Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999

Benny Morris

Book Reviews

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999

by Benny Morris

Knopf, 751 pp., $40

If anyone has any doubt about what a dangerous force nationalism is, he or she should read Righteous Victims. Morris, who teaches at Ben Gurion University, previously wrote The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, in which he showed how Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their homes and exiled during the 1947-49 war. He refused to buy the official Israeli government position claiming that Jews were virtually blameless in their treatment of Arabs. In that book, he wrote that "Zionism was a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement," and he quotes Zionist leader David Ben Gurion, who stated: "There is a fundamental conflict. We and they both want the same thing. We both want Palestine." Ben Gurion went on, "Were I an Arab ... I would rise up against immigration liable sometime in the future to hand the country ... over to Jewish rule. What Arab cannot do his math and understand that immigration at the rate of 60,000 a year means a Jewish state in all of Palestine?"

If Ben Gurion realized that he was in the process of wresting control of Palestine from the Arabs, how could he do it? How could he, whose people had been so terribly persecuted, treat others so unjustly? The answer is that nationalism, a manifestation of ethnocentrism, creates double standards in the minds of its adherents, i.e., "It's okay for me to dump on you but not okay for you to dump on me." It's not necessary to go much farther than that; it explains all sorts of things -- the recent atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda -- all of that insanity.

Morris does a wonderful job of explaining just how the Jews went about re-establishing themselves in the Near East after having been exiled in large numbers by the Romans in 135 A.D. Eventually, some Jews arrived at the conclusion that they had no future in Europe or anywhere else unless they set up their own nation. Thus the Zionist movement was born, aimed at establishing a Jewish-run area of some kind in Palestine.

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, many displaced Jews immigrated to Palestine. A number of nations, sympathetic to the Jews because of what they'd gone through, and because they were abandoned to their fate by European nations and even the U.S., backed the partition, under U.N. auspices, of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. That's what happened, and the area became, year in and year out, the world's most dangerous flashpoint.

Since then Arabs have sought, unsuccessfully, to oust Jews from the region. As a result of wars, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs have been displaced. In 1967, Jews took from the Arabs the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank of the Jordan, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights. This was supposed to result in a land-for-peace deal, with these territories returned to the Arabs in return for a solid peace agreement. However, many Jews wanted to keep the land they'd taken, which they saw as granted to them by God and, as such, Jewish territory forever no matter who else lived there, no matter how long they'd lived there. Amazingly, Jewish and Palestinian delegations this summer were said to have worked out an agreement dealing with control of the West Bank, which is loaded with Jewish settlers. However, a settlement regarding control of Jerusalem, which religious Arabs also believe God wants them to have, has yet to be concluded.

Morris describes Jewish-Arab relations evenhandedly and in great detail, up to the election of Ehud Barak. He also deserves a great deal of credit for his courage over the years. He's gone where the facts took him and consistently challenged official Israeli government statements about its treatment of Arabs. Partly due to him, we know that Jews haven't always been the good guys, that they've employed torture, murder, and ethnic cleansing to attain their ends. Men like him, who can see things from more than one perspective, are sorely needed to prepare the ground for what will hopefully be a peaceful and relatively just settlement of Jewish-Arab problems.

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