AP Images

A British soldier at a military strongpoint overlooking Jerusalem, January 18, 1948

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.


Aude/Wikimedia Commons

Benny Morris at a conference of the Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C., October 30, 2007

The account of that expulsion—based largely on IDF documents—may be the most harrowing section of Birth. It begins with Israeli soldiers facing unexpected gunfire in Lydda just after it was conquered. They responded by killing some 250 townspeople, in what Morris calls a “slaughter.” Fearing both a rebellion and a Transjordanian counterattack, Ben-Gurion told his officers to empty both Lydda and neighboring Ramle. Thousands of Palestinians were forced to walk eastward under the July sun, at first dropping belongings and later leaving “bodies of men, women and children, scattered along the way.”

As both Morris and Shlaim stress in Making Israel, a major factor behind the new wave of historical scholarship was that in the 1980s, Israeli, American, and British archives allowed access to papers from 1948. For Morris, that was crucial. In scholarly argument over what is reliable, Morris is an unbending believer in the value of the paper trail: documents establish fact; interviews with participants are too subjective.

The documents were also one reason that Morris’s account had so resounding an effect. For Israelis, the testimony of IDF records was harder to push aside than conflicting testimony of those who lived through 1948. Besides that, Morris had committed an Oedipal act: killing the memories of his father’s generation, the generation of the country’s founders. Older historians “lived through 1948 as highly committed adult participants in the epic, glorious rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth,” he said in the 1988 Tikkun essay republished in Making Israel. “They were unable to separate their lives from this historical event,” and could not be relied on. The fury of the reaction from older writers and scholars reflected the passions of a conflict between generations.

Yet Israel had also changed—another reason that the new account had so strong an effect. Two decades had passed since Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as Shlaim writes, shattered Israelis’ conviction that their country used force only when it had no alternative. Morris, born in 1948, wrote with the sensibility of those who had come of age in 1967, who had reason to be concerned about Israel’s reckless use of power.

Morris’s broad conclusions—as stated in the 1988 “New Historiography” essay—provoked the strongest criticism. The idea that 1948 had been a battle of “David and Goliath” was a myth, he wrote. “The stronger side won…. The Yishuv was better armed and had more trained manpower than did the Palestinians.” Likewise, facing the Arab armies, Israel had more soldiers and better organization. Following the war, he argued, Israel’s leaders were not eager to reach peace at the price of territorial concessions. “In Tel Aviv, there was a sense of triumph and drunkenness that accompanied victory,” he asserted. Today, reading those assessments, what’s most strik- ing is how well they describe Israel—after 1967.

In another essay in Making Israel, the left-wing former Knesset member and IDF officer Mordechai Bar-On addresses the conflicting advantages of the participant’s view and the scholar who comes later. Bar-On fought in 1948 and later became a historian. Living inside events, he writes, a person may have no idea of the larger picture. As “stories are told and retold,” they “become distorted by prejudice, loyalties, presumptions and even political interests.” Nonetheless, the participant reaches back to recall “the mood of the time” and how the battle appeared from the inside, which is also part of history. Bar-On could have added that even someone sifting through files long afterward builds a story that is shaded by loyalties and presumptions. A scholar can crack myths, and still be captive to the mood of the day.

At the end of his 1988 essay, Morris suggested that “what is now being written about Israel’s past” might “in some obscure way serve the purposes of peace and reconciliation.” The intifada had just erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pushing the Palestinian issue into the center of Israeli politics. Since then, a peace process with the Palestinians began and failed, and a second, more violent uprising has erupted and burned out. By now, as Morris wrote recently in a Newsweek column, he has “come to a much bleaker opinion about the possibility of reconciliation.”5

The change in his views, he asserts, is strictly the result of his continuing research—the work that underlies his new book, 1948. In Israeli archives, he says, he studied statements of Arab leaders in Palestine from the 1920s on, and discovered how unwilling they were to accept either a binational state or partition between Jews and Arabs. He says he found that the Arab side had regarded the conflict with Zionism as not just a national struggle but also a “religious crusade against an infidel usurper,” and that on the eve of the invasion of Palestine in 1948, Arab League Secretary General Abd al-Rahman Azzam spoke of “sweep[ing] the Jews into the sea.” The new material led him to conclude that the Jews were the underdogs in 1948. It lessened his surprise when, in Morris’s words, Yasser Arafat “rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s two-state proposals at Camp David in July 2000,” and it made him regard each Palestinian suicide bombing as “a microcosm of what Palestine’s Arabs had in mind for Israel as a whole.”

Again, past and present appear tangled. Morris’s views today are typical of Israeli ex-leftists who became embittered after Palestinians refused to accept what most Israelis regarded as generous peace initiatives. Writing in defense of Ehud Barak in 2002 in these pages, Morris argued that the diplomatic collapse of 2000 was “really very simple”—Barak and Bill Clinton proposed “a historic compromise and the Palestinians rejected it.” (Morris’s article was a response to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha’s far more nuanced analysis, in which they showed that Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States all contributed to the diplomatic disaster.)6 And like a good many other intellectuals, Morris appears shocked by the rise of political Islam. Morris is using Arab statements from sixty or eighty years ago to make sense of today’s stalemate; but it seems he is also reading those statements through the lens of today’s events.

That said, Morris is a stunningly thorough excavator of the archival record. And telling the story of the 1948 war as a whole restores a balance lacking from his narrower accounts of the refugee problem. In the wider picture, the Jewish side in Palestine was fighting “to survive the onslaught and establish a Jewish state.” At times, Morris writes, survival was in doubt. The Palestinian exodus is part of that larger picture.

Both sides committed atrocities. Morris estimates that in the course of the war, Jews murdered about eight hundred civilians and POWs. He found written evidence of about a dozen rapes by Jewish soldiers. Though he suspects that some cases were not reported, he says that relative to other wars, 1948 was marked by “an extremely low incidence of rape.” Arab forces also expelled or massacred Jews or prevented their return to places they had fled— but they could do so rarely, for the simple reason that the Arabs had few opportunities. They were losing on the battlefield. Nonetheless, Jordan’s Arab Legion emptied the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City; Arab fighters massacred about 150 Jewish defenders of the religious kibbutz Kfar ‘Etzion after they surrendered. In Morris’s telling of this complex tale, the reader can discern both the disappointed dove and the dedicated chronicler.

One can begin with how Morris sets the scene. His original book opened with a few sparse sentences on the birth of Zionism in nineteenth-century Europe, Jewish immigration to Palestine, and conflict with Palestinian Arabs. This time, he leaps back much further: “The Jewish people was born in the Land of Israel, which it ruled, on and off, for thirteen centuries,” until the Romans crushed the last, brief Jewish bid at independence in the second century CE. Later Muslim rulers never treated it as a separate province. By the nineteenth century it was an “impoverished backwater”—albeit one where Arabs outnumbered Jews by a ratio of eighteen to one.

Morris’s underlying point here is that Jews were returning to their ancient homeland. In itself, this is correct, and is essential background to the events of 1948. But it is also a classic Zionist account, and is just one face of history. Seen from the other direction, foreigners were coming to settle the land, to colonize it. The argument between these accounts is like a debate over whether water is really oxygen or really hydrogen. That both are partly true is the starting point of the tragedy of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Yet when writing history, it is terribly difficult to avoid a choice, and the choice is influenced by the writer’s times. While Morris mentions the Palestinian view, his opening pages place this book more firmly—and more defensively—within a Zionist perspective than his previous writing.

In the years of British rule, as Morris writes, the quickly growing Jewish community in Palestine developed quasi state institutions and armed forces that allowed it to fight effectively in 1948. The Arab population was politically fragmented, without effective institutions. It turned down compromises in the form of the Peel Commission proposals for partition in 1937 and then the UN partition plan a decade later. Morris now sees the influence of Islam as a key reason for Arab hostility toward Jews and Zionism, perhaps the preeminent reason. For Arabs, the 1948 war “was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory.” He cites a hadith—a tradition ascribed to Muhammad—that was regularly quoted at the time, apparently by Islamic activists: “The day of resurrection does not come until Muslims fight against Jews…until the trees and stones shout out, ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'”

To balance this perspective, it is worth reading A History of Palestine, by Gudrun Krämer, a German scholar of Islamic studies. In Krämer’s description, Palestine’s Arabs faced a blocked road to political development. The British “denied the Arabs any political representation for as long as they refused to accept the Mandate Treaty.” But accepting the treaty meant accepting the Balfour Declaration—with its promise of a Jewish “national home”—and renouncing self-determination. The exception was the British appointment of Amin al-Husseini—a Palestinian aristocrat with a background more nationalist than Islamic—as mufti of Jerusalem, and creation of a Supreme Muslim Council headed by him. This was just one factor in the “gradual Islamization of Arab politics in Palestine,” Krämer writes. Trying to stop Jewish land purchases and political intentions, al-Husseini and other Arab spokesmen developed the idea of Palestine as a sacred trust given to all Muslims. Exploiting Islam, al-Husseini succeeded in making Palestine a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic issue.

So rather than being the foundation of Arab opposition to Zionism, Islam was itself transformed by nationalism. Anti-Jewish texts could be pulled from the attic of tradition in response to political circumstance. The hadith about the trees and stones, for instance, appears in early Islamic compendiums, but according to David Cook of Rice University, an expert on Islamic apocalyptic thought, has been widely quoted only in recent decades. The rewriting of religion to serve ultra-nationalist aims should be familiar to Israeli historians, who have seen the same process unfolding in Judaism since 1967. After the Israeli victory that year, a group of rabbis and Orthodox activists emerged who made settlement and permanent Israeli rule over the conquered land into fundamental religious values, transmuting both theology and Jewish religious law. Religion is protean. Describing Islam as an unchanging force is ahistorical, and makes any accommodation between it and Israel appear unimaginable.

As Morris concentrates on the events leading to civil war, the pervading theme is that both Jews and Arabs lost control. In a “fatal twist,” the British cabinet decided not to help implement partition, and to keep the UN commission that had been assigned that task out of Palestine. The leaders of the weak Arab regimes feared popular fury if they did not stop partition, and they also feared each other’s designs. Both Egypt and Syria, for instance, suspected that Jordan wanted to annex all or part of Palestine. Within Palestine, Arabs and Jews shared feelings of dread. An Iraqi general, Ismail Sawfat, warned the Arab League that Arabs living in the territory destined for the Jewish state faced “destruction.” Jewish leaders thought they faced a second Holocaust.

The difference was that the Jews were organized and had a trained militia, the Haganah, that could be transformed into an army—and had nowhere to flee. The Arabs had village militias, and the option of flight. “Demoralization” set in among the Arabs, Morris writes. Yet by March 1948, the Jewish position was also desperate. The road to Jerusalem had been cut by local Arab forces; starvation loomed in Jewish areas of the city.

Morris is at his best describing the intricate and chaotic progression of the war. The illusion of comprehensive strategies on both sides often disintegrates, in his telling, into impromptu decisions and desperate measures. A key example is the Jewish offensive beginning in April. Previous accounts have described it as implementing the Haganah’s “Plan D.” Drawn up by the Haganah chief of operations, Yigael Yadin, Plan D aimed at taking control of the land assigned to the Jewish state, opening the road to Jerusalem, and preparing for defense against the coming Arab invasion. In pro-Palestinian histories, Plan D has been described as a program for expelling the country’s Arabs.

In fact, Morris explains, there was never a decision by leaders of the Jewish forces to carry out Plan D. Responding to immediate crises, the Haganah launched local operations. These actions added up to a shift toward taking the offensive and in retrospect roughly fit Plan D. Nor was there a plan for ethnic cleansing of the country. Villagers sometimes fled as soon as Haganah units approached. But Plan D, as written, allowed commanders to destroy captured villages, especially if they resisted conquest. It was a way to keep the enemy forces—meaning the villagers—from returning to their base. In the actual fighting, this tactic became more common. At that stage, it was a war of communities, not of states; it was cruel and desperate; at stake was survival. Both sides killed prisoners. The British, still nominally in charge though concerned mainly with their own withdrawal, would not have allowed POW camps.

When the British withdrew, the Arab armies invaded. They had not agreed on a plan of attack. Arab leaders said they were protecting Palestinian Arabs, but they intended to exploit the cause for their own ends. They had no intention of creating a Palestinian state. Jordan wanted the West Bank; Egypt wanted to grab the southern half of the West Bank first.

The initial Jewish goal was not to be overrun. Once Israel gained the upper hand, it sought defensible borders, which meant gaining territory. At least some Israeli leaders, including Ben-Gurion, wanted to “reduce the number of Arabs.” The policy of not allowing refugees to return was partly defensive, to avoid a fifth column. But in a crucial cabinet meeting on the issue in June, Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok also described all “the lands and the houses” as “spoils of war,” and as compensation for what Jews had lost in a fight forced on them. He was not alone in seeing the exodus as an unplanned benefit of the battles. On the other hand, leaders of the socialist Mapam party objected to razing Arab villages, and said that once the fighting ended, the refugees should be allowed home. In a subsequent meeting in September, the cabinet rejected an immediate return and left the refugee question to be resolved when formal peace was achieved. In practical terms, this was a decision to make the exodus permanent. It was the critical moment when confusion, panic, and ad hoc choices gave way to a deliberate, fateful policy. For, as Morris writes, “peace never came, and the refugees never returned.”7

This is a story where many actions are horrifying, most of all when they are understandable. Perhaps that is a definition for tragedy. In this case, it defies the author’s efforts to reach clear judgment on who is at fault. Morris suggests that Palestinian nationalists had a clear goal of expelling the Jews, and that “Zionist expulsionist thinking” was “at least in part a response.” His own evidence suggests another reading: once the United Nations voted to partition Palestine but could not enforce its own decision, a bitter war was almost inescapable between two communities; each was certain its existence was at stake. Both flight and expulsion followed as if fated. How many Jews and Arabs would lose their homes depended on the balance of forces in battle. The Jews won. That Israeli writers can more easily reexamine their own side’s actions may be one of the fruits of victory.

The conflagration of 1948 was the war that began all Arab–Israeli wars. This will not be the last history of it, and not only because new papers will come to light, perhaps from still-sealed Arab archives. If the story is retold after peace—by Benny Morris or someone else—the facts and the motives will necessarily look different. It might be easier to see both Jews and Arabs with greater sympathy, as human beings caught in a storm. In the meantime, Morris has indeed served the purpose of reconciliation, by making a fuller picture of what happened in 1948 part of Israeli memory. For that he deserves gratitude.

This Issue

May 28, 2009