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The War to Begin All Wars

Making Israel

edited by Benny Morris
University of Michigan Press, 369 pp., $75.00; $24.95 (paper)

In 1963 the young Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua published Facing the Forests, a novella destined to become a classic of Hebrew literature. It is a nightmarish story, the kind of dread-filled dream from which you awake shuddering, about a student who takes a job as a watchman in one of Israel’s newly planted forests. His task is to watch day and night for fire; his only company is an old Arab whose tongue was cut out in “the war”—meaning Israel’s war of independence in 1948—and the Arab’s young daughter. The forest, as the watchman learns, hides the ruins of an Arab village, the remains of an erased past: once other people lived here, members of a different nation. Their departure has to do with vague, unrecorded violence.

At the end, the mute Arab ignites the forest. The watchman-scholar does not participate in the arson, but welcomes the climax of fire and what it reveals: “And there, from within the smoke, from within the mist, the little village rises before him, reborn in its most basic outlines, as in an abstract painting, like every submerged past.” As a watchman, the Israeli has failed. Perhaps as a scholar he has succeeded: he has uncovered history, as if in a hidden archive.

A quarter of a century later Benny Morris published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949. There was nothing dreamlike about Morris’s scholarship, though some of his precise descriptions of battles and expulsions could provoke nightmares. In a way, Morris was reenacting Yehoshua’s story—but with the brash Israeli historian himself burning away obfuscations and revealing the stark past. At the book’s beginning is a map of hundreds of Arab villages whose residents fled or were expelled in the course of what Palestinians call the Nakba, the Catastrophe. After that comes a map of Jewish settlements established after the war, completing the metamorphosis of the countryside. “In its most basic outlines,” a portion of the “submerged past” emerged from the smoke and fire of Morris’s account.

Just as the war and exodus transformed the landscape and Middle East politics, Morris’s book altered discussion of Israeli and Palestinian history. In Israel, it ignited a long-running debate. Shortly after the publication of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris fed the fire with an essay in the American journal Tikkun, “The New Historiography,” published in 1988, in which he anointed himself and several other Israeli scholars as the New Historians. The Old Historians, he argued, felt compelled to offer a propagandistic, “consciously pro-Israel interpretation of the past” and were shackled by their own biographies, having lived through the war. The new generation was more impartial, he claimed. That programmatic essay is republished in Making Israel, a recent anthology edited by Morris that surveys the argument over writing the country’s past.

Since then, Morris has returned again and again to writing about 1948, as if he wakes up every morning anew in that year, inside the impossible trauma of Israel coming into existence as the Palestinians go into exile, rewriting it, dissatisfied, still seeking to get the story right, trying to fulfill the credo he has set:

I believed, and still believe, that there is such a thing as historical truth; that it exists independently of, and can be detached from, the subjectivities of scholars; that it is the historian’s duty to try to reach it….1

Four years ago, he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited—the original work enriched with documents declassified in the interim by Israeli archives. Now, six decades after the original events, Morris has produced yet another account in 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.

Rather than focusing on the exodus, 1948 is a military history of the entire war. The wider angle provides a more extensive picture of the threat faced by the Jewish side and its responses. The maps are of battles, not vanished villages. The opening page is a poem by American Zionist writer Marie Syrkin:

Suppose, this time, Goliath should not fail;
Suppose, this time, the sling should not avail….
The psalm is stilled, and David does not win.

The poem suggests that Morris has swung toward the account of the war he originally dismissed: the Jews were the heroic few facing annihilation. In the context he provides, the judgments he makes, he is now more willing to justify the choices made by the Jewish side, more critical of those made by the Arabs. Islam, described harshly, has entered his account. Fortunately, the vast amount of detail that he includes creates a complex story that defies easy conclusions, including some of his own.

The result is the richest chronicle yet of the 1948 war, yet unavoidably one with its own slant. It reflects Morris’s self-described transition from dove to hawk since the collapse of the Oslo process. (A recent expression of Morris’s dizzying movement rightward was his New York Times Op-Ed article in July, arguing that Israel may have no choice but to launch a nuclear strike against Iran.2)

The recent appearance of the essay collection Making Israel, recalling Morris’s earlier views and their political setting, helps make the contrast with his new positions clearer. Ironically, Morris, the declared positivist, has demonstrated how much the present shapes the past, how dry facts conflict with national narrative. History, he has shown, is a story set inside the personal story of those who tell it.

The conflagration began on November 30, 1947, the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. A band of Arab fighters fired the first shots at a bus east of Tel Aviv, killing five Jews. The last military operation ended on March 10, 1949. In those fifteen months, Jewish forces defeated first the Arab irregulars of Palestine, then the invading armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The new Jewish state’s borders, and its survival, were a product of victory. Yet in those same months, somewhere around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees.

In The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris, writing in the 1980s, rejected both sides’ explanations of the exodus. It was neither the result of Arab leaders’ instructions to Palestinians to leave, as the Israelis insisted, nor of a premeditated Jewish policy to expel them, as Arab leaders maintained. In fact, the strongest lesson of Birth may be that it gives an unstated warning not to fall for the fallacy that all historical events are intended, and not to presume that there is a clear policy choice behind grand historical shifts. History is messy, complicated, often morally ambiguous. It is not as simple as the stories that nations tell about their past.

The Palestinian flight, Morris wrote in Birth, “was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting.” To a lesser extent it resulted from decisions by officers and politicians—although it was this part of his account that drew disproportionate attention. As civil war began to engulf Palestine, he explained, much of the Arab middle and upper class left. For those who stayed,

the daily spectacle of abandonment by their “betters,”…with its concomitant progressive closure of businesses, shops, schools, law offices and medical clinics…led to a steady attrition of morale, a cumulative sapping of faith and trust in the world around them.

It was, in Morris’s account, as if the keystones had been pulled out of every arch in every stone building in Arab Palestine. The departure of communal leaders led to social collapse.

By April 1948, Jewish Jerusalem and other communities were under siege by Arab irregulars, and the neighboring Arab countries were preparing to invade when British rule of Palestine ended in mid-May. Palestine’s Jewish community, the Yishuv, turned to offense. As Jewish forces advanced, Morris wrote, Arab society disintegrated amid a “psychosis of flight,” a contagion of panic. However, “a small but significant proportion [of that flight] was due to direct expulsion orders.” The mix of panic and expulsion continued after Israel declared independence and began repelling the invasion. By June, Morris estimated, 200,000–300,000 Arabs had fled their homes.

In the war’s third stage, beginning that summer, there was “a growing readiness in [Israeli] units to expel” Arabs from towns and villages, even when General Staff orders discouraged such action, Morris said. One reason for the shift, he wrote, was that the unexpected exodus in previous months created hopes for a Jewish state that would have few Arabs. Another reason was a desire for vengeance against those seen as imposing a harsh war on the Jews.

Even more important, the new country’s government decided that those who left would not be allowed to return. That policy was the turning point. Combined with the increased expulsions, it transformed what happened in the chaos of a war into a lasting reality. Afterward, the two sides told such different stories of the war that they could have been describing separate planets.

Yet looking back, one has to ask why Morris’s account, and the work of the other New Historians, reverberated as loudly as it did. This question runs through the essays in Making Israel. As Avi Shlaim, another “new” scholar, notes, much of what they said was not terribly new. As early as 1959, an Israeli scholar named Rony Gabbay published an account of the Palestinian exodus, describing roughly the same forces as Morris would. The book seems to have gone almost unnoticed.3

Other evidence was in plain sight. A renowned Israeli novella—S. Yizhar’s The Story of Hirbet Hizah—portrayed a unit of the Israel Defense Forces emptying an Arab village of its people. The narrator, one of the soldiers, doesn’t want to “defile [his] hands.” His commander responds that Jewish immigrants will come to Hirbet Hizah and work its land. When he published the story in 1949, Yizhar was already a prominent writer and a Knesset member representing the Mapai party of David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister.

As the historian Anita Shapira writes in Making Israel, Hirbet Hizah set off a storm when it appeared, and again when it was filmed and broadcast on state television in 1978. “I saw the columns of refugees we ordered to leave, as did everyone who fought in this land,” the writer and 1948 veteran Amos Keinan responded when objections were made to the televised version. He was an exception. Most of those who saw the exodus managed to “veil it in forgetfulness,” Shapira says. They regarded the war as defensive, and wanted to put its “most inglorious, oppressive chapter” behind them.

Sometimes the suppression was conscious and political. In his 1979 memoirs, Yitzhak Rabin, at the time a member of the Knesset and former prime minister, bluntly described his own actions in “driving out” the Arabs of Lydda and Ramle, towns conquered by the IDF in July 1948. A cabinet-level censorship committee blue-penciled the offending paragraphs—which nonetheless were published in The New York Times.4 In the early 1980s, Benny Morris was given access to the archives of the Palmah, the pre-independence underground army that became the core of the IDF. There he found Rabin’s order to expel Lydda’s Arabs.

  1. 1

    Benny Morris, “Politics by Other Means,” The New Republic, March 22, 2004.

  2. 2

    Benny Morris, “Using Bombs to Stave Off War,” The New York Times, July 18, 2008.

  3. 3

    Rony Gabbay, A Political Study of the Arab–Jewish Conflict: The Arab Refugee Problem, a Case Study (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1959).

  4. 4

    David K. Shipler, “Israel Bars Rabin From Relating ‘48 Eviction of Arabs,” The New York Times, October 23, 1979.

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