Letter to the Editor: Texts, Lies and Videotape

Efraim Karsh responds to Benny Morris's recent National Interest article.

Benny Morris appears genuinely oblivious to the stark discrepancy between depicting Israel as an ethnic cleanser in his early work and blaming the Palestinians for genocidal ambitions in his later years. In his recent National Interest article, he denounces criticism of this glaring contradiction as “defamation and incitement by both extremists Jews [sic] and extremist Muslims.”

While I resent being lumped into either group, I can readily understand the difficulty of figuring out which line of thinking Morris really believes.

The post-conversion Morris objects to a “Muslim video” claiming that Jews massacred 250-300 men, women, and children at Deir Yassin in April 1948, noting that “Arab researchers already in the 1980s concluded that only about 100 Arabs combatants and noncombatants died in the village that day.”

But Morris himself wrote in his influential 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, that “some 250 Arabs, mostly non-combatants, were murdered” at Deir Yassin (p. 113). If it was common knowledge in the 1980s that only around 100 Arabs were killed, then his figures in The Birth make him either incompetent or untruthful. In any case, it’s absurd for him to find fault with those who rely on this and other dubious claims from The Birth to demonize Israel—after all, he hasn’t disavowed the book.

Indeed, in his TNI piece, Morris repeats his claims about an age-old Zionist design to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs from their homes. I have been debunking this canard for years (see here, here, here, here, and here), yet many of the book’s most controversial passages—notably the alleged Ben-Gurion quote “We must expel Arabs and take their places”—continue to provide fodder for the very “Muslim extremists” he condemns (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for an English translation).

If Morris finds this objectionable, he can easily rectify the matter by disowning his past defamation of Zionism. His reluctance to do so has led him into some strange terrain. The only way his pre-conversion and post-conversion views can both be valid is if the Israelis were ethnic cleansers and were justifiably so. This led to his infamous assertions that “when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide—the annihilation of your people—I prefer ethnic cleansing” and “even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians” in an infamous 2004 Haaretz interview with Ari Shavit (see here for an English translation).

Morris now claims to have been misrepresented. “I never, ever said what I am alleged to have said. . . . Shavit had simply misquoted me.” Few at the time accepted the accusation—made in the face of unprecedented public condemnation—that Shavit, one of Israel’s most distinguished journalists, whose trademark in-depth interviews are widely considered beyond reproach, misrepresented Morris’s assertions. “It cannot be claimed that Ari Shavit sweet-talked Morris [into making racist statements],” wrote Professor Aviad Kleinberg of Tel Aviv University in Haaretz on January 24, 2004.

Morris will no doubt continue to cry foul, but the discrepancies between his pre-conversion work and post-conversion statements will continue to haunt him.