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Benny Morris on Zionism

Neil Stevens has responded to the second of my posts on the current Israeli military operation in Gaza. I don't want to spend any additional time on the questions of psychoanalysis - suffice it to say that whenever someone attempts to discern, not from patent declarations, but from nuanced statements, a pattern of bias, that effort is akin to psychoanalysis; the practitioner is attempting to diagnose a deviant mental state - or the role of the mainstream media - I understand that conservatives have a tradition of suspicion here, but I think this unhelpful and usually misguided, and will have more to say about this in another post; what is important is that I was not, in my references to Israeli media, referring to their reports on the war, but making a much more general reference to the vibrancy of debate there concerning Israeli policy, by contrast to the sort of debate we have in America - but would instead prefer to establish the background to my complaints concerning that American debate. The purpose of that undertaking is not to delegitimate the Israeli state, or to argue for overturning 1948, but to get people to think about what it really means to found a state, in virtually every instance, because this has consequences for how we ought to think about the resulting problems. While it is perhaps uncouth to do so, I'd like to quote an Irish metal band, Primordial, since their lyrics tend to focus upon matters of nationality, history, and identity:

Tell me what nation on this earth is not born of tragedy, that has not felt such harsh weapons, wielded by cruelty's desire?

And that is the point, expressed with semi-poetic concision, and delivered quite passionately: Tragedy is of the essence of identity, and of the institutions by which identity is mediated. And the tragedy and moral complexity are not erased by the ethical differentials which may separate parties to such conflicts. But enough - what follows is an excerpt from the conclusion to Morris' history of Zionism and the Arab-Zionist conflict, Righteous Victims.

In 1938, against the backdrop of the Arab rebellion against the Mandate, David Ben-Gurion told the Political Committee of Mapai: "When we say that the Arabs are the aggressors and we defend ourselves - that is only half the truth. As regards our life and security we defend ourselves.... But the fighting is only one aspect of the conflict, which is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves."

Ben-Gurion, of course, was right. Zionism was a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement. Classic European colonialism had seen imperialist countries projecting their power and extending their territory by force of arms and by the settlement of their sons in far-flung territories, where they lorded it over disenfranchised native populations and exploited the natural resources. Zionism, as its leaders saw it, served no imperial power but rather a dispersed people that was in need of a piece of territory in which to find a safe haven and reconstruct itself socially, economically, and politically. The movement, focusing on Palestine, where the Jews had lived and ruled during the first millennium B.C., carried this out, starting in the early 1880s, by purchasing - not conquering - land and cheap native labour, but subsequent generations of immigrants tried to avoid this, for both reasons of morality and expediency, aiming at an exclusive, separate Jewish economy as the basis for an autarchic society and state. Paradoxically, but also naturally, this separatist ethos became another source of friction with the Palestinian Arabs.

Zionist ideology and practice were necessarily and elementally expansionist. Realizing Zionism meant organizing and dispatching settlement groups to Palestine. As each settlement took root, it became acutely aware of its isolation and vulnerability, and quite naturally sought the establishment of new Jewish settlements around it. This would make the original settlement more "secure" - but the new settlements now became the "front line" and themselves needed "new" settlements to safeguard them. After the Six-Day War, a similar logic would underlie the extension of Israeli settlements into the Golan Heights (to safeguard the Jordan Valley settlements against Syrian depredations from above) and around Jerusalem (to serve as a defensive bulwark for the districts on the exposed northern, eastern, and southern flanks of the city).

Beyond this inner logic Zionist expansionism also had an "external" one. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the movement was driven by what seemed to be an ever-growing number of desperate Jews, seeking escape from persecution. More and more of Palestine had to be made "Jewish" to accommodate their need for land and housing.

Last,. Zionism was politically expansionist in the sense that from the start, its aim was to turn all of Palestine (and in the movement's pre-1921 maps, the East Bank of the Jordan and the area south of the Litani River as well) into a Jewish state. Palestine was seen as too small to absorb the whole people, and it was understood that the ultimate contours of the prospective state would be determined by the extent of settlement: The outer chains of settlement would mark the frontiers.

During the formative decades, between 1881 and 1947, the enterprise expanded outward gradually and by purchase, most of the time finding a useful protector in the British Mandatory government and Arabs ready to collaborate by selling or arranging for others to sell land to Jews. For most of the period, land purchase was restricted more by lack of funds than by Ottoman or British limitations or Arab nationalist pressures.

Subsequently, expansion occurred in two brief but massive thrusts - the military offensives of the 1948 and 1967 wars. (A third such effort, the 1956 war, failed to result in lasting territorial gains.) In the first Arab-Israeli war, the Jewish state expanded by two-thousand square miles at the expense of the UN-sponsored prospective Palestinian Arab state; in 1967, Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Golan Heights. During the following years, Israel launched vast settlement drives which in effect meant the projection or extension of the polity into these territories. Sinai, with its settlements, was given up in 1982 to make peace with Egypt possible, but to date, the other chains of settlements, in the Golan, Gaza (ed. note: obviously, these were evacuated a few years ago, after publication of the book), and the West Bank, have substantially hampered the possibility of achieving peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

Almost from the start the Arabs equated Zionism with expansionism. Indeed, their leaderd both inside and outside Palestine often charged, citing Scripture, that the Zionists were bent on forging a kingdom stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. And while one need not always take Arab asseverations at face value, they were solidly anchored in a perception that expansion, whatever its real extent, would be at the expense of their people, principally and initially those living in Palestine itself.

From the start these Arabs - while certainly not a distinct "people" before 1920, resented the influx (they termed it an "invasion") of infidel settlers who might bring some material benefit to the region as a whole but simultaneously were dispossessing tenant-farmers and posing a vague threat to its Arab and Muslim mores and character. Within years the Arabs came to fear for their lands and livelihoods; and, with the onset of national consciousness, began to fear also for the fate of their "country". Paradoxically it was in large part the thrust and threat of Zionism that generated this consciousness of collective self, that is, a distinct Palestinian Arab identity and nationalism. (ed. note: This is not really surprising, as national consciousness is very often a consciousness imposed by the condition of becoming some group's Other, as in the case of the Jews themselves.)

The Zionist leaders and settlers were only vaguely aware that the movement was having this effect. Indeed, to a very large degree they managed to avoid "seeing" the Arabs, of whom there were about half a million in the country around 1880, about seven hundred thousand in 1914, and 1.25 million in 1947. Herzl's The Jewish State makes no mention of the Arabs; memoirs by settlers from the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century rarely refer to their existence. It is as if each Jewish colony was a separate, self-contained universe, with nothing around it.

At work were a number of factors. One undoubtedly was the routine European colonist's mental obliteration of the "natives"; colonists tended to relate to natives as part of the scenery, objects to be utilized when necessary, and not as human beings with rights or legitimate aspirations. Another factor was a self-defense mechanism: Constant consciousness of the surrounding sea of Arabs could have eroded faith in the tenability and future of the Zionist enterprise and the sparse, scattered settlements. How could Zionism succeed against such odds? the settler might well ask. Better not to look at the odds but simply to go about one;s daily business while ignoring the existence of "the Arab problem" (as the Zionists eventually came to call it).

A third factor may have been a desire to suppress feelings of guilt. The Zionists were intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs; their enterprise, however justified in terms of Jewish suffering and desperation, was tainted by a measure of moral dubiousness. It was better not to dwell on the problem lest it generate an infirmity of purpose which could be politically and psychologically debilitating. Yet, despite the indisputable presence of Arab communities in most areas of the country, the Jews, down to the 1920s, were right on one level: They themselves were the only "nation" or "people" in the country: The Arabs simply did not exist as a Palestinian people - as another, competing nationalism. The small minority of politically conscious Arabs saw themselves as part of the wider "Arab nation" or of the "Greater Syria" polity.

It is untrue to state, therefore, that Palestinian resistance, generally, was not a legitimate response to anything done by Israel. Specific forms of resistance, and specific declarations made pursuant to that resistance have been wholly unjustified and illicit, but that is not the same thing. One does not ever become entitled to declare a genocidal intention or campaign, or to target civilians; neither does one get to colonize, displace, conquer, and expropriate, in response to anything. It was scarcely the fault of Palestinians that Europeans made the existence of the Jews so tenuous, awakening in them the collective resolve to constitute themselves a nation, and the ethical differential between the respective societies cannot efface the moral dubiousness of colonization and everything that has followed in its train. Neither, for that matter, does the near-universality of such injustices in the founding of nations and peoples; all that follows therefrom is that all have sinned. No nation is immaculately conceived, and therein lies the poignancy of the epigraph of Morris' book, taken from Auden's September 1, 1939:

I and the public learn
What all schoolchildren learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return

Comments (5)


Another good post capturing much of the spirit of the tragic situation in Israel/Palesine. I quibble with only this comment:

"This is not really surprising, as national consciousness is very often a consciousness imposed by the condition of becoming some group's Other, as in the case of the Jews themselves."

This is only partially true, if by "national consciousness" you mean a modern-day nation-state. Because most Jews (or at least those who are religious) regularly pray to the Land of Israel and mourn their expulsion ever since the Bar Kokhba Revolt. So the Jews as a people, despite the diaspora, always thought of themselves as a nation whose proper home was Israel. It sort of makes their experience of colonization unique (not to mention the fact, which Morris points out, the Jews were building their communities in lands that were already colonized, first by the Turks and then by the British).

Finally, I wonder when Auden's cycle ends?

Here are some more good thoughts on this topic for W4 readers.

This overview of the history is interesting, but I don't know that it, in and of itself, compels any normative conclusions about the conflict. Both sides can complain that they have been disseized---the record of the Jews' original expulsion is simply farther removed. Is there a statute of limitations on complaints about invaders? If so, how long before we have to stop giving credence to the Muslim complaints? Given that reality, there are only so many options: to the victor go the spoils, pacifism, some fanciful equitable division model, or a preference for one side based on various value judgments.

For my part, I'll agree with Morris's assessment that Zionism represents a danger to Muslim society. But how on earth is that a bad thing? In the context of world history, it seems entirely unreasonable to do much of anything except base decisions regarding a people's entitlement to possess or rule a bit of land on a combination of "there first" reckoning and value judgments regarding the moral worth of that people's culture. Muslims always lose any such decision because 1) they came as conquerors everywhere they rule and 2) Islam is devoid of moral worth. If the descendants of Baldwin and a bunch of Melkites (NB, I may have the particular group of Eastern Christians wrong) seriously claimed Palestine, their claim would be more legitimate than the Israelis'. The Irish claim to Northern Ireland is superior to the English; not even the Austrians had a legitimate right to subdivide Poland, etc. Jews trump Muslims, Christians trump Jews, Catholics trump Protestants (the Orthodox present complexities beyond this comment), and between co-religionists natives trump invaders (and we can distinguish blatant conquest from wars, such as the Norman Conquest, fought over claims of succession, the latter being more akin to crude judicial settlements). It's a startlingly un-modern concept, and admits of some subtleties not laid out here, but really, on what other basis is one to judge claims of this type? Certainly not on whether some infidel camel thief is offended or not by a particular course of action.

Finally, I wonder when Auden's cycle ends?

Maybe when we take the schoolchildren out of schools, which have since their inception been tune-playing pipers to him who pays.

Well put Paul. We need to remember that all Muslim lands are stolen lands. And Jeff, as far as the whole Just War debate on the present situation in Gaza goes, we need to remember that this is not just an isolated case of Gazan outlaws lobbing mostly ineffective missles. Instead it is simply the latest manifestation of a massive and permanent attempt by the Moslem world to eradicate the intolerable affront to their religion that is the Jewish homeland.

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