Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Benny Diagnosed

"The Mau Mau oath is the most bestial, filthy and nauseating incantation which perverted minds can ever have brewed... [I have never felt] the forces of evil to be so near and so strong as in Mau Mau... As I wrote memoranda or instruction... I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page - the horned shadow of the Devil himself." British Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton (quoted in Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, Caroline Elkins)

"When someone steals your ox, it is killed and roasted and eaten. One can forget. When someone steals your land, especially if nearby, one can never forget. It is always there, its trees which were dear friends, its little streams. It is a bitter presence." Mau Mau Chief Koinange (quoted in Imperial Reckoning)

This will be my third and last in this series on Israeli historian Benny Morris.

As Morris' latest book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, has just been released in the US* and will no doubt be lauded in the Murdoch press here, it might be useful to lift Benny's lid and take a peek inside. Fortunately, Morris' illness has already been expertly diagnosed by Gabriel Ash (Diagnosing Benny Morris: The Mind of a European Settler,, 26/1/04). Ash's analysis, written in response to Shavit's interview with Morris (see my last post), is as good a guide to the Zionist mindset as you're ever likely to read. Here's the gist:-

"As the interview progresses, it emerges with growing clarity that, while Morris the historian is a professional and cautious presenter of facts, Morris the intellectual is a very sick person. His sickness is of the mental-political kind. He lives in a world populated not by fellow human beings, but by racist abstractions and stereotypes. There is an over abundance of quasipoetic images in the interview, as if the mind is haunted by the task of grasping what ails it: 'The Palestinian citizens of Israel are a time bomb', not fellow citizens. Islam is 'a world in which human lives don't have the same value as in the West'. Arabs are 'barbarians' at the gate of the Roman Empire. Palestinian society is 'a serial killer' that ought to be executed, and 'a wild animal' that must be caged.

"Morris' disease was diagnosed over 40 years ago by Frantz Fanon [in The Wretched of the Earth]. Based on his experience in subjugated Africa, Fanon observed that 'the colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say, with the help of the army and the police, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation, the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil... The native is declared insensitive to ethics... the enemy of values... He is a corrosive element, destroying all that comes near it... the unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind forces'... And further down, 'the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms' (let's not forget to place Morris' metaphors in the context of so many other Israeli appellations for Palestinians: Begin's 'two-legged beasts', Eitan's 'drugged cockroaches' and Barak's ultra-delicate 'salmon'). Morris is a case history in the psychopathology of colonialism.

"When the settler encounters natives who refuse to cast down their eyes, his disease advances to the next stage - murderous sociopathy. Morris, who knows the exact scale of the terror unleashed against Palestinians in 1948, considers it justified. First, he suggests that the terror was justified because the alternative would have been a genocide of Jews by Palestinians. Raising the idea of genocide in this context is pure, and cheap, hysteria. Indeed, Morris moves immediately to a more plausible explanation: the expulsion was a precondition for creating a Jewish state, ie the establishment of a specific political preference, not self-defense. This political explanation, namely that the expulsion was necessary to create the demographic conditions, a large Jewish majority, favored by the Zionist leadership, is the consensus of historians. But, as affirmative defense, it is unsatisfactory. So the idea that Jews were in danger of genocide is repeated later, in a more honest way, as merely another racist, baseless generalization: 'if it can, [Islamic society] will commit genocide'.

"But Morris sees no evil. Accusing Ben-Gurion of failing to achieve an Arabenrein Palestine, he recommends further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens. Not now, but soon, 'within 5 or 10 years, under 'apocalyptic conditions' such as a regional war, which 'is likely to happen within 20 years.' For Morris, and it is difficult to overstate his madness at this point, the likelihood of a nuclear war within the foreseeable future is not the sorry end of a road better not taken, but merely a milestone whose aftermath is still imaginable, and imaginable within the banal continuity of Zionist centennial policies: he foresees the exchange of unconventional missiles between Israel and unidentified regional states as a legitimate excuse for 'finishing the job' of 1948.... Morris, a respectable, Jewish, Israeli academic, is out in print in the respectable daily, Haaretz, justifying genocide as a legitimate tool of statecraft. It should be shocking. Yet anybody who interacts with American and Israeli Zionists knows that Morris is merely saying for the record what many think and even say unofficially. Morris, like most of Israel, lives in a temporality apart, an intellectual Galapagos Islands, a Jurassic Park, where bizarre cousins of ideas elsewhere shamed into extinction still roam the mindscape proudly.

"Nor should one think the slippage between expulsion, 'transfer', and genocide without practical consequences. It is not difficult to imagine a planned expulsion turn into genocide under the stress of circumstances: The genocides of both European Jews and Armenians began as an expulsion. The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was the product of decades of thinking and imagining 'transfer'. We ought to pay attention: with Morris' statement, Zionist thinking crossed another threshold; what is now discussed has the potential to be actualized, if 'apocalyptic conditions' materialize.

"It is instructive to look closer at the manner in which Morris uses racist thinking to justify genocide. Morris' interview, precisely because of its shamelessness, is a particularly good introductory text to Zionist thought. His racism is not limited to Arabs. Genocide, according to Morris, is justified as long as it is done for 'the final good'. But what kind of good is worth the 'forced extinction' of a whole people? Certainly not the good of the latter... According to Morris, the establishment of a more advanced society justifies genocide: 'Yes, even the great American democracy couldn't come to be without the forced extinction of Native Americans. There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds'... Morris' supremacist view of 'Western Civilization', that it values human life more than Islam, has its basis in the moral acceptance of genocide for the sake of 'progress'. Morris establishes the superiority of the West on both the universal respect for human life and the readiness to exterminate inferior races. The illogicalness of the cohabitation of a right to commit genocide together with a higher level of respect for human lives escapes him, and baffles us, at least until we grasp that the full weight of the concept of 'human' is restricted, in the classic manner of Eurocentric racism, to dwellers of civilized (ie Western) nations. This is the same logic that allowed early Zionists to describe Palestine as an empty land, despite the presence of a million inhabitants. In the end, it comes down to this: killing Arabs - one dozen Arabs or one million Arabs, the difference is merely technical - is acceptable if it is necessary in order to defend the political preferences of Jews, because Jews belong to the superior West and Arabs are inferior. We must be thankful to Professor Morris for clarifying the core logic of Zionism so well...

"How can one explain Morris' knowledge that the ethnic Darwinism that was used to justify the murder of millions of non-whites, including Black African slaves, Native Americans, Arabs and others, was also used to justify the attempt to exterminate Jews?... [P]erhaps Morris displays another facet of the psychopathologies of oppression, the victim's identification with the oppressor. Perhaps in Morris' mind, one half tribalist and one half universalist, the Jews were murdered to make way for a superior, more purely Aryan, European civilization, and the Jews who are today serving in the Israeli army, both belong and do not belong to the same group. They belong when Morris invokes the totems of the tribe to justify loyalty. But when his attention turns to the universal principle of 'superior civilization', these Jews are effaced, like poor relations one is ashamed to be associated with, sent back to the limbo they share with the great non-white mass of the dehumanized. In contrast, the Jews of Israel, self-identified as European, have turned white, dry-cleaned and bleached by Zionism, and with their whiteness they claim the privilege to massacre members of 'less advanced' races...

"[And where does Morris'] fire and brimstone Islamophobia coming from? From Europe of course, but with a twist. Europe has always looked upon the East with condescension. In periods of tension, that condescension would escalate to fear and hate. But it was also mixed and tempered with a large dose of fascination and curiosity. The settler, however, does not have the luxury to be curious. The settler leaves the metropolis hoping to overcome his own marginal, often oppressed, status in metropolitan society. He goes to the colony motivated by the desire to recreate the metropolis with himself at the top. For the settler, going to the colony is not a rejection of the metropolis, but a way to claim his due as a member. Therefore, the settler is always trying to be more metropolitan than the metropolis. When the people of the metropolis baulk at the bloodbath the settler wants to [perpetrate] in the name of their values, the settler accuses them of 'growing soft', and declares himself 'the true metropolis'. That is also why there is one crime of which the settler can never forgive the land he colonized - its alien climate and geography, its recalcitrant otherness, the oddness of its inhabitants, in sum, the harsh truth of its being elsewhere. In the consciousness of the settler, condescension thus turns into loathing.

"Israeli settler society, especially its European, Ashkenazi part, especially that Israel which calls itself 'the peace camp', 'the Zionist Left' etc, is predicated on the loathing of all things Eastern and Arab. (Now, of course, we have in addition the religious, post-1967 settlers who relate to the Zionist Left the way the Zionist Left stands in relation to Europe, ie as settlers). 'Arab' is a term of abuse, one that can be applied to everything and everyone, including Jews. This loathing is a unifying theme. It connects Morris' latest interview in Haaretz with Ben-Gurion's first impression of Jaffa in 1905; he found it filthy and depressing. In another article... Morris blames the 'ultra-nationalism, provincialism, fundamentalism and obscurantism' of Arab Jews for the sorry state of the country (although Begin, Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, and most of Israel's generals, leaders, and opinion makers of the last 2 decades are European Jews). For Morris, everything Eastern is corrupt and every corruption has an Eastern origin. One shouldn't, therefore, doubt Morris when he proclaims himself a traditional Left Zionist. There is hardly anything he says that hasn't been said already by David Ben-Gurion or Moshe Dayan. Loathing of the East and the decision to subdue it by unlimited force is the essence of Zionism.

"Understanding the psycho-political sources of this loathing leads to some interesting observations about truisms that recurr in Morris' (and much of Israel's) discourse. Morris blames Arafat for thinking that Israel is a 'crusader state', a foreign element that will eventually be sent back to its port of departure. This is a common refrain in Israeli propaganda. It is also probably true. But it isn't Arafat's fault that Morris is a foreigner in the Middle East. Why shouldn't Arafat believe Israel is a crusader state when Morris himself says so? 'We are the vulnerable extension of Europe in this place, exactly as the crusaders'. It is Morris - like the greater part of Israel's elite - who insists on being a foreigner, on loathing the Middle East and dreaming about mist-covered Europe, purified and deified by distance. If Israel is a crusader state, and therefore a state with shallow roots, likely to pack up and disappear, it is not the fault of those who make that observation. It is the fault of those Israelis, like Morris, who want to have nothing to do with the Middle East.

"Morris is deeply pessimistic about Israel's future... The end of Israel is always felt to be one step away, hiding beneath every development, from the birthrate of Bedouins to the establishment of the International Court of Justice. Naturally, every Palestinian demand is such a doomsday threat. This sense of existential precariousness can be traced back to 1948; it was encouraged by Israel's successive governments because it justified the continuous violence of the state and the hegemony of the military complex. It may eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"But this existential fear goes deeper. It is rooted in the repressed understanding... of the inherent illegitimacy of the Israeli political system and identity. 'Israel' is brute force. In Morris' words: 'The bottom line is that force is the only thing that will make them accept us'. But brute force is precarious. Time gnaws at it. Fatigue corrodes it. And the more it is used, the more it destroys the very acceptance and legitimacy it seeks. For Israel, the fundamental question of the future is, therefore, whether Israelis can transcend colonialism. The prognosis is far from positive. In a related article... Morris explains that accepting the right of return of the Palestinian refugees would mean forcing Israeli Jews into exile. But why would Jews have to leave Israel if Israel becomes a binational, democratic state? One cannot understand this without attention to the colonial loathing of the Middle East which Morris so eloquently expesses... It is to Frantz Fanon again that we turn for observing this first. 'The settler, from the moment the colonial context disappears, has no longer an interest in remaining or in co-existing'."

* See David Margolick's review of 1948 (Endless War, New York Times, 4/5/08) and its "evisceration" by John Mearsheimer (

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