In the old novel Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, there is a bizarre character in the story, a man who had been a Nazi war criminal, but after the War trained as a medical doctor and came to the Caribbean in order to save sick impoverished island people. He saves about a dozen people a week and he figure it will only take about 600 years to save more people than he had killed as a war criminal during the War.
I am reminded of that story whenever I examine the peculiar career of Prof. Benny Morris. Now don’t take this the wrong way, Morris was never any murderer or war criminal and I do not mean to imply that he was as evil as a Nazi. But he did have to spend the second half of his career undoing the damage from the first half.
Benny Morris was one of the original, and in some ways the most destructive, of Israel’s “New Historians.” The “New Historians” are actually pseudo-historians, who seek to revise history to make it jive with Arab propaganda. Those who denounce the “New Historians” as charlatans are sometimes called the “New New Historians.” The far leftists call them McCarthyists and fascists.
For many years Morris was the leading “New Historian” revisionist. Born on an Israeli socialist kibbutz and son of a diplomat, Morris did his PhD on Anglo-German relations at Cambridge. He seemed to think that this qualified him to be a Middle East historian and Orientalist. The academic world disagreed. He returned to Israel from Cambridge and mainly worked as a newspaper journalist at the Jerusalem Post.
Morris’ main venture into historic revisionism came with the publication of his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, published by Cambridge University Press in 1988. It was by and large a retelling of the “Arab narrative” about the creation of Palestinian “refugees.” The alternative narrative, also knows as the truth, was that any Palestinians who became refugees resembled the ethnic German refugees at the end of World War II who became refugees. Both sets were people who had supported the losing side of a genocidal war of aggression or who had fled the battle zones of the victorious armies in the war they had started.
In those days Morris was essentially a pseudo-historian, inventing historic “narratives” to reflect Arab propaganda and to dabbling in the demonization of Israel. And he was good at it. He collaborated with academic haters of Israel like British (Israeli expatriates) Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim. Because he was so viciously anti-Israel and because so much of his “scholarly” work consisted of nothing more than anti-Israel propaganda, Morris at first had trouble finding an academic position in Israel. He was eventually hired by Ben Gurion University, which cannot get enough of leftist anti-Israel propagandists serving as its faculty members. Rumor has it that the president of the university at that time, leftist Avishai Braverman (today a politician in Israel’s Labor Party), personally intervened so that Morris could get hired. While far less vulgar and infantile than the “books” of Norman Finkelstein, Morris turned out Bash-Israel and Bash-Zionism treatises, a lot about the 1948-9 Israeli war for independence.
All this made Morris the darling of the radical campus Left in Europe and the US. They loved citing Morris to prove how evil Israel is and was. About 12 years ago Morris would have been one of the most obvious targets for righteous Zionist rage and for being exposed, attacked and denounced as a pseudo-scholar and a charlatan, something like a Neve Gordon or Ilan Pappe.
But then something happened.
Morris suddenly appeared to have second thoughts. He repented. He largely repudiated his earlier anti-Israel radicalism and started espousing pro-Israel and pro-Zionist opinion, especially regarding the 1948-9 Israeli war of independence. Not everyone is convinced that Morris has really wised up, and Efraim Karsh from the University of London is the leading proponent of the view that Morris has not and is simply engaged in pragmatic maneuvering and cynical posturing. (See this and this, as well as several Karsh articles in the NY Times and Commentary Magazine). Karsh is particularly critical of the fact that Morris has not outright renounced in total his earlier “histories” of the “Palestinian refugees.”
I was skeptical of Morris’ “conversion” at first, but over time it seems to me to be genuine. I think his very first public break with the Bash-Israel Left took place in Berkeley in the late 90s, when I happened to be in town. Invited to speak in a church, the place was packed with the usual Berkeley jihadists and Hitlerjugend expecting from Morris a blistering demonization of Israel. Instead, Morris spent the entire talk explaining that the Middle East conflict is the fault of the Arabs, including any “refugee” problem. You can imagine the hysterical reactions in the local Berkeley drug-infested media. These days the Bay Area has its own specialized anti-Morris hate organizations, such as this one, devoted to demonizing Morris. This is all so amusing. The jihadists love citing from the old writings of Benny Morris about how Israel was somehow to blame for “Palestinian sufferings,” but refuse to listen when Morris himself repudiates those claims.