‘Ethnic cleansing’ becomes ‘No ethnic cleansing’ in Israeli history by Benny Morris

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Winston Churchill quipped at the House of Commons in 1948, “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history”.

Benny Morris is one Israeli historian who has definitely written about the history of Israel and Palestine in a way that made him an authoritative reference for many scholars and writers, particularly concerning the 1948 Nakba. In his pioneering role as a ‘new historian’, already in the late 1980’s, he scrutinized many declassified documents from and around 1948, and reached the conclusion that not only was there a “transfer” (as he quite systematically regards it), but that this “transfer” was “inevitable and inbuilt in Zionism – because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a Jewish state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population”. (In Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem)

That is a conclusion, an admission, of some magnitude. You don’t just go back on this one.

But, unbelievably, Morris does. At least he tries to.

Yesterday he writes in Haaretz, an article bluntly titled: “Israel conducted no ethnic cleansing in 1948.”

The background for his claim is another Haaretz article by Daniel Blatman from last week, titled “Netanyahu, This Is What Ethnic Cleansing Really Looks Like,” which is itself a response to Netantyahu’s shocking video from a month ago, where he projected the charge of ethnic cleansing on Palestinians.

Now Benny Morris is no small authority to challenge. But the fact is, that in Morris’s attempt to change history which he already clearly charted, he inevitably ends up contradicting his own words in ways which require no great scholarly authority (as I am surely am not), to realise the gravity of the intellectual-scholarly cul de sac that Morris has reached.

Whilst Morris rather systematically applies the term “transfer” in his works, as mentioned, one should not be in doubt as to what that term means. If one is in doubt, one can easily refer to Morris’s interview with Ari Shavit in Haaretz (2004), an article subtitled, “When Ethnic Cleansing Is Justified,” which Blatman also linked. There Morris says of Israeli soldiers:

“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]: You do not condemn them morally?


[Shavit] They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.

“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.”

And that was the situation in 1948?

“That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population.”

So Morris is quite clear, in fact crystal clear, about the application of “ethnic cleansing” to the 1948 expulsions.

In his attempt to rewrite history against Blatman’s supposedly flawed article, Morris frontally attacks Blatman for “betraying his profession”, regards him as a mere “historian” in quotation marks, chides him for distorting the events of the 1948 war, and for attributing things to Morris which he never said.

Morris’ first argument against Blatman is based on the idea that “they started” it:

“First, throughout the article Blatman ignores the basic fact that the Palestinians were the ones who started the war when they rejected the UN compromise plan and embarked on hostile acts in which 1,800 Jews were killed between November 1947 and mid-May 1948. (In that, by the way, the Jews differ from the Serbs, who started the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and did in fact carry out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and elsewhere)”.

Thus, per Morris, the Palestinians not accepting the UN Partition Plan, which appropriated over 55% of historical Palestine to the mostly newcomer Jewish population constituting about 1/3 of the total population as a fait accompli, appears to be an act of intrinsic rejectionism, which was followed by hostile acts that are exclusively cited as emerging from this Palestinian rejectionism. That is, Morris now completely ignores the numerous massacres and forced expulsions by Jewish militias (such as Jaffa and Deir Yassin), which indeed forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee, already well before the entry of any foreign fighters in mid-May 1948. For Morris it’s now just “they started” it.

Morris chides Blatman for misrepresenting his words. But here is how Morris misrepresents Blatman’s:

Regarding the second stage of the 1948 war, Blatman claims that the Arab countries invaded prestate Israel in order to rescue their Palestinian brothers from the ethnic cleansing that the Jews had launched, and that most of them attacked the new State of Israel in order to do this. During this alleged cleansing “over 400,000” Arabs – who according to Blatman made up over half the Palestinian Arab population – were expelled from their homes and forced to flee by May 14. (Actually, there were about 1.2 million to 1.3 million Arabs in the country at the time.)

Let’s see what Blatman actually writes:

Israeli historian Benny Morris determined that most of the Arabs in the country, over 400,000, were encouraged to leave or expelled in the first stage of the war — even before the Arab nations’ armies invaded. A few researchers have speculated that the Arab attack on Israel actually began because Israel had adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing.

Let’s scrutinise this: Blatman doesn’t actually “claim” that “the Arab countries invaded prestate Israel in order to rescue their Palestinian brothers from the ethnic cleansing that the Jews had launched”, as Morris asserts; he actually enters a qualification that “a few researchers have speculated” that this was the case. And the “alleged cleansing of 400.000 Arabs” is not regarding the second stage of the war in Blatman’s article, as Morris says; it’s actually regarding “the first stage” (November 1947 to mid-May 1948). Morris chides Blatman for representing this figure as “over half the Palestinian Arab Population”, and notes that there were about 1.2 to 1.3 million Arabs in the country at the time. But Blatman’s reference is not to the whole population of historical Palestine, but rather to the Palestinian population which was expelled and denied return – which Morris concedes is about 700.000.

This is more or less the level of Morris’ countering, in a rather pedantic and pathetic attempt to stay a bizarre ideological ground, which on the one hand acknowledges ethnic cleansing, but on the other denies it.

Benny Morris regards himself, astonishingly perhaps to some, as a “leftist”. He literally says so in the 2004 article with Shavit. Yet he not only represents the historical dichotomy of the Israeli “left”, effectively supporting ethnic cleansing, whilst hiding it in so many other terms. He also represents the rightward motion of the Israeli left, particularly since 2000, in which time Morris’s ideological colleague and lecture companion Ehud Barak offered the insidious narrative of his “generous offer” at Camp David, which Arafat supposedly rejected, and thus there was “no partner for peace”. This “blaming others” by Barak is very similar in its vein to Morris’ “they started”, and is basically an infantile narrative which is meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The eruption of the 2nd Palestinian Intifada in 2000, following that impasse, and governmental incitement and Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa compound, played into Barak’s narrative, in which he could now claim that “Arafat chose terror”, instead of peace.

Barak’s plan of shifting the left rightwards seemed to work, and the leftist Israeli public became more “disillusioned” as it were, shifting right into an absolutist nationalist and rejectionist stance: that there would be no real peace, just conflict management. Morris elucidates this sentiment in the interview with Shavit: “It’s hard for me, too. There is not going to be peace in the present generation. There will not be a solution. We are doomed to live by the sword.” Morris echoes Moshe Dayan, and this last statement was also recently echoed by Netanyahu.

But Morris goes further in his racism, even further than David Ben-Gurion, in his comments to Shavit:

“But I do not identify with Ben-Gurion. I think he 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. In the end, he faltered.”

[Shavit]: I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying that Ben-Gurion erred in expelling too few Arabs?

“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.”

Yet Morris is not deterred by the fact that this didn’t happen fully when it should have: “But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions”, he tells Shavit. And in this, he also directly includes Israeli Palestinians, that is, citizens of Israel.

Morris’s language arguably verges on supporting fascism. He hardly seems to wish to hide his racism. “It [Palestinian society] is a very sick society. It should be treated the way we treat individuals who are serial killers” he says. But on the other hand shows the “compassion” of the colonizer: “We have to try to heal the Palestinians. Maybe over the years the establishment of a Palestinian state will help in the healing process. But in the meantime, until the medicine is found, they have to be contained so that they will not succeed in murdering us”.

This “containment” is further described by Morris:

“Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another.”

Morris commits an intellectual, scholarly cul de sac – claiming that there actually wasn’t an ethnic cleansing.

He seeks to end his piece, with a typical liberal-Zionist opposition to the “right”, in this case to Netanyahu’s “ethnic cleansing” video: “Regarding the current preoccupation with the subject, it’s absurd, to put it mildly, to claim that uprooting Jewish communities from the West Bank is ‘ethnic cleansing’.” But he then continues to say that while “there is logic to the presence of Jews in Arab areas, just as Arabs live in the Jewish state” —  “In today’s circumstances, the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria is an obstacle to a possible peace between us and the Palestinians. I have always opposed this enterprise, because a division into two states for two peoples is the just and logical solution”.

Here we have this supposedly “leftist”, “liberal” and “logical” and “just” solution: “two states for two peoples”, garnished with the American official stance on settlements – “obstacle to peace” – but presented to us by a man whose racism seems to compete with, and perhaps even overshadow, Donald Trump’s.

Nonetheless, once done with the customary critique of “the right”, Morris actually goes on to support Netanyahu, even in the background light of his “absurd” statements:

“Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu is right when he says the main obstacle to peace is the unwillingness of the Arabs on both sides of the Green Line to agree to a compromise based on two states for two peoples, and their rejection of the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel.”

That’s how Morris ends his article. The Zionist enterprise, whose endemic crimes he had historically charted, the same enterprise in which “transfer” (can we please just call a spade a spade, and say ethnic cleansing?) was “inevitable” and “inbuilt” – that should be recognized by the Palestinians as “legitimate”. It’s not enough that they recognize the existence of Israel, as they formally did in Oslo. They need to legitimize their own ethnic cleansing. That’s why there isn’t peace, according to Morris.

Benny Morris seems to feel like Churchill. But Churchill proposed that as the victor he got to write the history. Whilst Morris proposes to write and then re-write it – even his own.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The fact that the refugees were never allowed to return makes this an ethnic cleansing anyway.

The Ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israelis is a fact but even if the Arabs left under the orders of the Arab Armies or because they were afraid they still have the right to return after the end of the war.