I recently posted a piece by Benny Morris on the false notion of “secular” when applied to Palestinian identity, intentions, or ideology, and a commenter, sshender, sent me to a review of Morris’ recent book, 1948, in Azure, by Yoav Gelber, the director of the Herzl Institute for the Research and Study of Zionism at the University of Haifa, who criticizes Morris’ claim that 1948 was a Jihad. Relevant excerpts below, with my comments throughout.
Autumn 5769 / 2008, no. 34
The Jihad That Wasn’t
Reviewed by Yoav Gelber
1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 2008, 523 pages.
The basic facts of the first Arab-Israeli war are well known but worth repeating.
These are the basic facts regarding the 1947-1948 war, known to Israelis as the “War of Independence” and to Palestinians as the “Nakba”—the catastrophe. About these facts there is almost no dispute. About everything else to do with the war, however, from the smallest details to the grandest strategies, there is nothing but dispute. In this ongoing controversy over the events of 1948, which for both peoples residing in the Land of Israel touches the rawest of nerves, a unique place is reserved for Benny Morris.
A professor of history in the Middle East studies department of Ben-Gurion University, Benny Morris published his first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, in 1987 and immediately caused a firestorm of controversy. The book’s impact shifted the public and academic spotlight from Israel’s victory in 1948 to the suffering of the Palestinians during the war and its aftermath. In the years since then, Morris has been attacked by Jewish and Arab historians alike, to say nothing of the vicious criticisms leveled against him by those who have not even read a single one of his works.
It is not difficult to understand why: The book profoundly undermined the Israeli narrative of the war, which held that the Arab leadership was responsible for the creation of the refugee problem by calling for the Palestinians to flee, assuring them that they would be able to return in the wake of the victorious Arab armies. This being said, Morris also repudiated the Arab narrative of 1948, which claimed that Israel intentionally expelled the Palestinians according to a prearranged plan. Regrettably, Morris’s Jewish critics ignored this aspect of his work. Arab readers, for their part, did the same, quoting only those select portions of Morris’s book that reinforced their version of events.
Although Morris was at first identified with Israel’s “new historians”—who take a critical and generally pro-Palestinian view of the Arab-Israeli conflict—he gradually integrated into the mainstream of Israeli historiography. Some post-Zionist historians, from whom he has since distanced himself, claim that Morris has changed his political spots in the wake of the second Intifada. These scholars, captive to the post-modern idea that there is no such thing as objective history, refuse to accept the possibility that a true historian relies on the facts to reach his conclusions and does not impose his own convictions or ideology on the evidence, as they themselves tend to do. Morris has not undergone a sudden conversion. Like any good historian, he has simply been influenced by the accumulated source material.
I’m not in a position to judge here, since I have little expertise, but I don’t think the two arguments are mutually exclusive. I suspect that in his work up to 2000, Morris was involved in what might be called “therapeutic history” — if we Israelis self-criticize for what we’ve done to you Palestinians, maybe we can get the ball rolling. This might explain why some of his work in this period is so shoddy (see Ephraim Karsh’s Fabricating History: The “New Historians”). Hence his shift after 2000, his empirical response to “the accumulated material” may well represent a response to a wake-up call.
I personally, being pomo in my own fashion, think historians inevitably have passions and commitments that drive their work — few are so bloodless as to do antiquarianism out of some pure commitment to “just the facts, ma’am.” The issue is not so much their driving passions, but their respect for the evidence, especially the refractory evidence. Hence, part of the accumulation of evidence that may have influenced Morris, appropriately, was the failure of the Oslo Process.
In his most recent book, 1948, Benny Morris returns to the War of Independence and examines it from a comprehensive perspective. The book lays out the political and diplomatic background of the war, analyzes the aims and strategy of the belligerents, and describes the development of the refugee problem. Most prominently, it deals with the military aspects of the confrontation: the balance of forces between the rival armies; their organization, training, and strategy; and, above all, the story of the war itself—the actions and operations of the forces in the field. Morris’s aim in 1948 appears to have been to write the definitive account of the War of Independence. And indeed, he almost succeeds in doing so—with emphasis on the word “almost.”
The first concerns the political struggle that took place behind the scenes at the UN before and during the November 29, 1947, vote on partition.
The second innovation offered by Morris is a pioneering attempt to put the war of 1948 in the context of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. In order to prove this, Morris quotes from the public statements of Arab leaders, such as the Saudi king Ibn Saud; representatives of the religious establishment, such as the ulamah (a council of religious scholars) of al-Azhar University; and spokesmen for popular Islamic movements, the Muslim Brotherhood foremost among them. During 1948 and even before, all of these figures made explicit references to the prevailing hostility between Muslims and Jews that has marked their relationship since the seventh century. They emphasized the holiness of Palestine and exalted the righteousness of the “martyrs” who volunteered to die for it. To strengthen his claim, Morris also quotes comments by Western diplomats like Alec Kirkbride, the British envoy to Transjordan, who reported on the eve of the Arab invasion that “no Muslim can contemplate the holy places falling into Jewish hands.”
On the basis of this evidence, Morris argues that the 1948 war was not a struggle between competing nationalisms, but, in fact, a Muslim holy war against the hated agents of the West. Many in the Arab world, he claims, saw the assault on the Yishuv as a jihad intended to save the holy places of Jerusalem from the infidels. According to Morris, most historians tend to ignore this aspect of the war and the religious rhetoric that accompanied it. They prefer, he claims, to present it as a solely national struggle—which it was not.
Undoubtedly, this is a daring and provocative idea. There may be something in it, but Morris raises it only in the concluding chapter of 1948, and, as a result, his analysis of the supposedly jihadist nature of the war is decidedly limited. Put bluntly, the evidence he presents to support his thesis is simply insufficient.
Emblematic of the problem is Morris’s reliance on statements made by Ibn Saud regarding the Jews and Zionism. While it is true that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has long been known as the most extreme of the Arab states in its relationship to Zionism, it is important to note that the Saudis did not take part in any of the Arab-Israeli wars. It appears, therefore, that despite his rhetoric, religion played at best a secondary role in Ibn Saud’s foreign policy. His interest in Palestine stemmed more from his desire to constrain his rivals, the Hashemites, than from his opposition to the Jewish Yishuv. It is therefore difficult to see a letter he sent in 1943 to President Roosevelt as convincing proof of the essentially religious character of a war which broke out five years after it was written.
As if, in five years, the religious element might have faded? What on earth can a five year gap mean to religious motivation?
The other statements Morris quotes also fail to tip the scales in his favor. A single comment on the issue by Transjordanian politician Samir al-Rifa’i to the effect that “the Jews are a people to be feared…. Give them another twenty-five years and they will be all over the Middle East” is particularly slight evidence considering al-Rifa’i’s involvement in the negotiations between the Jewish Agency and King Abdullah of Transjordan both before and after the war. Nor was al-Rifa’i in any way opposed to the West.
The fear expressed by al-Rifa’i is not necessarily religious so much as it’s cultural, but it reflects at once the enormous fear and cultural inferiority that the Arabs feel vis-a-vis the Jews — who after all, mastered Western technology and science in ways that had eluded the Arabs and Muslims for centuries — and their attraction to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And personally, I doubt there’s any major Arab figure in this period about whom one can safely assert that they were “not in any way opposed to the West.” I may be wrong, but I suspect a problem here.
Moreover, King Abdullah’s two proclamations about liberating the holy places—issued in February and April 1948 and reported by Kirkbride—can be easily explained by motivations other than religious zeal. The second declaration, for instance, was directed at his Arab allies no less—and perhaps more—than the Jews.
This logic escapes me. What does it mean that the second declaration about liberating the holy places “was directed at his Arab allies no less — and perhaps more — than the Jews”?
One cannot escape the feeling that, in general, Morris grants far too much importance to the militant Islamic rhetoric of the period in question. If, as the Muslim Brotherhood declared in 1938, the fight for Palestine was the inescapable duty of every Muslim—an obligation which the mufti of Cairo reiterated ten years later—there is no way to avoid the conclusion that the Muslims of the time were not particularly zealous. There appears to have been a wide discrepancy between the fiery rhetoric of Muslim religious leaders—particularly in Egypt—and the practical response of the faithful. Indeed, one suspects that Morris’s interpretation of this particular aspect of the war is somewhat anachronistic and is perhaps unduly influenced by current trends in the Muslim world—specifically the rise of Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other radical Islamic organizations.
Well, that leaves us with an interesting historical question. Is it more likely that the current surge of religious passion is something that only recently appeared on the scene, or a resurgence of something that had been there all along. Given the history of Jihad in the Muslim world, I think it takes a Rube Goldberg machine to take Gelber’s position.
Indeed, what is Gelber’s position? What does he think motivated the Arabs who took arms against Israel — not necessarily the politicians who may have declared war and mobilized armies, but the people who took up arms and those who cheered the on?
Let me postulate the following position: the burden of proof that the motivations for 1948, no matter how powerful at the time or not, were not religious, lies with the historian who wishes to make the claim. Despite some evidence in the “Arab nationalist” movement during the early 20th century, that some elites wanted to shift the focus from religious issues, there is little to no evidence that such an effort made headway anywhere but among Arab Christians and some Muslim elites educated in the West.
But the notion that somehow the Arab world was motivated to war in 1948, to wipe out the nascent Israeli state by some commitment to either Palestinian nationalism of a secular nature, or that Arab nationalism at the time had any power that was not linked to Muslim sentiments, strikes me as unlikely in the extreme.
The only “counter-argument” I can conceive one might make concerns “honor-shame” culture. And of course the overlap between definitions of how a Jewish state was an insult to Arab (imperial) honor, and how a Jewish state was a blasphemous challenge to Muslim honor are so great that I would find it difficult to distinguish them.