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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Morris trashes Karsh - but admits that he is largely right

Benny Morris has, unsurprisingly, trashed the Ephraim Karsh book "Palestine Betrayed" I reviewed recently.

Writing in The National Interest Online, Morris takes Karsh to task for getting a large number of facts wrong about he War of Independence, which Morris has written about extensively.

Morris' main objection, apart from the factual errors, is the  one-sidedness of Karsh's work. Reality is messy, and Karsh does not allow for nuance. This is a valid objection, especially in respect to Karsh's continuous citations of Zionists' benign intent towards Arabs in the land, something totally at odds with the standard new historian narrative where Israel is portrayed as the villain. From my perspective,  I looked at Karsh as a needed counterbalance to the new orthodoxy of Israel's history, an added dimension to the topic but not a comprehensive history on its own - which is clearly isn't.

Speaking for myself, admittedly from the single source of the Palestine Post archives, I think that Karsh accurately portrays the mindset of the mainstream Zionists. I've seen many contemporaneous editorials in the Palestine Post and none of them that I have seen showed the antipathy towards Arabs that the current conventional wisdom assumes. To be sure, the newspaper was not enamored of Arab terrorists - but it was equally scathing towards the Irgun. The general tone, which I think reflects liberal Zionist thinking at the time, was one of peaceful co-existence and of improving the Arabs' standards of living. 

Any historian can take outlier data and twist it to look like the norm, and readers must take the historians at their word that what they are writing reflect reality. The only way to get an idea of people's mindsets is by reading a lot of what they were writing - not just the cherry-picked quotes but the entire context as well as the seemingly unimportant and irrelevant writings. Morris is certainly more honest, and has less of an agenda, than most of the other "new historians."

I found this comment by Morris to be most interesting, though. After chiding Karsh on his unorthodox use of footnotes that make it near-impossible to check sources, something which bothered me as well, he writes:
But most historians probably won’t bother to work out these interminable referential puzzles if only because they will have been put off, long before, by the palpable one-sidedness of Karsh’s narrative. All too often it gives off the smell of shop-soiled propaganda. And, let me quickly note, I say this despite the fact that I am in almost complete agreement with Karsh’s political conclusions (which in some way emerge naturally and, I feel, irrefutably from the history) and in some measure with his history as well.
So while Morris feels compelled to point out Karsh's mistakes - and he should - he admits that Karsh's larger themes are accurate, even as they are biased. This is a striking comment given that Morris has been in Karsh's crosshairs for a long time.