Israeli ‘new’ historian startles audience

By Sasha Khokha Special to the Daily Planet
Friday September 07, 2001

An Israeli historian known for being critical of Israeli policy surprised his audience Wednesday night by focusing on the “repeated blunders” that, he says, Palestinians have made in handling negotiations over land.  

Professor Benny Morris has been criticized for his suggestion that Israeli leaders bear substantial responsibility for conflict with their Arab neighbors. In 1999, the Jerusalem Post expressed concern that Morris and other “new historians” would “undermine the moral case for Israeli Zionism.” Yet, at the lecture at the Graduate Theological Union Wednesday, Morris said that Arabs’ historical reluctance to negotiate with Israel had cost the region its ability to win peace.  

Many in the audience of some 100 scholars and community members had read Morris’ work, and expressed disbelief, even anger, at the tone of his lecture. “His talk seemed to be a complete contradiction with his earlier work,” said Robert Blecher, who teaches Modern Middle Eastern History at Stanford. “Morris has made a case against Central Israeli myths. But this talk was just a long repetition of those myths.” 

“The deal didn’t fall because Barak didn’t shake Arafat’s hand nicely, it fell because the deal was rejected by the Palestinian side,” said Morris, pointing to the failure of 2000 negotiations at Camp David between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat. This critique from Morris comes at a time when many who originally blamed Arafat for the failure of Camp David are taking a second look at the talks. In July, for example, a New York Times special report asserted that Barak shared the blame by not making it clear how far he was willing to negotiate. 

Morris also said that Palestinians’ refusal to accept a divided state had historically led to other missed opportunities, including an offer of 80 percent of the land in Palestine under a 1937 British peace settlement.  

Morris’ books, with titles such as “The Palestinian Refugee Problem,” and “Israel’s Border Wars,” have been considered key texts among a new generation of Israeli historians. In “Righteous Victims,” Morris argues that Zionism was, from its beginnings, “a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement” influenced by “the European colonists’ mental obliteration of the natives.” 

The question and answer period following the talk erupted into controversy when audience members repeatedly confronted Morris about the contradiction they perceived.  

“I definitely think that you are singing a different song,” said Rutie Adler, an Israeli who coordinates the Hebrew Language Program at UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department.  

“As a Palestinian, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel with your work - I thought here was an Israeli who can finally understand our plight,” Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies, told Morris in the discussion period. “I wish I had not come to this lecture to hear you in person. It’s a clean-up job for the history of Israel.” 

Morris defended himself in what became a heated dialogue with audience members who repeatedly interrupted him. “There is no contradiction,” he said. “My work deals with what happened in the past. I’ve never said that Israel was the only aggressor. Both sides are victims and occasionally both sides are aggressors.”  

Some Jewish members of the audience had come to request signatures for a New York Times ad sponsored by a group known as Jewish Voices Against the Occupation. Bluma Goldstein, professor emerita of German at UC Berkeley, had hoped that Morris would appreciate their efforts.  

“I was surprised at almost everything he said,” Goldstein remarked in an interview. “I thought his talk was disastrous. He said Palestinians should accept a deal offering 95 percent of East Jerusalem. Well, (Israeli) Professor Jeffrey Halper has a good metaphor for that: it’s like a prison, where 95 percent are inmates, but the guards are 5 percent and they have all the power.”  

“I’m a Christian, and it raised my blood pressure,” said Palestinian-born Samir Nassar, owner of Brewed Awakenings Coffee Shop in Berkeley. “I was insulted when he called the followers of Mohammed ‘cronies’.” 

Professor Naomi Seidman of the GTU Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies introduced Morris’ talk by saying that his scholarship is “cosmic” and that “reading his work – as a Jew – is like having your molecules rearranged.”  

But after the talk, Seidman was disappointed. “He is a well known, important figure, who really (challenged) the Zionist narrative,” she said. “But you wouldn’t know that from having heard him today.” 

Morris said he had not expected such a response. “It’s left-wing, politically correct, Berkeley intolerance,” he said in an interview following the talk. “I’ve lectured at Dartmouth and Middlebury and I didn’t encounter such a uniformity of intolerance.”