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Morris, Benny
1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, 524 pages

Benny Morris is one of Israel's foremost historians. What he writes must be read, and is often considered authoritative. His writing is generally lucid and well organized, and is therefore a joy to read. It is certainly convincing. He tells a good story. Anyone interested in the history and historiography of Israel is going to have to read this book, because Morris wrote it, and because it does have a lot of useful information about the Israel war of Independence.



Regrettably, Morris tells a somewhat different good story, and tells it convincingly, every time he writes a book. Having propagated a number of indefensible myths about Israel's 1948 War of Independence in his earliest works, he can now make a career of debunking the myths that he helped to create, and he is, in part, doing so.

The war, it will be remembered, was conducted in two major phases: the civil war under the British and the war with the Arab states after May 15, 1948. As Morris now states clearly, and somewhat or completely contrary to earlier pronouncements:

* Israel had no transfer policy. The leadership of the Yishuv did not contemplate expelling the Arabs of Palestine, and Plan D of the Haganah was not a plan to expel the Arabs.

*Israel did not win the war against the invading Arab countries because of decisive military superiority or numbers.There was no Jewish Juggernaut. Morris's previous method was to cite the supposed 25,000 or 30,000 or 35,000 Haganah (the numbers keep changing) recruits that existed on paper on May 15, 1948 and to compare these with the approximately 22,000 invaders. Now he remembers to tell his readers what should have been obvious. Half of the supposedly vast numbers of Haganah troops were home guards and headquarters and logistic staff. The Arab armies also had such personnel back in their home countries. Haganah had about 16,500 men in 9 combat "brigades." The Arabs, in addition, as Morris notes, had support and air force personnel at home, and thousands of irregulars as well as the ALA ("Arab Liberation Army") of Kaukji in the field. In this book, Morris also "remembered" the 1947 CIA report that predicted that the Jewish Yishuv would lose a war against the Arabs of Palestine. It directly contradicts his earlier "authoritative" pronouncement that most authorities agreed that the Israelis would win. Perhaps in his next book, Morris will also "discover" that a large number of the Haganah "troops" were middle aged men like those sent to guard the old city, who could not fire a gun, or Gadna troops (aged 14-16) like those who helped save Notre Dame de France from the Jordan Legion and its British officers. He might also reveal that many of the Haganah "troops" had little or no training, and some were just off the boat and couldn't speak Hebrew. He tells us about some of these troops and about many failures that were due to shortages of manpower, poor equipment or no equipment and lack of training and strategic vision. Morris tries to "balance" the impact of the facts by noting that though the Arabs had tanks and airplanes, they were lousy tanks and airplanes anyhow, in poor repair. Of course, some bad aircraft and tanks are better than none at all. Overall, his treatment of the military balance is much more factual than it was in his previous presentations, or in those of fiction writers like Ilan Pappe.

But the significance doesn't alwas seem to register in Morris's summaries and conclusions: the Israelis were a bunch of amateurs who had trained underground with almost no arms, facing several organized state armies that had been trained, for better or worse, by Britain. Having a few officers who were World War II veterans is not a substitute for having an army trained as a unit by professionals, an army that could operate in the open and conduct maneuvers together. Having actual airplanes and tanks, however poorly serviced, rather than aircraft and tanks that exist only on paper in Czechoslovakia was a huge advantage. Having a few Spitfires was infinitely preferable to having 4 defective Czech Avia S-199 (Messerschmidt imitation) aircraft that, aside from being located in an airfield in Czechoslovakia when most needed, had a perverse tendency to shoot themselves down (the machine guns would shoot out the propellers) and were un-airworthy because they had the wrong engines (the Heinkel bomber engines were much too heavy). Morris tells us about the arrival of these aircraft, but he doesn't mention their wonderful aerodynamic qualities.

Morris is to be credited with debunking the two major myths of revisionist historiography, even if he did it half heartedly and even if he had helped to create those myths himself. At least, there are no fake quotes in which Ben Gurion supposedly asserts that "We must expel the Arabs and take their land," as Morris used in other histories, though there are other quotes used to prove other points, and they may or may not be more reliable. As usual, Morris seems to use quotes out of context in a few places, to "prove" points that are not necessarily so.

Morris also has a concluding section where he makes it fairly clear that he assigns most of the blame for the war and the refugee problem to the Arab side. That will not prevent the usual culprits from quoting his work (or anyone else's for that matter) out of context. Nor will it expunge the numerous fake quotes of David Ben Gurion that Morris put into circulation in his earlier works. They are too convenient for too many people. Even the moderate Sari Nusseibeh uses the apparently fictitious quote about expelling the Arabs and taking their land in his book, "Once upon a country."

Morris debunks some myths, but he perpetuates others and creates some new ones. Morris still evidently believes that the Yishuv victory in the civil war with the Palestinian Arabs prior to May 15, 1948 was a foregone conclusion. He explains at length all the "advantages" enjoyed by the Jewish community. He neglects to take into account a few disadvantages when tallying the score, though again, he discusses at least some of them elsewhere in the book. The Palestinian Arabs enjoyed a superiority of arms and of population throughout the civil war. They had more arms to begin with, and whereas the British regularly routed out Jewish arms caches, they could hardly confiscate the rifles that were the "birthright" of almost every Palestinian villager. Additionally, the Arabs had the backing of the Arab Legion, which served in Palestine at the behest and with the cooperation of the Mandate government - a very peculiar arrangement. The Legion not only fought at Gush Etzion, as Morris notes, but also provided support in Katamon and in Mekor Baruch prior to May 15. The Palestinians also had the support of the Arab Liberation Army, which began infiltrating into the Palestine mandate area in December or January 1948. Morris wants to believe that this infiltration happened, and that the ALA presence was maintained, without British connivance. This is more of a religious conviction than a conclusion that might be based on empirical evidence. The British of course, especially at first, had it in their power to send the whole lot of the ALA packing in any confrontation, but they did not do so, because the presence of the ALA suited the policy of HMG. Likewise, Morris concludes for some reason that the UN imposed arms embargo worked in favor of the Jews. He tells us that the British continued to supply the Jordan Legion even after the embargo was imposed, and of course, the Arab states were free to buy all the arms that it pleased them to buy in the months before the embargo was imposed. But once again, Morris presents the facts but does not draw the obvious conclusions.

Morris tells us that the Jordan Legion evicted the Jews of the Old City of Jerusalem and blew up the last of their synagogues. This treatment he describes as civilized. Indeed it was, compared to the barbaric massacre perpetrated by the Legion and Arab irregulars at Gush Etzion, but the fact is that the Jordan Legion committed what would today be recognized as war crimes in Jerusalem. Ethnic cleansing, which is what they did, is a war crime. Suppose that in the Six Day War. Israel had, like the Jordan Legion in 1948, loaded all the Arabs of Jerusalem on trucks and driven them to the Jordanian border, and blown up all the Churches and Mosques in Jerusalem? Can we even imagine the international indignation? There would be enough material for a few Benny Morrises to make a career.

In other places, Morris just doesn't supply the information at all. Though reviewers praise Morris's handling of the role of the British, in fact he doesn't go into much depth. Without understanding the British desire, from the start, for a base on the Mediterranean (at which Morris only hints elliptically) British actions are incomprehensible, and the British pressure on Count Bernadotte to give the Negev to the Jordanians is unintelligible, especially since it was in fact the Egyptians who held the Negev and not the Jordanians.

Similarly there are other "missing pieces" which Morris does not supply and without which it is hard to understand why things happened as they did. Morris tells us about the battle of Katamon and Israel's push into the south of Jerusalem. He does not explain the urgency of the battle or the reason for the push: Throughout March the Arabs of Beit Tsafafa had harassed Jewish transport with Mekor Baruch and on one or more occasions attacked Mekor Baruch. The conquest of Katamon was viewed as essential to saving Mekor Baruch.

The barbaric Hadassah Convoy Massacre of April 13, 1948 did not evidently happen only in retaliation for the Deir Yassin massacre, as Morris and others seem to believe. It had apparently been planned long in advance. Only the timing was triggered by Deir Yassin, which provided the excuse.

Morris seems to believe that Hajj Amin El Husseini and his supporters only turned to Nazism after the British defeated them in Palestine in the 1930s, but in fact it was the other way around. Husseini fought the British because he was financed by the Axis. This is documented by both German and Italian sources. Morris also leaves the impression that the Mufti was vague about what would happen to the Jews if he were to win the war in Palestine. But the Mufti evidently told the British that his solution for the Jews of Palestine was the same as the one adopted in Europe, that is, annihilation. There were no mysteries about that.

Morris's introductory coverage of the inception of the conflict echoes some of the shoddier claims of others who picture a militaristic Zionism that ignored the presence of the Arabs and Arab nationalism. A mass of quotes and literature shows that Zionism in the 19th century and early 1900s was not a militaristic movement, and didn't originally envision Jews with guns. Anita Shapira has painstakingly traced the origins of Zionist support for use of force and its long struggle against pacifist ideologies. But Morris, according to his usual wont, finds one or two quotes that can "prove" to the uninitiated that Zionism was born with an assault rifle in its hand. Likewise, he makes it seem like Zionists either ignored Arab nationalism or insisted that Arabs would be transferred out of Palestine. Arab nationalism in the land that was later called Palestine had to be ignored before 1905 because it did not exist even in trace quantities. Even Morris notes that there was little real Palestinian nationalist feeling even in 1948. The majority of Zionists, even fairly late in the game, seem to have had the illusion that Arabs would realize that Zionism is beneficial to them.

Having spent much of his career, and much of this book, on the issue of the creation of the Palestine refugee problem, it is a bit strange that Morris misses two aspects of the so called Nakba. Morris doesn't directly tackle the claims that Arab leaders called upon Palestinian Arabs to leave, though he presents evidence that at least later in the fight, they encouraged refugees to return and told people not to leave. Second, Morris is more or less silent about the Jewish Nakba - the expulsion of about a million Jews from Arab countries, which was not a result of the war and bitterness over the fate of the Palestinian Arabs, but was rather a policy that had been decided well in advance by the Arab League and reported in the New York Times on the eve of the creation of the state, before the Jews had chance to expel many Arabs.

1948 is not a complete book about the war or about Zionism. It should be read along with works by Yoav Gelber, Anita Shapira, Efraim Karsh and others, including Palestinians, to provide proper context and balance. However, the enemy of the good is the better. If we wait for the perfect book about the 1948 war we shall wait forever. There is probably not a better book about the war in English. For all its faults, 1948 is still a very competent and reasonably well researched account of the most important war of the Israel-Arab conflict by one of the most authoritative and respected contemporary historians of that conflict and that period. Therefore, it will probably be the definitive work for some time to come, just as Righteous Victims rightly earned an honored place as a balanced and comprehensive treatment of the conflict as a whole.

Ami Isseroff

Original content is Copyright by the author 2008. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000618.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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Replies: 4 Comments

No one has mentioned that Arab irregular forces, apparently under the Mufti's command [and that of the Arab Higher Committee] were attacking Jewish neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, etc., in December 1947. Jewish civilians fled these areas in December 1947. After the war, Jews could return to south Tel Aviv, but the Jews of the Shim`on haTsadiq, Nahalat Shim`on and Batey Siebenbergen [Siebenbergen Houses] quarters in Jerusalem could not go home since these quarters were taken over by the Arab Legion and in the case of the Batey Siebenbergen, much or most of the houses were wrecked in the fighting.

The Mandelbaum Gate zone was built over the western part of the Batey Siebenbergen quarter through which the armistice line passed. Today, Route 1 goes through the Mandelbaum Gate zone [the passage between Israeli and Jordanian-held Jerusalem before the Six Day War]. The eastern part of the Batey Siebenbergen quarter is now the location of three new hotels, Novotel, Olive Tree and Royal Court. This part of the quarter was held by Jordan up to June 1967.

Benny Morris does not mention the expulsion of Jews from south TA and the Jerusalem quarters, as far as I know. He should be challenged on that. Nor did the TV series on Israel's history, Tequmah [ca. 1998?] show that Jewish civilians were the first ones driven out of their homes in the war.

Elliott, Monday, November 10th


My sentiments entirely, Jon M, Ami should be the one to write the definitive account of the 1948 war. An excellent review.
Dare we hope that Morris's next book may be about the Jews expelled from Arab lands? The subject badly needs an airing.

Lyn, Friday, October 31st


Morris discusses the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands on pp. 412-415. I thought this was a big improvement over the fleeting one-sentence mentions in Righteous Victims. I don't know what Morris wrote in Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, but I imagined when I read these pages that Morris had had his consciousness raised. Good review.

Yitzchak Goodman, Friday, October 31st


Thanks for this. I'll be forwarding it to my friends and family. Ami maybe you should write that perfect book? You certainly know the facts better than this Morris hack.

Jon M from MA, USA, Friday, October 31st


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