Gideon Levy vs Benny Morris – and the fight for the soul of the one-state

Jonathan Ofir describes the debate between  Morris and Levi in Ha’aretz about 1948 and now and details the many contradictions of Benny Morris’s statements: sometimes Morris says the Israelis engaged in ethnic cleansing, sometimes he protests they didn’t; sometimes he discloses Israeli crimes of rape and murder, sometimes he denies their occurrence. It seems there are two Benny Morrises competing for attention: one the accomplished historian; the other the fervent ideologue.

Reprinted from Mondoweiss, 23 January 2019 by permission of the author

For nearly a week now, a fierce ideological fight has been taking place on the pages of the Israeli daily Haaretz, between Israeli historian Benny Morris and Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy.

Gideon Levy vs Benny Morris

It started with Morris giving a long interview to Ofer Aderet in which he issued dire predictions for the future of the state of Israel. This has become a back-and-forth (Morris-Levy-Morris-Levy) that is a fight for the soul of the one-state. Both essentially agree, that the two-state solution is no longer an actual possibility. Thus, the discussion becomes, What kind of a state this is, and what it will become.

Let’s look first at Morris’ predictions in the first interview:

This place will decline like a Middle Eastern state with an Arab majority. The violence between the different populations, within the state, will increase. The Arabs will demand the return of the refugees. The Jews will remain a small minority within a large Arab sea of Palestinians, a persecuted or slaughtered minority, as they were when they lived in Arab countries. Those among the Jews who can, will flee to America and the West.

Levy responded with a piece titled “Benny Morris’ Dystopian Predictions About Israel’s Future Miss the Point” that begins with a thank-you.

I find myself grateful to Benny Morris. In his blindness and his pessimism, he has once again reminded me of the hope that exists.

Once again making the case for a single democratic state, Levy shows Morris’s ideological thickness:

To his credit, [Morris] does understand that the two-state solution is no longer an option. To his discredit, he blames this entirely on the Palestinians. The man who accuses the Arabs of a dearth of self-criticism has been revealed as a characteristic Zionist, one who always blames the Arabs for everything. Here’s his solution: “Play the diplomatic game to retain the West’s sympathy.” If that’s the only thing left for Zionism to do, the Zionist project is indeed finished. But that isn’t the only option; Morris’ dystopian predictions are simply blind to the others. Anyone who papers over the connection between Zionism’s abuse of the Palestinians and their hatred of Israel is incapable of imagining that altering one half of this equation might alter the other.

Levy notes Morris’ (racist) view of ‘Arabs’ as pathologically murderous:

According to Morris and his ilk, the Arabs are born to kill. Every Palestinian gets up in the morning and asks himself, “Which Jew shall I slaughter today, and which shall I drive into the sea?” It’s a kind of hobby. And if so, there’s nothing to talk about and no one to talk to.

And countering Morris’s status quo of occupation for who knows how many years, Levy posits another possibility:

Yet there’s another, more encouraging possibility —– that when the Palestinians belatedly gain equality and justice, they will no longer be the same Palestinians. That under conditions of freedom and dignity, which they have never had, it will become possible to establish a different reality and a different relationship in a single democratic state. Morris has never thought about that, and neither has Zionism. Because if the Zionists thought about it, they might have an obligation to make it happen.

Morris’s response was titled “Gideon Levy Is Wrong About the Past, the Present, and I Believe the Future as Well”. It begins:

[Levy] described me, based on my remarks in an [2004] interview with Ari Shavit, as “the researcher who presented two choices, ethnic cleansing or genocide.” This relates, of course, to what happened in 1948. The unknowing reader is supposed to understand from Levy’s words that, rather than destroying the Arabs, the Jews choose to expel them. But that is not what I said. I said then and I say now that the Jewish community in 1948 had two possibilities: Either that the Arabs would commit genocide against them – and I have no doubt that an Arab victory in 1948 would have ended with mass slaughter of Jews – or the Jews, to defend themselves, would expel Arabs, or at least prevent those who fled and were expelled from returning.

A heap of contradictions

There’s a heap of contradiction here. First of all, Morris is now, once again, confirming that what happened in 1948 was ethnic cleansing – something that he was denying just over two years ago in Haaretz, when he sought to counter his earlier statements in support of ethnic cleansing in that 2004 interview with Ari Shavit in Haaretz. This is a maddening back-and-forth between Morris and himself. He simply doesn’t know what to think anymore.

Morris’s claim that he only referred to genocide as something Palestinians may do to Jews is contradicted by his own genocidal advocacy in 2004. Look at the very long interview with Ari Shavit in 2004. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.

Morris goes on to praise the annihilation of the Palestinians.

Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.

So you see, it’s pretty clear that Morris also meant genocide in the sense of what Zionism did (though he wouldn’t say it out loud). In Morris’s world, this is a zero-sum game, of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and they are essentially related and intertwined. So Levy was right. Those are Morris’s two options by his own weltanschauung.

Morris continues, as usual, to whitewash Zionist crimes and rewrite the history that he himself documented:

The Jews chose not to be massacred, and rightly so. But even ethnic cleansing according to the meaning of the term as it has been defined in recent decades, based on the actions of the Serbs in the 1990s in Bosnia, which included many intentional acts of murder and rape, was not carried out here. What happened here was a struggle between two peoples who both claimed the right to the same land.

Disappearing rape and murder

Really? There were not many acts of murder and rape in the Nakba of 1948?

Back to ‘the other’ Morris, from his interview with Shavit. In the section titled “Rape, massacre, transfer”, Morris says:

What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-state defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves… Usually more than one [Zionist] soldier was involved [in rape]. Usually there were one or two Palestinian girls. In a large proportion of the cases the event ended with murder. Because neither the victims nor the rapists liked to report these events, we have to assume that the dozen cases of rape that were reported, which I found, are not the whole story. They are just the tip of the iceberg.

That’s a whole lot of murder and rape, and what Morris found is “just the tip of the iceberg”. Now Morris is saying it didn’t happen. Which Morris should we believe?

Back to the present Morris, he whitewashes the Nakba:

Some of the Arabs who were expelled left on the advice of, under pressure from or on the instructions of Arab leaders, as happened in Haifa in April 1948. During the war, the Israeli government formulated a policy intended to prevent the return of the refugees (who had just tried to destroy the Jewish community); and this policy was indeed carried out on the ground. But there was no policy of “expulsion of the Arabs,” and so some 160,000 Arabs remained, about one-fifth of the country’s total population.

So, wait a minute, did the ‘Arabs’ get expelled, or did they leave on the instructions of Arab leaders? The argument, as Morris appears to know very well, is a typical Zionist apologetic one, to supposedly exonerate it from actual ethnic cleansing, since some Arab leaders actually or supposedly instructed to Palestinians to leave temporarily; and those instructions supposedly mean that they have no right to return.

Let’s look at what Morris said precisely about the case of Haifa in an interview in 1995 with Danny Rubinstein:

In Haifa, for example, there was no expulsion order, and probably there wasn’t an order from above or from outside of Palestine, from the Mufti or Arab leaders to the population, to leave when the Jews took over. After the population began to leave, there were some rumors – perhaps even orders from the Mufti – to continue to leave. But after the exit began, the Mufti went along with it and told his people in Haifa, okay, keep leaving the town. That’s not why they left. They had been subjected to attacks, the same as the Jewish population had been subjected to attacks by Arabs. For months, since December 1947-January 1948, there had been fighting along the seam between the two communities, and the actual battle for the city took place on April 21 and 22. A lot of middle- and upper-class Arabs had left the town already from December 1947 onwards and closed their businesses, causing unemployment. There was a shortage of food because, occasionally, Jews stopped convoys of food from reaching the town. And the leaders had left their posts, understandably causing a panic. The British, by saying we will escort you out of town and get you safely to Acre and to the Lebanese border, were actually in fact hinting to the population that, yes, you perhaps should leave. This is how the population understood it. There were also arrests, beatings and looting, as there was in every town which Jews took over. So all of these reasons combined to persuade the Arabs of Haifa to leave. Of some 70,000, only a few thousand remained, and most had decided to leave the town by the beginning of May 1948.

So, let’s get this right – it isn’t clear that there were orders from Arab leaders to leave at the outset. And in any case, that’s not why the Palestinians left: they left primarily because they were subject to Zionist militia attacks.

Why did the Arabs flee?

Morris knows this very well, and he knows that the Zionists knew in real time, because in his book ‘1948 and After’ he reproduced an IDF Intelligence Service document entitled “The Emigration of the Arabs of Palestine in the Period 1/12/1947 – 1/6/1948”, dated 30 June 1948. The document lists 11 factors which caused the Palestinian exodus “in order of importance”. The three top ones are:

  1. Direct, hostile Jewish [ Haganah/IDF ] operations against Arab settlements.
  2. The effect of our [Haganah/IDF] hostile operations against nearby [Arab] settlements… (… especially the fall of large neighbouring centers).
  3. Operation of [Jewish] dissidents [Irgun Tzvai Leumi [aka Irgun] and Lohamei Herut Yisrael [aka Stern Gang]]

In other words, the Palestinians were terrorized into fleeing.

Morris is aware that the claims of “voluntary” flight are just “Israeli propaganda”. As he told Rubinstein:

Since 1948, the Jews have maintained that the Arabs fled, either what is called voluntarily, or because of orders or requests by their leaders inside or outside Palestine. This has been the basis of Israeli propaganda since 1948.

Although he has often been very vague about the Zionist policy of expulsion (he notes it typically as “born of war, not of design”), Morris is nonetheless clear about the facts. And denying the Palestinians the right to return is actually a confirmation of an expulsion policy, as he told Rubinstein:

Many Palestinians left not because they were actually expelled but because of the fear of war, the fear of battle reaching their homes, and so on. But once they had left their villages and the country, and then tried to come back and were barred – that is the point where one can talk of a policy of expulsion.

Back to Morris of today, whitewashing the ethnic cleansing:

There were officers who expelled Arabs (Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin) and there were some who did not (Benjamin Dunkelman, Moshe Carmel). But the majority fled or were made to flee. Not exactly “ethnic cleansing”.

You see, I didn’t have to bring in another scholar into the picture in order to contradict Morris – I brought Morris himself, for he is a master of contradicting himself. “Rape… not carried out here.” “Many cases of rape.” And the contradictions are always a desperate attempt of Morris the Zionist political pundit, trying to extricate himself from the damning findings, which Morris the historian himself had already unearthed.

As to Morris’s appraisal of the present and future, it is basically liberal-Zionist boilerplate.

“I have always opposed occupation, a messianic occupation from a moral standpoint”.

Morris pays his lip-tax to the supposed, theoretical 2-state solution:

“With regard to the future, I still believe that the idea of two states for two peoples and territorial partition are the only basis for a solution that would provide a measure of justice to the two peoples”.

But alas…

“But like Levy, I also believe that it is not possible to bring it about at the moment, and it may not even be possible at all in the future”.

Although Morris opposes Netanyahu, whose “habits disgust” him, Morris really sounds like Netanyahu when he speaks about that 2-state solution. Like when Netanyahu, in 2015, in walking the tightrope of pretense between supporting a 2-state solution and maintaining status quo, said:

I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change.

That was just after his 2015 election, on the eve of which he promised that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, and race-baited his voters saying, “the Arabs are coming to vote in droves,” all of which got really uncomfortable for Obama’s Administration.

This is all simply a Zionist status-quo maintenance, with all kinds of fancy words. In the end, it’s like what Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed saying to Palestinians in the wake of the 1967 war:

We don’t have a solution, and you will continue living like dogs, and whoever wants will go, and we’ll see how this procedure will work out.

Privilege or doom

Likewise, Morris doesn’t have a solution, he can’t see a possibility of a one democratic state, nor of two-states, only eventual doom for the Jews, once they lose their privilege.

The latest development in this ideological battle is Levy’s response from two days ago, titled “Benny Morris, You’re Wrong: Jews and Arabs Can Live Together. They Already Do”.

[T]he main problem with Morris’ position is his prediction for the future, spelled out in an interview with Haaretz: “This place will decline like a Middle Eastern state with an Arab majority,” he said. The Jews will remain a “persecuted or slaughtered minority”. That’s a description of a situation that leaves no option besides utter destruction, without addressing the causes of the situation. Morris is convinced that what prevailed in the past will also exist in the future. As a historian, he should know this isn’t the case, not forever. He describes the future as the twin of the present. Even worse, he views it through the glasses of race and arrogance. If it’s the Arabs that Morris is describing, and they remain like that forever, he’s right. It’s the end of the world, but there is another possibility.

Levy points out that Palestinians are normal people, who respond like any other normal people to oppression:

Morris views the present, in which a nation is fighting for its freedom, including with violence, like every nation in history, and concludes that this is how they will always be. He sees a nation that has never been treated fairly and concludes that that’s how it will remain forever. They will always kill. Whether under occupation and while suffering injustice or whether they are accorded justice and equality, they will always steal cars, always murder their women, always act savagely.

Levy provides examples of how order was restored, and even forgiveness achieved, in other cases of historical injustice:

You don’t need to be an optimist in order to believe in it. Morris is convinced that the Arabs will never forgive Israel for what it did to them. The Jews quickly forgave the Germans for much more horrible crimes. The blacks in the United States and in South Africa forgave the whites. France and Germany became allies right after World War II.

Benny Morris does not see any such possibility. Because the Palestinians are not viewed by him as normal. They are simply wild murderous animals that need to be caged, as he said to Ari Shavit back in 2004. And this is precisely why Morris sees no hope, whereas Levy does – because Levy has escaped the racist persuasion of Zionism, and Morris hasn’t.


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