Norman Finkelstein has an important new book out, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. And because Benny Morris is in the news — Daniel Levy knocked him yesterday for his view of Palestinian “rejectionism”– we’ve picked up a piece of Finkelstein’s chapter on Morris, titled “History by Subtraction.” It contrasts the old Benny Morris, a historian who documented ethnic cleansing, with the new Benny Morris the propagandist. This excerpt begins with Finkelstein showing how Morris has transformed Palestinians who resisted Zionism into “expulsionists.”
Many cruel and unforgivable things have been said by American historians about our native population, but it took a peculiarly fecund Israeli mind to pin the label “starkly expulsionist” on an indigenous population resisting expulsion. To document this “expulsionist mindset,” Morris cites the testimony of a Palestinian delegation before a foreign commission of inquiry: “We will push the Zionists into the sea—or they will send us back into the desert.” Insofar as the Zionists were intent on “transferring the Arabs out,” it is unclear how this statement manifests malevolence. Doesn’t an indigenous population have the right to resist expulsion?
The new Morris alleges that “Arab expressions in the early years of the twentieth century of fear of eventual displacement and expulsion by the Zionists were largely propagandistic.” He seems to have forgotten that he himself pointed up this fear as the “chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism” and that he rationally grounded this fear in Zionist transfer policy. Morris now purports that the Arabs’ resistance to Zionism sprang from their thralldom to the notion of “sacred Islamic soil”; was “anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia”; and reached into “every fiber of their Islamic, exclusivist being.”After Israel’s establishment Ben-Gurion conceded, “If I was [sic] an Arab leader I would never make [peace?] terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country.” Morris alleges however that because of his ignorance of the Arab world Ben-Gurion failed to grasp that this rejection of Israel was not “natural” but rather rooted in Islamic “abhorrence” of Jews. Insofar as Morris is not known for his expertise on Islam, and insofar as he used to be known for not speculating a hair’s breadth beyond what his sources showed, it might be expected that he would copiously substantiate such gross generalizations. But Morris’s elucidation of 14 centuries of an allegedly hate-filled “Muslim Arab mindset” and “Muslim Arab mentality” consists of all of one half paragraph of boilerplate.
Coming to the modern period Morris alleges that “since the fin de siècle, Palestine Arabs had been murdering Jews on a regular basis for ethnic or quasinationalist reasons. . . . Arab mobs had assaulted Jewish sett lements and neighborhoods in a succession of ever-larger pogroms.” But the old Morris found that it was the very real prospect of Zionist transfer that “automatically produced resistance among the Arabs.” …
The new Morris laments that “historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric” of the Arabs, and he counters that “the evidence is abundant and clear” that the struggle against Zionism was conceived by Arabs “essentially as a holy war.” But the old Morris himself barely mentioned the “jihadi” factor and it was Morris himself who declared that the “chief motor” of Arab opposition to Zionism was not “jihad” but the “fear of territorial displacement and dispossession.” To prove that Palestinian resistance was driven by a jihadi “impulse,” the new Morris cites these statements: a “penitent land seller” swore, “I call on Allah, may He be exalted, to bear witness and swear . . . that I will be a loyal soldier in the service of the homeland”; the mufti of Egypt declared that the Jews intended “to take over . . . all the lands of Islam”; the ulema of Al-Azhar denoted it a “sacred religious duty” for “the Arab Kings, Presidents of Arab Republics, . . . and leaders of public opinion to liberate Palestine from the Zionist bands . . . and to return the inhabitants driven from their homes.” It would not however be the first or last time that God and religion were invoked in a patriotic struggle: Stalin rehabilitated the Greek Orthodox Church in the battle against Nazism, Gandhi utilized the Hindu religion at every turn in resistance to British occupation, Bush conscripted a Christian god for homeland security and the War on Terror.
In fact, although the old Morris took note that “the Arab radicalization often took on a religious aspect,” and that “increasingly the points of friction with the Zionists were, or became identified with, religious symbols and values,” he nonetheless recognized that the “chief motor” of Arab resistance was fear of displacement and dispossession. The new Morris reports that “even Christian Arabs appear to have adopted the jihadi discourse” of “holy war.” But doesn’t this contrarily show that, although utilizing the “jihadi discourse” of “holy war,” the opposition to Zionism was not “anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia”? He purports that, in light of their “expulsionist and, in great measure, anti-Semitic” mindset, “it is unsurprising that the Arab mobs that periodically ran amok in Palestine’s streets during the Mandate . . . screamed ‘idhbah al yahud’ (slaughter the Jews).” Yet, as Yehoshua Porath observed in his magisterial study of Palestinian nationalism, although Arabs initially diff erentiated between Jews and Zionists, it was “inevitable” that opposition to Zionism would turn into a loathing of all Jews: “As immigration increased, so did the Jewish community’s identification with the Zionist movement. . . . The non-Zionist and anti-Zionist factors became an insignificant minority, and a large measure of sophistication was required to make the older distinction. It was unreasonable to hope that the wider Arab population, and the riotous mob which was part of it, would maintain this distinction.” If the Arabs shouted “idhbah al yahud,” it was because nearly every Jew they encountered was a Zionist bent, according to the old Morris, on expelling them.
It is instructive to recall here the old Morris’s treatment of the first intifada…. Morris was emphatic that “the main energizing force of the intifada was the frustration of the national aspirations” of the Palestinians, “who wanted to live in a Palestinian state and not as stateless inhabitants under a brutal, foreign military occupation.” And again, after expatiating on jihadi influences, he cautioned: “But the factors that made individual Palestinians take to the streets and endure beating, imprisonment, and economic privation were predominantly socioeconomic and psychological”—such as the “continuous trampling of the[ir] basic rights and dignity,” and their fear that “Israel’s settlement policy and its discriminatory economic policies” prefigured “the government’s ultimate intent to dispossess them and drive them out and to replace them with Jews.”
The old Morris—the pre-propagandist Morris—was able to discern that although Islamic zealots figured prominently in the first intifada and Islamic symbols and texts, even hateful anti-Semitic ones, might have been pervasive, its “main energizing force” was not hoary “Islamic Judeophobia” but the mundane denial of basic Palestinian rights. Even in his account of the second intifada, when the salience of the Islamic component was yet greater and he himself was already given to tirades against jihadis, Morris emphasized that “at base” the revolt resulted from “the state of the Palestinians and the peace process . . . the frustrations and slights endured since the signing in 1993 of the Oslo agreement, and more generally since the start of the occupation.”