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Review of Benny Morris' 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

Updated on March 13, 2013

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War is an account by Benny Morris of the events leading to the civil war and the following war between states that took place in 1948 between the Arabs in Jews in Palestine. Morris is sometimes considered to be part of a generation of scholars on the topic of conflict between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine known as Post-Zionists. These people emerged in the 80s and 90s and typically questioned the nature of the state of Israel and analysed its emergence as a result the war of 1948 using official government documents to make their own conclusions, attempting to diverge from preconceived notions and culturally accepted assumptions.

It is relatively difficult to pin down what exactly the precise thesis is that Morris is attempting to exemplify in 1948, largely as a result of the ambivalent approach he seems to take throughout the book. Morris’ overall thesis seems to be that the war was an inevitable result of the friction between native Palestinians and the Jewish people who began to trickle in as primarily European immigrants who eventually began arriving in greater numbers over time. In order for the Jewish settlers to assert their existence, they needed a place of their own in Palestine, which in a broader sense, has been consistently denied to them throughout history. In order for the Jews to have obtained a claim to Palestine, the dispossession of Arabs was inevitable to some degree. It is not certain to Morris whether or not the results of the war are absolutely concrete, he seems to suggest that the result of the war, the creation of Israel, is still very precarious, and that while the conflict continues to rage on, the future security of the Jewish position within Israel (and the existence of Israel itself) remains uncertain.

The basic structure of the book is very simple. Morris begins with some necessary background information regarding the settlement of Jewish immigrants into Palestine, and the resulting frictions that resulted. These frictions eventually culminated in civil war in 1948, prompted somewhat by the British Mandate and the following UN partition plan because it was this that materialized the notion of officially giving the Jewish people their own place and a share of Palestinian land. Following the civil war was a war between the conflicting states which is covered until the final conclusion of the book. The conclusion is notable for a certain inconsistency. I found it interesting that it is not until near the very end of the concluding chapter of the book that we find there were a substantial number of Jewish refugees as the result of forced emigration by Arabs before the civil war even began (Morris 412). This would have been more appropriate to include in the earlier section of the book which covers the events leading up to the beginning of the civil war.

Throughout the book, Morris seems to lack a firm opinion for or against either the Jews or the Arabs. He is very straight-forward and has constructed a narrative that is both highly informative and very easy to read in which he presents the reader with the evidence and allows him or her to draw his or her own conclusions. For example, he lists the unscrupulous violence inflicted by the Arabs on the Jews during the war, but he also makes sure that he mentions the unjust treatment of the Arabs by the Jews. Consider, for example, the taking of the town of Deir Yassin by the Zionists. Troops were under strict orders not to kill women, children, or Prisoners of war during the conflict (126). However, they did just that, and more; aside from the unauthorized slaughter of innocent civilians, the invaders also destroyed homes and there was alleged rape and purposeful sadism during particularly brutal executions (127). The main point is that by Morris’ presenting of the information in this way consistently throughout the book, he ensures that a balance is maintained between both sides of the conflict; that there is no bias instilled in the reader due to manipulation of information.

It is important, on a final note, to address what I consider to be the most significant issue regarding whether or not 1948 exemplifies a Zionist bias (despite the efforts of the author). My issue is primarily (no pun intended) with the primary documents he lists in his lengthy bibliography. The majority of the sources he lists for his primary documents are from Jewish/Israeli organizations and institutions. There are also a number of sources cited from archives in the Western world, which has essentially been agreed upon as showing a preferential bias toward the Israelis over the Palestinians due to their more European (familiar) lifestyle. Despite his obvious conceited efforts to remain unbiased and present evidence in a fair, informative, unprejudiced manner, the very nature of the primary sources he utilized for 1948 lend to an inevitably more Zionist perspective on the whole affair.

To briefly summarize, Morris tracks the course of the conflict and war between the settling Jews and native Arabs with a focus on ensuring that he takes a fair and unbiased approach, but his ability to do so is likely hindered by the inherently biased nature of his primary source material.

Work Reviewed

Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.

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