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BENNY MORRIS: HISTORY BY SUBTRACTION (Part 1)

Norman G. Finkelstein photo
Norman G. FinkelsteinBROOKLYN, NY
BENNY MORRIS: HISTORY BY SUBTRACTION (Part 1)
FROM CLERK TO KOOK

Israeli historian Benny Morris played a pivotal role in molding the current scholarly consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until his generation of scholars came along (the so-called new historians), the dominant depiction of the conflict, even in academia, amounted to little more than a footnoted version of Leon Uris’s potboiler,Exodus. The current consensus casts Israel since its founding in a much darker light. During the past 15 years, however, Morris has been given to lashing out at, and defending the old orthodoxy against, critics of Israel.

An unorthodox new historian not too long ago, Benny Morris in effect reinvented himself in recent times as an orthodox old historian. The process has been incremental, the quantitative degeneration becoming at a certain point qualitative. Although disfigured in ways small and large by ideological bias, Morris’s earlier works, such as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 19471949,[1]Israel’s Border Wars, 1949–1956: Arab infiltration, Israeli retaliation, and the countdown to the Suez war,[2]Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881–1999,[3] and The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine and the Jews[4] brought to light a wealth of novel information. The body of his subsequent major work, 1948: The first Arab-Israeli war,[5] preserves a standard of scholarly rigor, but his conclusion crosses the threshold to crude distortion. His last major work, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict[6]lacks any redeeming value and reeks of rancid propaganda.

Whereas he did not break new conceptual ground, Morris did roam the archives and cull revealing documents on the Israel-Palestine conflict that he then collated into a fresh, compelling narrative of the past. Once an industrious clerk, Morris has metamorphosed into a raging kook. In all fairness to him, it is of course arguable that Morris has honestly come to reconsider his former conclusions on the basis of new evidence; to discover that, however deficient their scholarship, the conclusions of the old historians were right after all. The problem is that Morris does not adduce new evidence to support his return to the old orthodoxy, but rather whites out the findings of his own pioneering research. This genre might be called doing history not by accretion but by subtraction.

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[1]New York: 1987.

[2]New York: 1993.

[3]New York: 1999.

[4]London: 2003.

[5]New York: 2008.

[6]New Haven: 2009.

#Norman Finkelstein, #Benny Morris, #Israel, #Palestine

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