MY MEMOIR Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, has been widely reviewed and praised from many quarters. Sir Martin Gilbert wrote that he was “entranced” by the book. Fouad Ajami called it “spellbinding…a beautiful memoir, and a supremely honest one.” Paul Haist, writing in the Jewish Review, called it “a mostly riveting and intimate memoir.” The judges of the National Book Critics Circle Award have selected it as a finalist in the category of autobiography.
But the editors of The New Republic managed to find a reviewer who thinks it is “mendacious.” (Fallible Memory, Feb. 3, 2011) Benny Morris labels my memoir “a major distortion of history” and accuses me of “specious revisionism.” I confess to having hoped that a review by Mr. Morris might have been generous, thoughtful and understanding. I have long admired Mr. Morris’s work—and he is quite right, we both took a liking to each other when I visited him in his home in 2007.
Over the last three decades Mr. Morris has become known as the dean of the Israeli new school of revisionist historians. As such, he has had to write about the awful history of misdeeds, murders and hateful acts committed by both Arabs and Israelis.
When we had lunch, Mr. Morris explained that he stood by his revisionist history—but that he had been forced since the 2001 Second Intifada to conclude that we would be closer to a peace today if more Palestinians had been expelled during the 1948 war. In 2004 Mr. Morris told Ha’aretz. "[t]here 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 he repeats this stark sentiment in his review of my book when he writes that Arab behavior persuaded many Zionists, including David Ben-Gurion, that it would have been better, “indeed, necessary, to see their neighbors off the premises.” Such statements have led some critics to charge that Mr. Morris is now a supporter of ethnic cleansing. I reject this. I prefer to believe that Benny Morris’s despair over the continuing conflict is such that he is now drowning in a pit of deep pessimism. He is intellectually consumed with anguish—and I sympathize.
But I do not share his dark vision for the future. He truly believes that the Zionist experiment may someday end in a twenty-first-century apocalypse. “Destruction could be the end of this process,” Morris said in 2004. “It could be the end of the Zionist experiment. And that's what really depresses and scares me." He now truly believes that the Palestinians are incapable of negotiating a genuine peace with the Israeli state. And because I disagree, he has persuaded himself that my critical, revisionist narrative—much of which is borrowed from his own revisionist school—is somehow insidiously facilitating the very dark outcome he fears. Benny Morris is allowed to write tough, critical history—but not Kai Bird.
Now, allow me to address Mr. Morris’s allegations of factual errors, most of which are simply matters of interpretation in the maze of the Middle East’s sharply conflicting historical narratives.
· He labels as “nonsense” my description of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt as initially nonviolent. Yes, two Jews were killed on April 15, 1936—and subsequently there were deadly riots in Jaffa. Such tragic outbursts of deadly violence occurred frequently throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But I think it makes more sense to mark the beginning of the organized “revolt” with the general strike declared by the Arab Higher Committee—which also called for elections to create a national assembly. Even by his own account in his book Righteous Victims the guerrilla warfare phase of the revolt did not begin until late in 1937—and even then it was British officials that were the usual targets. “Until mid-1937 the Jews had almost completely adhered to the policy of restraint,” Morris wrote in Righteous Victims. “But the upsurge of Arab terrorism in October 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses.” Morris himself estimates that between three thousand and six thousand Arabs were killed—mostly by British authorities—while “several hundred” Jews were killed during the same three years.
· I did not write about the intricacies of the Peel Commission report because it was ultimately irrelevant. As Mr. Morris himself explains in Righteous Victims, the Peel Commission envisioned “the transfer of some 225,000 Arabs and 1,250 Jews. Without this, the Jewish state would have had almost as many Arabs as Jews.” If the Arabs objected to these expulsions, as they most certainly did, Mr. Morris reports that the British were prepared to use force to compel these 225,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. Mr. Morris further explains, “The transfer idea did not originate with the Peel Commission. It goes back to the fathers of modern Zionism…” The Peel Commission recommendation was a non-starter, if only because it amounted to a proposal for ethnic cleansing.
· Mr. Morris objects to my portrayal of Antonius as a “bridge” between the two peoples, charging that I “camouflag[ed] a fanatical intolerant and violent Arab leadership with an apparently reasonable (and certainly eloquent) voice…” Antonius was a reasonable voice—though I make clear, as Mr. Morris acknowledges, that even Antonius thought a Jewish state could not be established “without forcibly displacing the Arabs…” (Antonius was proven right!) And as to the Grand Mufti, I labeled him a “demagogue” and I made a point of quoting his anti-Semitic writings.
· Yes, I used a quote I found in one of Mr. Morris’s own books that had Ben-Gurion writing, “We will expel the Arabs…” But upon learning of its problematic origins, just as Mr. Morris himself found, I struck this quote from the paperback edition to be released next month. Other quotes, however, make it very clear that Ben-Gurion believed, “There is a fundamental conflict. We and they want the same thing.” Ben-Gurion was clearly willing to take what he wanted.
· Mr. Morris inexplicably blames the Arabs for not providing persecuted Jews from Europe with a safe haven in British-occupied Palestine. I blame America—and I did so in a long chapter about Hillel Kook’s efforts to force America to open its doors and rescue Jews.
· Mr. Morris objects to my characterization of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s secret diplomacy with Prime Minister Moshe Sharett’s government in the early 1950s as evidence of Nasser’s willingness to consider real peace talks. Mr. Morris belittles what he calls “a number of unsigned missives and oral transmissions through third parties,” but I believe these overtures were genuine, and Mr. Morris knows they existed.
· Mr. Morris asserts there was “no wave of emigration following Operation Shoshannah”—the Israeli intelligence operation (the “Lavon Affair”) that bombed British and American targets in Cairo and Alexandria in 1954. It seems like a small point, but I refer Mr. Morris to my citation, a history of Maadi, the Cairo suburb, written by Samir W. Raafat. His book describes Maadi as 80 percent Jewish until the 1950s when most of them left. This was my childhood neighborhood.
· Mr. Morris calls my account of the murky border incidents leading up to the 1956 Suez War “mendacious.” This is undeserving. I took my account of these incidents from Mr. Morris and many other sources, including the New York Times’s Kennett Love who wrote Suez: The Twice-Fought War. I cited Morris as writing that there were ten thousand to fifteen thousand border incidents annually from 1949-1954—and around six thousand to seven thousand in 1956. And I cited Mr. Morris’s own estimate in Righteous Victims that between 1949 and 1956 at least 2,700 Palestinian infiltrators—and perhaps as many as five thousand—were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. The pattern of this early intifada was very clear: Palestinian infiltration across the armistice line, the killing of several Israelis—followed by massive Israeli retaliation against both Arab soldiers and civilians.
· I vigorously stand behind my account of the outbreak of the June 1967 War. Specifically, Mr. Morris objects to my assertion that Nasser had inserted only fifty thousand Egyptian troops into the Sinai in the weeks leading up to the war. He says “the real number was twice that.” Again, if he had checked my footnote for this figure he would find that I am relying on contemporary CIA intelligence reports both before and after the war, cited by Roland Popp in his essay, “Stumbling Decidedly into the Six-Day War,” published in the Spring 2006 issue of the Middle East Journal. Yes, my account of the June War is revisionist, but I dare Mr. Morris to disagree that the June War was ultimately a disaster for both the Arab world and Israel.
· Mr. Morris writes that I devote several “laudatory pages to Leila Khaled…who he [Kai] seems to have befriended.” I had one brief phone conversation with the Palestinian airline hijacker. I’ve never met her. In describing her early life, I attempted to delve into the life-story that made this woman undergo plastic surgery so she could attempt to hijack a commercial airliner, not once, but twice. But I presume Mr. Morris finds this effort to understand the motives of a Palestinian hijacker uninteresting and perhaps illegitimate intellectually. I disagree.
· Other “errors”: Mr. Morris says U.S. Consul General Tom Wasson was killed by an Arab sniper, not an Israeli. Maybe so, but what is Mr. Morris’s evidence? He offers none, and Wasson was walking on the Jordanian side of the armistice line when he was shot. Mr. Morris says I mistakenly write that the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize Israel; actually President Truman gave a speech offering recognition, but formal legal recognition was first given by the Soviet Union. Legal semantics. And yes, I guess I got Ben-Gurion’s proclamation of Israel’s independence off by six hours, confusing the announcement on radio at midnight on May 15th with Ben-Gurion’s proclamation earlier that evening.
MR. MORRIS SAYS I have written a “charge-sheet against the Zionist enterprise…” But if I am sometimes critical of Israeli governments, I nevertheless make it clear that I am deeply sympathetic to the predicament of the Israeli people. My long chapter about my wife’s parents and their ordeal during the Holocaust is no mere window dressing. I am also harshly critical of the Arab world’s dictators and monarchs, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Wahhabi royalists of Arabia and the Hashemite regime in Jordan. But this is not enough for Mr. Morris.
I think his real objection to Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is that I try to bring to this tortuous conflict an entirely secular and rationalist outlook on the crucial question of national identity. I do so by devoting a long chapter to the life and ideas of Hillel Kook, whom Mr. Morris would dismiss as merely a “colorful figure,” an Irgun “apparatchik,” and a terrorist. Mr. Morris knows that Kook’s real significance is that under the alias “Peter Bergson” he successfully lobbied the Roosevelt Administration to create the War Refugee Board—which very late in the war rescued at least 100,000 European Jews. Kook/Bergson is thus responsible for rescuing more Jews than Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and all the other “rescuers” combined.
Mr. Morris ignores Kook’s achievements because after the war this controversial Irgun commander returned to Israel, was elected to Israel’s constituent assembly and first Knesset, and then began to argue for a secular, democratic Israel that would be defined by its Hebrew language and culture. Kook’s lonely vision of a “Hebrew Republic” is, in fact, what much of Israel is becoming today: a country with a new nationality defined by its Hebrew language, literature and culture—a nation like any other twenty-first-century secular state. In Kook’s terms, Zionism has succeeded in creating this new national identity. Mr. Morris is a citizen of this state—and my wife and son are not, simply because they are Jewish Americans.
Most secular young Israelis do not wish to fight and die for the security of the Jewish Diaspora in New York or London. I think the implications of this simple observation are obvious. Israel’s security rights and its legitimacy are not dependent on its character as a “Jewish state.” Israel is a secular democratic state, and like any other state it is entitled to secure borders and the recognition of its neighbors.
Finally, Morris implies that because as a teenager I once wrote a high school paper propounding the case for a binational state that I still favor a single state solution. I do not, and I clearly endorse the case for the Nusseibeh-Ayalon peace plan. Unlike Morris, who seems bereft of hope, I believe that a comprehensive two-state solution can be achieved tomorrow.
Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and biographer. His memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Benny Morris’s original review of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate can be found here.