Monday, February 2, 2009

"A historian is not a moralist"

When historian Benny Morris came to Wesleyan on Monday night, he was greeted not only by the capacity crowd of students and townspeople ready to hear his talk, but also by a group of sign-carrying protesters who waited at the door of the Usdan campus center. The protesters-- who appeared to be rallying against Israeli actions in Gaza -- were acknowledged in the opening remarks made by Wes Professor Jeremy Zwelling, who said that "we welcome that kind of peaceful demonstration." And he promised that a number of events are planned in the next year or so which should offer a variety of voices from the Middle East, and at the very least increase the level of access to scholarship on the region.

At that point, Benny Morris took the microphone, diving into the complex period covered in his recent book, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War.

He noted that the book was rejected by its original publisher, because of the controversy surrounding its conclusions. Mr. Morris, who seems to have the ability to draw opposition from the right, left and even the center, walked us through a few of those issues.

If you are not familiar with the origins of the battle between Israel and her neighbors, I humbly direct you to Wikipedia. If you are on solid ground, then read on.

As a historian, Mr. Morris spoke of the need to gather sources from both sides of the conflict. The records on the Israeli side are extensive -- his challenge as an academic has been that Arab sources for that period have been difficult to obtain. Many have been destroyed or stored in closed archives, or were hampered by government censorship of the time. He mentioned limited Arab newspapers, posters, intelligence briefings from other countries and soldiers' personal documents as some of his Arab sources. From these, he has attempted to paint a more nuanced picture of the 1948 conflict, contradicting some conventional wisdom.

Rather than the David & Goliath story that focuses on the forces of 5 Arab nations against the small army of new Israel, Morris paints a picture of 800 fractured militias from Arab villages, far from home and facing the determined and well-funded Israeli army. According to Morris, the Arab defeat was due to a combination of lack of organization, an arms embargo that hurt them more than the Israelis, lack of funding from outside the Arab world, and the competing interests of the 5 Arab nations. Jordan and Lebanon, in particular, he notes as putting their energy into forwarding their own interests rather than pursuing Israel's army.

Morris addresses the question of the aims of each party in the war. Partly, he believes the Arab nations were motivated by the desire to protect their Palestinian brothers and their land. But he also points to sources that reveal a strong thread of Jihad -- or holy war -- rather than just a battle for territory. He quoted from one document that compared the formation of Israel to the Christian invasion of their sacred land during the Crusades. On the Israeli side, he sees a leap from the initial fight for survival to a land grab for new territory outside the original borders. More controversially, he describes a campaign to rid their new country of all Arabs, for fear of a "5th column" of dissidents within Israel. As he puts it: "There is enough blame to go around. Both have a share." Particularly, it seems, in the events that followed the war, including revenge killings on both sides and the repercussions of refugees fleeing in both directions.

After his remarks, Morris took a number of questions ranging from use of literature in understanding the 1948 war, to the conundrum that an "enlightened democracy" faces in an "asymmetrical conflict with guerrilla forces, terrorists."

Pressed by a particularly vehement and anti-Israeli questioner (not pictured here), Mr. Morris refused to be cornered, saying "I don't believe it's the job of the historian to be a moralist; I leave judgement up to the reader."

Later, Morris did share his personal views of the future of the Middle East, saying that he supports some form of compensation for the displaced Palestinian refugees. Ultimately, though, he agrees with the Israeli majority that there should be a two-state solution, because a one-state solution would lead to a majority of Arabs in Israel, and thus the end to a Jewish state. He hopes that the U.S. will support moderates on both sides who could craft a two-state solution. "But," he said, "I'm not an optimist. I don't believe we'll see it."

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