Did Benny Morris Change His Views on Alleged Zionist Ethnic Cleansing Plan?

Benny Morris and Daniel Blatman are at it again. The two Israeli historians engaged in another round of intellectual blows regarding the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem.

The previous round took place in Haaretz last year. In a series of articles, the two professors presented their views on the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from what became the borders of the state of Israel during its war of independence in 1947 to 1949. The Palestinian “Nakba” (Arabic for catastrophe) is one of the main issues in the conflict until this day. Was it a result of a deliberate and systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, to empty Mandate Palestine of its Arab inhabitants (as per the argument of Prof. Blatman)? Or perhaps the Zionist Yishuv had no premeditated plan nor policy to drive out the Arabs, and most left the country without being forcefully evicted (as Prof. Morris argued)?

The debate resumed last weekend, again in Haaretz, with Blatman’s piece (“For the Nakba, There’s No Need of an ‘Expulsion Policy“‘) criticizing Morris’ review (“Israel Had No ‘Expulsion Policy’ Against the Palestinians in 1948“) of Adel Manna’s book Nakba and Survival. Morris wrote that during 1948 there was no policy of ethnic cleansing, and the vast majority of the Arabs who left their homes were not expelled. Blatman countered that Morris’ current claims contradict the views he held in the past, and the findings of his earlier historical research.

Blatman’s claim that today’s Benny Morris contradicts and denies the positions that he himself expressed as a historian years ago is a common, albeit false, argument. In fact, while Morris changed his mind on several issues, he has for decades consistently argued that Israel’s pre-state leadership did not advance or follow a policy of ethnic cleansing. Morris’ argument from the beginning was that the majority of Arabs left the country as a result of a complex range of factors, and not because they were expelled.

The consistency of Benny Morris’ views as a historian is an issue with implications far beyond a narrow academic debate. Many observers consider Morris to be one of the most, if not the most, knowledgeable expert on the 1948 war. His conclusion on the question as to whether or not there was a grand Zionist plan to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Arabs carries great weight. On the other hand, if he indeed changed his view for unclear reasons, and if his present claims contradict the findings of his own earlier work, serious questions regarding his credibility arise.

Professor Blatman’s Claims

In his recent response to Morris’ book review, Blatman argued:

Benny Morris’ criticism… is part of the historian’s efforts – which have continued for over 15 years – to deny what he once claimed in the past: that Israel carried out ethnic cleansing for all intents and purposes in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

In the past Morris stated this with commendable courage. In a debate with Israeli author Aharon Megged on the pages of Haaretz in 1994, he declared: “… Zionism’s principal aspiration was to solve the problems of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, to establish a political entity that would be a refuge for the Jews and an exemplary country… Zionism also had other objectives: to take control of the Land of Israel from the sea to the river to replace the Palestinians who lived there: to push them out of the country at the moment of decision the defense forces of the Zionist movement gave expression to the belligerent and expansionist urge that was always at the basis of Zionist ideology, and made sure – whether by means of making them flee and expulsion, or by preventing the return of refugees – to push outside the borders of the state-in-the-making the vast majority of Arabs who lived in the areas that became the State of Israel, and also to enlarge the state beyond the lines drawn in the 1947 UN General Assembly resolution.”

The Benny Morris of 1994 did a better job of explaining what Dr. Manna asserts in his book. But in recent years Morris has been trying to “correct a mistake” and to prove that what he concluded from his research about the expulsion of the Palestinians was actually incorrect. I don’t know what made him change his conclusions regarding the catastrophe that Israel inflicted on the Palestinian people in 1948. What is worse is the fact that Morris wickedly criticizes research that is attempting, in a balanced and critical manner, to deal with the Nakba and its outcome from an angle that doesn’t suit the Zionist narrative – a narrative that Morris also attacked harshly in the past due to its ideological biases.

Benny Morris’ 1994 words to Aharon Megged, cited by Blatman, are indeed a harsh indictment of Zionism. Morris was known as a slaughterer of “sacred cows” and infuriated many at the time by contradicting conventions of Israeli society. But to determine whether his current claims do contradict the conclusions of his early research of the late 1980s and early 1990s, we turn to the research itself.

The ‘Old’ Benny Morris

The concluding chapter of Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge University Press, 1987) starts with a paragraph that presents the complex historical reality, but leaves no doubt regarding the question of a grand Zionist “expulsion policy”:

The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Arab-Israeli war; in smaller part, it was the deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians (p. 286).

Regarding Plan D (“Tochnit Dalet”) of the Haganah, which is sometimes described as the “master plan” for expelling the Arabs, Morris wrote:

Plan D was not a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs: it was governed by military considerations and was geared to achieving military ends.

About the Arabs’ flight, Morris writes:

Nor… is there evidence… of any general expectation in the Yishuv of a mass exodus of the Arab population from the Jewish or any other part of Palestine… When it occurred, it surprised even the most optimistic and hardline Yishuv executives… (pp. 63-64)

In the opening chapter of Morris’ book 1948 And After, 1994 edition, Morris added:

The Yishuv did not enter the 1948 war with a master plan for expelling the Arabs, nor did its political and military leaders ever adopt such a master plan. What happened was largely haphazard and a result of the war (p. 17).

In most cases, the Jewish commanders…were hardly ever confronted with the decision whether or not to expel an overrun [Arab, S.B.M] community: most villages and towns simply emptied at the first whiff of grapeshot (p. 21).

Morry reiterated this position in a 1991 debate published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, in which Nur Masalha and Norman Finkelstein (two harsh critics of Israel, to say the least) criticized Morris for not accepting the “preplanned expulsion” thesis. Morris answered:

Why, if there was a systematic, efficient policy of expulsion, did the Israeli authorities leave troublesome or potentially troublesome minority Arab communities in Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, not to mention smaller sites such as Lydda, Ramle, and Tarshiha, after the mass exodus- when, without doubt, the government/IDF, cloaked by the fog of battle, could easily have expelled them?… if there was a general policy of expulsion, why, at war’s end, were 100,000-160,000 Arabs, most of them Muslims, left in Israel?

He added:

One cannot, in my view, regard as an “expulsion” the flight of a village’s or town’s inhabitants when the Haganah/IDF approached or when Jewish units launched an assault on the site, usually accompanied by a preliminary mortar barrage.

In his response to Morris, Finkelstein used a method that at the time was novel: he compared the “old” Morris (of 1987), whose findings ostensibly prove mass forced expulsions, to the “new” Morris (of 1991) who denies those findings. Sound familiar?

All of Benny Morris’ statements, reproduced above, date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period in which his critics say he supposedly argued that there was a premeditated, deliberate Zionist plan for the mass transfer of Arabs. His writing from that time and later periods did indeed describe atrocities committed by Jews during the war, and did document cases of massacre and forced expulsion. But, regarding the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, Morris was clear at the time: There was no plan nor expectation of an Arab exodus among the Zionist leadership; most Arabs left the country as a result of the general collapse of the Arab society during the war, and due to fear of battle, as opposed to any deliberate, forced expulsion.
The ‘New’ Benny Morris
At the beginning of the previous decade, some of his positions began to evolve. Correcting a Mistake was the name of his 2000 book. The most publicized revision concerned the current political question: are the Arabs ready to accept the existence of a Jewish state in any borders? In a response to Blatman about a year ago, Morris wrote:

As for my change of opinion, it changed during the 1990s about only one thing – the Palestinians’ willingness to make peace with us. At the beginning of the decade, I thought maybe something had changed in the Palestinian national movement and they were willing to recognize reality and arrive at a compromise of two states for two peoples.

But in 2000, after Yasser Arafat’s “no” at Camp David (which was backed by his successor Mahmoud Abbas), and in light of the second intifada and the nature of that intifada, I realized they weren’t interested in peace. Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed since.

Another change in Morris’ position, articulated in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (2003), concerned the history of the 1948 war. According to Morris, he adjusted his view in light of new access to archival material which wasn’t available when he wrote his original book:

Birth Revisited describes many more atrocities and expulsions than were recorded in the original version of the book. But, at the same time, a far greater proportion of the 700,000 Arab refugees were ordered or advised by their fellow Arabs to abandon their homes than I had previously registered. It is clear from the new documentation that the Palestinian leadership in principle opposed the Arab flight from December 1947 to April 1948, while at the same time encouraging or ordering a great many villages to send away their women, children and old folk, to be out of harm’s way. Whole villages, especially in the Jewish- dominated coastal plain, were also ordered to evacuate. There is no doubt that, throughout, the departure of dependents lowered the morale of the remaining males and paved the way for their eventual departure as well.

Contrary to Daniel Blatman’s assertions, there was no revolutionary change in Morris’ position regarding the general picture of the Palestinian “Nakba.” Evolutions in his views over the years, which occurred, he said, due to new revelations and a new assessment of the Arabs’ intentions, did not touch on his assessments about the source of the Palestinian refugee problem. Perhaps his detractors attack him precisely because he is a renowned historian who doesn’t hesitate to “correct a mistake” even if the correction is in favor of the Israeli side; who doesn’t wholeheartedly adopt the Palestinian narrative; and who dares to express views that deviate from what is customary in the radical left.
Morris Comments
This writer asked Morris whether this piece accurately reflects his views over the years. Morris responded (CAMERA’s translation from Hebrew):

Your descri
ption is completely accurate.

But I would add another thing- that Israel, as an agreed government policy, prevented the return of those who became refugees. That decision was made at government meetings in April, August and September 1948 (that is, already when only half of the refugees became refugees).

The word ‘refugees’ is problematic- because two-thirds of the refugees have moved to another place in the land of Israel (the West Bank, Gaza) and only a third left Mandatory Palestine (a refugee is usually defined as one who left his country).

In response to a request for comment, Blatman answered (CAMERA’s translation from Hebrew):

I have no interest in responding to you, since there is no discussion between us. You can write as you wish and that is of course your own business.

Please see Presspectiva, CAMERA’s Hebrew site, for a Hebrew version of this article.

Comments are closed.