Latest update: July 1st, 2013
Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were in Los Angeles last month, speaking to an overflow crowd of more than 300 people at the Armand Hammer Museum – part of a speaking tour with appearances at World Affairs Councils in San Francisco, Dallas and Washington, D.C., the City Club in Cleveland, forums at the University of Chicago, MIT and Columbia University, the Cambridge Forum in Harvard Square, and media slots on NPR, the Colbert Report, and WTTW-TV in Chicago.
In the Q&A portion of the Hammer Museum program, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, praised Walt and Mearsheimer for their “admirable” efforts to raise a subject about which (he said) it “is virtually impossible to have a rational discussion” in America (except, one assumes, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Cambridge and New York, on television and radio, and in best-selling books).
Then he asked them a question about the Israeli “New Historians”:
Are you absolutely certain that what you’ve said about the New Historians is indeed so? My reading, for example, of their work first of all suggests that Benny Morris has turned completely around . . . but, secondly, they have not said that Israel drove the Palestinians out of Palestine, Mandatory Palestine, in that war – which I myself participated in, incidentally – but that that was one of the factors that led to the creation of some seven or eight hundred thousand refugees; that many of them, maybe even most of them, fled – as I certainly would have fled – simply out of fear . . .
Professor Mearsheimer thanked Rabbi Beerman for his introductory remarks and answered his question as follows:
With regard to the New History . . . I think there is no question that Benny Morris’s personal politics have become more hard line in recent years and he doesn’t look like the same Benny Morris of the 1990s, but he has not renounced his scholarship. He has not renounced what he wrote in 1980 and 1990.
Actually, the book people should look at is Shlomo Ben-Ami’s book, Scars of War, which I think has an excellent capsule summary of where the conventional wisdom of Israel is on the subject, and I think Ben-Ami’s views are consistent in large part with Morris’ views and Morris’s views are consistent with our views. I think we are basically parroting the conventional wisdom.
The answer is a small case study of Walt & Mearsheimer’s scholarly methods. Benny Morris published two books relating to the origin of the Palestinian refugee problem: one in 1988 titled The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 and one in 2004 titled The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.
The 1988 book, in Morris’s description, “undermined both the official Zionist and the traditional Arab narratives”:
The documents showed that the 700,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been driven from their homes in the area that became the state of Israel in 1948-49 had not done so, by and large, on orders from or at the behest of Palestinian or outside Arab leaders, as Israelis were educated to believe; but, at the same time, they had not been expelled by the Israelis in compliance with a preset master plan or in line with a systematic policy, as the Arabs, in their demonization of Israel, have been taught. [Emphasis added]
Even in 1988, Morris understood that the picture was a complex one – one in which fear, orders from Arab commanders, economic conditions, and general chaos all played a prominent role, as well as the impact of conquering troops. According to Morris:
The picture that emerged [in the 1988 book] was a complex one – of frightened communities fleeing their homes at the first whiff of grapeshot, as they or neighboring villages were attacked; of communities expelled by conquering Israeli troops; of villagers ordered by Arab commanders to send away women, children and the old to safety in inland areas; and of economic privation, unemployment and general chaos as the British mandate government wound down and allowed the two native communities to slug it out. [Emphasis added]
In 2004 Morris published a new book, with the same title but with the word “Revisited” added. In a January 14, 2004 article in The Guardian (“For the Record”) marking the publication of “Revisited,” Morris wrote that his earlier book suffered from a “major methodological flaw” – the unavailability, at that time, of Israeli military and intelligence documents, which under Israeli law were sealed for 50 years.
During the late 1990’s, the Haganah and IDF archives from 1948 began to open up, and the 1948 Israeli cabinet deliberations also became available. Morris said the documents in this “giant declassification” – while not changing his main conclusions from 1988 – “shed a great deal of light on all major aspects of the creation of the refugee problem.” One of his conclusions was that “a far greater proportion of the 700,000 Arab refugees were ordered or advised by their fellow Arabs to abandon their homes than I had previously registered.”
It is clear from the new documentation that the Palestinian leadership in principle opposed the Arab flight from December 1947 to April 1948, while at the same time encouraging or ordering a great many villages to send away their women, children and old folk, to be out of harm’s way. Whole villages, especially in the Jewish-dominated coastal plain, were also ordered to evacuate.
There is no doubt that, throughout, the departure of dependents lowered the morale of the remaining males and paved the way for their eventual departure as well. [Emphasis added]
In his “For the Record“ article, Morris drew the following conclusion with respect to his revised findings, based on the more complete historical record then available to him:
Where do these new findings leave the question of responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem? . . .
[T]he problem wasn’t created by the Zionists but by the Arabs themselves, and stemmed directly from their violent assault on Israel. Had the Palestinians and the Arab states refrained from launching a war to destroy the emergent Jewish state, there would have been no refugees and none would exist today. [Emphasis added]
In Ben-Ami’s book, there is a description of atrocities that occurred during the 1948 war, but Walt and Mearsheimer fail to note the following, found on page 44 of the book they recommended at the Hammer Museum:
The mass exodus [of refugees] was, however, inadvertently encouraged by the leaders of the Palestinian community when, in their eagerness to trigger the invasion of Palestine by Arab armies, they blew up out of all proportion the atrocities committed against Arab civilians. The Arab armies came in eventually, but by puffing up the atrocities, local leaders such as Dr. Hussein Fakhri Al-Kalidi, the head of the Arab National Committee in Jerusalem, who gave explicit instructions to the Palestinian media to inflate the reports, helped enhance the magnitude of an exodus driven by fear and hysteria. [Emphasis added]
Thus according to one of Walt and Mearsheimer’s recommended sources, the “mass exodus” was “inadvertently encouraged” by the leaders of the Palestinian community; according to the other, more than half the population in “a great many villages” were actively ordered to flee by Palestinian leaders, including “whole villages” in the coastal plain. And, as Benny Morris noted, the first cause of the refugee problem was the Arab decision in 1948 to wage war rather than accept an internationally prescribed peace.
Refugees are perhaps an inevitable consequence of war, as civilians flee military operations from all sides. But in 1948, the creation of Jewish refugees was in fact the intended goal of the Arab attackers, although they envisioned not a transfer to a neighboring Jewish country but to the Mediterranean Sea.
The basic moral truth is that every one of the refugees in 1948 resulted from the Arab decision to reject a UN resolution (and the Palestinian state it would have created) and initiate a war against Israel instead. Israel does not bear the moral responsibility for the 700,000 refugees that resulted, much less the millions classified today as “refugees.” On the contrary, Israel deserves praise for its integration – into a fledgling country in a continual state of war – of all the refugees expelled in 1948 from Arab countries, while the Arab countries deserve condemnation for placing the refugees they created into slums that they maintain to this day in lieu of integrating them into the societies in which they live.
If anyone should be compensated 60 years later, it is Israel – which lost 1% of its population in the 1948 war (demographically equivalent to three million Americans) and has suffered irreparable damage from the relentless wars and barbaric mass-murder bombings since then. There is unfortunately no “right of return” for those who have lost their lives because of the Arab decisions of 1948 and thereafter.
About the Author: Rick Richman, whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The Tower Magazine, and The Jewish Press, among other publications, is a prolific writer who appears regularly in Commentary magazine and its group Contentions blog, where this originally appeared. He also maintains the Jewish Current Issues blog (www.jpundit.typepad.com/jci/).
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