A re­vi­sion­ist re­vises his views

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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - GE­OF­FREY AL­DER­MAN

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.

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