David Remnick has a pretty-damn-good piece in the New Yorker on Benny Morris’s new book, concluding, "Next month, the Israelis mark the sixtieth anniversary of their independence, the Palestinians the sixtieth anniversary of al-nakba, the catastrophe." So Nakba recognition has come to the New Yorker. Last week the nakba was mentioned in the Times in a piece about Bush’s visit to the region.
Remnick’s writing has sweep and gravity, and his reasoned point of view shows where "the arrow" is pointing, as they say in college basketball: it’s pointing to more and more Nakba recognition, more and more of the Palestinian narrative coming into American life. Apres Obama, le deluge. But Remnick’s piece is also way too favorable to Morris. Yes Morris is an important historian, a leader; but it is not the case, as Remnick says, that he flatters no one’s prejudices, especially his own. Here I am judging from earlier work by Morris; and I can’t imagine his new book is altogether different in tone. In his choleric attack on Walt and Mearsheimer in the New Republic, Morris expressed anger about the delegitimization of the Jewish state in western intellectual circles. That isn’t a historical impulse; it’s an ideological impulse.
And then there is his analysis, in his classic, Righteous Victims, about "the Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem." Morris stated that the refugee problem was created by factors on both sides: 1, sociological transformation of the Palestinians from a rural population to an urban population, lacking "social or political cohesion" and enraged by Zionist immigration, 2, The active policy of "transfer," endorsed by Ben-Gurion, which the Yishuv then carried out; expulsion. To equate these factors is absurd, it reveals prejudice. It reminds me of the neocon argument that the Arabs attacked us on 9/11 because young men have no political freedom in their societies, thus placing vap0rs (sociological analysis) on the same footing as dynamite (anti-neocolonial resentment). Transfer, the Zionist policy, was clearly the decisive factor. After all, there didn’t have to be a refugee problem; a year later the Zionists could have let all the refugees back. They didn’t, defying the U.N. They wanted an ethnically-cleansed state.
One of the lessons of the historiography of the Middle East is that we all have prejudices. As Remnick shows, Zionists have created their own narratives since Leon Uris’s time and back. And Arabs have shelves of scholarship on Zionism and the Nakba that are all but unknown to the west. What is the American role? That is the question. American Jewish intellectuals are still engaged by the Zionist narratives we grew up with. "I was a Zionist before I was a Democrat," Howard Berman says, and this is true for countless other liberal Jews who lack Berman’s transparency. The gift of post-Obama America, the freedom we have as Americans, the responsibility of Americans, is that we must bring our own inspiring narratives, of the civil rights struggle and minority empowerment, to bear on the situation. Already we are doing so, and look at the effect it is having in intellectual circles. The 1967 narrative–the peace process, with all its failures and lies on both sides–is beginning to yield to the 1948 narrative, the original problem. It’s a long bumpy road, but as the New Yorker shows, Americans are traveling it…