Diagnosing Benny Morris: the mind of a European settler

27 January 2004

baqaa483.jpg

Baqa’a, the world’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, north of Amman, Jordan (Photo: Ali Abunimah/EI)


Israeli historian Benny Morris crossed a new line of shame when he put his academic credentials and respectability in the service of outlining the “moral” justification for a future genocide against Palestinians.

Benny Morris is the Israeli historian most responsible for the vindication of the Palestinian narrative of 1948. The lives of about 700,000 people were shattered as they were driven from their homes by the Jewish militia (and, later, the Israeli army) between December 1947 and early 1950. Morris went through Israeli archives and wrote the day by day account of this expulsion, documenting every “ethnically cleansed” village and every recorded act of violence, and placing each in the context of the military goals and perceptions of the cleansers.

Israel’s apologists tried in vain to attack Morris’ professional credibility. From the opposite direction, since he maintained that the expulsion was not “by design,” he was also accused of drawing excessively narrow conclusions from the documents and of being too naive a reader of dissimulating statements. Despite these limitations, Morris’ “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugees Problem, 1947-1949” is an authoritative record of the expulsion.

In anticipation of the publication of the revised edition, Morris was interviewed in Ha’aretz. The major new findings in the revised book, based on fresh documents, further darken the picture.

The new archival material, Morris reveals, records routine execution of civilians, twenty-four massacres, including one in Jaffa, and at least twelve cases of rape by military units, which Morris acknowledges are probably “the tip of the iceberg.” Morris also says he found documents confirming the broader conclusions favored by his critics: the expulsion was pre-meditated; concrete expulsion orders were given in writing, some traceable directly to Ben Gurion.

Morris also found documentations for Arab High Command calls for evacuating women and children from certain villages, evidence he oddly claims strengthen the Zionist propaganda claim that Palestinians left because they were told to leave by the invading Arab states. Morris had already documented two dozen such cases in the first edition. It is hard to see how attempts by Arab commanders to protect civilians from anticipated rape and murder strengthen the Zionist fairy tale. But that failed attempt at evenhandedness is the least of Morris’ problems. As the interview progresses, it emerges with growing clarity that, while Morris the historian is a professional and cautious presenter of facts, Morris the intellectual is a very sick person.

His sickness is of the mental-political kind. He lives in a world populated not by fellow human beings, but by racist abstractions and stereotypes. There is an over-abundance of quasi-poetic images in the interview, as if the mind is haunted by the task of grasping what ails it: “The Palestinian citizens of Israel are a time bomb,” not fellow citizens. Islam is “a world in which human lives don’t have the same value as in the West.” Arabs are “barbarians” at the gate of the Roman Empire. Palestinian society is “a serial killer” that ought to be executed, and “a wild animal” that must be caged.

Morris’ disease was diagnosed over forty years ago, by Frantz Fanon. Based on his experience in subjugated Africa, Fanon observed that “the colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say, with the help of the army and the police, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation, the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil … The native is declared insensitive to ethics … the enemy of values. … He is a corrosive element, destroying all that comes near it … the unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind forces” (from “The Wretched of the Earth”). And further down, “the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms” (let’s not forget to place Morris’ metaphors in the context of so many other Israeli appellations for Palestinians: Begin’s “two-legged beasts”, Eitan’s “drugged cockroaches” and Barak’s ultra-delicate “salmon”). Morris is a case history in the psychopathology of colonialism.

Bad Genocide, Good Genocide

When the settler encounters natives who refuse to cast down their eyes, his disease advances to the next stage — murderous sociopathy.

Morris, who knows the exact scale of the terror unleashed against Palestinians in 1948, considers it justified. First he suggests that the terror was justified because the alternative would have been a genocide of Jews by Palestinians. Raising the idea of genocide in this context is pure, and cheap, hysteria. Indeed, Morris moves immediately to a more plausible explanation: the expulsion was a precondition for creating a Jewish state, i.e. the establishment of a specific political preference, not self-defense.

This political explanation, namely that the expulsion was necessary to create the demographic conditions, a large Jewish majority, favored by the Zionist leadership, is the consensus of historians. But as affirmative defense, it is unsatisfactory. So the idea that Jews were in danger of genocide is repeated later, in a more honest way, as merely another racist, baseless generalization: “if it can, [Islamic society] will commit genocide.”

But Morris sees no evil. Accusing Ben Gurion of failing to achieve an “Arabenrein Palestine,” he recommends further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens. Not now, but soon, “within five or ten years,” under “apocalyptic conditions” such as a regional war with unconventional weapons, a potentially nuclear war, which “is likely to happen within twenty years.” For Morris, and it is difficult to overstate his madness at this point, the likelihood of a nuclear war within the foreseeable future is not the sorry end of a road better not taken, but merely a milestone, whose aftermath is still imaginable, and imaginable within the banal continuity of Zionist centennial policies: he foresees the exchange of unconventional missiles between Israel and unidentified regional states as a legitimate excuse for “finishing the job” of 1948.

Morris speaks explicitly of another expulsion, but, in groping for a moral apology for the past and the future expulsion of Palestinians, he presents a more general argument, one that justifies not only expulsion but also genocide. That statement ought to be repeated, for here is a crossing of a terrible and shameful line.

Morris, a respectable, Jewish, Israeli academic, is out in print in the respectable daily, Ha’aretz, justifying genocide as a legitimate tool of statecraft. It should be shocking. Yet anybody who interacts with American and Israeli Zionists knows that Morris is merely saying for the record what many think and even say unofficially. Morris, like most of Israel, lives in a temporality apart, an intellectual Galapagos Islands, a political Jurassic Park, where bizarre cousins of ideas elsewhere shamed into extinction still roam the mindscape proudly.

Nor should one think the slippage between expulsion, “transfer,” and genocide without practical consequences. It is not difficult to imagine a planned expulsion turn into genocide under the stress of circumstances: The genocides of both European Jews and Armenians began as an expulsion. The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was the product of decades of thinking and imagining “transfer.” We ought to pay attention: with Morris’s statement, Zionist thinking crossed another threshold; what is now discussed has the potential to be actualized, if “apocalyptic conditions” materialize.

The march of civilization and the corpses of the uncivilized

It is instructive to look closer at the manner in which Morris uses racist thinking to justify genocide. Morris’ interview, precisely because of its shamelessness, is a particularly good introductory text to Zionist thought.

Morris’ racism isn’t limited to Arabs. Genocide, according to Morris, is justified as long as it is done for “the final good.” But what kind of good is worth the “forced extinction” of a whole people? Certainly, not the good of the latter. (Morris uses the word “Haqkhada” in the published Hebrew version of the interview, a word usually associated with the extinction of animal species. Someone ought to inform Morris about the fact that Native Americans aren’t extinct.)

According to Morris, the establishment of a more advanced society justifies genocide: “Yes, even the great American democracy couldn’t come to be without the forced extinction of Native Americans. There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds.” Such hopeful comparisons between the future awaiting Palestinians and the fate of Native Americans are common to Israeli apologists. One delegation of American students was shocked and disgusted when it heard this analogy made by a spokesperson at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Morris’s supremacist view of “Western Civilization,” that civilization values human life more than Islam, has its basis in the moral acceptance of genocide for the sake of “progress.” Morris establishes the superiority of the West on both the universal respect for human life and the readiness to exterminate inferior races. The illogicalness of the cohabitation of a right to commit genocide together with a higher level of respect for human lives escapes him, and baffles us, at least until we grasp that the full weight of the concept of “human” is restricted, in the classic manner of Eurocentric racism, to dwellers of civilized (i.e. Western) nations.

This is the same logic that allowed early Zionists to describe Palestine as an empty land, despite the presence of a million inhabitants. In the end, it comes down to this: killing Arabs — one dozen Arabs or one million Arabs, the difference is merely technical — is acceptable if it is necessary in order to defend the political preferences of Jews because Jews belong to the superior West and Arabs are inferior. We must be thankful to Professor Morris for clarifying the core logic of Zionism so well.

The color of Jews

Morris assures us that his values are those of the civilized West, the values of universal morality, progress, etc. But then he also claims to hold the primacy of particular loyalties, a position for which he draws on Albert Camus. But to reconcile Morris’ double loyalty to both Western universalism and to Jewish particularism, one must forget that these two identities were not always on the best of terms.

How can one explain Morris’ knowledge that the ethnic Darwinism that was used to justify the murder of millions of non-whites, including Black African slaves, Native Americans, Arabs, and others, was also used to justify the attempt to exterminate Jews? How can Morris endorse the “civilizational” justification of genocide, which includes the genocide of Jews, even as he claims the holocaust as another justification for Zionism? Perhaps Morris’ disjointed mind doesn’t see the connection. Perhaps he thinks that there are “right” assertions of racist supremacy and “wrong” assertions of racist supremacy. Or perhaps Morris displays another facet of the psychopathologies of oppression, the victim’s identification with the oppressor.

Perhaps in Morris’ mind, one half tribalist and one half universalist, the Jews were murdered to make way for a superior, more purely Aryan, European civilization, and the Jews who are today serving in the Israeli army, both belong and do not belong to the same group. They belong when Morris invokes the totems of the tribe to justify loyalty. But when his attention turns to the universal principle of “superior civilization,” these Jews are effaced, like poor relations one is ashamed to be associated with, sent back to the limbo they share with the great non-white mass of the dehumanized. In contrast, the Jews of Israel, self-identified as European, have turned white, dry-cleaned and bleached by Zionism, and with their whiteness they claim the privilege that Whites always had, the privilege to massacre members of “less advanced” races.

False testimony

It would be marvelous if Morris the historian could preserve his objective detachment while Morris the Zionist dances with the demons of Eurocentric racism. But the wall of professionalism — and it is a very thick and impressive wall in Morris’ case — cannot hold against the torrent of hate.

For example, Morris lies about his understanding of the 2000 Camp David summit. In Ha’aretz, Morris says that, “when the Palestinians rejected Barak’s proposal of July 2000 and Clinton’s proposal of December 2000, I understood that they were not ready to accept a two state solution. They wanted everything. Lydda, and Akka and Jaffa.”

But in his book “Righteous Victims,” Morris explains the failure of the negotiations thus: “the PLO leadership had gradually accepted, or seemed to…Israel…keeping 78 percent of historical Palestine. But the PLO wanted the remaining 22 percent. … At Camp David, Barak had endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state…[on only] 84-90 percent of that 22 percent. … Israel was also to control the territory between a greatly enlarged Jerusalem and Jericho, effectively cutting the core of the future Palestinian state into two…” Morris’ chapter of “Righteous Victims” that deals with the ’90s leaves a lot to be desired, but it still strives for some detached analysis. In contrast, in Ha’aretz Morris offers baseless claims he knows to be false.

If Morris lies about recent history, and even grossly misrepresents the danger Jews faced in Palestine in 1948, a period he is an expert on, his treatment of more general historical matters is all but ridiculous, an astounding mix of insinuations and cliches. For example, Morris reminds us that “the Arab nation won a big chunk of the Earth, not because of its intrinsic virtues and skills, but by conquering and murdering and forcing the conquered to convert.” (What is Morris’ point? Is the cleansing of Palestine attributable to Jewish virtues and skills, rather than to conquering and murdering?)

This is racist slander, not history. As an example, take Spain, which was conquered in essentially one battle in 711 A.D. by a band of North African Berbers who had just converted to Islam. Spain was completely Islamized and Arabized within two centuries with very little religious coercion, and certainly no ethnic cleansing. But after the last Islamic rulers were kicked out of Spain by the Christian army of Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492, a large section of the very same Spanish population that willingly adopted Islam centuries earlier refused to accept Christianity despite a century of persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. 600,000 Spanish Muslims were eventually expelled in 1608.

Obviously, Islamic civilization had its share of war and violence. But, as the above example hints, compared to the West, compared to the religious killing frenzy of sixteenth century Europe, compared to the serial genocides in Africa and America, and finally to the flesh-churning wars of the twentieth century, Islamic civilization looks positively benign. So why all this hatred? Where is all this fire and brimstone Islamophobia coming from?

Being elsewhere

From Europe, of course, but with a twist. Europe has always looked upon the East with condescension. In periods of tension, that condescension would escalate to fear and hate. But it was also mixed and tempered with a large dose of fascination and curiosity. The settler, however, does not have the luxury to be curious. The settler leaves the metropolis hoping to overcome his own marginal, often oppressed, status in metropolitan society. He goes to the colony motivated by the desire to recreate the metropolis with himself at the top.

For the settler, going to the colony is not a rejection of the metropolis, but a way to claim his due as a member. Therefore, the settler is always trying to be more metropolitan than the metropolis. When the people of the metropolis baulk at the bloodbath the settler wants to usher in the name of their values, the settler accuses them of “growing soft,” and declares himself “the true metropolis.” That is also why there is one crime of which the settler can never forgive the land he colonized — its alien climate and geography, its recalcitrant otherness, the oddness of its inhabitants, in sum, the harsh truth of its being elsewhere. In the consciousness of the settler, condescension thus turns into loathing.

Israeli settler society, especially its European, Ashkenazi part, especially that Israel which calls itself “the peace camp,” “the Zionist Left,” etc., is predicated on the loathing of all things Eastern and Arab. (Now, of course, there is the religious, post-1967 settlers who relate to the Zionist Left the way the Zionist Left stands in relation to Europe, i.e. as settlers.) “Arab” is a term of abuse, one that can be applied to everything and everyone, including Jews. This loathing is a unifying theme. It connects Morris’ latest interview in Ha’aretz with Ben Gurion’s first impression of Jaffa in 1905; he found it filthy and depressing.

In another article, published in Tikkun Magazine, Morris blames the “ultra-nationalism, provincialism, fundamentalism and obscurantism” of Arab Jews in Israel for the sorry state of the country (although Begin, Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, and most of Israel’s generals, leaders, and opinion makers of the last two decades are European Jews). For Morris, everything Eastern is corrupt and every corruption has an Eastern origin.

One shouldn’t, therefore, doubt Morris when he proclaims himself a traditional Left Zionist. Most of what he says hasn’t been said already by David Ben Gurion or Moshe Dayan. Loathing of the East and the decision to subdue it by unlimited force is the essence of Zionism.

Understanding the psycho-political sources of this loathing leads to some interesting observations about truisms that recur in Morris’ (and much of Israel’s) discourse. Morris blames Arafat for thinking that Israel is a “crusader state,” a foreign element that will eventually be sent back to its port of departure. This is a common refrain of Israeli propaganda. It is also probably true. But it isn’t Arafat’s fault that Morris is a foreigner in the Middle East. Why shouldn’t Arafat believe Israel is a crusader state when Morris himself says so? “We are the vulnerable extension of Europe in this place, exactly as the crusaders.”

It is Morris — like the greater part of Israel’s elite — who insists on being a foreigner, on loathing the Middle East and dreaming about mist-covered Europe, purified and deified by distance. If Israel is a crusader state, and therefore a state with shallow roots, likely to pack up and disappear, it is not the fault of those who make that observation. It is the fault of those Israelis, like Morris, who want to rule the Middle East from behind tall walls and barbed wire.

Morris is deeply pessimistic about Israel’s future; this feeling is very attractive in Israel. The end of Israel is always felt to be one step away, hiding beneath every development, from the birthrate of Bedouins to the establishment of the International Court of Justice.

Naturally, every Palestinian demand is such a doomsday threat. This sense of existential precariousness can be traced back to 1948; it was encouraged by Israel’s successive governments because it justified the continuous violence of the state and the hegemony of the military complex. It may eventually become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

But this existential fear goes deeper. It is rooted in the repressed understanding (which Morris both articulates and tries to displace) of the inherent illegitimacy of the Israeli political system and identity. “Israel” is brute force. In Morris’ words: “The bottom line is that force is the only thing that will make them accept us.” But brute force is precarious. Time gnaws at it. Fatigue corrodes it. And the more it is used, the more it destroys the very acceptance and legitimacy it seeks.

For Israel, the fundamental question of the future is, therefore, whether Israelis can transcend colonialism. The prognosis is far from positive. In a related article in The Guardian, Morris explains that accepting the right of return of the Palestinian refugees would mean forcing Israeli Jews into exile. But why would Jews have to leave Israel if Israel becomes a bi-national, democratic state? One cannot understand this without attention to the colonial loathing of the Middle East which Morris so eloquently expresses.

But taking that into account, I’m afraid Morris is right. Many Israeli Jews, especially European Jews who tend to possess alternative passports, would rather emigrate than live on equal terms with Palestine’s natives in a bi-national state. It is to Frantz Fanon again that we turn for observing this first. “The settler, from the moment the colonial context disappears, has no longer an interest in remaining or in co-existing.”

Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed “opssimist.” He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. He lives in the United States. This article was first published at YellowTimes.org and is reproduced here with permission. Gabriel Ash encourages your comments at gash@YellowTimes.org

Related Links:

  • Moral decay and Benny Morris, Ali Abunimah (24 January 2004)