May 25, 2013
Susie Linfield on How to Think About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Posted on Jun 5, 2009
Whenever I hear people—including people I respect, and like, and might even love—talk about a “one-state solution,” my immediate reaction is: To what?
If you think—as do one-staters like Tony Judt and the late Edward Said—that the very existence of a national state for the Jewish people is problematic if not abhorrent, then the one-state solution, which as every schoolchild in both Israel and Palestine knows means the abolition of Israel as a Jewish homeland, holds undeniable appeal; and this is especially so since it cloaks the suggested extermination of an extant country, which would ordinarily be regarded as a fairly unsavory project, in attractive words like democracy, secularism, equality and justice. But if you believe that an end to the decades of horrific bloodshed in Israel-Palestine can’t possibly be accomplished by wiping out an established country—which would result in even more horrific bloodshed and make the “civil” wars in places like Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Iraq look like skirmishes—the one-state strategy is no strategy at all. Indeed, it recklessly inflames, and reproduces, the very conflict it claims, albeit disingenuously, to solve.
Enter the historian Benny Morris and his new book, “One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict.” Morris is a key member of the revisionist Israeli historians who burst on the scene two decades ago (others in this contentious, far-from-unified group include Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé). Morris has been called “immensely well informed,” “thoughtful and thought-provoking,” “the most influential and commercially successful of the Israeli ‘new historians,’ ” “the enfant terrible of his discipline” and the man who “revolutionized Israeli historiography.” He has also been accused of racism, of using “Zionist categories of knowledge” (whatever those are) and, by the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, of being “a very sick person” and “a case history in the psychopathology of colonialism.”
Morris is an old-fashioned historian: He believes in truth, and he believes in documents. In fact, he tends to distrust interviews and oral histories as generally self-serving and inaccurate. (I would love to hear a debate between him and Claude Lanzmann, who has privileged oral testimony above all else and disparaged documentary research.) He is a scrupulous, tireless, indeed daunting archival researcher, and unlike more ideological historians such as Pappé, Morris believes that the historian’s job is to find out what happened and why, regardless of the political implications of his discoveries.
But in Israel, history has no chance—no chance at all—of escaping politics. In books such as “Righteous Victims” (1999), “1948 and After” (1994), “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” (2008) and, especially, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem” (1989), Morris has revisited, and often exploded, some of the foundational myths of Zionism. In the book on refugees—his first and, to many Israelis, most incendiary—Morris found that, during the 1948 war, many of the Palestinians were in fact expelled, often brutally, from their villages; and he documented massacres and even rapes committed by Israeli soldiers. This was, needless to say, far from the stirring narrative that generations of Israeli schoolchildren had been taught. But Morris also challenged—though this was, perhaps, noticed less at the time—the myths of Palestinian nationalism. The expulsions were part of no grand plan (much less conspiracy) to create an ethnically pure state, but developed amid the fog, desperation and mutual cruelty of an existential war; nor was expulsion responsible for all of the flights. Equally important, Morris documented the implosion of Palestinian society: the hasty, ignoble abandonment of Palestine by its political leadership, professional class and bourgeoisie (Said’s family, as his sister’s memoir revealed, sat out the war at their home in Cairo); the fatal inability to forge any sort of national unity or create any national institutions; the lack of military prowess and, even, military willingness; and the incompetence and sheer opportunism of the surrounding Arab states— all of which despised the refugees, and none of which was fighting for an independent Palestinian state.
Though critics of Israel initially, indeed gleefully, regarded “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949” as proof positive of Israel’s existential sins, Morris subsequently made clear that, in his view, it was anything but. He pointed out that it was the Palestinians, and the surrounding Arab states, who had rejected the U.N. partition plan—rejected, that is, the two-state solution—and who had launched the war. Once the fighting began, the choice for Israel, Morris has said, was to “either lose the war and be pushed into the sea, or ultimately push out the Arab minority in their midst who wanted to kill them.” Each side realized that this was an us-or-them war, a fact that has been swathed in mystification, at least in the West, for decades. (A piece on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a recent issue of The Nation, for instance, ends with an elderly Palestinian woman plaintively insisting, “All we want to do is have the three religions of people here live together in peace.” This particular woman may be expressing her genuine wish, but as a description of the larger conflict her statement is, to be blunt, utter hogwash, and anyone who is genuinely interested in solving the suffering and statelessness of the Palestinians would best ignore this kind of sentimentality.)
Morris’ political trajectory is important because it is shared by so many Israeli leftists, especially of his generation. He has what another Israeli historian has called “impeccable left-wing credentials,” both through inheritance and actions. Morris was in born, in 1948, on Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh (though Al-Ahram has described him as “a foreigner in the Middle East”) and, as a youth, belonged to the left-wing Hashomer Hatza’ir movement. He served as an artillery officer during the first invasion of Lebanon; but in 1988, during the first intifada—which he regarded as a legitimate protest—he refused deployment in the occupied West Bank, for which he spent three weeks in jail. For most of his life he voted for left-wing parties (Labor, Meretz); he was, in short, intimately connected with the peace camp and the tradition of socialist Zionism.
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