Benny Morris’s talk last Thursday was billed as a history lesson. But as he addressed a full auditorium in Luce Hall, Morris quickly ceded history to politics and even to ignoble vilification. The fact that “Jewish Israel is light years ahead of Palestine in economic terms” and that Palestinian universities are so bad that “the less said about them the better,” Morris intoned, is indicative of an intrinsic inferiority of culture. He gave no credence to the effects of occupation, colonialism or decades of dictatorship in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world. Through generalizations like these Morris behaved more like a politician than a historian, with his audience, clapping and laughing in agreement, as his enthusiastic supporters.
Morris’s talk was replete with factual inaccuracies. He threw out platitudes ranging from the disproven — that Palestinians have among the highest birth rates in the world (research indicates that theirs is only a hair above Israelis’ birth rate of 2.5) to the patently false — that there are no Christians left in the Levant, that Palestinians are Muslim believers “almost to a man,” and that historically Jews were “persecuted more in Muslim lands than anywhere else.”
The last point rankles not just because it is highly debatable at best, but also because it fits in with a broader narrative conflation that Morris appeared wont to make: namely, that Jewish Israel is an outpost of good Western values, a place that Americans can relate to, while the Arab world is a murky, dangerous backwater. This brand of racism is certainly not without precedent: According to The New Yorker, Ariel Sharon told colleagues throughout his career that “An Arab is always an Arab.”
Still, it is deeply unproductive and shameful as any other form of prejudice. Morris justified denunciation of Muslim society by referencing crackdowns on Moroccan Jewry in the 11th, 13th and 15th centuries. But if one takes such a long view of history, Christianity appears equally intolerant, if not more so. As a professor of mine once reflected, “The Third Reich was not the fault of the Arabs.” His point, broadly expressed, was in the same vein as most contemporary scholarship. Today’s students should know better than to fall back on base generalizations, or to assign blame to a people for crimes it did not commit.
Morris managed, with derision and mockery, to lead the audience in the opposite direction, away from particularization and into the realm of abject stereotype. To hear him tell it, one would think there are no Palestinians or Arabs working to promote women’s rights or greater political freedom; nor secular Arab Muslims, nor non-Muslim Arabs occupying significant roles in their societies. Morris repeatedly lumped the entire Arab world together, quipping that the establishment of another Arab country is undesirable since “the 22 with which the world has been blessed” are quite enough.
Directed towards any other group, a comment of that ilk — say, for example, giving thanks that “the world has been blessed” with only one Jewish country — would undoubtedly draw the reproach of a Yale audience. But when Morris made this one, the crowd laughed approvingly. Those countries are home to 300 million people of diverse religious and political persuasions, many of whom work against tall odds to help their societies address complex issues of poverty, religious extremism, gender-inequality and dictatorship. Would Morris have us believe they are, “almost to a man,” Muslim extremists, implacable in their hatred of Jews as they are uninterested in acquiring political liberties? Would he have us believe such extremism is endemic to the region, the Muslim religion or the Arab people? Apparently so. In his rendering, there are no causes or circumstances for Americans or Israelis to address: There are only Arabs bent on hating Jews, as they have for millennia.
Though Morris is often considered an important member of the “new Israeli historians,” at his talk he appeared very much behind the times. At the highest levels of government, and in universities across the country, Americans are encouraged to learn about the Arab world, to undertake the study of Arabic, Arab culture and Islam. At Yale and elsewhere, many have answered the call. But scholars like Morris would have us turn back the clock — to believe that Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, are determinedly backward, and that they “belong to a culture in which life … appears to have little value.” Whatever one’s beliefs about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is manifestly obvious that blame cannot be apportioned so uniformly.
When we fail to look at diverse causation, to contextualize our news historically or worse, to seek out accurate news at all, we perpetuate a pattern of objectification and willful misunderstanding that should have died out in the 19th century. It is a tendency that has served neither Jews nor Palestinians well in the years since.
The liberation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories is not, as one appreciative audience member noted, simply a euphemism for the destruction of Israel, nor is it the irrational whim of a depraved people. It is a legitimate aspiration, recognized as the legal right of the Palestinian people by the United Nations and most countries in the world. Obscuring that fact with disparaging slurs against Arabs or Muslims does no credit to a Yale audience, and it brings the world no closer to peace.
Paige Austin is a senior in Davenport College. She is a member of the Arab Students’ Association.