After more than three decades of focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, historian Benny Morris easily can cite demographic figures from 19th century Palestine or discuss the refugee problems created by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
And that’s exactly what he did last night (Nov. 9) at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, leading an extended discussion of the 1948 war — drawing from several books he has written on that subject.
But when Morris was questioned about the current state of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, he suddenly became terse.
Asked by an audience member what he would suggest to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to get peace talks moving, Morris was unequivocal.
Morris said he would advise the leaders to “Forget it,” adding that the two-state solution is dead and that he could not think of any alternative.
Another person in the 65-member audience asked why he was not focusing on all the positive things happening in Israel now to bring people together.
“Because there isn’t that much,” Morris answered.
Such pessimism is nothing new to Morris, a professor in the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva, and a visiting professor at Georgetown University since 2015.
In a 2012 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Morris said he was no longer going to write about the conflict.
“The decades of studying the conflict, which led to nine books, left me with a feeling of deep despair. I’ve done all I can,” he said in that interview. “I’ve written enough about a conflict that has no solution, mainly due to the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of a solution of two states for two peoples.”
In fact, Morris said at the PJCC, his next book will be about Turkish mistreatment of Christian minorities during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The decades of studying the conflict … left me with a feeling of deep despair.
Morris gave a 40-minute speech about Israel’s 1948 War of Independence at the PJCC, exploring the refugee problems that resulted from that conflict and their continuing impact on the Middle East. He also said the Jews of Palestine, who declared the establishment of the State of Israel during the war, had three aims.
The first, coming only a few years after the Holocaust, was simply to survive attacks by Palestinians and then by invading Arab armies. The second was to expand the borders of Israel, which they accomplished — growing the new nation from 6,000 square miles in the United Nations partition plan to 8,000 square miles by the end of the war.
The third aim, he said, was to reduce the number of Arabs remaining on the land of Israel. Though there were expulsions of Palestinians by the new Israeli government, Morris said, that accounted for a small percentage of the refugees. Most of the 700,000 Arab refugees fled because of shelling or the threat of violence and were not allowed to return home after the war, he said.
Writing about that third aim has sparked controversy for Morris over the years, earning him criticism from both Zionists and anti-Zionists alike. Zionists object to his findings of expulsions, and Palestinian sympathizers attack him for saying those expulsions were justified because Israel needed to solidify its Jewish identity.
Many audience members seemed ready to do battle with Morris during a question-and-answer session. One objected to his saying Arab refugees had been “uprooted” by Israel, while another said the Palestinians should not be considered refugees. A third accused him of being a “darling” of anti-Israel groups.
Morris fought back on each issue, defending his scholarship and citing historical support for his statements. To the questioner who accused him of being a “darling” of Palestinian supporters, Morris quipped: “You haven’t read my book.”
And Morris left little doubt about his disappointment with the U.S. level of knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked about his impression of U.S. college students and their understanding of the current situation, he was quick to reply.
“They know nothing about the Middle East as far as I can tell. They don’t come with any real knowledge,” Morris said. “And, unfortunately, the American press and television has a slanted view of the conflict. They have prejudices about the conflict, they are anti-Zionist and have very little knowledge.”