Commentary Magazine


Quoting Ben Gurion: An Exchange

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Michael Rubin wrote about the shoddy scholarship of Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. In the course of this post, he mentioned the work of author Benny Morris. Morris has written in response to this discussion. Michael Rubin’s answer follows.

Contentions recently ran a piece by Michael Rubin stating that I had “mistreated quotes by David Ben-Gurion and Theodor Herzl” and that I had later “[come] clean and acknowledged that the Ben-Gurion quote was fraudulent.”

From start to finish, this statement is untrue, perhaps libelous. In my works I have quoted profusely from Ben-Gurion, without demur by scholars. Except for one quote, which, years after I had initially used it, it became clear to me was problematic.

The quote, from Ben-Gurion’s letter of 5 October 1937 to his son Amos, as it appeared in my The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (CUP, 1988), read: “We must expel Arabs and take their places … ” I had quoted it from Shabtai Teveth’s much-lauded book Ben-Gurion and the Palestine Arabs (OUP 1985).

The problem was that in the original handwritten copy of the letter deposited in the IDF Archive, which I consulted after my quote was criticized, there were several words crossed out in the middle of the relevant sentence, rendering what remained as “We must expel the Arabs …” But Ben-Gurion rarely made corrections to anything he had written, and this passage was not consonant with the spirit of the paragraph in which it was embedded. It was suggested that the crossing out was done by some other hand, later — and that the sentence, when the words that were crossed out were restored, was meant by Ben-Gurion to say and said exactly the opposite (“We must not expel the Arabs … ”).

In my subsequent works, I either omitted the quotation altogether or used the version allowed by the restoration of the crossed-out words.

But the focus by my critics on this quotation was, in any event, nothing more than (an essentially mendacious) red herring – as elsewhere, in unassailable statements, Ben-Gurion at this time repeatedly endorsed the idea of “transferring” (or expelling) Arabs, or the Arabs, out of the area of the Jewish state-to-be, either “voluntarily” or by compulsion. (There were good reasons for Ben-Gurion’s endorsement of transfer: The British Peel Commission had proposed it, the Arabs rebelling in Palestine were bent on uprooting the Zionist enterprise, and the Jews of Europe, under threat of destruction, were in dire need of a safe haven, and Palestine could not serve as one so long as the Arabs were attacking the Yishuv and, as a result, the British were curtailing Jewish access to the country).

As to Herzl, there is one relevant quote which I have used (for example, in Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, CUP 2004): “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border … the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly” (Herzl, Diaries, entry for 12 June 1895). The quotation is perfectly accurate and unassailable. But critics have questioned whether Herzl was referring in that passage to Arab or South American “poor” — as at the time, Herzl was also toying with the idea of establishing his Jewish state in South America, and some of his diary entries in the course of June 1895 seem to have focused on South America rather than Palestine.

None of this is “mistreatment” or “fraudulent,” and I have never “come clean” or “acknowledged” anything in this regard, beyond recognizing that the Ben-Gurion quote is problematic, but that the argument surrounding it is misleading and irrelevant.

Benny Morris

Li-on, Israel

Michael Rubin responds:

Mr. Morris’s response acknowledges how problematic his initial writing was in the face of criticism from scholars, and his response acknowledges his earlier error, even as he says he does not. For a more detailed criticism of Mr. Morris’ treatment of Ben-Gurion and Herzl, please see: Efraim Karsh, “Benny Morris’s Reign of Error, Revisited,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005.