The prolific and often controversial Israeli historian Benny Morris doesn’t write to please his audience. “I don’t care about hasbara,” he told J., using the Hebrew word for public-relations efforts to portray Israel in a positive light to the rest of the world. “People who want to defend this or that cause, they work in foreign ministries, they work in other places. I work on history.”
Morris, who has written or edited a dozen books, is considered one of Israel’s preeminent historians. His 2008 tome “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” earned him the National Jewish Book Award in history. Considered a revisionist, he is one of three so-called “New Historians” who emerged in the 1980s and became known for challenging accepted narratives about Israel’s founding.
In the 1980s, Morris used state archives and newly declassified materials to write “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” which took aim at the falsehoods underlying both traditional Israeli and mainstream Arab versions of the 1948 war.
The documents he reviewed showed the 700,000 or so Arabs who had fled their homes during what they refer to as the “nakba,” or the catastrophe, “had not done so, by and large, on orders from” Palestinian or Arab leaders, or autonomously, as many Israelis were led to believe. Nor were they systematically expelled as part of a “master plan,” as many Palestinians were taught, he summarized in a piece for the Guardian in 2012.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, said the book “revolutionized Israeli historiography, and to a great extent, a nation’s understanding of its own birth.”
In the wake of the failed Camp David and Oslo Accord, and following the brutality of the second intifada, Morris has grown pessimistic about the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and his views have taken a rightward turn. Citing the belief that Palestinians will never support a two-state solution, he has called himself a “Cosmic Pessimist.”
J. spoke with Morris ahead of his upcoming book tour to the Bay Area. His latest book, his first on a subject other than Israel, Palestine or Zionism, is titled “The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities.” Co-authored with Dror Ze’evi, it tells the history of atrocities, including the Armenian genocide, by the Ottoman regime from 1894 to 1924.
J.: A lot of American Jews are concerned about a rise in anti-Israel sentiment, whether it’s on campuses or among the educated classes in general. Young people feel more comfortable criticizing Israel, and there are Congress members who criticize Israel more sharply than we’ve seen in earlier decades. Do you think this poses a significant threat to Israel, or is it overblown?
Benny Morris: Well, there’s no way of assessing that — we’ll know that down the years. But at the moment, there seems to be a wind of change among young people and in the Democratic Party. Whether it’s going to change the Democratic Party’s position on Israel, its traditional position which has always been very supportive, I don’t know. As I say, we can’t yet know.
It also depends on this election. Whether the radicals like [Bernie] Sanders become the candidate and lose, or whether they win. This will also affect the stance on Israel.
Sanders is Jewish and spent time on a kibbutz. He has some supporters, including members of Congress, who oppose Israel, and yet he toes the line. He doesn’t take positions that are anti-Israel. He’s for a two-state solution, rather than a one-state solution, as some on the far left (and far right) support. What do you make of Sanders? Does he pose a danger?
I wouldn’t use the word “danger.” I think he’s more critical than many people in the Democratic Party have been. He probably is pro-Israeli in the basic sense, that he supports the existence of the State of Israel. There are people in the [Democratic] party now, Muslims, who oppose Israel’s existence. I don’t think he’s there. But he does represent the radical position in the party. Not in relation to Israel but in general, about health care, education and so on. And he calls himself a socialist, which is unusual in American politics.
In a 2012 column for the Daily Beast, you wrote that it’s “perfectly natural” for Palestinians to commemorate the Nakba Day, “on which they remember the disaster that befell them in 1948.” (Even as you opposed the day they have chosen to commemorate it.) Considering your understanding of the Palestinian experience as a historian, what do you make of the BDS movement?
I have a feeling about its origin among Palestinians. I think there’s a man called Omar Barghouti who actually thought it all up. And he opposes Israel’s existence. It’s not just a matter of Israeli policies, but of Israel’s very being.
It seems to me a lot of people who support [boycott, divestment and sanctions] are of this mind; they think that Israel shouldn’t exist. There may be others who go along with BDS, who support BDS, and think maybe it’s a way of changing Israeli policies which they don’t like. But not of eliminating Israel.
You probably have both in the BDS movement — some who think they can affect Israeli policy and change it toward the Palestinians, but not destroy Israel. And there are others who see it as a means of hurting Israel so that eventually it becomes like South Africa — a pariah state which will eventually be eliminated.
Recently you have become a supporter of the Netanyahu administration, on some level.
No, I would never agree to that. I don’t support the Netanyahu administration. I’d like [Benjamin] Netanyahu to be thrown out. He should have been thrown out a long time ago. He’s a crook. But I have agreed with Netanyahu about his view on Iran. And I think he’s right about Palestinians, in the sense that they are not a partner for peace. They are not interested in peace. They basically want … the Palestinian political nation basically wants Israel to vanish. On this I agree with him.
You have been critical of Netanyahu’s partnership with President Donald Trump, whom you’ve called a “scoundrel” and a “fool.”’
Yes. Trump is an awful person. He shouldn’t be a president. It’s embarrassing for Americans to have a president like that. He’s erratic, nobody can depend on him. I don’t think Israel should depend on him. And in this sense, the alliance between Trump and Netanyahu is ultimately bad for Israel.
Did you support his strike against Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military leader?
Yeah, sure, no problem killing Soleimani. Soleimani was a killer, a man who organized killings, and a soldier in a war. And soldiers in a war are open to being killed. That’s what war is about.
What is your view on the Iran nuclear deal?
I think the Americans should have held out. The Americans had all the cards. The Iranians were better negotiators and the Americans should have held out for a much better deal.
But the deal was signed. It was a mistake, but it helped, maybe, slow down the Iranian nuclear project. I fear that withdrawing from the deal may lead to a quickening of the Iranian nuclear project, which will again confront Israel with a choice: either attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, or the Americans attacking the nuclear facilities, or just allowing the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon, as America has allowed North Korea to do. Once they have nuclear weapons, just like North Korea, they will become invulnerable. That’s the problem. And then they will do what they like in the Middle East.
With the Trump peace plan, it seemed like the administration was trying to strong-arm the Palestinians in some way. What did you make of the proposal?
Well, the Palestinians can’t agree to it. Look, I don’t think the Palestinian leadership, and Palestinians, basically, in their hearts, I don’t think they want to share Palestine with the Jews. That’s the basic thing. So it doesn’t really matter what plan they’re offered. Trump’s plan, Clinton’s plan in 2000. They say no. They don’t want to divide the country with the Jews. This is the basic thing.
If you don’t accept what I’m saying, and believe that they are willing to reach some sort of two-state deal, then this is a two-state deal they can’t accept, because it doesn’t really offer them a state. So even at minimum, what he’s offering is a long shot. But as I say, it doesn’t really matter that much because I don’t think they’ll agree to a two-state solution of any sort.
“Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924” Lecture by Benny Morris 2:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at San Jose State University Student Union, Room 3A, 211 S. 9th St., S.J.
“A New Look at 1948” with Benny Morris, 7:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 28 with Shabbat service at Congregation Shir Hadash, Los Gatos. Morris also spoke about his book on Feb. 20 at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, in a talk co-sponsored by JCRC.