Editor’s Notes: It was always a jihad

By David Horovitz April 11, 2008

Benny Morris’s new book on the 1948 war argues that, while Israel’s early leaders failed to appreciate the nature of the threat, it was implacable Islamic opposition to Jewish sovereignty that catalyzed Arab hostility 60 years ago, just as it does today and will throughout our lifetimes and beyond

The bleak bottom line, as far as historian Benny Morris is concerned, is that it’s us or them.

The bleak emphasis, underlined in the concluding chapter of his new book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, is that we should have realized this all along, but are only now, after 60 years, internalizing it.

And Morris’s bleak assessment of historical flux is that the odds of the Zionist enterprise prevailing in a region so ruthless, so hostile to Jewish sovereignty, so consumed by the perceived religious imperative to annihilate Israel, are ‘very poor.’

Morris does have an optimistic caveat… if you consider a nuclear strike to offer any conceivable grounds for optimism. His dismal outlook, he says, is based on ‘the current situation and trends.’

If, however, Israel resorts to the use of nuclear weapons to counter Iran’s drive toward a nuclear capability, ‘this could put the fight out of radical Islam for a few generations. The Arab world could soften and move to the West.’

But before you get too relieved, Morris adds another reservation: ‘Of course, it could go either way. It could make them more vengeful and aggressive.’

IF THE above cataclysmic outlook sounds rather matter-of-fact, then that reflects the way in which Morris delivers it. He unleashes appalling analyses at breakneck pace and with occasional chuckles – not because he considers the gravity of the threat to Israel to be amusing, but rather, I think, as a way of apologizing through a lightness of tone for the doomsday thrust of his content.

The concept of Morris as the heavy voice of gloom, highlighting the profundity of Arab intolerance for Israel, is surprising for two reasons. First of all, personally, because when I first encountered him as a Jerusalem Post staffer a quarter century ago, Morris seemed to be so lighthearted – flip and wisecracking; anything but a heavyweight.

And second, more seriously, because in his subsequent incarnation at the vanguard of Israel’s so-called ‘new historians,’ his researches were perceived as legitimating Palestinian grievance against Israel. By documenting what he described as orchestrated Jewish efforts to force Arab residents from their homes in what would become the Jewish State of Israel, detailing expulsions and massacres, his work both bolstered Palestinian claims to a ‘right of return’ and international criticism of Israel for resisting it. The notion of Morris as a darling of the radical Left was strengthened by his own refusal to serve with his artillery unit in the West Bank 20 years ago, early in the first intifada, and his consequent jailing for three weeks.

But the Cambridge-educated Morris, however unexpectedly, subsequently argued that his works of history were being misread by many, and that in his honest documentation of the circumstances of Israel’s founding, academic scrupulousness was misunderstood as opposition. In fact, he would later clarify, he understood and even endorsed the motives of Israel’s political and military leaders 60 years ago. As he reasoned to Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit four years ago, ‘A society that aims to destroy you, forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy… A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population…

‘Remember another thing,’ he went on at the time. ‘The Arab people gained a large slice of the planet. Not thanks to its skills or its great virtues, but because it conquered and murdered and forced those it conquered to convert during many generations. But in the end the Arabs have 22 states. The Jewish people did not have even one state. There was no reason in the world why it should not have one state. Therefore, from my point of view, the need to establish this state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them.’

If anything, Morris, who is himself as old as the state, seems to have hardened further in recent years. His new book, impeccably timed to coincide with our 60th anniversary, is notable for its insistence that the religious dimension of Arab opposition to Jewish sovereignty, the rejection of Israel as an ‘infidel’ and ‘alien’ presence, was overwhelming from the earliest days of the struggle for statehood – and was underestimated by Israel’s leaders from the earliest days, too.

Many, if not most, in the Arab world, he writes, viewed the war against Israel’s establishment as a holy war.
He recalls, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood declaring in 1938 that ‘To fight for Palestine was the ‘inescapable obligation on every Muslim.”

He quotes King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia telling US president Franklin Roosevelt, in a letter five years later, that Palestine ‘has been an Arab country since the dawn of history and… was never inhabited by Jews for more than a period of time, during which their history in the land was full of murder and cruelty… [There is] religious hostility… between the Muslims and the Jews from the beginning of Islam… which arose from the treacherous conduct of the Jews towards Islam and the Muslims and their prophet.’

He notes that the mufti of Egypt in 1948 ‘issued a fatwa positing jihad in Palestine as the duty of all Muslims.’
In short, he insists, ‘The jihadi impulse underscored both popular and governmental responses in the Arab world’ to the UN’s partition resolution and was ‘central to the mobilization of the ‘street’ and the [Arab] governments for the successive onslaughts of November-December 1947 and May-June 1948.’

As for the Palestinians, from the start, ‘the clash with the Zionists was a zero-sum game. The Palestinian national movement’s leader during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Haj Amin al-Husseini, consistently rejected territorial compromise and espoused a solution to the Palestine problem that posited all of Palestine as an Arab state and allowed for a Jewish minority composed only of those who had lived in the country before 1914.’

In March 1948, Morris recalls, Husseini told a Jaffa newspaper that the Arabs were not determined merely to prevent partition but ‘would continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated and the whole of Palestine became a purely Arab state.’

‘Historians have tended to ignore or dismiss, as so much hot air, the jihadi rhetoric and flourishes that accompanied the two-stage assault on the Yishuv and the constant references in the prevailing Arab discourse to that earlier bout of Islamic battle for the Holy Land, against the Crusaders,’ Morris writes. ‘This is a mistake. The 1948 war, from the Arabs’ perspective, was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory. Put another way, the territory was sacred: its violation by infidels was sufficient grounds for launching a holy war and its conquest or reconquest, a divinely ordained necessity.’

Nor, he adds soberly, ‘did this impulse evaporate with the Arab defeat.’

THE ‘RAGTAG Jewish militia’ prevailed over seemingly impossible odds 60 years ago, Morris posits, because of an Arab failure to prepare effectively for war, because of Arab disunity and rivalries, because of Arab states’ absent support for the local Palestinian Arabs, because most local Arab men didn’t actually fight, because Israel proved adept at circumventing the UN arms embargo while the Arabs barely tried to do so, and because ‘the compact Jewish community in Palestine… enjoyed a unity of purpose and a collective fear – of a new Holocaust…’

But the Jewish community’s leadership, argues Morris, misapprehended the relentless jihadi passion, with dreadful, ongoing consequences. David Ben-Gurion was ‘a child of Eastern European social democracy and nationalism who knew no Arabic (though, as prime minister,’ Morris writes acidly, ‘he found time to study ancient Greek, to read Plato in the original, and Spanish, to read Don Quixote)…’ Simply put, Morris goes on, Ben-Gurion ‘failed fully to appreciate the depth of abhorrence anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia with deep religious and historical roots.’

Elaborating to me this week, Morris, speaking in a tone I can best describe as cheerfully fatalistic, argued that ‘Israel terribly missed a golden opportunity in 1948′ to transfer the Palestinian Arabs out of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. ‘Because the Arabs attacked us, we had a chance to do this. We should have gone the whole hog as a result of the aggression [against us]. Now, [transfer] is neither moral nor practical. It may become so down the road, if we enter apocalyptic circumstances.’

Ben-Gurion, he went on, failed to comprehend the depth of Palestinian and Arab opposition to the notion of Jewish sovereignty. ‘He misread the map. That’s why when people ask whether he was a great leader, I say he made many mistakes. This was his biggest.’

In a way, said Morris, this was surprising, because Ben-Gurion ‘was aware of the demographic problem of how to get a Jewish majority in the area that was to become a Jewish state.’

It could be, the historian suggested, that ‘after the end of the 1948 war, there was a feeling that maybe peace was around the corner – that they’d come around to it, if not in 1949, then in five years, 10 years. Ben-Gurion thought this.’ Since he saw that possibility, said Morris, he may have felt that there was no need for more dramatic policies.

MORRIS’S CONTENTION is that the 1948 war was a humiliation from which the Arab world has yet to recover – ‘the antithesis of the glory days of Arab Islamic dominance of the Middle East.’

And that sense of humiliation has only deepened over the past 60 years, he writes in his new book’s concluding paragraphs, ‘as Israel visibly grew and prospered while repeatedly beating the Arabs in new wars, as the Palestinian refugee camps burst at the seams while sinking in the mire of international charity and terrorism, and as the Arab world shuttled between culturally self-effacing Westernization and religious fundamentalism.’

His dire prognosis for Israel stems from his conviction regarding that implacable Islamist imperative to achieve Israel’s destruction, combined with the dissipation of many of the factors that worked to the advantage of the battling Jews here 60 years ago.

He told me this week he considers the Olmert-Abbas peace talks to be meaningless ‘shadow boxing.’
‘The drift of the Arab world, the Islamic world, and the religious character of Palestinian nationalism means they’ll never compromise and agree to a two-state solution in our lifetime.

‘They may agree to tactical cease-fires of one kind or another for a few years,’ he allowed. ‘But even that I doubt. There’ll always be groups that oppose this. There won’t be peace in our time because those 30, 40 or 60 percent of Palestinians with political consciences won’t agree. ‘My assessment is backed by the Arab world becoming more radical, too,’ he stressed. ‘Were the Arab world to move toward real peace with Israel, that might spur Palestinian change. But that’s not happening. Even the peace treaties we have, with Egypt and Jordan, are peace deals with the regimes. They are tactical, not real peace with the people.’

So how, from his historian’s perspective, would Morris advise Israel to go about trying to secure its future?

‘I have no idea,’ he said apologetically. ‘No idea. Hold on, I suppose. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, yet Israel has become better in many ways… in terms of the economy, freedoms, democracy. So apparently nations can manage under these kinds of circumstances. Maybe we can hold out.’

Is there nothing Israel can do to try to change that jihadi mindset?

‘Again, I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘The Arab world has been impervious to westernization – unlike say South Korea, Asia. Germany has changed. Other countries have turned liberal, Western in recent decades. The Arab world has moved in the opposite direction.’

Moreover, Morris said he is worried that Israel, like all democracies, is not ‘built to cope’ with the kind of asymmetrical conflicts it is being forced to fight. ‘If democracies don’t act in ways that they may consider morally abhorrent, they may not be able to survive against enemies that will exploit any weakness,’ he said.

Is it, then, a case of us or them?

‘This is my feeling,’ he acknowledged. ‘I’m not optimistic. But then the whole Zionist experience has been almost miraculous. So maybe logic will be defied. Historical logic points to the eventual dissolution of the Jewish state. The powers around us are so great. There is such a strong will to annihilate us that the odds look very poor.’

That’s desperately bleak.

‘If the Arabs change their mindset and agree to this sliver of a Jewish presence…’

How can we encourage this?

‘Well [in cynical tone], maybe we could encourage it by being nicer to our Arab minority, or offer more chunks of territory, or be more genteel to terrorists…’

Or through greater forcefulness?

‘Bang them over the head again and again, as Ben-Gurion believed? I’m not sure that will be of any use. I’m not sure which I’d recommend.’

He added, however, that ‘this is an assessment based on the current situation and trends. All of this could change because of Iran. Iran is the joker in the pack that could change everything. Here we face a potentially apocalyptic situation with an enemy bent on nuclear power and nuclear weapons. If there’s a nuclear change, anything goes. If, for example, Israel ends up destroying Iran with nuclear weapons, this could put the fight out of radical Islam for a few generations. The Arab world could soften and move to the West.

‘Of course,’ he concluded, ‘it could go either way. It could make them more vengeful and aggressive.’
And yet this kibbutz-born diplomat’s son is still raising his family here?

Morris laughed: ‘Yes, I have two children here… and one in Japan.’

So maybe he’s a little more optimistic than he sometimes sounds. And maybe, in so bluntly asserting the nature and scale of the challenge, he feels he’s boosting our prospects for survival.

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