John Mearsheimer: Eviscerates the NYT Review of Benny Morris's book, 1948

Historians in the News

Make sure you read David Margolick's review of the new Benny Morris book in the NYT Book Review section today. It is another shocking piece, given how much we now know about 1948.

First, he talks about "the dramatically outnumbered Jews," how the Arab armies had "numerical superiority" over the Israelis. This is simply not true. The Zionist/Israeli fighting forces outnumbered the Palestinians between December 1947 and May 1948, and they outnumbered the Arab armies from May 1948 to January 1949, when the fighting stopped. Steve [Walt] and I lay out the numbers on p. 82 of the Lobby book.

Second, and related, he says that "on paper and on the ground, the Palestinians had the edge." This is not a serious argument. The Palestinian fighting forces had been decimated by the British in the 1936-1939 revolt, and they were in no position to put up a fight against the Zionists in 1948. This is why Yigal Yadin, a prominent military commander in 1948, said that if the British had not been present in Palestine until May 1948, "we could have quelled the Arab riot in one month." And it was essentially a riot, because the Palestinians had little fighting power, thanks to what happened a decade before. An excellent source on this matter is Rashid Khalidi's book, The Iron Cage.

Third, Margolick says that "transfer -- or expulsion or ethnic cleansing -- was never an explicit part of the Zionist program." It just started happening in the course of the war, and the "Jewish leaders, struck by their good fortune," pushed it along. This is not true; there is an abundance of evidence that contradicts Margolick’s claim. He ought to read Nur Masalha's Expulsion of the Palestinians and Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of the Palestinians. Plus, the argument fails the common sense test. Given demographics and where the Jews and Arabs lived, there was no way that the Zionists could create a Jewish state without transfer. Not surprisingly, that point was well understood by the Zionist leadership. Consider what Morris told a Ha'aretz interviewer in 2004: "Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist... Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here." Although Benny Morris tries to argue that the transfer was "born of war," he provides too much evidence to the contrary in his books and interviews, which is what allowed Norman Finkelstein to undermine Morris's case in Image and Reality (chapter 3).

Fourth, Margolick effectively repeats the myth that one of the main reasons that the Palestinians fled in 1948 was because Arab leaders broadcast messages to them telling them to leave their homes. He writes: "apocalyptic Arab broadcasts induced further flight and depicted as traitors those who chose to stay behind." One would have thought that this myth had been put to rest by now. The truth is that most Arab leaders urged the Palestinian population to stay at home, but fear of violent death at the hands of the Zionist forces led most of them to flee. This is not to deny that some Arab commanders did instruct Palestinian civilians to evacuate their homes during the fighting, either to make sure that they did not get caught in a firefight or to ensure that they were not killed by the Zionist forces engaged in ethnically cleansing Palestinians.

Fifth, he clearly implies that the expulsion was the Arab's own fault. He writes: "The Arabs, it was said, had only themselves to blame for the upheaval: they’d started it. And, Morris notes, the Jews were only emulating the Arabs, who’d always envisioned a virtually Judenrein Palestine." This is an outrageous argument. The Zionist came to Palestine knowing full well that there were an indigenous people there and that they would have to steal their land. Margolick, to his credit, quotes Ben-Gurion saying that the Zionists stole their land. Of course, the Palestinians resisted the Jews. Who could blame them? Again, Ben-Gurion is worth quoting: “Were I an Arab, I would rebel even more vigorously, bitterly, and desperately against the immigration that will one day turn Palestine and all its Arab residents over to Jewish rule."

The Palestinians certainly did not start this conflict. They were simply reacting to an attempt by the Zionists to take away their homes and land, which they eventually did. Furthermore, to talk about a "Judenrein Palestine" is a subtle way of implying that the Palestinians were Nazis, which they were not. It is also worth noting that there were Jews living peacefully in the area we call Palestine before the Zionists began moving there from Europe. Moreover, there was little resistance to the first Jews who came to Palestine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The resistance appeared when the Arab population came to understand the Zionists' agenda.

Finally, Margolick goes to some lengths to portray Morris as the beacon of reason and light. He writes: "No one is better suited to the task than Benny Morris, the Israeli historian who, in previous works, has cast an original and skeptical eye on his country’s founding myths. Whatever controversy he has stirred in the past, Morris relates the story of his new book soberly and somberly, evenhandedly and exhaustively." He later says: "Deep inside Morris’s book is an authoritative and fair-minded account of an epochal and volatile event. He has reconstructed that event with scrupulous exactitude. But despite its prodigious research and keen analysis, ‘1948’ can be exasperatingly tedious."

Of course, he does not say that there are all sorts of experts on 1948 who disagree with Morris. Nor does he mention Morris's outrageous statements about the Palestinians in his infamous January 9, 2004 interview in Ha'aretz, where he described them as "barbarians" and "serial killers" who are part of a "sick society." He went on to say that: "Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."

One would think any fair-minded reviewer would at least make mention of the fact that Morris has made such comments. But, of course, The New York Times is rarely fair-minded when it comes to Israel.

Read entire article at John Mearsheimer, writing at Mondoweiss (blog)

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Elliott Aron Green - 5/6/2008

One outstanding example of JM's selectivity is his failure to mention the collaboration in the Holocaust of Haj Amin el-Husseini, British-appointed mufti of Jerusalem. Husseini spent most of the WW2 years in the Nazi-fascist domain in Europe.

As I recall, JM & Walt's "Lobby" tract did not mention Husseini's Holocaust collaboration either.

Elliott Aron Green - 5/6/2008

1st paragraph-- "himself a holder OF the British honorific, ... [CBE]"
2nd paragraph-- "British forces in Jerusalem did not DEFEND..."

last paragraph-- "...JM is much TOO disingenuous..."

Furthermore, the independent Arab states of the time, could purchase heavy weapons, such as tanks, and military aircraft through regular channels --particularly from the UK-- long before Israeli independence. The Jewish forces made clandestine purchases from Czechoslovakia, etc., only in 1948, a couple of months before independence.
Egyptian military aircraft bombed Tel Aviv in May 1948 without Israel having attacked Egypt and before Israel had a real airforce.
Moreover, British forces took part in combat against the Jews, as I indicated above. I should add that the British army sent tanks against the Jewish forces in the battle of Yafo [Jaffa] and that British fighter aircraft fought the young Israeli aircraft over the northeastern Sinai in early 1949 [I believe that this aerial battle took place in early 1949].

It should be added that JM in this self-justifying tirade and in his and Walt's "Lobby" tract are extremely selective in which evidence they present. Their selectivity adds up to falsification.

Elliott Aron Green - 5/6/2008

Without commenting on all the issues raised by JM in his "rebuttal" of a review of Benny Morris' book in the NYT, he is just too disingenuous about the military aspect. He claims that there was a numerical superiority of Jewish forces starting in December 1947. Whether or not this is so, the British army was very much present in the country until May 1948, and certainly well present throughout the country in December 1947. This supposed Jewish numerical superiority could not have been deployed in 12/47 without British permission, whereas the British had military superiority in all respects. The British were also pro-Arab, not only in London but demonstrably in Jerusalem where high British military and civilian officials were regular guests at the home/salon of Katie Antonius, widow of George, himself a holder the British honorific, Commander of the Order of the British Empire [CBE], as well as an Arab nationalist propagandist. Letters later captured by Jewish forces show that Katie Antonius had an affair in the pre-independence period with General Evelyn Barker, commander of UK troops in the country.

In any case, the allegedly superior Jewish forces could not openly deploy or carry out military operations and had to remain underground until the British forces thinned out and thus relaxed control. We know of cases where British forces disarmed Jews defending their homes. Consider the Nahalat Shim`on quarter north of the American Colony Hotel in what became "Arab East Jerusalem" after the war. Further, whether or not the Arab side was numerically inferior, they were the ones attacking starting on the night of Nov. 29, 1947. The Arabs were driving Jews out of their homes in Dec. 1947-Jan. 1948 in south Tel Aviv and in the Shim`on haTsadiq, Nahalat Shim`on, and Siebenbergen Houses quarters in Jerusalem, and elsewhere. British forces in Jerusalem did not defened, and even prevented Jewish defense of these Jewish neighborhoods before they were "ethnically cleansed" and prevented Jewish recapture of them in the Spring of 1948.

So the Arab side was practicing "ethnic cleansing" from December 1947. Now, I don't know whether or not B Morris mentions the Jews driven out of their homes in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or elsewhere in 12-1947 & 1-1948. But some of this info was published at the time [12-1947 & 1-1948] in the Jerusalem Post [at the time "The Palestine Post"], which is no doubt accessible linguistically to Mearseheimer. I interviewed a member of the last Jewish family to flee the Shim`on haTsadiq quarter. All the families but one fled there near the end of 12-1947. That other family stayed, not leaving until January 8 or 9 or 10, 1948. My informant had kept a diary but did not note the exact date of his family's flight.

At the start of the war, the Arabs and British and American observers believed in Arab military superiority. Consult the Western press of the time on this issue. There was even a US military intelligence report to that effect, which may have been called the Marshall report [don't recall for sure].

I note that Mearsheimer is careful not to mention the boast by Abdul-Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, that the coming Arab war against the Jews would be spoken of "like the Mongol massacres and the Crusades."

Methinks that JM is much disingenuous. Would tendentious be too mild a term to describe him and his notorious "Lobby" tract??