Benny Morris Has His History Wrong

Israeli historian Benny Morris. (Photo: via MEMO)

By Nicholas V. Barney

Last week, US Representative Rashida Tlaib was accused by Israeli historian Benny Morris of “deploying deliberately imprecise language” and relying on “origin myths” in her depiction of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s history. Not only that, but Morris claimed Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, simply had “her history wrong.” 

Like all pro-Israel commentators, towards the unimplied and plainly unspoken Morris pretends a sharp ear. On May 10, Tlaib spoke to ‘Skullduggerypodcast’ about the aftermath of Israel’s official 1948 United Nations-sanctioned founding to the present day, an interval which has left the Jewish state holding nearly half of all UN Resolutions (45.9%), a looming investigation into crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, a 2014 war in Gaza that killed more Palestinian non-combatants and children than it did soldiers, and a displacement of 7.2 million indigenous Palestinians that makes their demographic one out of every three refugees worldwide.

Tlaib shared what thoughts help her personally allay the UN-acknowledged pain and suffering of the Palestinian diaspora and humanitarian crisis, of which she is a descendant. See if your ear is as keen as Morris’s and the rest of the mainstream media.

Here’s what the historian quotes of Tlaib: 

“When she remembers the Holocaust, it has a “calming” effect on her to think that “it was my ancestors, Palestinians, who lost their land, and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity; their existence in some ways had been wiped out … all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post the Holocaust, post the tragedy and horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.” She was, she said, “humbled by the fact that it was [my Palestinian] ancestors that had to suffer for that to happen.”

Anyone with a grasp of history and the endlessly propagated origin myth of Israel’s birth cleanly out of the Holocaust knows what Tlaib is saying. (Not to mention anyone with a sense of the Western-dominated Christian ethic of suffering and turning the other cheek, preached and practiced incidentally by 20% of Palestinians).

The 70 years of conflict since Israel’s 1948 charter, the loss of Palestinian life and dignity through the present day where children (whom I hope don’t need the “non-combatant” clarification) as young as 8 are detained by the IDF, and events during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that Benny Morris’s fellow Israeli “New Historian” Ilan Pappe and the late Israeli General Yigal Allon have called “cleansing” of the Palestinian people by Israel (Pappe specifies it as “ethnic”) – at least all of this suffering, violence, and illegal displacement that the Palestinians have had to and continue to endure, was and is done “in the name” of creating a safe haven for the Jewish people “post the Holocaust.” As, indeed, every UN and internationally-condemned, illegal seizure of Palestinian land by Israel post-1967 has certainly been done in the name of “security,” a justification that doesn’t past muster with International legal bodies or Israel’s own press, which is at times very critical of it’s own country’s expansionist policies.

Only a lucky few have seemed to grasp the meaning of Tlaib’s statement. Morris is not one of them. Though when you conduct your work in an echo-chamber where illegal land thefts, warrantless and chargeless detentions of civilians, and one Palestinian on average killed by the IDF every 3 days does not count as suffering, it’s not surprising that Tlaib’s statement has been so mangled. 

The inference by Morris and the rest of the media that have instead chosen to, admittedly with some creativity, treat Tlaib’s clear statement as a Rorschach test for their own prejudices against the Social Studies deficient Palestinians, is that Representative Tlaib is claiming her indigenous ancestors sacrificed and “wiped out” their own lives in the midst of the Holocaust in order to create a safe haven for Jewish refugees. Though many news-sites have run with just such a headline, this inference is not obvious, has never been an “origin myth” of Israel’s founding, and took quite a bit of self-stupefying effort to arrive at personally. 

To achieve it, you have to suspend a few critical, nullifying questions: to whom would the Palestinians have had to wipe out their own lives to make room for Jewish refugees? Their colonial British overlords who ruled them at the time and turned their own Anglo backs on Jewish immigrants in the 30s and 40s? Also, why?

Is Tlaib referring to some collective suicide and self-flagellation undertaken by Palestinian to make room in the territory for Jews? Why would a loss of human dignity need to accompany such an altruistic mass exodus for the sake of newly arrived immigrants that, not having sovereignty over their country, Palestinians couldn’t control the influx of anyways? Could Tlaib really be this dumb? Or, perhaps, did historian Benny Morris get her statement dead wrong?

No matter. As a historian, Morris is quick to catch his misinterpretation of Tlaib’s statement missing in the historical record. So he counters with a historical imprecision of his own based on the same Holocaust origin myth as Tlaib, and then does what Tlaib did not do – gets his history plain wrong: 

“…the historical reality was quite different from what Tlaib described: The Palestinians indirectly, and in some ways directly, aided in the destruction of European Jewry.” 

There is a sense that, in the world of untruths about Palestine, whitewashed origin myths about Israel, and declining support for the Jewish state amongst the young and especially young Jews, this untruth propagated by Morris wants desperately to get a go at the vulnerable, moral stragglers.

Not only are all Palestinians culpable for their own occupation, for the separation wall built with West Bank stone and West Bank hands, and for any form of resistance to colonial and Apartheid conditions (most popular among them non-violent protests of the variety that broke Jim Crow and South African Apartheid), but now they are culpable for the Holocaust as well. 

But the usage of “Palestinians” (plural) as opposed to “a Palestinian” (singular) never delivers on its promise or makes anything resembling a justification for its plural form, as historian Morris proceeds to name in the entirety of his article exactly one Palestinian, Muhammad Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had any direct contact and collaboration with the Nazis. (Al-Husseini also never set foot in Palestine again after 1937). 

Of course, in the process Morris fails to mention former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s own attempted coordination with the Axis powers during World War II, in order to launch attacks and espionage against the British in Palestine for their strict immigration policies and general reluctance to turn the sovereignty of a territory of indigenous Arabs over to a minority of European Jewish immigrants.

Missing too is the fact that 60% of all investment in Jewish Palestine from 1933-1939 came from Nazi Germany, both of which have been documented extensively by Jewish historian and activist Lenni Brenner and exist in the public Israeli record. (Dare we consider this as directly or indirectly aiding in the destruction of European Jewry under Morris’s own loose metrics, and employ Zionist/Israeli in the plural form?) 

To recognize these facts, Morris and the rest of the pro-Israel consensus would of course have to dispense with their own “origin myths,” quite diplomatically accommodated by Tlaib in her statement, and acknowledge the three-and-a-half decades of Zionist gestation and presence in Palestine starting as far back as 1898, several decades before the date and genocidal events claimed as the state’s birth.

To be aware of this history is to understand that Palestine did not “emerge” as the only Jewish “safe haven” during World War II, as Morris would have it, but was the favorite destination of the over half a century concerted effort of Zionist colonists, who previously considered Uganda and Madagascar. 

The Zionist push for a homeland in Palestine was long resisted by the British who, like America, are somehow recused from the guilt of refusing Jewish refugees and the culpability of Morris’s searching finger by the foisting the problem of Jewish refugees upon a colonial territory of Arab tenant-farmers without sovereignty or self-determination.

Morris jockeys the long-trodden myth that immigration to Palestine was a unanimous decision amongst European Jewry, when in fact the first and arguably the strongest continued resistance to Zionism and the state of Israel has been led by Jews and subsequent Israelis who have missed the prevention of the state and conflict by a few generations.

From the Labor Bund Party that fiercely resisted Zionism and argued persistently that Jewish identity existed in diaspora throughout WWII and its aftermath, to intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, Yosef Grodzinsky, Thomas A. Kolsky, Yakov M. Rabkin, to Jewish-run pro-Palestinian news outlets like Mondoweiss, or the Boycott From Within, an affiliate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) run by what little remains of the Israeli Left. 

Ignoring this period ignores with it the Zionist policy of Conquest of Labor presaging by decades the founding of Israel, which segregated workplaces in the Palestinian territories from Arabs, periodically prevented Jewish business owners from employing Palestinian labor with violence and enforced a boycott upon Jewish immigrants of Palestinian products. It’s a violent boycott history that pro-Israel factions certainly don’t want interfering with their public smear campaign against the increasingly popular and non-violent BDS movement. 

As historical examples fail Morris’s grammar, the historian makes a deft, predictable maneuver between the proper nouns “Arab” and “Palestinian,” a distinction which does not carry with it a difference in the common, post-9/11 American psyche. After the revelations of September 11th, we know of course that all Arabs, despite historically strong demographics of Jews (Mizrahi, Sephardic) and Christians, are Muslim, violent, irrational, anti-democratic, and now, thankfully, we have it confirmed by Morris that they apparently have a very poor grasp of history too. 

These are easy notes to play, and play them Morris does. It’s in this territory of intense conflation, in which Arabs are Palestinians are Muslims are Hamas, that most of the talk about Palestinian human rights gets done. So, to Morris, Iraqis who attempted a pogrom against Jews in Baghdad during WWII then qualify as Palestinians (plural) who “directly” aided in the destruction of European Jewry.

Not content to bungle his readers’ historical grasp as regards the past, our historian then outdoes himself, generously extending his imprecision and misleading rhetoric to the present. It’s not just his scandalously wrong assertion that Hamas is the most “popular of the Palestinian political factions,” or that most Palestinians “hope for Israel’s disappearance and to take over all of Palestine.”

By the time these false accusations come rolling along, he’s already begun putting “Palestine” in quotations as if the nation and the name that refers to it were the ironic statement of an undergrad attempting post-modern fiction. No, Morris sinks to the desperate and the maudlin by accusing Tlaib of propagating a “basic fallacy,” that there is any parallel between the current “black-American struggle against oppression and discrimination” and Palestinian activism. 

In a sense I suppose he’s right, as it would be progress of a kind if Palestinians were able to vote, hold passports, travel freely in their territory, have their lawyers be allowed to present evidence at their trials, and have warrants and formal charges be required of the IDF before they’re sentenced to indefinite detentions, often blindfolded during arrest. Most African American citizens are spared the blindfold and do enjoy a form of these inalienable civil liberties, which Israel legally agreed to protect when it signed the UN Charter on Human Rights. Palestinians have just yet to qualify as the noun “human” in that oft-flouted and doubly trodden upon phrase “human rights.”

I suppose then that Marc Lamont Hill, whom I heard speak a few weeks ago at a sold-out panel discussion at UMASS Amherst, was misinformed when he spoke of a “tradition of black freedom fighters who have stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” listing the names of Malcolm X, Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Ethel Minor until the list grew inaudible in the din of applause from a crowd diverse in age, religion, and ethnicity. Hill’s own stake in the Palestinian cause must appear to Morris as anomalous. 

Lastly, what to make of this strange statement, that the “Zionist-Palestinian struggle has always been a political (and, lately, also a religious) struggle…” Lately religious? The struggle has of course been religious since Zionism asserted itself as the monolithic identity of every Jew on the planet, and Palestine as the exclusive homeland for Jews of all nationalities, ethnicities, histories, and level of credulity toward the spurious history of the Talmud. 

So might Morris be referring to comments by Israeli Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel, recently leaked to Israeli Channel 13 news? While addressing the Israeli military students at Sons of David Seminary School, the “most well-known and most expensive” of military schools in a country of forced conscription, Kashtiel said: 

“With the help of God slavery will return. The non-Jews [Arabs] will want to be our slaves… They must be slaves. They want to be slaves… The people around us have genetic problems. Ask any average Arab where he wants to be. He wants to be under occupation. Why? Because they have genetic problems. Look at the state of them.”

(A genetically inferior ethnicity whose natural station in life is slavery. Yes, why do black American activists find kinship in the Palestinian cause?)

Or is Morris referring to Rabbi Giora Radler, also of Sons of David Seminary, which has produced the leader of Israeli Jewish Home party and former chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rafi Peretz.

Radler’s lecture on the Holocaust was recorded and aired in the same story by Israeli Channel 13 News: 

“The Holocaust was not about killing the Jews. Nonsense. And that it was systematic and ideological makes it more moral than random murder. Humanism, secular culture – that is the real Holocaust. The real Holocaust is pluralism… The Nazi logic was internally consistent. Hitler said that a certain group in society is the cause of all the evil in the world and therefore it must be exterminated… Hitler was the most righteous. Of course, Hitler was right in every word he said. His ideology was correct. There’s masculinity, which is about respect and war, and there’s femininity, which is soft and moral. Nazis said Jews were the latter and thus the enemy. The only error was who was on which side.”

Benny Morris’s attack on Rashida Tlaib is a negligent, poor piece of journalism, which would read more accurately with the swapping of a few nouns, proper and improper. I’ve already done it for you in this article’s title. In the subtitle, “The representative’s account of the Arab-Israeli conflict relies on origin myths about the birth of Israel,” try swapping “representative” for “historian.”

For now, the quotations around the title “historian” seem fit to stay, until Morris, who has sunk the Arab-Israeli conflict to a low standard by accusing Palestinians of culpability in the Holocaust without backing up his claim, acknowledges this irresponsible historical error or apologizes for the grammar of his article. What’s more, the entire basis of Morris’s piece is based on a misinterpretation of a simple statement and therefore lacks what every article needs – a point.

A misinterpretation of a statement is not an opportunity to deliberately dispense your own dangerous depictions in the stead of an argument’s absence. So how about an apology for wasting his readers’ time?

Nicholas V. Barney is an American writer, journalist, and advocate for human rights in Palestine. After the death of a close friend from the West Bank, Nicholas V. Barney has made several trips to Palestine and has spent considerable time living with Palestinian families. He contributed this article to the Palestine Chronicle. 

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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  1. ” displacement of 7.2 million indigenous Palestinians that makes their demographic one out of every three refugees worldwide.”

    This one statement exquisitely characterizes why the “Palestinian revolution” has been, is and will be a dismal failure. On December 1, 1947, the day Arab forces launched their war to annihilate Jewish Palestinians, the total Arab population of Palestine was 1.2 million. The highest estimate of Arab refugees the failed Arab aggression caused is 800,000 and that number is probably too high.

    If you can’t be honest about your history, how can you expect to achieve a peaceful resolution to an entirely unnecessary conflict?

    If you want

  2. Palestinian Revolution? In 1900ad 9 of 10 Jews were in Europe, not yet coveting a land 1000 miles away, a land already %90 nonJews.

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