Benny Morris

Benny Morris (born 1948) is an Israeli historian identified with the New Historians school, a group of historians who dispute the traditional Israeli view of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Known for his work on the history of Palestinian refugees and his refusal to perform reserve duty in the West Bank, Morris was seen as an Israeli sympathizer of the Palestinian cause, and his work was cited and praised by pro-Arab writers. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada Morris has increased his criticism of the Arab leadership, and has criticized "pro-Arab propagandists" for highlighting certain parts of his work while ignoring others. He has stated that the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace talks were products of Palestinian-Arab decisions.


The son of Jewish immigrants from Great Britain, Morris was born in Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh. His father, Ya'akov Morris, was a diplomat who at one time was the Israeli ambassador to New Zealand, and other times at the Consulates in India and New York, came to the Middle East from Ireland in 1947. Ya'akov Morris was also an established poet and author-- among his writings are Pioneers from the West: A History of Colonisation in Israel by Settlers from English-Speaking Countries (1953) and Masters of the Desert: 6000 Years in the Negev (1961), the latter containing an introduction by David Ben-Gurion. The New Yorker has stated that Benny Morris "grew up in the heart of a left-wing pioneering atmosphere."

Benny Morris received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge. He worked for a number of years afterward as a foreign correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, where he covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Morris refused to do his mandatory military service in the Palestinian territories at that time. He ended up being jailed for his refusal in 1988. Morris is currently professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. where he has worked since 1996. In 2005, he taught at the University of Maryland, College Park.


The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, 1988

Morris argues that the 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes in 1947 left mostly due to Israeli military attacks, but also due to fear of impending Israeli attack, fear of being caught up in fighting, and expulsions, but not as the result of an expulsion policy. This was at the time a controversial position, as the official position in Israel had been that the Palestinians left voluntarily or after pressure and encouragement from Palestinian or outside Arab leaders. At the same time, Morris documents atrocities by the Israelis, including suspected cases of rape and torture.

The book shows a map of 228 empty Palestinian villages, and attempts to explain why the villagers left. In 41 villages, he writes that the inhabitants were expelled by military forces; in another 90 villages, that the inhabitants panicked because of attacks on other villages, and fled. In six villages, he writes, the inhabitants left under instructions from local Palestinian authorities. He was unable to find out why another 46 villages were abandoned.

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, 2004

In the 2004 update of the 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Morris answers critics of the first version and adds material from the opening of new archives. Morris's perspective evolves. He places more responsibilities on both the Israeli and the Palestinians. According to Morris, "for what the new documents reveal is that there were both far more explusions and atrocities by Israeli troops than tabulated in th[e] book's first edition and, at the same time, far more orders and advices to various communities by Arab officials and officers to quit their villages fuelling the exodus".

1948 and after; Israel and the Palestinians, 1994

The book is a collection of essays dedicated to the Palestinian exodus of 1948 and subsequent events. It analyses Mapai and Mapam policy during the exodus, the IDF report of July 1948 on its causes, Yosef Weitz's involvement in the events, and some cases of expulsions that occurred in the fifties.

Righteous Victims, a history of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001, 1999

This work is based largely on secondary works and gives a synthesis of existing research on the various subjects and periods covered. Morris comments : 'a history of this subject, based mainly on primary sources is, I suspect, beyond the abilities of a single scholar. There are simply too many archives, files, and documents. Nonetheless, parts of the present book-the coverage of the 1948 war and the decade after it, and of certain episodes that occurred during the 1930s and the 1982-85 Lebanon War-are based in large measure on primary sources.'

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, 2008

This work covers the 1948 Palestine War events. Benny Morris gives a detailed account of the events that opposed Jews to Palestinian Arabs during the 1947-1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and after the Israelis to the Arabs during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War at the sight of the researches of the New Historians.

Criticism of Morris's work

Benny Morris has been criticized by historians on both sides of the political divide.

Efraim Karsh

Efraim Karsh, professor of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, has repeatedly stated that Morris uses his sources selectively and introduces ellipses that falsify the information. Other historians who read the same documents thus come to different conclusions.

Karsh's criticism of Morris and the New Historians is laid out in his Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians. Since the publication of the book, Karsh and Morris have engaged in heated dialogue sometimes characterized as a feud.

In an article entitled "Benny Morris and the Reign of Error," Karsh wrote that "Morris engages in five types of distortion: he misrepresents documents, resorts to partial quotes, withholds evidence, makes false assertions, and rewrites original documents.....Morris tells of statements never made, decisions never taken, events that never times Morris does not even take the trouble to provide evidence..... He expects his readers to take on trust his assertions that fundamental contradictions exist between published accounts and the underlying documents.....he systematically falsifies evidence. Indeed, there is scarcely a document that he does not twist. This casts serious doubt on the validity of his entire work."

In a four-line answer to Karsh's criticisms, Morris wrote that "Efraim Karsh's article (...) is a mélange of distortions, half-truths, and plain lies that vividly demonstrates his profound ignorance of both the source material (his piece contains more than fifty footnotes but is based almost entirely on references to and quotations from secondary works, many of them of dubious value) and the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict. It does not deserve serious attention or reply.

Referring to Karsh's footnotes, Anita Shapira, Dean of Tel-Aviv University, argues that "thirty of his references actually refer to writings by Shlaim and Morris, and fifteen others cite primary sources, and the rest refer to studies by major historians..."

Later Morris gave more details, saying that Karsh "belabor[s] minor points while completely ignoring, and hiding from his readers, the main pieces of evidence" and argued that "In Fabricating, Karsh, while claiming to have 'demolished' the whole oeuvre, in fact deal[t] with only four pages of Birth. These pages tried to show that the Zionist leadership during 1937-38 supported a 'transfer solution' to the prospective Jewish state's 'Arab problem.'"

Shapira criticized Morris's answer to Karsh, writing that "[w]hoever dares to oppose or to criticize the pronouncements of these self-styled iconoclasts is savagely maligned."

Norman Finkelstein and Nur Masalha

From the other side Morris has been criticised by Norman Finkelstein and Nur Masalha. They argue that Morris’s conclusions have a pro-Israeli bias, in that:

  • Morris did not fully acknowledge that his work rests largely on selectively released Israeli documentation, while the most sensitive documents remain closed to researchers.
  • Morris treated the evidence in the Israeli documents in an uncritical way, and did not take into account that they are, at times, apologetics.
  • Morris minimized the number of expulsions: Finkelstein asserts that in the table in which Morris summarizes causes of abandonment, village by village, many cases of "military assault on settlement (M)" should have been "expulsions (E)".
  • Morris’s conclusions were skewed with respect to the evidence he himself presents, and when the conclusions are harsh for the Israelis he tended to give them a less incriminating spin.

Both Finkelstein and Masalha prefer the central conclusion that there was a transfer policy.

In a reply to Finkelstein and Masalha, Morris answers he "saw enough material, military and civilian, to obtain an accurate picture of what happened," that Finkelstein and Masalha draw their conclusions with a pro-Palestinian bias, and that with regard to the distinction between military assault and expulsion they should accept that he uses a "more narrow and severe" definition of expulsions. Morris holds to his central conclusion that there was no transfer policy.

Michael Palumbo

Palumbo criticises Morris' choice to rely exclusively on official Israeli sources, disregarding unofficial Israeli sources, many of which point to a policy of expulsion. He says Morris disregards U.N., American, and British archives which are more neutral than inside Israeli government sources, as well as oral testimonies of Palestinians and Israelis, which can be reliable if their substance can be independently verified. Palumbo says:
Morris' regard for documentation is indeed commendable, were it not for his tendency to choose sources which support his views, while avoiding those document collections which contain information inconsistent with his principal arguments. His decision not to use the testimony of Israeli veterans is unfortunate, since some of them have spoken candidly about Israeli atrocities and expulsion of civilians at Deir Yassin, Lydda-Ramle and Jaffa.
Morris' work relies exclusively on newly-released official Israeli documents; not all top-secret files were made available to him.

Ilan Pappé

Benny Morris wrote a scathing review of Ilan Pappé's book A History of Modern Palestine, which appeared in The New Republic. Morris charged that Pappé's book was "truly appalling," subjugated history to political ideology, and "contained errors of a quantity and a quality that are not found in serious historiography." In his reply, published on the website The Electronic Intifada, Pappé charged that Morris is biased in his use of mainly Israeli sources, and is contemptuous of Arabic sources which he cannot read. Pappé accused Morris of having held "racist views about the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular" since the late 1980s. He also attributed Morris's perceived rightward drift since the late 1980s to political opportunism.

Morris's political views

Morris was a member of the socialist Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement in his early years and refused to do his mandatory military service in the Palestinian territories. He ended up being jailed for his refusal in 1988. He expressed support for the Palestinian side when the first intifada began in the late 1980s. After the publishment of his first book, its conclusions caused him to be labeled as a radical leftist and an Israeli hater while he was boycotted by the Israeli academic establishment. Morris has said that he has always considered himself as a 'Zionist' and that he regularly voted Labor or Meretz or Sheli before 2000.

Morris changed his views in 2000 after the Palestinian rejection of President Clinton's peace accords and the beginning of the second intifada. Has called the intifada a "political-terroristic assault on Israel's existence (and also as an offshoot of fundamentalist Islam's ongoing assault on the West, in which Israel, unfortunately, figures as a front-line outpost)." Haaretz has stated that he intially went to research Ben-Gurion and the Zionist establishment critically but ended up identifing with them. Morris' disillusionment with the peace process has caused him to increasingly make statements commonly associated with the Israeli right-wing. He still self-describes himself as left-wing due to his support for the two state solution, but he has said that his generation will not be able to see peace in Israel. He has said, "I don't see the suicide bombings as isolated acts. They express the deep will of the Palestinian people. That is what the majority of the Palestinians want."

According to The Economist: "Mr Morris also said, in an interview that stunned his supporters, that Israel was justified in uprooting the Palestinian 'fifth column' once the Arabs had attacked the infant state, and that the number executed or massacred—some 800, on his reckoning—was 'peanuts' compared with, say, the massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s. On the subject of Israel's Arab citizens, Morris has argued:

The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified...

Morris calls the Israel-Palestinian conflict a facet of a global clash of civilizations between Islamic fundamentalism and the Western World, saying that "There is a deep problem in Islam. It's a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn't have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien. He also says "Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them have no moral inhibitions."

When a Haaretz interviewer called the 1948 Palestinian exodus "ethnic cleansing," Morris responded that "[t]here are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide—the annihilation of your people—I prefer ethnic cleansing." Morris has also wrote in the Irish Times in February 21, 2008, that "There was no Zionist 'plan' or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population, or of 'ethnic cleansing'" and that "the demonisation of Israel is largely based on lies -- much as the demonisation of the Jews during the past 2,000 years has been based on lies. And there is a connection between the two. Morris has criticized Ben-Gurion for not carrying out such a plan, saying "In the end, he faltered... If he had carried out a full expulsion - rather than a partial one - he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations."

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times on July 18, 2008, Morris wrote that "Iran’s leaders would do well to rethink their gamble and suspend their nuclear program. Bar this, the best they could hope for is that Israel’s conventional air assault will destroy their nuclear facilities. To be sure, this would mean thousands of Iranian casualties and international humiliation. But the alternative is an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland.

Books by Morris


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