Israeli historian offers the truth about 1948

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Benny Morris says truth is a dirty word to many of his fellow historians. That doesn’t stop him from seeking it, no matter how many toes –– Israeli or Palestinian –– he has to step on.

“The trend today maintains there is no such thing as truth or objective reality,” says the Israeli author. “What there is is various narratives and all are equally legitimate. Everything is open to interpretation. I don’t think that’s true.”

Morris will discuss his latest book, “1948: The First Arab-Israeli War,” during three local appearances next week, all sponsored by the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“1948” recounts in ex-haustive detail what Israelis call the War of Indep-endence, and what Arabs call al-Naqba (“the catastrophe”). Clocking in at nearly 600 pages, the book is Morris’ attempt to uncover the truth about that pivotal event.

He was surprised by some of what he learned.

“One thing you will see throughout,” Morris notes, “is the jihadi aspect of the war, as launched by the Palestinians in 1947 and the Arab states that invaded in 1948. They regarded the war in part as a Holy War against an infidel invader. This was a surprise to me.”

Israel’s War of Independence is still well within living memory (Morris himself was born in Israel in 1948). Most Israelis grow up with a heroic version of events, but as Morris painstakingly reveals in his book, sometimes the Jewish soldiers fought dirty.

By his count, in all of 1948 about 900 Arabs died in atrocities committed by Jewish fighters, compared to about 200 to 300 Jews murdered in similar massacres. Sounds bad, but Morris points out the disparity is “not because Jews are worse, but because Jews overran 400 Arab towns and villages. Arabs overran only about a dozen Jewish villages, and that’s why you have this asymmetry.”

Besides, as he says, “in wars, and especially in civil wars, soldiers will occasionally behave bestially, kill civilians deliberately and kill prisoners of war.” As an example, he cites the more recent 1995 war in Bosnia, during which Serbs massacred 8,000 citizen of Srebrenica in two days.

Though some reviewers have called his book the definitive account of 1948, Morris counters that there can be no such thing. Arab archives from the period remain closed to scholars, so Morris had some constraints while researching.

In his day job, Morris teaches Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. But his track record is far from unassuming. In 1987 the Cambridge-

educated professor rocked more than just the academic world with his book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.” The book undermined some cherished aspects of the Israeli narrative, while bolstering others from the Palestinian perspective.

Among his other books are “Israel’s Border Wars” and “Righteous Victims: A History of Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001.”

Morris has long been a much-quoted source for critics of Israel, who see the Jewish state as a historical mistake, and who excoriate the 1948 Zionists for expelling Palestinian Arabs from their villages. However, Morris is not one of those critics. A life-long Zionist, he is now even more skeptical of the Palestinian national movement than he used to be — especially in the wake of the second intifada, which he viewed as a war of annihilation against Israel.

“We’re in the same place as 2000,” Morris says. “That year the Palestinian national movement rejected a two-state solution. The Palestinians have remained in this rejectionist mode ever since. One of their expressions is the demand the right of return, knowing full well if 5 million Arabs were to return, Israel would instantly collapse and become a non-Jewish state.”

Morris has spoken pessimistically about long-term chances for Middle East peace. The advent of the Islamic suicide bomber, even among the Palest-inian’s ostensibly secular Fatah movement, strikes Morris as a holdover of the jihadist zeal of 1948. He even questions the sincerity of Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan –– both of which have long-standing peace treaties with Israel.

Still, despite his probing the underbelly of Israeli history, he seems as devoted to the Zionist ideal as ever. Says Morris, “We have a good moral case for a state.”

Benny Morris will be speaking at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27, at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Rd., Los Altos Hills and at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, at U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Library. Both of those talks are free. Morris will also speak at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$12. Information: (415) 512-6203 or

“1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” (584 pages, Yale University Press, $32.50)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.