Thursday, March 22, 2012

Righteous Victims: A history of the Zionist-Arab conflict 1881-2001 By Benny Morris

If one would have an ax to grind against Zionism, Benny Morris' fine history could be easily taken out of context and misused to slam some famous Zionists.  In this hefty well written and well researched book one finds Ben Gurion opining for 'transfer' and Begin not wanting to give up an inch of Judea and Samaria.  We find Sharon instilling fear in his opponents because of his successful career as a soldier.  We read of Rabin being dressed down by his mentor Ben Gurion and about the courage of Ehud Barack for willing to deal and attempt to make peace with Arafat.

Morris sets out by explaining his unique approach: he will rely on the narratives and sources that are available to him and attempt to use their voice.  This could explain why the Palestinian narrative sounds sympathetic.  The author is less critical of Arafat then some of the Zionist counterparts.  His theme assumes that both sides have legitimate claims. Both sides have righteous victims.

Morris deals with many questions that have become flashpoints in the conflict.  For example, he discusses the dispossession of Palestinians.  He clarifies that the process of Jewish colonization of the Land Israel in the beginning was not a typical imperialistic push for conquest.  The evidence is very clear that the Zionists legally purchased land from absentee owners, much of it swamp without dispossession.  He mentions tenant farmers being legally terminated, however, the real dispossession of people did not occur until the War of Independence clearly initiated by invading truculent irredentist Arab neighbors.  War creates refugees.  (Israel's founding includes the absorption of Jewish refugees.)  Curiously the concept of Pan Arab-ism does not allow the absorption of Arab refugees to neighboring countries due to Arab irredentism and intransigence, a strident attitude not to compromise.

What I find extraordinary are Morris' concluding remarks.  As a critical historian with great ability to appreciate nuance and subtlety, he calls the Zionist enterprise nothing less than 'miraculous'!  He marvels at the speed, success and contribution of the State of Israel and concludes that it is Israel that is winning this conflict without predicting the future.  When the opportunities have presented themselves for peace, it has been the Palestinians who have allowed them to pass by.  The Israelis, however, may moan and groan but they make peace.

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