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Norman G. FinkelsteinBROOKLYN, NY
Benny Morris: The Sad Saga of a Court Historian

When Benny Morris was a historian (the “old” Morris), he documented that, if Palestinians opposed Zionism, it was because the Zionist movement intended to dispossess the indigenous population. But when he transmogrified into a Court Historian (the “new” Morris), Morris reversed cause and effect: he depicted the indigenous Palestinian population as jihadi anti-Semites and the Zionist movement as harboring benign motives.

It is instructive to recall the old Morris’s treatment of the first intifada. He reported that “in the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad and other fundamentalists immediately took a leading role,” “Hamas was a major component of the rebellion in the Strip and, to a lesser extent, the West Bank,” and “from the start the Hamas and Islamic Jihad dominated the rebellion in the Gaza Strip”; that these Muslim fundamentalist organizations espoused “Koran based hatred and contempt for Jews,” intended “to wage a holy war against the Zionist enemy,” and “made the destruction of Israel” their “official goal”; and that the intifada commenced as “thousands poured out of the alleys of Jibalya and other Gaza camps for the funerals, shouting ‘Jihad, Jihad!,’”and “fundamentalists . . . had been in the forefront of the demonstrations in December 1987.”[1] Still, Morris was emphatic that “the main energizing force of the intifada was the frustration of the national aspirations” of the Palestinians, “who wanted to live in a Palestinian state and not as stateless inhabitants under a brutal, foreign military occupation.”[2]And again, after expatiating on jihadi influences, he cautioned: “But the factors that made individual Palestinians take to the streets and endure beating, imprisonment, and economic privation were predominantly socioeconomic and psychological”—such as the“continuous trampling of the[ir] basic rights and dignity,” and their fear that “Israel’s settlement policy and its discriminatory economic policies” prefigured“the government’s ultimate intent to dispossess them and drive them out and to replace them with Jews.”[3]The old Morris—the pre-Court-Historian Morris—was able to discern that although Islamic zealots figured prominently in the first intifada and Islamic symbols and texts, even hateful anti-Semitic ones, might have been pervasive, its “main energizing force” was not hoary “Islamic Judeophobia” but the mundane denial of basic Palestinian rights. Even in his account of the second intifada, when the salience of the Islamic component was yet greater and he himself was already given to tirades against jihadis, Morris emphasized that “at base” the revolt resulted from “the state of the Palestinian sand the peace process . . . the frustrations and slights endured since the signing in 1993 of the Oslo agreement, and more generally since the start ofthe occupation.”[4]

The new Morris alleges that “many observers defined the [1936-39] Arab Revolt as a jihad.” He cites the concerns of some Christians that are jotted down in a random “note” of an “unknown” member of the mid-1930's British Peel Commission.[5] However, Morris omits mention of what the Peel Commission itself found.“The overriding desire of the Arab leaders . . . was . . . national independence,”the landmark Peel Report stated, and “It was only to be expected that Palestinian Arabs should . . . envy and seek to emulate their successful fellow-nationalists in those countries just across their northern and southern borders.” There was “no doubt,” the Report concluded, that the “underlying causes” of Arab-Jewish hostilities were “first the desire of the Arabs for national independence; secondly their antagonism to the establishment of the Jewish National Home in Palestine, quickened by their fear of Jewish domination.”

However much the new Morris might like to conscript the Peel Commission for his own ideological jihad, its Report in fact explicitly repudiated the notion that Arab opposition to Zionism was born of primordial hatred:

“Nor is the conflict in its essence an interracial conflict, arising from any old instinctive antipathy of Arabs towards Jews. There was little or no friction . . . between Arab and Jew in the rest of the Arab world until the strife in Palestine engendered it. And there has been precisely the same political trouble in Iraq, Syria and Egypt—agitation, rebellion and bloodshed—where there are no ‘National Homes.’ Quite obviously, then, the problem of Palestine is political. It is, as elsewhere, the problem of insurgent nationalism. The only difference is that in Palestine Arab nationalism is inextricably interwoven with antagonism to the Jews. And the reasons for that, it is worth repeating, are equally obvious. In the first place, the establishment of the National Home [for Jews] involved at the outset a blank negation of the rights implied in the principle of national self-government. Secondly, it soon proved to be not merely an obstacle to the development of national self-government, but apparently the only serious obstacle. Thirdly, as the Home has grown, the fear has grown with it that, if and when self government is conceded, it may not be national in the Arab sense, but government by a Jewish majority. That is why it is difficult to be an Arab patriot and not to hate the Jews.”[6]

Although the indigenous Arab population did oppose Zionism, this rejection did not trace back to the sacredness of “Islamic soil,” “Islamic Judeophobia,” an “Islamic, exclusivist being,” or a “jihadi impulse.” It did not spring from any of these crude fantasies of Benny the Court Historian. Rather, it traced back to Zionism’s “negation” of the indigenous Arab population’s right to self-determination and the attendant Arab fear of Jewish domination—a domination that, according to the old Morris, would perforce result in “transferring the Arabs out.” These were “no doubt” and “quite obviously” the roots of Arab resistance to Zionism, according to the Peel Commission, a resistance that was “only to be expected.” In fact, according to the old Morris, Zionism “automatically produced” this resistance.


[1] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-2001 (New York: 2001), pp. 570, 573, 574, 577-79.

[2] Ibid., p. 562.

[3] Ibid., pp. 564, 567-68.

[4] Ibid., p. 662.

[5] Benny Morris, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict (New Haven: 2009), p. 52.

[6]Palestine Royal Commission Report (London: 1937), pp. 76, 94, 110, 131, 136, 363.

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