The Problem, Benny Morrism, is Zionism

Yakov Rabkin
January 2007

Published in the Jerusalem Post on January 29, 2007

The Problem, Benny Morrism, is Zionism

By Yakov M Rabkin
Benny Morris is an honest man. He was one of the first to expose the history of Zionist dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians. He later honestly regretted that the ethnic cleansing had not been radical enough: the United States had done a better job in cleansing the country of her previous inhabitants. Recently he published a heart-rending prophecy of doom that the entire Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel is facing annihilation from an Iranian nuclear strike. His article (“This Holocaust will be different” The Jerusalem Post, January 18, 2007) is not pleasant to read. It contains graphic violence. But it must be read.

Benny Morris, professor of history at the University of the Negev, compares Israel’s current predicament with the Holocaust. His depiction of the tragedy of European Jews is blood-curling. Dismissing Israel’s nuclear arsenal as “unusable”, he is truly desperate as he contemplates missile strikes against Israel’s population centres and estimates that the casualties may reach the number of victims claimed by the Nazi genocide.

Benny Morris appears to perpetuate the prophetic tradition that inspires quite a few Jews these days. Some denounce Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, some question the Zionist nature of the state, all believe that they are speaking truth to power. They propose solutions, advocate positions and defend opinions. Professor Morris does none of the above. He mourns the country he chose to live in and in which he has raised family. He does not say how to save the inhabitants of the state of Israel. In this sense, he may be closer to the authors of Greek tragedies than to the Bible prophets who invariably point a way out. This is why the Book of Jonas, in which repentance averts catastrophe, is read on the Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews stand in awe of divine judgement.

The fatalism of Benny Morris is explicable. Zionism has been a rebellion against Diaspora Judaism and its cult of submission, humility and appeasement. It has been a valiant attempt to transform the meek Jew relying on divine providence into a intrepid Hebrew relying on his own power. This transformation has been an impressive success. Israel has acquired the mightiest military in the region but this has brought her neither peace nor tranquillity.

Benny Morris could have concluded his essay by quoting a Bible prophet: for it is not by strength that man prevails (Samuel I 2:9) Intimately familiar with the history of the creation of modern Israel, he could have proposed ways to recognize the injustice done to the Palestinians for the sake of establishing and expanding the Zionist state. He could have called on his compatriots to seek ways to correct the injustice and thus to assuage the grievances of the Palestinians that have plagued Israel throughout her history.

Benny Morris would then be pointing a way out of the violent impasse. As it stands now, his prophecy may only letimize military strikes against Iran and further escalation of violence in the region. Once again Israel may come out victorious but the Israelis will continue to live in fear of the next enemy.

Several Jewish thinkers had warned of this predicament. One of them prophesied during the War of Independence in 1948:

And even if the Jews were to win the war, […] [t]he “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence. […] And all this would be the fate of a nation that – no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.

This warning came from Hannah Arendt who understood the perils of establishing a state against the will of local inhabitants and all the surrounding nations. Secular and religious thinkers alike had feared that Ben Gurion’s version of Zionism would endanger both physical and spiritual survival of the Jews.

Nowadays, when no Arab state poses a military threat to Israel it is Iran that many Israelis fear. Just next to Iran, which is as yet far from acquiring a nuclear potential, lies Pakistan, an unstable regime with a strong Islamist movement and a real, not imaginary, nuclear arsenal. Just as Arendt prophesied, there may be no end to existential threats if Israel stays her course. Benny Morris may have indeed written a Greek tragedy, a fatalistic turn of events that neither humans, nor gods can alter.

Fatalism, just as multiple gods, is alien to Judaism. A Jewish reference to the eternal hatred of the nations is the Talmudic saying: “Esau hates Jacob.” Yet some rabbis, including Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Berlin (the Netziv), emphasize that in the future the two will love one another deeply, as did Rabbi Judas the Prince and the Roman Emperor Antoninus. In the light of this interpretation, it is easier to grasp why many community leaders took their inspiration from the story of Esau and Jacob before negotiating with unfriendly authorities: they were attempting to turn an enemy into a friend. This is what the anti-Zionist rabbis of today claim they do when they travel to Iran and embrace President Ahmedinejad. Unlike Benny Morris, they try to find a way to prevent a tragedy from coming true. They may not succeed but should not be condemned for trying.

The author is Professor of History and associate of CERIUM, Centre for International Studies at the University of Montreal; his recent book A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan/Zed Books, 2006) was reviewed in this paper on December 28, 2006.

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The Problem, Benny Morrism, is Zionism