The New, New Historiography: On Benny Morris and the Charge of Orientalism

Pictured: Arab protests against the Deir Yassin Massacre, which became a key topic of Historiocritical revisionism in the New Historians Movement of Israeli historiography. Image by Dr. Micah Naziri

In Jonathan Isacoff’s “Writing the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Historical Bias and the Use of History in Political Science,” we read that the job of the political scientist is not firstly to look for “facts,” but to identify the competing schools of thought. The aim is not to find one perfectly accurate vision of truth, but to “identify as many as possible of the various worldviews that pertain to the issues.”[1] Relative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, identifying these competing approaches leads us to the traditional Israeli establishment narrative, espoused by proponents such as Itamar Rabinovich and the New Historians revisionist movement which emerged in the 1980s.

The “Old Historians” lived through 1948 as highly committed adult participants in the epic, glorious rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth. They were unable to separate their lives from this historical event, unable to regard impartially and objectively the facts and processes that they later wrote about. They have written largely on the basis of interviews and memoirs and at best made use of select batches of documents, many of them censored.[2] There is also a minor synthesis of “new-old historians” including Anita Shapira, Avraham Sela, Efraim Karsh and Michael Oren, who are forced to operate within a debate increasingly defined by the research of the New Historians: Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé, Tom Segev, Hillel Cohen, et al. Morris notes, that even while he attacks the “New Historiography.” Even Rabinovich was “unable to avoid adopting most of its findings and conclusions.”[3] On the Palestinian side there is the obvious example of Edward Said, Nur Masalha and to a more ambiguous extent, Norman Finkelstein.[4]

The purpose here is not to outline these various perspectives, but to analyze the debate between these competing schools of thought, examining their strengths and weaknesses of logic and evidence they present (often against one another). It is then the purpose of this article to highlight the strengths and weaknesses, particularly in the debate between Morris and Finkelstein. It will show that neither has entirely arrived in good faith at conclusions which their own data points towards.

Situated somewhere in the middle of these is Haim Gerber’s article “Zionism, Orientalism & the Palestinians.” Gerber asserts as his central thesis that the self-critical approach of the New Historiography of Israeli scholarship must also “be extended to the study of Palestinian history as a whole,” rather than simply the Israeli-Palestinian wars of 1947-9. The New Historian revisionist movement, a name coined by Morris,[5] is accused by Finkelstein and Masahla, as well as Said,[6] of being almost entirely an “Orientalist” venture. Gerber concedes this charge as it is made against Morris specifically. Morris explains the approach, as he sees it, in “The New Historiography: Israel Confronts Its Past.” However, Gerber seeks to extend this criticism not only to the narrative of the Israeli establishment, but also to the Palestinian, in what he calls a “painful revision” to both sides.

Gerber inaugurates his study with a brief summary of Said’s position on the subject of Orientalism as it here relates to Palestine. He follows with the critical analysis done by Ella Shahat and others, regarding early Zionist films, concluding they cannot be denied as deliberately and falsely depicting a mythic, barbaric Arab racial caricature. His aim is to follow “in the footsteps” of such critical scholars “by holding Zionist representations of Palestinian history up for comparison with the historic reality.”

Relative to the matter of this New Historian movement, Gerber posits Morris as part of a continuum on which Yaacov Shim’oni’s “rehearsal of Zionist ideas” is a negative precedent. He admonishes Shim’oni’s theory that “left to themselves,” the Arabs of Palestine would have accepted Zionism. Gerber implicitly rejects this idea. It might not be so quickly discarded however, when we examine the Husseinī repression against Palestinian dissidents. The fact that the Mufti imported Salafist ideas from his infamous teacher Rashid Rida should also not be diminished. This is a subject which we will return to later, but which deserves a study unto itself.[7]

Most critical of Morris, Edward Said characterized the New Historian movement as merely reheated left-over’s of the traditional Israeli national myth. Said asserts, in “New History, Old Ideas,” that for all the seeming differences, Morris is apparently “still enough of a Zionist to believe the ideological version” of Israeli history, in many ways.

Morris’s meticulous work showed that in district after district commanders had been ordered to drive out Palestinians, burn villages, systematically take over their homes and property. Yet strangely enough, by the end of the book Morris seems reluctant to draw the inevitable conclusions from his own evidence.[8]

Giving Ilan Pappé and obvious pass, Said’s criticism would be echoed by Finkelstein, and Palestinians Mustafa Kabha, as well as Nur Masalha. Gerber claims that “in Morris’s view, there could be no Palestinian cohesiveness for the simple reason that there was no Palestinian nation.” Morris says the Palestinian hoi polloi had “no sense of separate national or cultural identity” which would differentiate and distinguish them from “the Arabs of Syria, Lebanon or Egypt.”[9] Attempting to debunk this charge forms the core of Gerber’s argument.[10]

Morris’ Orientalism and Palestinian Identity

Gerber asserts that Orientalism is evidenced in Morris’s works by his lack of concern for demonstrating the “origins of the societal characteristics he describes.” These are “givens” and are characteristic of “primitive” Palestinian society. The “high degree” of Jewish development too is something “entirely natural” to Morris, needing “no historicizing whatsoever.” Some of the supposedly “natural characteristics” under the Mandate, Gerber rightly claims, “were not natural at all.”[11]

Gerber spends much of his time arguing that Palestinian nationalism, and thus identity, long predated the phenomenon of the modern Arab state and Arab Nationalism. In this, Gerber makes his least compelling case, with a few outright fumbles. The problem with the idea of the modernness of Arab nationalism lies with modernists having “join[ed] forces with Orientalists who castigate Islam for not having created a European-type society and with Zionists historians, who claim that the ‘Palestinians,’ if left to themselves, never would have dreamed of a Palestinian identify.”[12] This seems a bit reactionary. It does not follow that if conclusions have typically been exploited polemically, then they are inherently unsound.

Gerber acknowledges that the term “Palestine,” or Filistine, ceased usage in 1250 by the Mamluk state, followed by Ottoman disuse from 1517. Nevertheless, he claims a “growing body of evidence shows that it was not forgotten.” He cites a handful of examples over the next few centuries, which are hardly compelling when examined in depth. The first is from a late fifteenth-century book by Mujīr al-Dīn al-`Ulaymī.[13] This is apparently his strongest source, but admittedly Filistine is not used as the singular description of the region by ` Ulaymī. Gerber does not consider that these few scholarly sources are not representative of the general regional population during these centuries. Is it so strange that we should find educated authors sporadically referring to the region by its ancient name? Gerber seems to invest too much time and trust in the strength of this argument and the significance of its implications.

He describes instead what could at best be considered a quasi-national identity that never seems to have developed. His argument is at times forced and seems bent on responding to the traditional Zionist narrative, epitomized by Golda Meir, that “there are no Palestinians.” We see his explanation of biladuna as singularly definable as “our country,” when this term also can simply mean “our land.” An admittedly secondary synonymous meaning to arḍuna, the term could be appropriately used either way here.

Gerber explains that Khayr al-Dīn al-Ramlī was described in early nineteenth-century Damascus as the “great `alama of Palestine.” This could just as easily create new problems for Gerber’s thesis. One fundamental problem is that Shaykh Khayr was an Ottoman import from Morocco. How he may have been discussed amongst elites does not make the case. Even if he had determined to call himself “Al-Filisitīnī” rather than “Al-Ramlī” – which he does not – this would not make the case for indigenous attitudes. Gerber’s vast leaps are exemplified in the following quote:

It stands to reason that if the term “Palestine” was known to the population two and a half centuries after it ceased to be used officially, one can assume that it might have survived another five centuries as the name commonly used for the country by its inhabitants in the early twentieth century.[14]

Reacting to Yehoshua Porath’s dating of the contemporary usage of the term to 1911, Gerber says that it “must have been current in the country all along,” due to the aforementioned anecdotal examples. Nevertheless, citing Rashid Khalidi, he acknowledges that the term was “propelled” from about this time “mainly by Zionism.” This then seems to be one of those “hard truths” that Gerber advocated both sides being open to coming to terms with: Palestinian identity was largely a reaction not only to Zionism but of the Arab Nationalism expressed and violently promoted by the elites of the Husseinī faction.

Gerber asserts that a collection of fatāwat from the Shaykh Khayrī demonstrates a book of “intrinsic value” on legal thought and the “vibrant and open nature of Islamic law at this time.”[15] Such a summation clearly shows an uncritical acceptance of “in house” self-description of the scholarship. There is no evidence that the Shafī`i fiqh practices before the rise of the Hanāfī Husseinī clan, was any more flexible or “open” than Yemen or anywhere else which we find popular expression of the maẓhab. His attitude towards the work seems to stem from a desire to imply a grand intellectual heritage for the region, than actually based in examples from the text. The madrasah too, which he built, is described as “a virtual pilgrimage site for scholars and men of state,” a characterization which is clearly exaggerated in importance. The school’s significance is not reflected in Islāmic sources outside of the region. Indeed, Gerber is unaware that the Maqām of Shaykh al-Khayrī, still standing today, is scarcely larger than a small shed.

Gerber’s argument strengthens, however, where he attacks Morris for imaging a lack of Palestinian identity during the period of the Mandate. This point does little to argue for either side. Philosophically, these matters are tangential to what should be the focus: the humanitarian crisis of the Palestinian exodus and the established international legality of a right of return to homes fled during war time.[16]

Palestinian Nationalism and the Elite

Gerber criticizes that Morris “and others” would have us believe that “Palestinian nationalism was confined to the elite.”[17] He cites Ben-Gurion’s “reluctant” acknowledgment to the contrary. However, the other side of this – that Gerber has failed to consider – is that Ben-Gurion’s comment may have been far from reluctant. It may well have been purposefully designed to marginalize the opposition to what was a Husseinī-driven Arab Revolt of 1936-9, even if only in his mind (thus self-justifying his perspective and actions). It would not only be fitting within the traditional Israeli establishment narrative to portray the throngs of Arab Palestinians as opposing the Yishuv, but it would also seem to justify many actions which would transpire in the wake of this exaggerated opposition. Thus, though he notes that modern Palestinian scholarship has attacked this focus on the a`yan or notables, it would seem this focus is borne of a modern Palestinian meme, colored by the Husseinī-Arafat version of events.[18]

This institution is widely seen as the main culprit for almost everything bad in Palestinian history, but this seems an exaggeration. It must first be borne in mind that the notables are hardly a relic of a primitive age, but came into being as part of the Ottoman administrative system in the provinces.[19]

Instead of deconstructing and critiquing this foreign Ottoman system on the basis of it being an imperial implant on indigenous society, Gerber fumbles by saying that this sophisticated system “was ingenious” and “deserves our admiration rather than disapprobation.” But how is that the case? He does not explain. Thus we are left only with the fact that this very system squashed an indigenous, Egyptian-backed anti-Ottoman revolt in the mid-nineteenth century, giving rise to the Husseinī clan. This clan did not emerge on the scene with the Arab Revolts, but had driven a series of riots and pogroms against Mizraḥī Jews as well as those immigrating to their existing communities, that tarnished the image of the entire Palestinian community. With his suppression of all Palestinian opposition, the Zionists would not have to invent a brutal adversary; they would only have to accept the vision of Palestine that Husseinī was so desperately carving out.

Gerber notes the mutual revolt of the notables and the commoners against the Ottomans in 1825, but he fails to follow the timeline to discover that only two decades later the Husseinī clan was inserted into power by the Ottomans to squash dissent. That this family would become the bane of Palestinian legitimacy, in the eyes of the West, is hardly a coincidence. The traditional Zionist narrative relies on the well documented roll that this family. Instead of arguing the foreignness of the family’s Ottoman allegiance, Gerber tries to explain the evidence away, not seeing the value that it could have for his over-arching position.

All in all, Gerber’s endeavor is admirable, and indicates an evolving approach to the New Historiography. Yet the points on which his argument rests are at times reactions to perceived Orientalism, demonstrating the dubious nature of the charge: that any conclusion which “seems” to Orientalize figures in, or aspects of, the Palestinian history must be derived from some inherently anti-Arab bias. Yet, as problematic as such assumptions are when they are read into some of Morris’s work, Gerber, and even Said here, seem to presciently glimpse attitudes which would emerge from Morris in later years. Indeed, he has made so many egregious Anti-Arab comments since the Second Intifāḍah that it is now not only possible, but easy to look back at his more seemingly balanced writings to find a slew of prejudiced comments bleeding through. No one seems to do this better, however, than Norman Finkelstein.

Finkelstein’s Objections to Morris

In his “Myths, Old and New,” we read Finkelstein’s cogent attack on Morris’s reluctance to articulate the conclusions which his research supports. The points raised by Finkelstein are much more convincing than many of the positions which Gerber raises, even if Gerber’s approach is more balanced overall.[20] Finkelstein is generally fair to Morris and acknowledges that The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 was “a model of scholarly rigor and detachment.”[21]

Perhaps diplomatically misplaced at the conclusion of his article, Finkelstein declares Morris as having “indisputably produced landmark studies” and “permanently redefined the parameters of legitimate scholarly debate on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, dispatching to oblivion the standard Israeli claim about ‘Arab broadcasts.’” He comments that Morris’s  “devastating reply” to Shabtai Teveth as a “virtuoso performance,” characterizing his research as “the benchmark for all future scholarship on the topic.”[22]

Central to Finkelstein’s concerns however, is Morris’s position that the Palestinian exodus was “born of war, not by design.”[23] Morris, he explains, describes this as “largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears,” arguing that Palestinians had by and large “left before Israeli forces arrived.”[24] Finkelstein maintains that Morris’s belief is “not only that the Palestinian exodus was an unintended ‘by-product’ of the war but that it ‘surprised’ – indeed, ‘shocked,’ ‘flustered,’ and ‘astonished’ the Yishuv.” Selectively appropriating comments from Ben-Gurion and Weitz, Finkelstein seeks to demonstrate that there was no surprise by the Arab exodus. This is at least true amongst select individuals if not universally, as Finkelstein wants to imply.[25]

Most importantly, however, Finkelstein points out Morris’s passing admission, that “if denial of the right to return” was in fact “a form of ‘expulsion,’” then the reality is that “a great many villagers – who had waited near their villages for the battle to die down before trying to return home – can be considered ‘expellees.’”[26] Here we see the crux of the matter, exemplifying Finkelstein’s better attention to the real point of the debate. For all of Morris’s attempts to calm allegations of an Israeli transfer policy the point is – that Finkelstein locks onto here – that policy or unintended consequence, it is no matter. Under international law, the Arabs who left (regardless of their ethno-national identity or designation), are permitted to flee their homes, guaranteed the right of return thereafter. Every other argument becomes more a matter of subjective philosophy or historical interpretation. Where Finkelstein stays focused on this, his position is strong. Where he diverts, in a desire to intellectually punish Morris’s inconsistencies, his own position weakens, and at times becomes immature.

One example is in demonstrating a pervasive Israeli design to expel Arabs. This is an argument neither side could ever convincingly win. Certainly, as Finkelstein, Masalha and Said noted, Morris fails to make some obvious conclusions from his own evidence (what Said described as his academic “schizophrenia”). Morris equally however, presents evidence that does supports his position of a lack of a general transfer policy. One might surmise that, as Finkelstein is apt to point out, the actions of the Haganah, on the ground, were bearing out an “operative policy in the field” more often than not.[27]

Finkelstein points out one particularly damning admission against Morris’s thesis. Outside of major urban centers, Morris says, “it was standard Haganah and IDF policy to round up and expel the remaining villages (usually old people, widows, cripples) from sites already evacuated by most of their inhabitants.”[28] He notes Morris’s acknowledgement that these were “viewed favorably” by “the bulk” of Yishuv leadership.[29] Finkelstein quotes Morris in noting that the Carmeli Brigade was ordered “to kill every [adult] male encountered” and to attack with firebombs ‘all objectives that can be set alight.”[30] Said comments, in his “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” that “there are numerous admissions of cold-blooded murder of Arab civilians.” Typical of Said’s dichotomization, one might hesitate to accept this assessment, were it not for his documenting of Irgun leader Menachem Begin’s autobiography. We find candid statements from Ben-Gurion that Begin was nothing short of “Hitlerite,” lamenting that “I have no doubt that Begin hates Hitler-but this hatred does not prove that he is different from him, and when for the first time I heard Begin on the radio, I heard the voice and the screeching of Hitler.”[31] This disgust with Begin, however, does little to disprove Morris’s general impression of Ben-Gurion. If anything, it could serve to strengthen his thesis, even if paradoxically demonstrating official complicity in some instances. Indeed, Morris notes IDF order from the 6 of July, 1948 that prohibited expulsion or destroying towns and villages without Ben-Gurion’s “expressed order.”[32]

Finkelstein, however, acknowledges “the civilian [Zionist] authorities [said] one thing and the Haganah” decided on their own to do “something else altogether.” This then cannot not damn the entire enterprise as having universally designed an Arab expulsion. Neither can the civilian Zionist authorities necessarily be blamed for the limited “ad hoc” actions of some in the Haganah. Thus, when pointing out the diary of Yosef Weitz, of the Jewish National Fund, that the flight-prone “state of mind,” of the Arabs, “should be exploited,” the push not being for surrender but simply flight,[33] Finkelstein’s evidence damns only rogue elements of the Haganah for certain, along with established terrorist groups like the Irgun. More often than not, in the examples he cites, blame seems to find its way to the faction under Moshe Carmel from the Levanoni Brigade. Just as Morris occasionally fails to make obvious conclusions from his own presentation, Finkelstein here seems to ignore the obvious, in favor of an occasional indulgence in polemic.

Expulsion Through Terror

Some of the most disturbing admissions of Haganah behavior, though not the most physically brutal examples, are the use of “terror” to compel Arab flight. Finkelstein notes that Morris “rightly points to the pivotal role of the Dayr Yasin massacre,” but the latter seems to want to blame the Arabs for broadcasting about the matter “for weeks.” Finkelstein notes that “attacking Jewish forces made liberal use of psychological warfare and terror tactics… broadcasting recorded ‘horror sounds’ – including ‘shrieks, wails and anguished moans of Arab women, the wail of sirens and the clang of fire-alarm bells, interrupted by a sepulchral voice calling out in Arabic: Save your souls, all you faithful! Flee for you lives!” The “threats” of chemical and nuclear warfare against the Arabs are also cited.[34]

Finkelstein is refreshingly objective in assessing that “one could maintain that, given the armed hostilities, the Zionists had no alternative” other than the expulsion of the indigenous Arab population. Nevertheless, he explains “one could not still maintain that the Arab flight was an unintended or unanticipated ‘by-product’ of the war.”[35] Whereas Morris describes the exodus as “born of war,” Finkelstein seems determined to see it as “anticipated,” of “design,” and a “policy throughout” that was simply “one of expulsion.”[36] Finkelstein points out Morris’s own comments that “in many places, it would take very little to induce the inhabitants to pack up and fled… the cumulative effects of the fears, deprivations, abandonment and depredations of the previous month,” produced “a ‘psychosis of flight,’ as one IDF intelligence report put it.”[37]

Finkelstein admits that “the Arabs refused to accept the surrender terms, choosing instead to evacuate.”[38] He cannot explain this, calling the reasons “obscure.” They clearly do not fit with the thesis of a passive, deported population. Yet the converse is also evidenced by Morris, that in the Negev the Haganah “always” interpreted “repeated” requests of surrender “as either insincere or unreliable.”[39] Finkelstein cites Morris, saying that “even villages that had ‘traditionally been friendly towards the Yishuv’ – for example, Huj, whose inhabitants had hidden Haganah men from a British dragnet in 1946 and whose mukhtar was shot dead by a mob in Gaza because of his “collaboration with the Jews” – were depopulated and destroyed.”[40]

Thus, Morris documents Weitz as saying “in the Negev we will not buy land. We will conquer it.”[41] In a strategic position to “influence decision-making regarding the Arab population,” Morris explains that Weitz was aware that “the state of Anarchy created by the hostilities’ could and should be used to solve the ‘Arab problem.’” Ben-Gurion worried that “we will not be able to win” if the “Upper and Lower, Eastern and Western” Galil, as well as the Negev and Jerusalem were not able to be populated, “even if only in an artificial way,” through military occupation.[42]

Giving Morris the Last Word

Morris states that he is “concerned with “what actually happened” rather than what later “propagandists” on both sides have said occurred.[43] Finkelstein and Masalha, he says, have “outworn preconceptions and prejudices” that “underlie” and “tarnish” their critique.[44] Morris asserts that he was open to whatever the data indicated and that he knew nothing and brought no expectations to the research. In this, what can only be considered a lack of honest, introspective assessment, we should proceed with caution. Central to his thesis, Morris documents a “whole range of factors,” a “multi-causal explanation” that led to the Palestinian exodus, including the “breakdown of law and order,” the “lack of food and other supplies, unemployment and high prices,” as well as the more ominous “Jewish threats, Jewish attack, Jewish atrocities, Jewish expulsion orders, and fear – a great deal of fear (fear of Jewish attack, fear of Jewish atrocities, fear of life under Jewish rule, fear of the Arab irregular bands, fear of Husayni revenge).”[45]

“Did this flight,” of some 75,000 “privileged” Arabs elites “weaken the Palestinian society economically, politically and militarily?” Morris suggests that it did, that this undermined the “staying power and self-confidence of those left behind, especially the increasingly unemployed masses.”[46] Nevertheless, he admits that “Jewish attack and Arab fears of Jewish attack” were the primary culprits.[47]

He critiques both Masalha and Finkelstein as not knowing “anything” at all about the subjects he is addressing, “beyond what is to be found in my books.” Neither, he asserts, “marshals sources or material from elsewhere that could serve to contradict my findings.”[48] The problem with the two (and Teveth), Morris claims, is “that they do not conform with what actually happened and they lack any documentary foundation.”[49] This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is clear that both rely heavily on responding to Morris’s works and their internal contradictions. Neither are interested in the same sort of fieldwork that Morris was.

In the aforementioned “first wave” of 75,000 Morris openly inquires of his opponents where they see evidence of an “explusory master plan?”[50] He surmises the situation with remarkable fairness and dispassion, as follows:

Do Finkelstein and Masalha have any evidence proving (or even hinting at) the existence or implementation of such a master plan during the first stage of the exodus? Would it not be more accurate – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – to say that (a) the country was gradually engulfed in a civil war (launched by the Arabs and “expanded by both sides”, (b) that acts of war hit villagers and townspeople from both communities, (c) that these hostilities sowed fear in the hearts of many Arabs, and (d) that those Arab families who could afford it took to their heels (probably for the most part believing, as in 1936-39, that they would return once order was restored by Britain, the UN, or the Arab armies.[51]

In general, the charge that Morris tones down the “atrocities” of the Haganah, and Ben-Gurion’s at least complicity appears to be well grounded. Nevertheless, in a great many circumstances, Morris is right, and “Finkelstein is merely being quarrelsome,” wanting to leave the reader with an occasionally false impression, that “Benny Morris is trying to hide an expulsion by the vicious Zionists.” Humorous as this characterization is, the problem lies in conflicting ideas of what constitutes “expulsion.” Morris explains that Finkelstein “cannot, does not, accept my definition of expulsion.”[52] Most of the world, it would seem, could not accept Morris’s gentle exoneration of the Haganah. Morris acknowledges that Finkelstein’s definition is “very liberal, mine narrower and more severe.” That is, for Morris, an expulsion must be akin to Nazi troops going into a town, shooting a few people and saying “if you do not leave this minute then you will be shot.” Since this happens only in isolated incidences with the Haganah and certainly the Irgun, Morris obviously concludes that many things which would logically be defined as expulsions actually were not.

For example, he says, “one cannot, in my view, regard as an ‘expulsion’ the flight of a village’s or town’s inhabitants when the Haganah/IDF approached or when Jewish units launched an assault on the site, usually accompanied by a preliminary mortar barrage.”[53] This is, as Morris parodies Finkelstein’s phrasing, “curious.” Morris does not define as expulsion “flight due to Jewish psychological warfare the flight of inhabitants after Jewish intelligence agents ‘warned’ them that they had best decamp and move to Jordan because a Haganah assault was on its way.”[54] To him, it is not an expulsion to say: “Leave now because your town is about to come under siege. If you do not leave then you will face the fate of Deir Yassin.” Would this not be like saying that the Jews under Nazi occupation were not actually “expelled” when told “come with us now or you will be shot.” What difference is there to say “If you do not leave now, there are brutal men who will kill you?” and saying “If you do not leave now we will kill you?”  Most callous of all is Morris’s statement that:

If [the Palestinian] fled before smelling a whiff of grapeshot or before seeing the whites of the eyes of the first Palmahnik, then he displayed an insufficiency of basic patriotism, an insufficient attachment (sumud) to his land (and honor), an insufficiency of plain courage. If he fled under no dire compulsion, then the Palestinian refugee emerges as a coward and something of a fool – and one with a deservedly great burden of shame and guilt vis-à-vis his progeny for abandoning and losing their home and homeland.[55]

If this is true could it not then be argued that any Jew who did not actively resist the Nazi machine, who did not like the Bielski Otriad or the Warsaw insurgents form an armed resistance, only has themselves to blame? This line of thinking sounds all too much like the script from The Believer, where Ryan Gosling’s character, Jewish Neo-Nazi “Danny Balint” blames European Jewry for failing to have the foresight or courage to die fighting. In short, Morris’s comments here are venial and revolting.

I will not leave off where Morris does. In spite of himself, Morris’s research is impeccable. He presents data that has redefined scholarship on the subject, even while we would be better off without his prejudiced commentary. Morris’s strongest points of response to Finkelstein, and indeed to Said or any who hold to a more or less strictly Palestinian narrative, are his counter examples. I will conclude with these, showing that the truth is somewhere between Morris and Finkelstein.

A number of Jewish organizations and institutions, Morris explains, from the Histadrut Arab Worker’s Department, to Mapam, to Jewish local authorities to even the Haganah’s Intelligence Service (citing Ezra Danin and Yehoshua Palmon specifically), has tried sincerely “to persuade specific Arab communities in the territory earmarked for Jewish statehood, such as Sheikh Muwannis and `Arab Abu Kishk, to avoid hostilities and stay put.” Finkelstein and Masalha simply omit any mention of such examples,[56] much to their discredit.

Morris does acknowledge “atrocities were committed in a handful of villages,” and that “the inhabitants of a number of villages were expelled.”[57] Yet “unlike the pre-June offensives of the Haganah,” having been “poorly-planned, ad hoc affairs,” he cites Operation Hiram as having been “thoroughly planned” for weeks before hand. “The IDF had full control,” and yet they did not implement expulsion of “more than half of the pocket’s [Muslim] inhabitants” when they so easily could have. How then can Morris declare this a “policy” of transfer “throughout?”

Even in these Muslim villages, “where atrocities had been committed – Majd al Kurum, Bi’na, Deir al Assad – the inhabitants were not driven out.”[58] Yet “there was a policy to create a 10-kilometer-deep Arab-free border zone.” While there is documentation of this, Morris asserts, there is no proof of any “blanket, systematic policy of expulsion” in the Galil. “You can’t assert that there was a ‘ruthlessly efficient,’ ‘systematic’ policy of expulsion and explain away the tens of thousands of (mostly Muslim) Arabs who remained in the Galilee.”[59]

Furthermore, Morris demonstrates, “you can’t have a ruthless and systematic blanket policy of expulsion and yet ignore the (mainly Muslim) villages of Khirbet Jisr, az Zarka, Al Fureidis, and Abu Ghosh,” which remained intact, with their Arab populations in place. “If there was a systematic, efficient policy of expulsion,” Morris asks, then why had the authorities left “troublesome or potentially troublesome minority Arab communities in Haifa, Jaffa, and Acre, not to mention smaller sites such as Lydda, Ramle, and Trshiha,” when they were in the position to “easily have expelled them?” Finally, he asks “why, at war’s end, were 100,000-160,000 Arabs, most of the Muslim [today over 700,000] left in Israel,” at a time when Jews numbered only 700,000-750,000 in the region? Morris’s detractors still have no answer to these questions.

If, as Jonathan Isacoff said, we are to look for the truth in a variety of perspectives and schools, then we might be wary of what Morris said is the scholastic crime of Finkelstein, Masalha, Teveth, or even Said, “to find culprits and lay blame, as if history is some sort of morality play or judicial proceeding.” This sort of academic detachment is the zone in which Morris best operates. When he remains focused, dismissing his personal biases, and at times bizarre conclusions, he proves a historian who will himself go down in history. Yet the reader must beware of his cultural baggage just as they must beware of Masalha’s and Said’s or Finkelstein’s tendency towards “going native” and losing his scholarly detachment and objectivity.

Works Cited

Barnett, Michael. Israel in Comparative Perspective. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.

Finkelstein, Norman G. Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

Finkelstein, Norman. Hitler’s Mideast Helpers. 12 22, 2006. (accessed 10 1, 2009).

Finkelstein, Norman. “Myths Old and New.” Journal of Palestine Studies 21, no. 1 (1991): 66-89.

Gerber, Haim. “Zionism, Orientalism & the Palestinians.” Journal of Palestine Studies 33, no. 1 (2003): 31-41.

Isacoff, Jonathan. “Writing the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Historical Bias and the Use of History in Political Science.” Perspectives on Politics 3, no. 1 (2005): 71-88.

Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israel War. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.

—. One State, Two States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

—. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Morris, Benny. “The New Historiography.” In Making Israel, 124-146.

Said, Edward. “New History, Old Ideas.” Al-Ahram Weekly, no. 378 (1998).

Said, Edward. “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims.” Social Text (Duke University Press) 1, no. 1 (1979): 7-58.

[1] Jonathan Isacoff, “Writing the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Historical Bias and the Use of History in Political Science.” Perspectives on Politics 3, no. 1 (2005): 71-88.


[2] Benny Morris, Making Israel, University of Michigan Press, 2007, pp.14–15.

[3] Benny Morris, “Response to Finkelstein and Masalha,” Journal of Palestine Studies 21:1, 110

[4] Ibid 73

[5] The “New Historians,” first gained foothold in the groundbreaking article “The New Historiography: Israel Confronts Its Past,” published in the Fall 1988 issue of Tikkun magazine. Benny Morris, “The New Historiography: Israel Confronts Its Past.” Tikkun (1999). Therein, Morris’s self-description, along with his inclusion of Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé (from academia), and Simcha Flappan (from political journalism), located them at the epicenter of a controversy, with which the name was instantly branded. Anita Shapira, “The Failure of Israel’s “New Historians” To Explain War and Peace.” 29 November 1999. The New Republic Online. 1 10 2009

[6] Said, Edward. (1998) ‘New History, Old Ideas’ in Al-Ahram weekly, 21–27 May

[7] `Amin al-Husseini (1895/1897 – 1974) was a student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It was there he met and studied under Rashid Rida (1865 – 1935), a founding Salafi as the most prominent disciple of Muhammad `Abduh (1849 – 1905). Rida remained his mentor till the death of the latter in 1935.

[8] Edward Said, “New History, Old Ideas.” Al-Ahram Weekly, no. 378 (1998).

[9] Haim Gerber, “Zionism, Orientalism & the Palestinians”, Journal of Palestine Studies, 33,1 (Autumn 2003), 24

[10] Though a Marxist like the favorable Pappé, Gerber regards Yosef Vaschitz as “[not] much different.” Gerber chides him as over-confidently knowing “for a fact” that “no Palestinian nation” exited, and that there was “no objective difference between Palestinians and Syrians,” because “the landowners were afraid of the rise in the standard of living, businessmen were afraid of competition, and the masses were incited by their leaders.”[10] But Gerber does not dissect the problems with Vaschitz’s Marxist thesis. Instead he seems fixed on Vaschitz’s shared conclusions with Morris.


[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid 26

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid 27

[15] Ibid 30

[16] Article 13 (2) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948). This language is reflected in Article 5 of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which guarantees “the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of the following rights: . . .” These include in article 5 (d) (ii) “The right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to one’s country.” International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 660 U.N.T.S. 195, entered into force Jan. 4, 1969. Article 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, ratified on 11 December 1948, declared that, “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for the loss of or damage to property which, under the principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

[17] Ibid 29

[18] Ibid 31

[19] Ibid

[20] Though with Finkelstein’s latest Beyond Chutzpah, and his recent criticism of Arab involvement in the Holocaust. Norman Finkelstein, Hitler’s Mideast Helpers. 12 22, 2006. (accessed 10 1, 2009).

[21] Norman Finkelstein. “Myths, Old and New.” JPS 21(1): (1991) 67

[22] Ibid 85

[23] Ibid 67

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid 77-78

[26] Ibid 68, citing Morris, 343, note 7

[27] Ibid 71

[28] Ibid 71, citing Morris, Birth 288; emphasis mine.

[29] Ibid, citing Morris, 87

[30] Ibid 73, citing Morris 76-77

[31] From Said’s notes: The Revolt( 1948, reprt. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1972), 162. Red Cross figures for the massacre at Deir Yassin specify about 250 civilians, mostly women and children. Of this group, Begin has the following to say: “The fighting was thus very severe. Yet the hostile propaganda, disseminated throughout the world, deliberately ignored the fact that the civilian population of Deir Yassin was actually given a warning by us before the battle began. One of our tenders carrying a loud speaker was stationed at the entrance to the village and it exhorted in Arabic all women, children and aged to leave their houses and to take shelter on the slope of the hill. By giving this humane warning our fighters threw away the element of complete surprise, and thus increased their own risk in the ensuing battle.” Despite the Irgun’s humane warning these unfortunates were slaughtered. Of Begin, David Ben Gurion said in May 1963: “Begin is a thoroughly Hitlerite type, ready to destroy all the Arabs for the wholeness, who devotes all his efforts for a holy purpose … and it has a clear meaning: the murder of tens of Jews, Arabs, and Englishmen-in the explosion of the King David Hotel, the pogrom in Deir Yassin and the murder of Arab women and children…. I have no doubt that Begin hates Hitler-but this hatred does not prove that he is different from him, and when for the first time I heard Begin on the radio-I heard the voice and the screeching of Hitler” (quoted in Israleft, # 108; the text is from a letter by Ben Gurion to Haim Guri). Perhaps one ought also to mention that the present Secretary General of the Jewish Agency (executive of the World Zionist Congress) is one Shmuel Lehis who was convicted as a criminal in 1948 for murdering at least 35 Arabs in cold blood in Hula village; Lehis was given an unconditional amnesty (his sentence was to have been 7 years), and rose to the top of the Zionist hierarchy. See “The Strange Case of Shmuel Lehis” by R. Barkan, Al Hamishmar, 3/3/78.

[32] Morris, Birth, 163

[33] Ibid 74

[34] Ibid 72

[35] Ibid 68

[36] Ibid 69

[37] Ibid 70, citing Morris, Birth, 287

[38] Ibid 73

[39] Ibid 74, citing Morris 128

[40] Ibid 74-5, citing Morris 128

[41] Ibid 76, citing Morris 170

[42] Ibid 77, citing Morris 181

[43] Morris, Response, 98

[44] Ibid 98

[45] Ibid 99

[46] Ibid 100

[47] Ibid 99

[48] Ibid

[49] Ibid 100

[50] Ibid

[51] Ibid 101

[52] Ibid 111

[53] Morris, Response, 112

[54] Ibid

[55] Ibid 113

[56] Ibid 100

[57] Ibid 101

[58] Ibid

[59] Ibid 102

About the Author
Dr. Micah Naziri was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. The son of a multitude of peoples, Micah has Ashkenazi Jewish, German, Native American and Melungeon Sefardic background. Micah has often said he has “one foot in the masjid and the other in shul.” Spiritually, Micah considers his understanding of Judaism to be “Judeo-Sufi,” or “Istislam” as described by Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paqudah, in his Medieval Judeo-Arabic work “Guide to the Duties of the Hearts” (Al-Hidayat ila Fara`id al-Qulub), which quoted Muhammad and his son-in-law `Ali profusely – reference each as being “a great chasid” – while fully embracing the Torah as the framework of religious practice for the Jewish people. Dr. Naziri is the founder of the Martial Sufi Tariqah alternatively known as the Taliyah al-Mahdi (2001) and the Jamat al-Fitrah (2005), as well as Hashlamah Project Foundation (2012), and the White Rose Society “reboot” (2016). As the founder of the Hashlamah Project Foundation, Micah uses his education in Near Eastern Languages, Religions and historical models of building bridges between Jewish and Muslim communities, to help reconcile and unite Jews and Palestinian Muslims. He is a prolific author who has penned numerous academic articles, donating 100% of the proceeds to charities working towards social justice. He has also authored a science fiction novel fused with history and politics. His Master’s thesis on the religious milieu of Judaism in Muhammad’s life time, in Arabia, has been published by New Dawn Publications and is available on Amazon, with all proceeds similarly going to charity work. He has served as an editor for written works on Martial Arts and Eastern Medicine, transcribing and creating numerous titles for some of his teachers. He has himself authored several martial treatises using the pen name Seng, Hern-Heng – his Taoist lineage name given to him in 2006 by Huang, Chien-Liang. On that front, he is currently working on a new Taoist translation of the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) based on the original Mawangdui manuscripts. Micah became well-known for activism confronting an anti-Muslim protester peacefully and reasoning with her outside of a Dublin, Ohio mosque. After nearly 45 minutes of debate and reconciliation, the woman embraced a Muslimah woman from the mosque, and went into the mosque with her and Micah for bagels, coffee and a tour of the house of worship. When she left, the Muslims there gave her a gift bag. Micah became somewhat infamous – loved by some, hated by others – not only for several high-profile, viral protests, but also for teaching free self-defense classes available to all interested parties from historically oppressed communities. Law enforcement, however, have without question been the most hostile to Naziri, as he became a regular protester against police brutality and murder of unarmed African-Americans. Micah has been equally as virally-known as an avowed anti-rape activist, who confronted the Stanford Rapist, Brock Turner at his home in Sugarcreek Township, Ohio, after he was released from his mere three-month jail sentence for raping an unconscious woman. Today, Micah continues activism in the areas surrounding Yellow Springs, and abroad, focusing on weekly protests and vigils supporting families of innocent, unarmed African-American youths, gunned down by local police or vigilante citizens attempting to hide behind gun culture and the Second Amendment, such as in the recent case of Victor Santana – who was recently arrested, charged with murder, and convicted after months of pressure put on Montgomery County prosecutor Matt Heck by protests Micah organized in conjunction with Donald Dominique of the New Black Panther Party. Micah is currently coordinating expanded work with international Hashlamah Project chapters and the Jam`at Al-Fitrah, the name used in the Palestinian Territories for the Sufi Martial Tariqah known as the Taliyah al-Mahdi. He is seeking grant-writing partnerships to grow the Hashlamah Project organization’s efforts – particularly in the State of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
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