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Benny Morris: History by Subtraction, Part 1
From Clerk to Kook
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Benny Morris.  Credit:
Benny Morris. Credit:

Israeli historian Benny Morris played a pivotal role in molding the current scholarly consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until his generation of scholars came along (the so-called new historians), the dominant depiction of the conflict, even in academia, amounted to little more than a footnoted version of Leon Uris’s potboiler, Exodus. The current consensus casts Israel since its founding in a much darker light. During the past 15 years, however, Morris has been given to lashing out at, and defending the old orthodoxy against, critics of Israel.

An unorthodox new historian not too long ago, Benny Morris in effect reinvented himself in recent times as an orthodox old historian. The process has been incremental, the quantitative degeneration becoming at a certain point qualitative. Although disfigured in ways small and large by ideological bias, Morris’s earlier works, such as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949,[1]New York: 1987. Israel’s Border Wars, 1949–1956: Arab infiltration, Israeli retaliation, and the countdown to the Suez war,[2]New York: 1993. Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881–1999,[3]New York: 1999. and The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine and the Jews[4]London: 2003. brought to light a wealth of novel information. The body of his subsequent major work, 1948: The first Arab-Israeli war,[5]New York: 2008. preserves a standard of scholarly rigor, but his conclusion crosses the threshold to crude distortion. His last major work, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict[6]New Haven: 2009. lacks any redeeming value and reeks of rancid propaganda.

Whereas he did not break new conceptual ground, Morris did roam the archives and cull revealing documents on the Israel-Palestine conflict that he then collated into a fresh, compelling narrative of the past. Once an industrious clerk, Morris has metamorphosed into a raging kook. In all fairness to him, it is of course arguable that Morris has honestly come to reconsider his former conclusions on the basis of new evidence; to discover that, however deficient their scholarship, the conclusions of the old historians were right after all. The problem is that Morris does not adduce new evidence to support his return to the old orthodoxy, but rather whites out the findings of his own pioneering research. This genre might be called doing history not by accretion but by subtraction.


[1] New York: 1987.

[2] New York: 1993.

[3] New York: 1999.

[4] London: 2003.

[5] New York: 2008.

[6] New Haven: 2009.

(Republished from Byline by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Benny Morris, Israel/Palestine 
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  1. Rehmat says:

    Jewish historians living outside Israel usually have different views on Zionist history of “Jewish victimization”.

    British historian John Rose (a Jewish academic, author and politician) in his book ‘The Myths of Zionism’ says Theodor Herzl was not particularly interested in Palestine as a ‘Jewish homeland’. He, originally, considered Argentina, but later realized that the Jewish biblical myths were a potent source of inspiration for developing an exclusivist and highly nationalistic identity. However, he was aware of the fact that without the backing of a European colonial power, Zionists’ plan would not materialize. Herzl is quoted in Our Roots: “England with her possessions in Asia should be most interested in Zionism, for the shortest route to India is by way of Palestine. England’s great politicians were first to recognize the need for colonial expansion. And so I believe in England the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea, should be easily understood.”

    Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College of New York (1922-1947) viewed Zionism as an ideology of identity by negation. The Zionist reaction to assimilation, including retreat to the Middle East, seemed to him an admission of defeat and acceptance of anti-Semitic values. To him this way Zionism was escaping Judeophobia instead of repairing Judeophobic societies (a similar advice was given to Chaim Wiezmann, president of WJC by Mahatma Gandhi in 1937) – a treason and dereliction of duty, in violation of the universal tenets of Jewish values of identity and inclusion….

  2. Sean says:

    Benny Morris simply said what everyone always knew about 1948. Now he is again saying what most Jews who live in Israel privately think ( Morris is a Jew who lives in Israel and I believe he thinks Israel has the right to remain a Jewish state . ” I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank” he said in 2004.

    Finkelstein recalls his strong youthful identification with the outrage that his mother, witness to the genocidal atrocities of World War II, felt at the carnage wrought by the United States in Vietnam.

    Like Krauthammer says of Sanders, Finkelstein is one of many of that background who equate Jewishness with being a victim. He will only be happy when the US takes Israel down with it, and both go to victim heaven.

    • Replies: @Rehmat
  3. Rehmat says:

    Dr. Finkelstein loves Israel and wouldn’t like to harm it. His main problem with the Zionist Jewry is that it demonizes Nazis victims by selling their suffering to extract money for Israel.

    Finkelstein never lived in Occupied Palestine, however, he did show his ‘satisfaction’ over Israel’s military humiliation at the hands of Hizbullah in 2006.

    In 2013 interview with Abbe Martin of Russian Television (RT) Finkelstein said that Palestinians would never achieve anything by having negotiations with Israelis. He said they have to force Israelis to accept their demands. In other words, Finkelstein was telling the Palestinian that the only way they can bring Israelis to their senses – is by an armed resistance.

    “I’m an atheist but I do believe that God helps only those who help themselves. Palestinians will never get anything from Israel or the United States unless they force them to accept their demands by mass resistance,” said Finkelstein.

    • Replies: @xfrd
  4. xfrd says:

    “mass resistance” is not “armed”

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