The “Objective” and “Neutral” Historian Versus the Provocateur

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by Neil Godfrey

A historian is supposed to stimulate thought. A histo­rian who insists on being neutral, a per­son of footnotes, and does not provoke, is doing a disservice to the profession.

When I think about Germany and about German historians who con­stantly hid behind the ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ of history, I know where that leads.

Those who are col­orless, who are neither here nor there, in the end collaborate with what exists.

Moshe Zimmermann, emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A classic example of the “purely objective” historian is another Israeli, Benny Morris, whose works on the events connected with the founding of Israel are widely known.

Benny Morris (Wikipedia image)

In 2004 Counterpunch published an interview with Benny Morris that opened with this paragraph:

Note: Benny Morris is the dean of Israeli ‘new historians’, who have done so much to create a critical vision of Zionism–its expulsion and continuing oppression of the Palestinians, its pressing need for moral and political atonement. His 1987 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, chronicled the Zionist murders, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing that drove 600,000-750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, thus refuting the myth that they fled under the orders of Arab leaders. A second edition of this book is due out this month [= the green cover on the right], chronicling even more massacres, and a previously unsuspected number of rapes and murders of Palestinian women. Thus Morris continues to provide crucial documentation for Palestinians fighting the heritage of Al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe.”

But it was all objectively told and the historian author in fact personally lamented that the expulsion of the Palestinians at that time was left as unfinished business:

But in an astonishing recent Ha’aretz interview, after summarizing his new research, Morris proceeds to argue for the necessity of ethnic cleansing in 1948. He faults David Ben-Gurion for failing to expel all Arab Israelis, and hints that it may be necessary to finish the job in the future. Though he calls himself a left-wing Zionist, he invokes and praises the fascist Vladimir Jabotinsky in calling for an “iron wall” solution to the current crisis. Referring to Sharon’s Security Wall, he says, “Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another.” He calls the conflict between Israelis and Arabs a struggle between civilization and barbarism, and suggests an analogy frequently drawn by Palestinians, though from the other side of the Winchester: “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.”

In the interview we find Zimmermann’s point about “neutrality” and “objectivity” underscored (my highlighting in all quotations):

Benny Morris says he was always a Zionist. People were mistaken when they labeled him a post-Zionist, when they thought that his historical study on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was intended to undercut the Zionist enterprise. Nonsense, Morris says, that’s completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book. They didn’t read it with the same detachment, the same moral neutrality, with which it was written. So they came to the mistaken conclusion that when Morris describes the cruelest deeds that the Zionist movement perpetrated in 1948 he is actually being condemnatory, that when he describes the large-scale expulsion operations he is being denunciatory. They did not conceive that the great documenter of the sins of Zionism in fact identifies with those sins. That he thinks some of them, at least, were unavoidable.

The Haaretz interviewer writes:

He is . . . very intense. The son of immigrants from England, he was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh and was a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement. In the past, he was a reporter for the Jerusalem Post and refused to do military service in the territories. He is now a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. But sitting in his armchair in his Jerusalem apartment, he does not don the mantle of the cautious academic. Far from it: Morris spews out his words, rapidly and energetically, sometimes spilling over into English. He doesn’t think twice before firing off the sharpest, most shocking statements, which are anything but politically correct. He describes horrific war crimes offhandedly, paints apocalyptic visions with a smile on his lips. . . .

Extracts from the interview:

Ben-Gurion was a “transferist”?

Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist.

I don’t hear you condemning him.

Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.

. . . .

Benny Morris, for decades you have been researching the dark side of Zionism. You are an expert on the atrocities of 1948. In the end, do you in effect justify all this? Are you an advocate of the transfer of 1948?

There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.

We are talking about the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society.

A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.

There is something chilling about the quiet way in which you say that.

If you expected me to burst into tears, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I will not do that.

So when the commanders of Operation Dani are standing there and observing the long and terrible column of the 50,000 people expelled from Lod walking eastward, you stand there with them? You justify them?

I definitely understand them. I understand their motives. I don’t think they felt any pangs of conscience, and in their place I wouldn’t have felt pangs of conscience. Without that act, they would not have won the war and the state would not have come into being.

You do not condemn them morally?


They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.

There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.

And that was the situation in 1948?

That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

The term `to cleanse’ is terrible.

I know it doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.

What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hard-hearted.

I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice. . . . .

. . .

And morally speaking, you have no problem with that deed?

That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.

And in our case it effectively justifies a population transfer.

That’s what emerges.

And you take that in stride? War crimes? Massacres? The burning fields and the devastated villages of the Nakba?

You have to put things in proportion. These are small war crimes. . . .

. . . .

. . . Are you saying that Ben-Gurion erred in expelling too few Arabs?

If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job. I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country – the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion – rather than a partial one – he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations.

I find it hard to believe what I am hearing.

If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.

In his place, would you have expelled them all? All the Arabs in the country?

But I am not a statesman. I do not put myself in his place. But as an historian, I assert that a mistake was made here. Yes. The non-completion of the transfer was a mistake.

And today? Do you advocate a transfer today?

If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. . . .

. . .

The Germans killed far more of us than we killed the Palestinians, but we aren’t blowing up buses in Munich and Nuremberg. So there is something else here, something deeper, that has to do with Islam and Arab culture.

Are you trying to argue that Palestinian terrorism derives from some sort of deep cultural problem?

There is a deep problem in Islam. It’s a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien. A world that makes those who are not part of the camp of Islam fair game. Revenge is also important here. Revenge plays a central part in the Arab tribal culture. Therefore, the people we are fighting and the society that sends them have no moral inhibitions. . . . . [They have] the values of barbarians – the attitude toward democracy, freedom, openness; the attitude toward human life. In that sense they are barbarians. The Arab world as it is today is barbarian.

. . . .

Would you describe yourself as an apocalyptic person?

The whole Zionist project is apocalyptic. . . .

God save us from the “objective” and “neutral” historian.

Moshe Zimmermann (Wikipedia image)

Let’s conclude with the historian with whom I opened this post, Moshe Zimmermann:

“When I think about Germany and about German historians who con­stantly hid behind the ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ of history, I know where that leads,” he says. “Those who are col­orless, who are neither here nor there, in the end collaborate with what exists. Writing a chronicle is boring. There is no point in telling what happened in Troy, for example, only in order to tell a story. A historian needs to infer from the past about the present.” (Haaretz, Dec 29, 2023)

Ofer Aderet, the author of the Haaretz article about the interview with Zimmermann:

In the early 1960s, Moshe Zimmermann’s mother was sum­moned for a reprimand by the principal of Ma’aleh High School in Jerusalem. She was asked to explain why her boy, who was a good student, had drawn a likeness of a man in an SS uniform on a table in the school. The fact that both the principal and the mother were proud Yekkes Jews of German-speaking origin – un­doubtedly added to the mutual embar­rassment. Not to mention the fact that Moshe’s father was the principal of the adjacent primary school.

“My poor mother had to explain what had befallen her jewel,” Zimmermann tells Haaretz in an interview marking his 80th birthday.

From the distance of years he notes that the background to the incident was the seminal historic event that was then unfolding in Israel: the trial of Adolf Eichmann. “I was riv­eted by that story, and it was clear to me at that moment that I wanted to be a his­torian. As a child who grew up in a Yekke home, it was also clear to me that I ought to, and wanted to, deal with the enigma called Germany.”

In the decades since then, Zimmer­ mann became a pioneer and shaper of the study of Germany in Israel. Today an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and former di­rector of its Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History, he has writ­ ten and edited dozens of books and ar­ticles on Germany’s Jews and their com­plicated and tragic relationship with their homeland, and has proved that history can also be gleaned from sports and the cinema. In contrast to some of his colleagues in academia, however, Zimmermann also goes out of his way to maintain his image as a public intel­lectual, one who is not afraid to sound his voice trenchantly and acutely about current events, drawing on his insights as a historian. At the height of his career he found himself in courtrooms on sev­eral occasions, fending off lawsuits that were filed against him for statements he had made.

Here are some of Z’s words that involved him in lawsuits:

“When the question is asked, in reaction to the ter­rible things children from Hebron said on the anniversary of the death of Ba­ruch Goldstein [perpetrator of the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs there], as to whether there is a place for comparing their views to what we encountered in the study of National Socialism, we need to take seriously the comparison as the grounds for a reply.

“And the positive reply, however grave it sounds, has a basis. So too in regard to another comparison that was discussed in angry tones. The allegation was made that publishing chapters from ‘Mein Kampf’ in Hebrew, for teaching purposes, is liable to have a detrimental effect on readers in Israel. To which I responded that in Israel, as differenti­ated from the countries of Europe, rac­ist, right-wing extremism is nourished also from the use of the Bible, and not ‘Mein Kampf.’ However, are we to there­fore ban dissemination of the Bible in Israel?” Concluding the article, Zim­mermann wrote, “Precisely because I am knowledgeable about the history of Nazism, I can warn about the harmful potential that is latent in every society.”

Z further sees a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflct in another lesson from history. Just as Europe moved towards a federation of states after two world wars, so might Palestine and Israel become a two-state federation:

“The two-state solution with a completely new concep­tion of ‘state’ should be the aspiration.”

Are you referring to the establish­ment of a federation?

“Two states, alongside each other, within a new, modern, framework. When I look at Europe, I find the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter the current plight of the European Union. It’s a situ­ation in which countries were willing to give up part of their sovereignty for the benefit of a superstructure, without giv­ing up the old state.

“Two systems, one next to the other, in order to obviate a situation of the sort we were familiar with until World War II,” Zimmermann adds. “We need to evoke the picture of Europe when we think about the Middle East, despite the great challenge of Ukraine. Some people will burst outlaughing at that: ‘Come off it, we’re not Switzerland.’ But we need to remember that the Europeans were caught up in harsh confrontations and in enmities that were thought to be eternal, yet they nevertheless succeeded in cre­ ating a European union. If it’s possible there, it’s also possible here. I am not be­ing delusional.”

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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