Thursday, March 29, 2007

When ethnic cleansing spreads, it deepens and prolongs war

Agent of empire

By Yitzhak Laor

"The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine and the Jews" by Benny Morris, I.B. Tauris, 320 pages, $29.95

Benny Morris is the most significant Israeli historian of the last decades, even though he "only" digs around in archives. It is not that Morris has a profound view of history or comprehensive insight into its contexts, as great historians do. It is not even that he has produced a single thesis with which he dismantled an older, dominant one. To grasp his importance, he need only be compared with historians like Anita Shapira or Itamar Rabinovich, both of whom he mentions, with cautious decorum, in the introduction to this book. If the acts of cover-up perpetrated by these two in their books against the "New Historians" were actually historical writing, if the "majority of people agree with them" that the history they write does not clash with "what the majority of people know," why, then, with all the resources at their disposal (Tel Aviv University and its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies; the Rabin Center for Israel Studies, and what have you), haven't they left a more obvious intellectual mark? Why doesn't their writing find an intellectual echo, precisely because of their considerable power, which is inseparable from the desire to defend hegemony, that is, power?

Here is a certain testimony to Benny Morris' influence as a historian. Moreover, his most important book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" (1988), regardless of all the anti-Arab tones he wove into it, was written from outside the academic locus of power, and it nevertheless accrued meanings that the two examples cited above are not powerful enough to overcome.

Morris' work was driven by another kind of desire for power: to dismantle. He had his own version of history, and with its help he could search through the archives, ferret around, cobble together, and ultimately produce a version that was fairly sensational from the point of view of Israeli public opinion (no Arab historian was particularly moved by Morris' "sensational" claim that the Jews were not greatly outnumbered in the 1948 war, and that many of the refugees did not flee, but were driven out). The country that was demolished and kept hidden from us for many years, using the denial-ridden Zionist intelligentsia was briefly resurrected through the author's cold eyes.

By the way, it was not the second Intifada that aroused his hatred toward the victims of ethnic cleansing and such pathetic recommendations as "too bad they did not expel them all." Anyone who knew Morris before the "change" in his views was aware of his weakness. He does not speak Arabic. It is not clear whether he hates Arabs because he does not speak Arabic or vice versa. It really does not matter.

Background to the obvious

Anyway, that is why "The Road to Jerusalem" is a weak book. This time he had no mythology before his eyes as he wrote. The cooperation between the Hashemites and the State of Israel comes up in every interview with Israel's top intelligence officials, who like to brag about their "meetings with the king." In other words, the background to the obvious has been prepared over years. More important, the particular case of the cooperation between the Jordanian Legion and the State of Israel in the 1948 war, and especially the plot to steal from the Palestinians what little they had been promised in the UN partition plan, has already been described at length by Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim. Both of them know the same sources Morris has come to read, but they read much more, because they both read and speak Arabic. Incidentally, they were preceded by Israel Beer, whose book, "Israel's Security: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," written in prison, was published in 1966 thanks to the strenuous efforts of Amikam Gurevitch. The plot between the leaders of the pre-state Jewish settlement and the Hasehmites is the main theme of Bar's book, and it also foregrounds an insight that Morris has never been able to grasp - that when ethnic cleansing spreads, it deepens and prolongs war. Moreover, Morris' book repeats what Morris himself has written in his own previous books. Indeed the book, the leftovers of previous research, is a cut-and-paste job of snips from the diaries and letters of John Bagot Glubb, who came with the British army to serve in Mesopotamia before the British Empire reconstituted it as Iraq and while the empire was pummeling the country's inhabitants, including with weapons of mass destruction, that is, gas. The book does not contain a proper biography of Glubb, neither of his English past nor of his years at the head of an Arab army in the service of the empire. It focuses, rather, on documents pertaining to his years in the military.

Not a Christian fanatic

Glubb fell in love with the Bedouin, learned their language and established serious military units to serve the British-appointed feudal lords, the Hashemite monarchs. Although it is very tempting to portray him this way, Glubb as a commander was working on behalf of the empire, and he trained military units in order to make them into imperial agents. He was also not a Christian fanatic like Orde Wingate, who used the Haganah (Jewish pre-state militia) to perpetrate atrocities in the Palestinian settlements in the name of biblical, that is, Protestant, morality, but in the service of the same empire.

The British finished their task in the 1950s when another army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), began to perform a role here on behalf of the empire, whose capital, if you will, shifted from London to Washington, D.C. This historical move, if only as a hypothesis, also involved the rise and fall of the Arab secular nationalist regimes and the rise of Jordan to the status of an Arab country, although it had not undergone the same process as the Arab republics. All of these shifts remain hidden from Morris's oh-so-unhistorical vision.

It is impossible to report on Glubb in Jordan without knowing Arabic. The claim, for example, that the situation on the eastern side of the Jordan River was presumably no different from the situation in the Arab peninsula could only be written by someone who does not speak Arabic, but who nevertheless dares to write a history of the Jordanian army and of its relations with the Bedouin living east of the river.

What is left for Morris to find out? Whether the Jordanian army entered the campaign based on an agreement with the Zionist leadership, or did so, rather, in spite of that agreement. Typically, he charges at various possibilities. Arrogantly enough, the hero of his treatise is not the IDF and its own acts and avoidances, but rather the Legion. But you can't explain that Glubb did not know what to do, deliberated, changed his mind, and at the same time also claim that Abdullah, King of Jordan, and his people ultimately decided to cross the river, and all without consulting documents or evidence from that side. For that, you really need to be a colonialist of the less reputable variety.

When he has nothing to write about Glubb, he repeats what he wrote in his previous books, sometimes out of some fierce drive to "reform" - for example, that the refugee problem was in largely a function of developments on the battlefield, that some 400,000 Palestinians had fled or been driven from their homes by the start of the Second Truce, and that 300,000 more refugees were added due to Operations Yoav and Hiram. Leaving aside for a minute the hasty leap into the old narrative, what's Glubb got to do with all this? Morris, relying precisely on the stamina of an archive rat, begins with Glubb, moves to what he already has in his computer, goes back to Glubb, and then goes back to what he already has in his computer.

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