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 …