The Battle For 1948

Review of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris (Yale University Press, 2008)

During the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion warned: "We must see the situation for what it is. On the security front, we are those attacked and who are on the defensive. But in the political field we are the attackers and the Arabs are those defending themselves. They are living in the country and own the land, the village. We live in the Diaspora and want only to immigrate [to Palestine] and gain possession of [lirkosh] from them." 1

Cover of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
Cover of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris.

This basic opposition between the perspectives of Palestinian Jews and Arabs has fueled the decades-long conflict over the land of Palestine. It has also generated a historical debate between scholars who accept the Zionist narrative of Israeli history and those who tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinian position. The events of 1948 are understood, for the former, as the Israeli War of Independence; for the latter, they are referred to as al-Nakba, the catastrophe.

Benny Morris has been at the center of this academic debate since the appearance of his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem in 1987. Morris joined a group of Israeli scholars known as the New Historians who challenged earlier Zionist interpretations of Israeli history that tended to downplay the Palestinian perspective. Along with scholars like Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé, Morris used newly-opened archives to expose the blemishes of Israeli history, writing a more critical version than their predecessors. The author's singular contribution was to document the Israeli role in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1947-48. For this, he was the subject of attacks by scholars like Efraim Karsh whose Fabricating Israeli History (1997) sought to debunk many of the arguments made by this new generation of Israeli scholars. This controversy – combined with his scholarship, popular writings, and political protest – soon transformed Morris into one of Israel's most prominent public intellectuals.

Morris's latest book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, lives up to the author's controversial reputation. The book is, first and foremost, a thorough and detailed rendering of the military and diplomatic events surrounding the Israeli War of Independence. Although the author pays a good deal of attention to the various Arab perspectives, the greater part of the book and its research are focused on the Israeli side. Those interested in an Arab or Palestinian perspective on al-Nakba would do better to look elsewhere. Likewise, much of the diplomatic story that Morris relates is familiar; the book's principle contribution lies in hundreds of pages of operational history based on the author's research in Israeli state and military archives. 1948 will be most useful for readers in search of an authoritative military history of the war.

As one would expect from one of the New Historians, Morris debunks the myth of the emerging State of Israel as David facing the Arab Goliath in the 1948 war. Put bluntly, "the Yishuv had organized for war. The Arabs had not."2 Despite seemingly overwhelming demographic advantages, the Arab states were not prepared for conflict. Jewish forces consistently outnumbered Arab armies – often by a factor of two-to-one – enjoyed better access to arms, maintained shorter supply-lines, and were far more experienced than their opponents having fought against and alongside British forces under the Mandate and during World War II, respectively.

The Arab states, in contrast, were fighting their first-ever war; the Palestinians, for their part, were almost totally disorganized. Thus, from a purely military standpoint, a Jewish/Israeli victory was all-but-assured.

Similarly, Morris challenges the notion of 1948 as a noble war: a story of Israeli heroism against the forces of evil. Rather, the author explains that the conflict – like nearly all wars – involved atrocities, massacres, and war crimes on both sides. Moreover, Morris asserts, the Israelis were guilty of a greater number of transgressions simply due to their success on the battlefield. Civilians were slaughtered and raped, towns were looted, and POWs were executed. Jewish terrorists from the Irgun and the Stern Gang continued their Mandate-era operations in the post-independence period until forced to disarm by mainstream Israeli leaders.

Zionist forces were, furthermore, guilty of widespread ethnic cleansing or "transfer" of Arab Palestinians during the war. Here Morris draws from his earlier work on the creation of the refugee problem. From early on, Zionist leaders supported the idea of clearing the Arab population of Palestine to open more land to Jewish settlement. During the war, ethnic cleansing became a matter of military expediency according to Morris. Morris thus disagrees with his fellow New Historians who have argued that the notorious Plan D called explicitly for the systematic expulsion of Palestinians as well as with the conventional Zionist historiography that has accused Arab leaders of inciting the Arab exodus from Palestine. Israel's refusal to allow the majority of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in the wake of hostilities functioned as the final straw in the transformation of the immediate crisis into the longest ongoing refugee problem in modern history.

While the first ten chapters of the book read as an authoritative and scholarly account of the conflict, Morris's final chapter, "Some Conclusions," stands alone. In it, the author offers a number of provocative and often-strident judgments on the historical events that he has described in the preceding pages. In addition to the arguments regarding the comparative military advantages of the Jewish population heading into the conflict, Israeli conduct during the war, and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population, Morris presents a number of observations about the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors. The author explains his opinion that "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." Although he does not identify any of these historians, Morris does argue several pages later that the Palestinians have yet to "face up to their past and produce a serious historiography." 3 In contrast to these experts, Morris takes much of the Arab rhetoric at face value, suggesting that the Arab attack should be understood as being religiously motivated. This is a highly contentious conclusion that requires a great deal more attention and evidence than the author provides. This reviewer is hesitant to accept the author's interpretation over that of many area specialists who would disagree with him.

Nonetheless, 1948 is an unflinching and unapologetic history of the Israeli War for Independence that stands as one of the most comprehensive war chronicles available. Make no mistake, the book, while generally objective, is not exactly neutral; the fundamental contradiction between Arab and Jewish positions laid out by Ben-Gurion some 70 years ago hold's true in Morris's work.  Readers seeking a thorough account of Palestinian perspectives on 1948 will not find it here, but those searching for a critical – though ultimately sympathetic – Israeli version of the war would do well to read Morris' 1948.

1 Benny Morris, 1948 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) 393.

2 Ibid, 398.

3 Ibid, 394, 400.