When an acclaimed historian says he sees a terrifying historical pattern repeating itself, he deserves to be taken seriously. And Benny Morris is assuredly one of Israel’s most famous historians. Unfortunately, his warning is unlikely to be seen by many, since it’s buried at the end of a somewhat tedious book review. And it’s liable to be ignored by those who need to hear it most.
Morris reviewed Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace for the summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books. Most of the almost 5,000-word review was devoted to detailing Tyler’s numerous egregious errors and showing how they undermine his conclusions. But by itself, Morris wrote, Tyler’s spurious history would be insignificant. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s part of a much larger trend:
Fortress Israel is just the latest in a spate of venomous perversions of the record that have appeared in the past few years in the United States and Britain, all clearly designed to subvert Israel’s standing in the world. Deliberately or not, such books and articles are paving the way for a future abandonment of the Jewish state.
I am reminded of the spate of books and articles that appeared in Western Europe in 1936 through 1938 repudiating the legitimacy of the newly formed Czechoslovakia before its sacrifice to the Nazi wolves. In 1934, the Conservative weekly Truth hailed Czechoslovakia as “the sole successful experiment in liberal democracy that has emerged from the post-War settlement.” By the end of 1936, The Observer was writing it off as “a diplomatic creation with no sufficient national basis either in geography or race.” By March 1938 The New Statesman, in the past a great friend to central Europe’s only democracy, was writing: “We should urge the Czechs to cede the German-speaking part of their territory to Hitler without more ado.” Of course, as all understood, this meant leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless. Hitler conquered the rump of the country a few months later without a shot. The appeasement of the Arab-Islamist world at Israel’s expense is in the air and Tyler is one of its (very, very) minor harbingers.
Reasonable people can disagree about how we should deal with this dangerous trend. But the first step is to recognize that it exists: that we’ve seen this historical pattern before, and it has deadly real-world consequences.
Unfortunately, Morris today is persona non grata with many of the people who most need to hear this warning. For years, he was a hero of the self-described “peace camp,” due both to his role as a leading “new historian” who challenged accepted Israeli historiography (he catapulted to fame in 1988 when he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949) and to his outspoken left-wing politics: He favored a Palestinian state before it was fashionable and was jailed for refusing to do military service in the territories.
But after the second intifada broke out, he became convinced that what the Palestinians wanted wasn’t peace, but “to extinguish the Jewish national project and to inherit all of Palestine.” That made him anathema to many well-meaning and genuinely pro-Israel people who can’t abide that conclusion–and they are also the people who find it hardest to accepting the delegitimizers as enemies who must be fought at all costs. Instead, they often favor “dialogue” and “an inclusive big tent.”
But Morris is a historian, not a politician, and his politics shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the validity of his historical analysis. The Czechoslovakian analogy he sees is frightening–and we ignore it at Israel’s peril.