The Slanderer as Historian

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

Benny Morris is a man who has completely lost his moral compass. One has to assume it was there at some point, but driven by the logic of his own research, and forced to make a choice, Morris opted for justification rather than rejection of the war crimes committed by Israel in 1948. He made his name as an historian with The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem 1947-1949 (1989). The central value of this book lay in what Morris found in the Zionist archives, corroborating what Palestinian survivors of the first phase of the Nakba and Palestinian historians had been saying for decades. Morris did not write anything they did not already know. In the western cultural mainstream, however, the book was regarded as ‘groundbreaking’, and in a way it was. The fact that a Jew had written the book was important. Western liberals previously too frightened to speak out for fear of being called anti-Semitic now had some of that burden lifted from their shoulders. The timing of the book’s publication was also important. At a point when the traditional Zionist narrative could no longer be maintained, Morris appeared at the right time to update it, admitting mistakes and even crimes, but always within a Zionist framework of understanding. A serious weakness was his failure, or refusal, to connect the past to the present. There is no examination of the centrality of ‘transfer’ in Zionist thinking from the very beginning, no indication that the 1948 war allowed the Zionists to do what they had been planning all along. The reader needed to know this to fully understand what happened and why. The expulsion of the Palestinians  was not incidental, or an unintended consequence of war, but the long anticipated and  deliberate, if partial,  resolution of a problem which had to be solved if there was to be a ‘Jewish’ state.

Although Morris’ research leads him ineluctably towards obvious conclusions the book ends with judgment hanging in the air, as if he can’t make up his mind. On his own evidence, the Zionists committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1948, up to and including the crime of genocide, but not until he was interviewed by Ari Shavitz for Haaretz in 2004 did Morris openly pass judgment on what he had found out. There is no regret, or remorse, but only justification of war crimes. The Palestinians had to be ‘cleansed’, otherwise Israel could not have come into existence. Ben-Gurion was a ‘transferist’ who unfortunately got cold feet. Israel would have been much better off (‘quieter’) if he had finished what he started. (Morris was speaking at a time when suicide bombers were striking in Jerusalem). He does not rule out a third wave (after 1948 and 1967) of ‘transfer’, involving not just  the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza but those over whose heads and on whose land the state of Israel was built in the first place, the Palestinians of Galilee and the Triangle. They are a fifth column and if Morris is not in favor of their ‘transfer’ it is only ‘not at the moment’. For Morris, there is a sickness afoot, not in an Israel built on the crimes he has just admitted, although, of course, he doesn’t call them crimes, but in Palestinian society. The Palestinians ‘should be treated the way we treat serial killers .. something like a cage has to be built for them … there is a wild animal there that has to be locked up one way or the other’. Jabotinsky’s iron wall was the answer. ‘What Jabotinsky proposed is what Ben-Gurion adopted. Ben-Gurion argued [with Moshe Sharett] that the Arabs understand only force and that ultimately force will persuade them to accept our presence here. He was right’. Well, the Zionists finally delivered Jabotinsky’s wall in the form of concrete and created their nature reserve for wild animals in the Gaza Strip, closed off by the sea and fences and open to hunting expeditions in all seasons by the Israeli army.

Morris distinguishes between the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Israeli army in 1948 and the genocide he says was being planned by the Arabs. Obviously the distinction between ethnic cleansing and genocide is a fine one but what the Israelis actually did in 1948, as opposed to what Morris says the Arabs were planning to do, was not just ‘ethnic cleansing’ (a phrase not then in use) but genocide, as defined in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948. The convention describes as genocide five acts ‘committed with the intention to destroy,  in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Three of these acts (Article II) are defined as the following: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part. The match between what the Zionists did, and intended to do, and the terms of the Convention, leaves no room for doubt. The enemy was not just the armed fighters  but the entire Palestinian  people, men, women and children, along with everything representative of their presence, their homes, their villages, their towns, their fields, their olive groves and grapes, their mosques and their schools. In the interview with Haaretz, Morris establishes himself as a defiant, and arrogant, apologist for crimes that in other circumstances have landed their perpetrators and their apologists before war crimes tribunals. Serb ultra-nationalists used the same language in the 1990s to explain why they had to ‘cleanse’ their claimed homeland of Bosnians and Albanians, whom they also regarded as animals. In justifying ethnic cleansing and speaking of a Palestinian ‘fifth column’ inside Israel, Morris  stands in the same rabid company as Avigdor Lieberman, settler rabbis and  their racist, fanatical followers,  and a sizeable number of members of the Knesset whose vulgar, hateful diatribes against the Palestinians and Israeli traitors  are an echo of his own.

Having justified the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Morris followed up with an argument for the bombing of Iran. Writing in the New York Times of July 18, 2004, he predicted that Israel would attack Iran within the next four to seven months. He was wrong, of course, as were  many others writing on the subject, but not only did Morris think Iran would be attacked, he thought it should be attacked, because, of course, once ‘the mullahs’ got their hands on a nuclear weapon they would use it, and then Israel would be forced to use its nuclear weapons. So better, according to Benny Morris, to disable Iran with conventional weapons now than with nuclear weapons later. There would be thousands of casualties, he admitted  (tens of thousands,  more probably) but, as he had said  insouciantly of the expulsion of the Palestinians in the Haaretz interview,  you can’t  make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Now Morris has come out with a vicious attack on an Israeli historian who, far from justifying the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, has condemned it. ‘The Liar as Hero’, a review of three of Ilan Pappé’s books, appears in the New Republic.(1) which, along with Commentary, is just  the kind of publication where you would expect such invective to appear.  Ilan Pappé is well capable of defending himself, of course. What characterises this review, however, is not the mistakes he may or may not have made but  the malignant nature of Morris’ attacks on his  character. Pappé is never just wrong. He is out to ‘blacken the image of Israel and its leaders in 1948’; he is one of the world’s sloppiest historians and certainly one of the most dishonest; he is a liar; he falsifies history; he is brazen; he ‘omits and ignores significant evidence’; he deliberately slants  history; he is profoundly ignorant of basic facts; indeed, his histories are ‘worthless’ as representations of the past’; his contempt for historical truth and fact ‘is almost boundless’; he is a ‘retroactive poseur’; his work is shoddy ‘and has grown shoddier with the years’; by supporting the international boycott of Israel his motive is to hurt the people with whom he works; finally, Morris makes a comparison between Pappé and William Joyce, who broadcast for the Nazis as ‘Lord Haw Haw’ and was hanged in 1945. In other words, Ilan Pappé is a traitor who would be deserving of the same fate.

None of this slander should surprise anyone. Morris has a vicious tongue. He engaged in coarse abuse of Arafat when the ‘peace process’ publicly collapsed. He is a man who is obviously psychologically incapable of drawing the only conclusions possible from his own research. For Morris, nothing the Zionists did explains Palestinian resistance ‘towards the Jewish existence here’. If ethnic cleansing, massacres and the destruction of close to 500 villages, just as a starting point, is not enough, one has to wonder what would be enough for Benny Morris. Like Bernard Lewis, he seeks alternative explanations in the history of Islam and the Arabs. Despite Israel’s land theft, its  primitive pre-enlightenment ideology, its wars and its massacres, far eclipsing any ever committed in history by Arabs against Jews, it is the Arabs whose society Morris characterises as ‘barbarian’ (his Haaretz interview). Some of this came out in the attack he and Ehud  Barak launched on Yasser Arafat and Arab culture (inherently dishonest, of course) in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Yet all Morris has to do, as a starting point, is step out of his Jerusalem home and look around him. He must do this but obviously does not see what he does not want to see. He is living in an Arab city that has been taken over and is still being subjected every day to racist demographic warfare. He can drive to Hebron and see what is being done there. Maybe he does drive there, but he certainly does not want to talk about it. Of course, the Palestinians never resisted ‘the Jewish existence here’, as he remarked in the Haaretz interview, but only Zionism and the theft of Palestine from under their feet. Here Morris is manipulating language, using ‘Jewish’ for emotional impact. If anything really damaged the ‘Jewish existence’ right across the Middle East it was Zionism. It deliberately set out to subvert the position of Jewish communities living mostly at peace with Christians and Muslims over many centuries and it succeeded. They are now almost all gone, a tragedy second only to the dispossession of the Palestinians.   

Ilan Pappé’s claim that Zionism is ‘a racist and quite evil philosophy of morality and life’ enrages Morris, despite the mountain of evidence that doctrinally, historically, structurally and incidentally, points in this direction. The statement is wrong only in the sense that Zionism is not a philosophy but an idea, and a bad one at that. Pappés language, says Morris, attempting to smear by association, ‘is fully as virulent as Hamas’s or worse’. He criticises Teddy Katz, and Pappé, who graded the master’s thesis he presented to the University of Haifa in 1998, over claims in the thesis of a large-scale massacre being committed at Tantura in 1948. According to the oral testimony of Palestinian survivors and Jewish witnesses, including members of the Alexandroni Brigade who were involved, soldiers went on the rampage after the village was captured and massacred about 250 people. Some were taken to the beach and shot in cold blood. The Jewish witnesses included a man who supervised the burial of the victims and personally counted about 230 bodies.(2) Following the publication in Maariv of the gist of the thesis, Katz was sued for libel by members of the Alexandroni Brigade. During the trial, under pressure from friends and family, not to mention attacks by hostile academics, Katz, who had also recently suffered a heart attack, broke down and recanted. This might now be called the Goldstone effect. Twelve hours he withdrew his recantation and insisted that the trial be continued, but the judge refused.

The evidence gathered by Katz is voluminous and thoroughly consistent with descriptions of other massacres carried out across Palestine. Morris, in his review of Ilan Pappé’s books, claims to have interviewed survivors also, but his basic point of reference is the official record. This is his gospel. He says there is no evidence of such a massacre in the archives but only ‘small-scale’ atrocities, along with the shooting of a ‘handful’ of Arab snipers (how small is small-scale and how many Arab snipers constitute a handful?). As all other massacres were recorded, although it is unlikely that all were, we are invited to believe that there cannot have been a massacre at Tantura.

Here, while the Israeli archives confirm much of what the Palestinians have been saying for decades,   they cannot be regarded as conclusive. Archives never are. They might tell part of the story but never the whole story. They are the official record, after all, more likely to conceal than reveal. There were killings of large groups of people across Palestine. The Zionist archives record some of them, invariably justifying what was done, but the official reports cannot possibly be regarded as the definitive account. People involved in the cold-blooded slaughter of defenceless men, women and children are not likely to own up. In fact, the evidence for a large-scale massacre having taken place at Tantura remains overwhelming.

The review of Ilan Pappé’s three books has to be seen for what it is, not just a review that any historian would be asked to write but a calculated and very vicious attempt to destroy the author’s reputation. Along with Gilad Atzmon and numerous other Israelis, Pappé has broken with Israel for good reasons. Benny Morris has stuck it with it for bad ones. This rancorous diatribe says far more about Benny Morris than it does Ilan Pappé. He can defend his own record as an historian and he is far better placed than Benny Morris to describe the pressures  directed against him in Israel, so it will be interesting to see what he has to say in response to this hatchet job by a man who destroyed his own moral credibility  a long time ago.   

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to


(1) ‘The Liar as Hero’, New Republic, March 17, 2011. 
(2) Ilan Pappé, ‘The Tantura Case in Israel: the Katz Research and Trial’, Journal of Palestine Studies, XXX No. 7 (2001), 19-39.

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