1948: the first Arab-Israeli war, by Benny Morris<br/>A History of Modern Israel, by Colin Shindler

Long unholy wars of words

Reviewed,Stephen Howe
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:17

During just two decades after the Second World War, dozens of new states were created. Most were products of colonial rule – in their majority, British rule – and its end. Many of their foundations involved violence, some (most obviously India and Pakistan) vicious massacre and ethnic cleansing. One of those postcolonial creations, though, remains unendingly contentious on a scale to which no other comes close. Why should the birth of Israel be celebrated, deplored and debated, 60 years on, so intensely as it is?

Everyone knows, or thinks they know, some answers to that question. But which answers are emphasised says a lot about the commentator's biases. At the extremes, they range from wild claims about an all-powerful "Israel lobby" controlling great-power policies, to equally excessive assertions about rampant anti-Semitism among Israel's critics. More sensible responses centre on two things that didn't happen 60 years ago: a lasting peace in the Middle East, and the creation of a Palestinian state, or any political arrangement acceptable to most Palestinians. As a result, some would say, the 1948 war which gave birth to Israel has never really ended.

In many quarters, it's watched carefully who attends anniversary events, or marks them in public. The pro-Palestinian Ken Livingstone never came to Israeli Embassy Independence Day events; will Boris Johnson? Some senior ministers turn up; some don't. Part of the reason for the fascination is that those schisms have little to do with party lines, just as attitudes to the Middle East have always cross-cut general ideological divisions.

The unending controversies – and the pseudo-historical myths which retain such a powerful hold – range across the history of Israel's existence, of the Zionist movement, and of Arab-Israeli conflict. They cluster especially round the 1948 war. Benny Morris has, since his first book 20 years ago, been the most important, and almost the most controversial, Israeli historian of that war. His new work returns to territory he has covered repeatedly. But it breaks new ground, offers new revelations and arguments about the conflict's causes and character. Some of the latter will disturb admirers of his work, especially if they haven't been following the rapid rightward shift of Morris's political views.

From the late 1980s, Morris was perhaps the most influential of the Israeli "new historians" who offered an unprecedentedly well-researched and critical assessment of Israel's historical record. They punctured a whole series of myths: that the infant Israeli state was massively outnumbered, its victory a miraculous triumph against overwhelming odds; that the Palestinian refugee crisis was the fault of leaders who ordered their people to flee, not of Israeli actions; that Jewish leaders sought to avert violence and backed compromise, only to be faced with a solid wall of intransigence.

Morris and his colleagues showed that none of this was quite true, though all those myths are still repeated ad nauseam. In most cases, he showed, Palestinians became refugees because they fled actual, imminent or feared assault by Jewish armed forces, or because those forces expelled them during or after such attacks. Such systematic expulsion became more prevalent in the war's later stages. In several instances, the capture of Palestinian villages was accompanied by atrocities including shootings of prisoners and civilians. While the exodus was in process, decisions were taken at government level that the refugees were not to be allowed to return.

Morris's 1948 tells that sometimes horrifying story in unprecedented detail, as part of its impressively exhaustive narrative of the war's military campaigns and political backdrop. Yet he argues more forcefully, even stridently, than before, that such atrocities were just tragic: largely unavoidable by-products of a war which the Arabs had wanted and started.

There had been no concerted Israeli plan for mass expulsion, no blueprint for ethnic cleansing. Indeed, he has suggested that it might have been no bad thing if expulsion had been more thorough. An Israel without a large Arab minority would have better prospects of peace. Anyway, he says, Israeli war crimes were very small-scale compared either to other wars, or to what the otheer side would have done if it had won.

Morris always refers now, not to "Palestinians" but "Palestinian Arabs". This is, one supposes, to signal his doubts whether there was in 1948 a genuine Palestinian national consciousness. But the language seems both ponderous and petty: a heavy-handed gesture of delegitimation. He urges that Palestinian society had in great part "disintegrated" before the war, which is on some levels true, but seems in his hands to be another way of shifting the blame. Most strikingly, he now attributes Palestinian and other Arab hostility toward Israel not to nationalism or genuine grievance, but to a "jihadist" mentality, alias Muslim fanaticism. He offers little argument or evidence for this, and it looks all too much like reading 21st-century obsessions back onto the 1940s.

Colin Shindler's overview of Israel's history is, in stark contrast, thorough, clear-headed and fair-minded – and, as an almost inescapable consequence of those virtues, sometimes slightly dull. He raced, he tells us, to finish it in time for the 60th anniversary; and in places that haste shows. Some parts seem too heavily reliant on a restricted range of sources (none in Arabic, and very few in Hebrew). Shindler gives admirably fair-minded attention to Palestinian nationalist movements and ideas. What's almost missing, as with so many overviews, are the Arab communities who are Israeli citizens – roughly a fifth of the population, given maybe a thirtieth of the space.

He barely mentions the Druze, the Bedouin, let alone the newer communities in Israel's uneasily multi-ethnic mix - like the one million Russians (many of them non-Jewish), the Ethiopians, the enclaves of gastarbeiter from Romania, Ghana or the Philippines. Such omissions maybe flow from his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Israel is simply more complicated than he allows. Nonetheless, in a field so blasted with polemics and prejudices, Shindler's calm compassion, breadth of knowledge and sympathy, and zealous striving for balance, deserve great praise.

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history at Bristol University

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