What Benny Morris Said


In the past two weeks, those interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have gravitated toward a remarkable interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris in the daily Ha'aretz. The interview, conducted by Ari Shavit, shows Morris effectively justifying the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, and openly referring to this as "ethnic cleansing."

Shavit: So when the commanders of Operation Dani are standing there and observing the long and terrible column of the 50,000 [Palestinians] expelled from Lod walking eastward, you stand there with them? You justify them?

Morris: 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." [?]

Shavit: They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.

Morris: 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.

The interview is a long one, so highlighting selected passages may come across as tendentious. It's best to read it all, but one thought lingers: the interview will remain important not so much for what it tells us about the conflict itself; but for the fact that Morris appears to have been pushed into a conceptual and linguistic impasse.

What we have is someone who simply cannot use the more muted vocabulary of the past to describe what took place between 1948 and today. He believes in none of the possible peace solutions, and though he cannot bring himself to openly support the expulsion of the Palestinians, he does see a future where this is justifiable. It?s not surprising that he should end up by lamenting: ?We [Israelis] are doomed to live by the sword.?

The following exchange shows just where Morris? analysis leads him. He says, of Israel?s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion: ?[H]e 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.?

Shavit is horrified, and asks: ?I'm not sure I understand. Are you saying that Ben-Gurion erred in expelling too few Arabs? Morris responds:

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."

The irony, as Shavit writes in the introduction to the interview, is that Morris is also the historian best known for his work on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, which aroused much hostility inside Israel. In the interview, Morris even went so far as to note that recent research showed ?that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre [in the conflict of 1948] than I had previously thought.?

This leads Shavit to the following astute observation–one that underlines how much Morris appears to have become an embodiment of the contradictions in the Zionist ideal:

So…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.