Rethinking 1948

May 27, 2008

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Rethinking 1948

Under Consideration: Benny Morris, 1948: The First Arab Israeli War, Yale University Press (2008), 524 pages.

Back in the late 1980s and 90s, Benny Morris was identified, some would say targeted, as the stormy petrel among Israeli historians. In tomes such as The Birth of the Palestinian Problem (1988), Israel’s Border Wars (1993), and Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict (1999) he slaughtered any number of sacred cows. He started with the heretical idea that during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, 600,000 or so Palestinians did not leave their homes out of their own free will but had been expelled by the Israeli army. He ended with the equally heretical one that most of the Palestinians who were caught (many of who were shot) by the IDF while trying to “infiltrate” across the border to Israel during the 1950s were unarmed civilians who were simply trying to return to their former lands. It speaks volumes about Morris’s work that for several years, no Israeli university would give him a job. That work also earned its author the undying hatred of many Israelis from Likud minister of education Limor Livnat down (or up: when it comes to nationalist stupidity, it is hard to sink lower than she did). As the saying goes, it is by his enemies that a man should be judged.

Then came the Second Palestinian Uprising. Morris, who hitherto was considered the doyen of the so-called “new historians,” changed his mind (though it took him some time to admit the fact). Like many other dovish Israelis, for years on end he had placed much of the blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel’s own leaders who, in his view, had been far to harsh in their dealings and with the Palestinians. To achieve that peace he advocated negotiations with the PLO—in spite of all the terrorist acts the latter had committed, and in spite of its refusal to recognize the Jewish State—and withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Like many of his fellow doves, he simply lost patience with Arafat, the PLO, and the Palestinian people as a whole. Much to the surprise of those familiar with his works, the historians who had criticized his government for so long started defending it and justifying it. If that is bad news for the peace process and for the Palestinian aspirations to obtain a state of their own, then so be it.
In 1848, Morris’ central message is simple. The Arabs, both those inside Palestine and those who live in the neighboring countries, hated the Zionist enterprise right from the beginning and did whatever was in their power to stop it and—as many of their leaders said—push the Jews back into the sea. They were, however, hopelessly unable to resist the Zionist onslaught. In part this was because of the extraordinary dynamism of the Zionist movement itself; in the whole of history, it is hard to find a national liberation movement that was more determined and more prepared to do whatever it would take. In part it was because the international situation, specifically including the great powers, often favored the Zionists, and in part because the Palestinian community, for all that it outnumbered the Jews in Palestine (as late as 1948, twice as many Arabs lived west of the Jordan than Jews) was backward, disorganized, and corrupt. Time after time, first the British Imperial Government and then the United Nations came up with proposals to defuse the conflict by dividing the country between Jews and Arabs. Time after time, the former accepted whereas the latter refused.

It was the last of these proposals, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 29 November 1947, which formed the immediate background to the war. In narrating the history of the latter, Morris comes up with few surprises. The traditional picture that presents the war as a desperate struggle for survival mounted by the small and the few against the big and the many is, generally speaking, correct. At the beginning of the war the Israelis (as they now were) fought outnumbered, but owing to a much more efficient system of mobilization this soon changed. By the time the state was proclaimed on 14 May 1948, the Palestinians had already been decisively beaten; had the armies of the neighboring Arab countries not intervened in the conflict, the Israelis would have made mincemeat of them even more easily than was actually the case. Of the five invading armies, the Arab Legion was far and away the best both as a fighting force and when it came to observing the law of war in regard to the wounded, prisoners, and so on. By comparison the remaining Arab armies were, in a word, lousy.

From the Israeli point of view the most difficult period in the war, and the only one in which their state and they themselves were in real danger, was the one that began on 15 May, when the regular armies of the neighboring Arab countries invaded Palestine. That period ended on 11 June when the so-called first truce, mandated by the United Nations, went into effect. Though both sides tried to use the truce for their purposes, the Jews were much better at doing so. By the time hostilities were resumed they had decisively changed the balance of forces by mobilizing many more personnel and importing heavy weapons from abroad. Though hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes because of the war, many of them after being expelled, there was no overall plan coordinated from above to get rid of them. Both sides committed atrocities, but owing to the fact that the Arabs only succeeded in conquering very few Jewish settlements—whereas the Jews, on their part, conquered hundreds of Arab ones—the latter probably committed more of them than the former. Had the Jews lost the struggle, the outcome would very probably have been a real holocaust. Had it not been for the intervention of the great powers, which twice saved the Egyptian army in particular, Israel would have completely demolished its enemies and expanded its borders.

To a reader familiar with the literature, especially the Israeli literature of the last twenty years or so, none of this will come as a particular surprise. Sixty years after the events, the time for the kind of hagiography that often marked the first few decades of Zionist-Israeli inquiries into the origins and development of their state is past; that of real historical research, based on real sources many of which have only recently become available, has arrived. What makes this volume unique is the author’s unrivaled mastery of the Israeli and British archives (no Arab archives have been opened to the public; in any case, Morris does not read Arabic) as well as his eye for detail and splendid style. The result is a fascinating work that contains any number of fascinating details.
Morris has often been criticized in the past, and there can be little question about that, in publishing this book, he has opened himself to more criticism in the future.  Some will no doubt accuse him of not being sufficiently Zionist—after all, he does say that the Palestinians were never any match for the Israelis, and he does mention some atrocities the latter committed. Others will claim, in fact are already claiming, that in presenting Israel’s conduct of the war in a favorable light he all but ignores the role the country played in originating the conflict and perpetuating it. In this short review, I do not want to go into the details or determine who, Morris or his critics (and, among the latter, which ones) is right and who is wrong; perhaps the fact that he has come under fire from both sides speaks for itself. Suffice it to say that he has produced a comprehensive, very well documented, and very well written, work. For anybody who wants to understand the war in which modern Israel was created, but also the present mood of much of the Israeli left, a better starting point is impossible to find.    

Martin Van Creveld is professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is the author, most recently, of The Culture of War and Defending Israel: A Strategic Plan for Peace and Security.

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