A revisionist revises his views

Historian Benny Morris concedes that the Arab struggle against Zionism is about religion, not land

Over the past few weeks, the even tenor of my scholastic existence has been repeatedly interrupted by the demands of the media for “authoritative” answers to their many queries arising from the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence.

To be frank, I do not usually have much time for journalists who are too lazy to research matters themselves. But I anticipated the 60th-anniversary deluge, and I promised myself that I would do my best to be more positive and encouraging than is my usual custom when dealing with media inquiries.

I had two reasons for so doing. The first was that I knew anti-Israel propagandists would seize the opportunity to promote a partial and disfigured historical narrative of events leading up to the re-establishment of the Jewish state. The second was that some of my fellow historians — some of my fellow Jewish historians, I should say — have played and continue to play a very prominent part in the writing and propagation of this flawed narrative.

And so it came as no surprise that in dealing with the media over this issue I found myself largely occupied with correcting the many errors of fact and interpretation that these historians have committed. It is particularly pleasing, therefore, to have to report that one of them has very recently had the courage to disavow, at least to some extent, his former views.

The broad outlines of the revisionist position — as formulated by Avi Shlaim (Oxford), Ilan Pappé (Exeter, formerly Haifa), Norman Finkelstein (“let go” by DePaul University, Chicago) and Benny Morris (Ben-Gurion University) — are well known: Palestine a century ago was not “a land without a people”. It was inhabited by a nation of Palestinian Arabs, whose Muslim majority had lived for centuries in perfect harmony with small Christian and Jewish minorities.

These Arabs, galvanised by the intrepid Colonel TE Lawrence, fought bravely alongside the British against the Turks. But the wicked Zionists, in league with an equally wicked British establishment, conceived a dastardly plan to evict (“ethnically cleanse” is the fashionable phrase) these peace-loving Arabs and replace them with a Jewish majority. In 1947-48 this plan reached it final, bloody phase. Through organised mayhem and massacre the Arabs were driven into exile, and the “colonialist” Jewish state came into being.

It came as shock to one of my media inquirers when I told her that Lawrence’s autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom was an admittedly well-written piece of fiction. No-one had a lower opinion of the “Arab Revolt” against Turkey than Lawrence himself, who had to arrange for payments to be made in gold sovereigns before the warring Arab tribes would consent to put aside their differences and demolish so much as one metre of Turkish railway line. Mandate Palestine was indeed “a land without a people”.  Palestinian nationalism may — I stress “may” — be a fact of life now. It wasn’t a century ago.

There was no plan to expel the Arabs wholesale from Palestine. It is true that some injudicious remarks by Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders in the 1930s invoked the possibility of driving Arabs from Jewish-controlled areas, but these remarks must be construed in the context of escalating Arab violence against Jews. The revisionists make much of the so-called Plan D, formulated by the Haganah on March 10, 1948, which gave regional commanders the authority to garrison or expel Arab villages along the line of the route that Arab armies were expected to take (and did take) in invading Israel. Once expelled, the inhabitants of these villages were not permitted to return — as Morris himself has said, they were regarded as a potential fifth column.

Why did the Arabs resort to war? Why did they not accept partition and agree to live in peaceful co-existence with the Jewish state? In a remarkable article in Newsweek earlier this month, Morris has signalled his support for my answer to these questions. “It has become clear to me”, he writes, “that from its start, the struggle against the Zionist enterprise wasn’t merely a national conflict between two peoples over a piece of territory, but also a religious crusade.”

Apparently, Morris now accepts that there is an unbroken thread linking the anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi sentiments of Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s, and the anti-Jewish verbiage of the founding charter of Hamas.

This reappraisal, on the part of one of the leading revisionists, has come late. But better late than never.

    Last updated: 4:07pm, May 29 2008