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Contents | April 2004
Also by Benjamin Schwarz:
"New & Noteworthy"
"New & Noteworthy"
"New & Noteworthy"
Books & Critics
BooksThe Birth Of The Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited
New & Noteworthy
What to read this month
by Benjamin Schwarz
by Benny Morris
n 1949 about 700,000 fewer Palestinian Arabs lived in the area that had become the state of Israel than had lived there in 1947. Explanations of how and why that came about have fueled bitter debate for half a century, and help sustain two contending national mythologies. The creation of a refugee population that now numbers four million has nourished within the Arab world a murderous hatred for the Jewish state and helped trigger three conventional conflicts and a terrorist campaign that with varying intensity has lasted since Israel's creation, and may well prove to be the spark that ignites an apocalyptic war. In 1988, in the first edition of this book, the Israeli journalist and historian Benny Morris examined the origins of this problem. He was motivated, he writes in this thoroughly revised and enormously enlarged edition, by neither ideological nor political commitment. Rather, he "simply wanted to know what happened." Rarely has a work of history examined a complex and morally fraught event with such cool precision and utter honesty. And rarely has a scholarly book proved so unsettling to so many people. Morris's conclusions—for which he was excoriated as both a PLO supporter and a "sophisticated Zionist propagandist"—undermined the national identity of Palestinians and Israelis alike. According to the Arab version of events, the Israelis, inspired by an inherently expansionist Zionist ideology, systematically drove out the Palestinians in accordance with a master plan of what we now call ethnic cleansing. For their part, Israelis were taught that the refugees left their homes largely on orders from Arab leaders. Morris demonstrated that neither version of history was sustainable. In what was in many ways a painstaking work of military history, he showed that the Palestinians fled or were expelled from their land as a result of war, not of Zionist or Arab design, and that the reasons for and timing of their exodus varied enormously depending on place and on myriad complex social, economic, and military factors. Arabs were angered by Morris's conclusion that the refugee problem was neither monocausal nor the consequence of nefarious Zionist strategy, and that hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled "not under Jewish orders or direct coercion" but owing to a collapse of morale caused by the absence of strong leadership and of a robust sense of national cohesion; and simply to avoid the line of fire (as civilians in war zones are wont to do). For their part, Israelis were dismayed by Morris's evidence that their military did clear scores of villages and expel tens of thousands of their inhabitants. They were exercised by his calm argument that long before their country's founding, its creators embraced the notion that to make an Arab land into a Jewish state required the "transfer" of its inhabitants—volitional if possible, compulsory if necessary. They were shattered by, or furiously denied, his proof that in the war of independence, a protracted struggle for what at first was national survival, Israeli atrocities and massacres sometimes accompanied martial valor. And they contested or only grudgingly accepted his careful demonstration that regardless of what impelled the displacement of the Palestinians, from the summer of 1948 on, Israeli policy unambiguously and often brutally sought to bar their return. ("In this sense," Morris points out, "it may fairly be said that all 700,000 or so who ended up as refugees were compulsorily displaced or 'expelled.'")
This new edition—which is 640 pages, compared with the original's 380—greatly enhances the book's initial strengths, supports but modifies its earlier conclusions, and deepens its sense of ambiguity as well as its implicit pessimism. Morris is a refreshingly old-fashioned historian, who firmly believes in the value of documents (as opposed to, say, interviews conducted fifty years after the events they relate), and he has fully and inventively exploited a flood of recently declassified Israeli files, principally from intelligence and military archives (the relevant Arab archives, of course, remain closed to scholars). The evidence Morris gleans from the intelligence papers gives a richer, often day-by-day picture of the Arab communities' disintegration, in Haifa and Jaffa especially, under the pressure of uncertainty and conflict. But more important, the military documents illuminate the muddy relationship between Israeli military operations and Palestinian flight. In case after case Morris shows that what could be construed as legitimate Israeli tactical goals—the need to secure a vital road, an exposed settlement or garrison, a border area, or the likely routes of invading Arab armies—required clearing hostile and potentially hostile forces from towns and villages and ensuring that those places not be used as future bases of enemy support. The concomitant combat or pacification efforts usually provoked Palestinian flight, and were often followed by expulsion if not. And as the war swung to the Jews' favor, the distinction between the militarily exigent and the politically desirable blurred: Israel's narrowly defensive combat operations gave way to opportunistic efforts to secure and bolster its still extremely vulnerable geostrategic position (security might demand that Israel clear its border areas of Arab settlements, but given its size and shape, virtually everyplace could be considered a border area), and to the even more ambitious but nebulous aim of ensuring that the emerging Jewish state's disruptive and potentially menacing Arab minority be as small as possible.
Morris has significantly elaborated his analysis of the background of this issue (whereas the first edition devoted four pages to the Zionists' idea prior to 1948 of the "transfer" of the Palestinians, the new edition gives it twenty-six pages) and, again, his findings will be unwelcome to ideologues on either side. Although some Israeli scholars challenged Morris's earlier assessment of this subject, his more detailed exposition leaves no doubt that the Zionist leadership believed it critical to buy out or drive out a large number of the Arabs living in those areas intended for Jewish statehood. But Morris doesn't see the tight relationship between such thinking and actual Israeli policy in 1948-1949 that Arab and pro-Arab commentators assert; rather, he convincingly argues that these ideas conditioned the Jewish population and its leaders to accept the largely fortuitous displacement of Palestinians that resulted from the war. Furthermore, from his scrutiny of the newly available documents, Morris finds, on the one hand, that far more Palestinians than he had earlier maintained did in fact abandon their homes on the advice or at the behest of their leaders (who saw the propaganda value of a Palestinian exodus, feared for the safety of women and children, and sought to facilitate Palestinian and pan-Arab combat operations by removing friendly civilians from the battle). But on the other hand, the documents also reveal more Israeli atrocities: pillage was routine, rape not infrequent, and executions of POWs almost a matter of course, and civilians were massacred on some twenty occasions.
The picture that emerges from this towering and intricate history flatters neither Palestinian nor Israeli self-images, and for those interested in finding moral opprobrium, the book provides plenty of it to go around. But Morris's detractors are so enraged precisely because he approaches his story as a realist rather than as a moralist. To be sure, he places events in their moral context: he reminds readers that the conflict he chronicles took place just after the Holocaust, and he asserts that the Jews, not unreasonably, feared that military defeat would end not in displacement but in wholesale slaughter; he also shows that Arabs were correct in their thinking that the Zionist project required not merely the arrival of many Jews on Arab land but also the removal of many Arabs, and he amply demonstrates that by the time his story begins, each side could point to a history of grievous wrongs committed by the other. But he sedulously eschews judgment; and more important, he imbues his tale with a genuine sense of tragedy, for his narrative elucidates why neither side could reasonably have been expected to act, or react, differently. By rejecting the UN partition of Palestine, the Arabs "started" the war that resulted in the Palestinians' displacement; but why wouldn't they have rejected a resolution that designated as Jewish a state that contained fully 400,000 Arabs and merely 500,000 Jews? The borders of that state were impossible to defend, however, and any responsible Israeli leader, given the opportunity, would have sought to expand them. Jewish military operations led directly and indirectly to the Palestinian exodus, but the very logic of the kind of war, however cleanly conducted, that Israel was forced to wage—in which insurgents and irregular forces must be uprooted from their bases of support—of necessity brutalizes civilians and engenders obscene numbers of refugees, as students of counterinsurgency operations from the Boer War to Nicaragua will attest. We today can decry the Zionists' policies as "ethnic cleansing," but how could a Jewish state viably function with a vast and hostile Arab population? Israel's leaders in 1949 recognized that to allow the return of the Palestinian refugees would have been suicidal, just as Israel's leaders today understand the consequences of acceding to a Palestinian "right of return." But that doesn't make the Palestinians' cause any less just. Morris's is a story of two peoples, each with reasonable claims to the same land. And it should make us shudder to realize that the thrust of his analysis suggests that in the end—and to the detriment of those peoples, their region, and perhaps the entire world—their aspirations are not amenable to compromise.
Fidelity, by Michael Redhill (Little, Brown). In fact there's very little fidelity, at least as conventionally defined, depicted in this hushed but stupendously accomplished story collection, largely devoted to the family, sexual, and marital lives of very middle-class Canadians. Whether exploring a mother's betrayal of her gifted eight-year-old son's trust ("She longed for him to have weaknesses, to try something and fail. It was a strange way to express her love, to want him to taste the poison of disappointment") or a traveling school photographer's rueful reflections on his relationship with his former wife ("He hadn't, until very recently, he realized, had the heart for much, and the cost of that had been another person's happiness") or the corrosive consequences on his psyche of a middle manager's unrevealed adultery, Redhill's plaintive but unsentimental tales, which combine an almost ruthless economy with a delicacy of touch, probe good but broken people plagued by the recognition of their own profound inadequacies. Although melancholic (the narrator of the last story aptly characterizes sex and love as "a gloomy business"), Redhill leavens his tales with an off-kilter if devastating humor, as in the gifted boy's statistical assessment, complete with chart, of the relationship between his parents' marriage and the manner of breakfast preparation.
He weighted "hot food, mother eats with us" (the most desirable condition) four times more than "cold food, mother in bed" (the least desirable) and calculated the Marriage Correlative as the weekly mean given those weights. And if the monthly average of the MC fell below 4, he considered the safety of his family life at risk.
He could see from this that things were falling apart.
Ambiguous, undramatic, attentive to detail (the bantering sarcasm that settles on a divorced couple's conversation; an office manager's meddlesome tone), these stories will inevitably be described as "quiet." But make no mistake: every one will leave the reader shaken.
The Making of the Poets, by Ian Gilmour (Carroll & Graf). This extraordinarily elegant and deeply researched portrait of Byron and Shelley ends in 1812 (four years before the poets met), when the former was twenty-four and the latter was nineteen. Byron would be dead in merely twelve years, Shelley in merely ten. With easy erudition and wry sympathy—which must have been somewhat hard to muster for these often unpleasant and immature young men—Gilmour, former editor of The Spectator and the author of an exceptional scholarly history of violence in eighteenth-century England, explores their pedigrees and upbringing, education, literary experiments, and early erotic lives. Although there's a glut of fine biographies of each writer, Gilmour's illumination of the influences on their profound (and within their class, exceedingly rare) radicalism is unrivaled. With precision he reveals the brutal conditions at Harrow and Eton that fueled their ferocious hatred of all persecution; the intellectual stupor that pervaded Cambridge and Oxford; the English imagination's absorption of the French Revolution and the pervasive, deadening reaction—political, social, moral—that followed it; the currents of European thought and discussion that penetrated the English mind; and the enormous changes in and challenges to the social and economic order that were confronting England in the opening decades of the nineteenth century (Byron's maiden speech, which from the text Gilmour judges to be "probably the best oration made in the House of Lords in the nineteenth century," was a defense of the Luddites). This is above all the story of the making of two lonely and highly isolated heretics. Each, as Henry James wrote of Byron, "quarreled with the temper and accent of his age"—a stance Gilmour deems heroic. His empathy is itself somewhat heroic: Gilmour isn't necessarily one to warm to two poets opposed to nearly all institutions of the Church and State, being himself among the Tory party's most distinguished statesmen, and having served as Defense Secretary under Edward Heath, and as deputy foreign secretary under Margaret Thatcher.
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press). Why can't anyone write a great life of Alexander Hamilton? The most glamorous, brilliant, farsighted, and high-strung of the Founders, Hamilton has eluded his biographers, whose plodding efforts—with the exception of Forrest McDonald's perspicacious but highly eccentric Alexander Hamilton—stand in contrast to their subject's éclat. One obvious problem is that although Jefferson is remembered for inspiring if woolly sloganeering, Hamilton's most significant and enduring contributions lie in his sophisticated, chilly political theory; in his often arcane ideas about and innovations in banking and finance; and in his vision for America's capitalist and industrial development (discussed most fully by the late John C. Miller in his dense, intelligent, but dated and somewhat stilted political and intellectual biography, Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation, which Transaction Publishers has just reissued). So it takes an exceptionally analytical—even somewhat abstract—mind, along with an enormously skillful pen, to translate Hamilton's intricate ideas and relate them to his times, his dashing personality, and his personal history. (So far, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick have managed this most successfully with their elegant and penetrating pen portrait of Hamilton, embedded in their dazzling book The Age of Federalism.) Chernow, who has written books at once fat and discerning on the House of Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and the Warburgs, obviously knows his economics and finance (his exposition of Hamilton's Report on the Public Credit, for instance, is remarkably fluent). But he's just as obviously not at home in the eighteenth century; his grasp of its religion, attitudes, and intellectual history is unsure, and he lacks command of the ideological, political, sectional, and social differences that divided the early republic. The past is a notoriously foreign country, and too often in Chernow's account Hamilton, his allies, and his rivals come off as guys in powdered wigs. And too often, perhaps intimidated by this alien world, Chernow lapses into the sin that commonly afflicts writers of doorstop histories and biographies: he chronicles events, rather than interprets them. (The same limitations mar David McCullough's and, especially, Walter Isaacson's recent books. But while such older academic historians as Edmund Morgan and Gordon Wood write as gracefully and vividly as these popularizers, virtually none of their younger colleagues do. "Those who know cannot write, and those who can write do not know," as Norman Podhoretz lamented; the scholarly criticism of Isaacson's and McCullough's work is justifiable, but to decry their popularity is to indict the academy.) Nevertheless, Chernow's long-awaited book illustrates an important cultural trend, because in its admiring portrait of its subject and its unflattering portrayal of Hamilton's bête noire, Jefferson, it confirms the precipitous decline of the latter's reputation and the ascendancy of the former's, among both liberal and conservative members of the intellectual class. In recent studies whereas Hamilton is perceived as brave, generous, and charming, Jefferson appears self-righteous, humorless, and prickly; whereas Hamilton is shown to have prophesied the country's economic and political centralization, Jefferson's political beliefs—in direct democracy and strict construction—are deemed irrelevant or wrong; whereas Hamilton's racial attitudes are held up to his credit, Jefferson's pseudo-scientific racism is characterized as repellent (as it was to many at the time). Finally, whereas Jefferson's political philosophy was derivative and underdeveloped (Adams justifiably called the Declaration of Independence "Dress and ornament rather than Body, Soul and Substance"), the Federalist Papers, of which Hamilton wrote the bulk, are the towering American contribution to political theory, and his reports on public credit and manufactures constitute the only lasting contribution to political economy written by the Founders. I'll leave it to others to divine the significance, if any, of the fact that the image of the man customarily hailed as the champion of democracy is now at its nadir, while that of Hamilton, traditionally seen as the pseudo-aristocratic ally of big business, has never been higher.
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, by Stephen Budiansky. Viking. Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2004; New & Noteworthy; Volume 293, No. 3; 109-114
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