often impossible to deduce motivations with 100% certainty - historical events point to characters' motivations about as clearly as literature does.

Posted by Ilan @ 01/21/2009 05:11 PM CST

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