Righteous Victims

A history of the Zionist – Arab conflict, 1881- 2001

Reviewed by Charles D. Smith (Professor of  History, Near Eastern Studies Department, University of Arizona), in Institute of Palestine Studies, Vol. 30, 2000-2001, (Vintage Books, 2001)

“At the beginning of this massive book, Benny Morris, a recognized scholar of the Palestinian refugee question and Israeli-Arab interactions to 1956, inscribes on a separate page a stanza from the poem “September 1, 1939,” by W. H. Auden: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
“This excerpt is the key to understanding the identity of Morris’s “righteous victims.” In principle, they could be either Israelis or Palestinians. In fact, they are Jews generally, Israelis specifically, persecuted throughout most of their history under Islam, which “has traditionally exhibited a deep xenophobia” toward Christians and Jews (p. 9). This attitude and concomitant scorn toward dhimmis redounded against Muslims when Zionists gained the upper hand in Palestine and when Jews from Arab lands brought with them to Israel their hostility to Arabs and especially Muslims (p. 13). The hostility of Jews/Israelis toward Palestinians resulted not only from their victimization in a holocaust that stemmed from “the two thousand years of Christian–and, to a lesser degree, Islamic–persecution that preceded it” (p. 655), but also from Palestinian/Arab lack of empathy for the Jewish experience, “an insensitivity to the plight of the Jews [that] heightened Jewish antagonism toward them” (p. 655). Thus, Arabs, Muslim unless noted otherwise, are at least partially to blame for Jewish behavior that might otherwise be condemned outright, and the Holocaust was, albeit to a lesser degree, the result of Islamic attitudes toward Jews.”

“Morris’s opening and his conclusion establish the underlying tone of this book. Though capable of noting objective historical conditions and Israeli attitudes and behavior that induced Arab resistance, Morris generally falls back on a defensive, often confusing explanation in his concluding remarks. His discussion of the Jewish experience under Islam, for example, cites the more balanced studies of Norman Stillman (The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book, Jewish Publication Society of America) and Bernard Lewis (The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press), but his judgments invariably mirror the influence of the tract written by Bat Ye’or (The Dhimmis: Jews and Christians under Islam, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).” (more…)

Reviewed by Ethan Bronner,  New York Times, part of a review of The Iron Wall and Righteous Victims.  14  November 1999 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 751 pps.)

By contrast, in ”Righteous Victims” Benny Morris writes with clinical dispassion. While that makes for a less lively narrative, it also makes for a more responsible and credible one. This is a first-class work of history, bringing together the latest scholarship. It is likely to stand for some time as the most sophisticated and nuanced account of the Zionist-Arab conflict from its beginnings in the 1880’s. Interestingly, Morris makes little effort to portray his story as a corrective. He is almost never judgmental and takes great pains to show complexity, coincidence and skepticism. He also makes clear — with phrases like ”the documentation so far available” — that history writing is a work in progress.”

“A professor of history at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, Morris is best-known for his 1988 book, ”The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” one of the cornerstones not only of the ”new history” but of all serious inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian question. His new book benefits both from a careful tone and from the decision to start the narrative with the arrival of the first Zionists in 1881. Early patterns of mutual misunderstanding are shown to be repeated decades later.”

“In Morris’s powerful retelling, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 looks surprisingly like the 1987-93 Palestinian intifada. Morris not only points to the Eurocentric misconceptions of the early Jewish settlers but to historic Muslim contempt for Jews ”as objects, unassertive and subservient.” He exposes the hypocrisy of Zionist leaders going back to Theodor Herzl, who publicly claimed that Zionism was good for the locals while confiding to his diary, ”We must expropriate gently.” He also offers the thoughtful interpretation that Zionism was ahead of Palestinian nationalism by some 25 years, a gap that mattered enormously in the contest between the two.”…

“That said, the story of Israel’s monumental success is still beyond simple explanation. Morris makes this clear when he writes, ”Each victory can be explained in the light of specific concrete factors, but, viewed as a whole, the success of the Zionist enterprise has been nothing short of miraculous.” Traditional Zionist historians (and Zionists) will be pleased to learn that even in the new history there remains a sense of wonder.” (more…)

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