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Norman G. FinkelsteinBROOKLYN, NY
Ethnic Cleansing Was Built Into Zionism

The conclusion of Righteous Victims, Benny Morris’s sweeping “history of the Zionist-Arab conflict,” opened with a quote from Zionist leader (and Israel’s future first prime minister) David Ben-Gurion. The “conflict”with the Arabs, Ben-Gurion said in 1938, “is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.” Morris then observed: “Ben-Gurion, of course, was right. Zionism was a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement. . . . Zionist ideology and practice were necessarily and elementally expansionist.” Insofar as “from the start its aim was to turn all of Palestine . . . into a Jewish state,” he went on to elaborate, Zionism could not but be “intent on . . . dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs.” Or, as Morris formulated it earlier on in his book, “Jewish colonization meant expropriation and displacement” of the indigenous population.[1] These consequences of Zionism, and the Arab resistance they inexorably generated, would figure as signature themes in Morris’s scholarly corpus.

A fundamental challenge for Zionism was how to create a Jewish state, which meant minimally a state whose population was overwhelmingly Jewish, in an area whose population was overwhelmingly not Jewish. One novelty of Morris’s original scholarship was to point up the centrality of “transfer”—a euphemism, as Revisionist Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky put it, for “brutal expulsion”[2]—to resolving this dilemma. Insofar as orthodox Israeli historians had treated it, they consigned the idea of transfer to a footnote, downplaying it as incidental to the Zionist enterprise.Thus, Shabtai Teveth purported that the Zionist movement only “here and there” and “briefly” contemplated transfer, while, according to Anita Shapira, the Zionist movement conceived transfer merely as a “good thing”that it could just as well “do without.”[3] But Morris contended in his groundbreaking study, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, that, on the contrary, from the mid-1930's “the idea of transferring the Arabs out . . . was seen as the chief means of assuring the stability of the ‘Jewishness’ of the proposed Jewish State,”[4] while in Righteous Victims he wrote that “the transfer idea . . . was one of the main currents in Zionist ideology from the movement’s inception.”[5] In another seminal essay, Morris documented that “thinking about the transfer of all or part of Palestine’s Arabs out of the prospective Jewish state was pervasive among Zionist leadership circles long before 1937.”[6]In a greatly expanded version of Birth, [7] Morris gave over fully 25 densely argued pages to documenting the depth and breadth of “the idea of ‘transfer’in Zionist thinking.” His conclusion merits full quotation:

“[T]ransfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism—because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population; and because this aim automatically produced resistance among the Arabs which, in turn, persuaded the Yishuv’s leaders that a hostile Arab majority or large minority could not remain in place if a Jewish state was to arise or safely endure.”[8]  

Thus, in Morris’s temporal-logical sequence of the conflict’s genesis, Zionist transfer was cause and Arab resistance effect in an ever-expanding spiral. He put forth a sequence of succinct and copiously documented formulations on this crucial point in Righteous Victims: “The fear of territorial displacement and dispossession was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism down to 1948 (and indeed after 1967 as well)”; “In the 1880's there were already Arabs who understood that the threat from Zionism was not merely a local matter or a by-product of cultural estrangement.‘The natives are hostile towards us, saying that we have come to drive them out of the country,’ recorded one Zionist settler”; “[T]he major cause of tension and violence . . . was . . . the conflicting interests and goals of the two populations. The Arabs sought instinctively to . . . maintain their position as [Palestine’s] rightful inhabitants; the Zionists sought radically to change the status quo . . . and eventually turn an Arab-populated country into a Jewish homeland. . . . The Arabs, both urban and rural, came to feel anxiety and fear.”[9]In the conclusion of Righteous Victims, Morris reiterated that the Arabs’trepidation and ensuing opposition were “solidly anchored in a perception that [Zionist] expansion . . . would be at the expense of their people, principally and initially those living in Palestine itself.”[10] As Morris originally reckoned it, Arab fear was rational—because transfer was “inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism”—and Arab resistance natural—because it sprang“automatically” from the Zionist goal of transfer. He located the root of the conflict in a historical clash between Zionism and the indigenous Arab population of Palestine and the historical (if not moral) onus for engendering the conflict was placed squarely by Morris on the shoulders of the Zionist movement.[11]


[1] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-2001 (New York: 2001), pp. 652-54, 61.

[2]Shabtai Teveth, The Evolution of “Transfer” in Zionist Thinking (Tel Aviv: 1989), p. 17.

[3]Ibid., pp. 2, 6. Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist resort to force, 1881-1948

(Oxford: 1992), pp. 285-86.

[4]Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: 1987), p. 25.

[5]Morris, Righteous Victims, p. 139.

[6]Benny Morris, “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,” in Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds.,The War for Palestine: Rewriting the history of 1948 (Cambridge: 2001), p. 40. The British proposed in 1937, and the Zionists seconded, transfer alongside partition to resolve the Palestine conflict.

[7]Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge:


[8] Ibid., p. 60.

[9]Morris, Righteous Victims, pp. 37, 46, 49.

[10] Ibid., p. 653.

[11]It could still be argued, and it is Morris’s contention, that although creating a Jewish state necessarily entailed the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the establishment of a Jewishstate was nonetheless a greater moral good. Even in his original, liberal phase, Morrisput both moral and historical culpability for the creation of the Palestinian refugeeproblem on the Arabs because, inter alia, they rejected the UN Partition Resolution

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