|| Date: 18-08-18 || Back to index ||
|| Tag: book-summary ||
|| Author: Benny Morris ||

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict

Book cover


The Arab-Israeli conflict has emerged in the last 150 years as one of the most complicated political situation that ever became between two groups of people. This one has it all: interference by major foreign powers, human rights violations, land disputes that spanned eight recognized wars, two recognized insurrections (Intifades), and a series of smaller armed conflicts. But, most importantly– and this is the part that this summary will focus on– it involves ideology.

This conflict is not about two groups of people. It is the story of a singular idea. I believe that if the reader takes a look at the conflict from a bird’s eye perspective, they would see that this conflict was fueled by a deep committment to an idea, one that shaped its participants into obedient vessels, forcing them to carry out decisions and take actions towards the enrichment of this idea. Carl Jung says that people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.

What Mr. Benny Morris, the author of this book, does best is provide a strong narrative on the origins of this idea, how the world was shaped around it, and the initial forefathers that started this tradition and the sons that carried this idea into fruition. The interested and honest individual cannot dispense of this valuable piece of writing.

This summary will only take into account the events that occurred before the first Arab-Israeli war.

Benny Morris

On Zionism

"For, lo, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it." – Jeremiah - 30:3

Zionism– the drive for the return of the Jews to, and sovereignty in, Eretz Yisrael, or "Land of Israel"– was rooted in age-old millenarian impulses and values of Jewish religious tradition and in the flourishing nationalist ideologies of 19th century Europe. Its emergence as a mass political movement was triggered by the outbursts of anti-semitism. One can make a very good case, as we will make in the following paragraphs, that the rise of Palestinian Arab Nationalism was the result of Zionism; just as the rise of Zionism was a combination of European anti-semitism and 19th-century nationist fervor. In any case, the late 19th century saw the rapid secularization of the millenarian-Zionist goal amid an increasingly secularized Jewish population.

With Zionism, ideology in great measure preceded reality. The harbingers of the movement, whom we’ll mention in a bit, spoke out almost a generation before the actual start of the Eastern European "pogroms" persistent persecution that acted as a catalyst to the movement. The pogroms were not the instigator of the movement, however. The Jewish life in the 19th century was not a lucky one; Jews were subjected to a brutal system of 25 years of military conscription and have had their younglings kidnapped and forced to convert to Christianity by the authorities in special preparatory military schools. Indeed, an official Russian government commission in 1888 defined the Jews’ condition as on of "repression and disenfranchisement, discrimination and persecution"1.

Now to talk about one of the main harbingers of this movement: Moses Hess (1812-1875)2.

I think Mr. Hess is one of the most interesting figures in the 19th century. Hess was a thoroughly westernized German socialist ideologue who had collaborated with Karl Marx before dramatically returning to the Jewish fold and publishing his major Zionist work, Rome and Jerusalem, in 1862, which is considered to be the first Zionist publication. His book had two major– one would say genius– predictions: 1) Europe will be swept by an unholy wave of modern antisemitism, which would prevent the Jews from assimilating in Christian society. And 2) The Ottoman Empire will also face a wave of national liberation movements. He felt that the state the Jews would establish in the heart of the Middle East would serve Western imperial interests and at the same time help bring Western civilization to the backward East.

Needless to say, Hess was dead long before the Zionist movement launched. In the March of 1881, a band of young Russian revolutionaries assassinated Czar Alexander II, anti-semites spread rumors that the assassins were Jews (in reality, only one of them was), and a wave of political unrest and pogroms swept the empire like a dark tide, beating, raping and killing the Jews. The rest is history.

Now to the main question, who would take the hand of Zionism and bring it to the light it was promised? A Mr. Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), a journalist from Bucharest, took it upon himself to do the deed. In practice, Mr. Herzl’s Zionism was called "Practical Zionism". Zionism possessed his mind after a man named Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer was wrongfully convicted of treason and confined to Devil’s Island. The trial triggered a wave of anti-Semitism in the cradle and bastion of Western European liberal democracy. Herzl became obsessed with the need to solve the Jewish problem. Influenced by the writings of Hess, Herzl regarded the Jewish life in the Diaspora as an "insult". He stressed the need for the Jewish nation to legally take its place in Palestine, and the establishment of a state would give rise to a "new Jew" where the shame and contempt that was the hallmark of the Jewish life in the Diaspora would be replaced by pride and honor. Mr. Herzl shared his views in the prophetic pamphlet, The Jewish State3.

In public, Herzl made no explicit reference to the fate of the indigenous Arab population of Palestine, but he was aware of its existence and the problem is represented. In 1899 he wrote to the Arab notable Yusuf Zia al-Khalidi of Jerusalem that Zionism did not pose a threat of displacement for the Arab inhabitants of Palestine; rather, the arrival of the industrious, talented, well-funded Jews would materially benefit them4. The same words would be echoed again by David Ben-Gurion and Winston Churchill himself, as we will see in a bit.

In private, however, Herzl sang a different tune– one of displacement and transfer of Arabs, albeit with full financial compensation. In 1895 he wrote in his diary (Italics are mine): "We must expropriate gently… We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries while denying it any employment in our country. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly"5. It is hard to prove if Mr. Herzl envisioned a future where leaders such as Ben-Gurion and Sharon would feel the need to displace, or transfer, the Arabs, but it is worth mentioning what was written in his personal introspections.

Unfortunately for Mr. Herzl, he died before his dream came to fruition. He did, however, receive a twisted offer from England after approaching them for help in the Jewish cause in August of 1903. England agreed to give them a small stretch of Eastern African land– what is now known as the "Uganda/Kenya offer"6. The offer was later withdrawn, never to resurface.

Balfour and Sykes-Picot

With the start of WWI, Britain feared for its Indian trading route and its jugular vein, the Suez Canal. London’s concern that the Ottomans would march on the canal and secure it. Turkey, "infected with the virus of German militarism," could not be allowed, after the war, to resume its "control of Palestine which is the military gate to Egypt and the Suez Canal, the nerve-center of the British Empire," explained Lord George Curzon, the Foreign Secretary at the time7.

How can one take control of a vast empire? Make their own people revolt, of course.

The British used their Middle-Eastern connections to organize what became known as the "Arab Revolt". In the second half of 1915, the British high commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, could not oversee the grandiose claims of the Hashemite "Emir of Mecca Sharif Hussein and his far-reaching territorial claims. McMahon promised Hussein"the independence of the Arabs"8 after the war, but that they would need to seek the advice of the British in some matters."Independence" by the British here really means independence from Turkey, not full-autonomous Arab states. Good enough for the Emir at the time.

Fast-forward a bit and we have the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement: the "diplomatic division" of the skin of the Old Man of Europe a year before the major powers sliced its jugular. Let’s take a closer look at the circumstances and people surrounding it.

First, the Prime Minister: Lord David Lloyd George took office from Asquith and became the British Prime Minister in 1916. He was a British imperialist who regarded the Ottoman Empire as the main obstacle between the British route to India and their jugular vein, the Suez Canal. It must be secured at all costs, by any means necessary. Furthermore, Mr. Lloyd George romanced the idea of Zionism which he thought as "appealing to the poetic and imaginative qualities of his mind". The Jews in Zion was a stable in his Welsh chapel upbringing which built a strong Christian Zionist foundation. More on that in his memoirs9. Without a doubt, Lloyd George believed that a British-protected Jewish colony or commonwealth in Palestine would further the London’s interests by helping to secure the Suez Canal’s eastern approaches. Zionism, in Lloyd George’s London, served as a tool with which both to cloak and to further imperial ambitions.

Second, the death of the War Minister: Lord Horatio Kitchener. Sir Herbert Samuel, a Jew who was postmaster general in Lord Asquith’s cabinet before Lloyd George took over as Prime Minister, argued for a Jewish statehood in which "90,000 or 100,000 Jewish inhabitants would rule over 500,000 ‘Mohammedans’". Eventually, he argued, the Jewish migration would overflow the land and the ‘Mohammedans’ would find another home in the neighboring countries. The process would take approximately a century10. Unfortunately for Herbert Samuel and the supporting Lord Lloyd George, Lord Kitchener shut down the offer.

Little did they know, Lady Fortune was simply winking at them. Their misfortune will not prolong. In the summer of 1916, Lord Kitchener dies by a German torpedo attack, leaving Sir Herbert Samuel and the future Prime Minister, Lord Lloyd George, to their machinations without a counter-voice.

Thirdly and most famously, a Mr. Arthur James Balfour, another Christian Zionist, became foreign secretary. Balfour subsequently explained that he and Lloyd George had been influenced "by the desire to give the Jews their rightful place in the world; a great nation without a home is not right"11.

The Zionist enterprise could not find a better cabinet at the time. This actually did not come as a surprise to the British people; Winston Churchill, an ardent Zionist, went on record in 1908 to say: "The establishment of a strong, free Jewish state astride the bridge between Europe and Africa, flanking the land roads to the East, would not only be an immense advantage to the British Empire but a notable step toward a harmonious disposition of the world among its peoples"12.

All of the above paved the road to securing the Suez Canal, fulfillment of a religious-ideological goal and legitimizing the British presence in the now broken Ottoman Empire against the French in the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Postwar Agreements

After the Sykes-Picot agreement, London had decided unilaterally to hold on to Palestine and install their own man, Faisal son of Hussein (from the McMahon-Hussein correspondence), in Damascus, and in January 3 1919, Chaim Weizmann, one of the leaders of the Jewish correspondence and soon-to-be first Prime Minister of Israel, met with Faisal and signed a formal agreement, referring to the "racial kinship and ancient bonds" between Jews and Arabs. The agreement would bolster the relationship between the two people and it would reassure the peaceful Zionist existence in Palestine13. However, the agreement had a very short-lived life since it was annulled in June 191914 by Faisal himself after an arm twist and a chewed ear from a host of Arab nationalists, mostly Palestinian and Iraqi. Britain and France rejected the congress’s resolutions and the Allied Powers granted France and Britain mandates over Syria-Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq in the San Remo Conference of 1920.

Let’s fast-forward a bit more and move our focus to post-ottoman "Greater Syria". The Arabs have already won independence in Iraq, Arabia, Syria, and Trans-Jordan, although most of the Arab races fought throughout the war for the Turkish oppressors. The Palestinian Arabs, however, fought for the Turkish rule. Little did they know, this will become their crucible. Hundreds of Arabs died in battle or from disease while serving the Ottoman armies, which drafted thousands of Palestinians, leaving only the elderly, women and children. The Jews fared better since most were exempt from the Ottoman call-to-arms.

The Palestinian Arabs had the worst deal as I see it. Jamal Pasha15, the military governor of Syria-Palestine, "caused very many [Arab] Palestinians to suffer the indignity of arbitrary arrest employing harsh measures to crush rebelliousness. Torture was widespread, with needle pricks, caning of the soles of the feet, and hot boiled eggs in the armpits being among the more common methods. Among his lovely nicknames were"Jamal the bloodthirsty" and "Jamal the fiend".

From the Jewish communities, urgent appeals went out to the United States. As a neutral power, the United States had access to Constantinople and Palestine down to April 1917. The American ambassador to the Sublime Porte, the non-Zionist Jew Henry Morgenthau, quickly organized the dispatch of $50,000 in gold coin, raised among American Jews and conveyed to Jaffa by the battleship North Carolina in October 1914. In all, the Yishuv received about $1.25 million in aid from the United States during the war. The money was channeled through the Zionist leadership—thus consolidating its position at the helm of the community. Money and food also reached the Yishuv from the Jews of Germany16.

First Troubles

"The Palestinians, in fact, desire Palestine for themselves: and have no intention of allowing their country to be thrown open to hordes of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe. To implement the Balfour Declaration would involve Britain in the use of force in opposition to the will of the majority of the population"17. So it was said by Lord George Curzon in 1919 to James Balfour. We quoted him before when mentioning the necessity of securing the Suez Canal. London knew that there will be clashes between the Arabs and the Zionists and it was only a matter of time. The Passfield White Paper by James Chancellor which would come a century from now is only evidence to that.

"Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews," Ben-Gurion told the members of the Va’ad Zmani (the Temporary Committee, the Yishuv’s main governing body) in June 1919: "But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can bridge it… I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews… We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs."18

Furthermore, Shertok, Ben-Gurion’s chief aide in the years prior to statehood and Israel’s first foreign minister, five years earlier had written in a similar vein:

"We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it, that governs it by virtue of its language and savage culture. Recently, there has been appearing in our newspapers the clarification about "the mutual misunderstanding" between us and the Arabs, about "common interests" [and] about "the possibility of unity and peace between the two fraternal peoples." But, we must not allow ourselves to be deluded by such illusive hopes for if we cease to look upon our land, Eretz Yisrael, as ours alone and we allow a partner into our estate—all content and meaning will be lost to our enterprise19.

The decision-makers saw it coming and their visions did not betray. Historian Benny Morris mentions that the first real friction between Palestinian Arabs and the Zionists started in September of 1928, the eve of Yom Kippur. The Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), a representative Arab agency created by Sir Herbert Samuel, complained that the Jews had set up a screen to separate men and women at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem20. The screen, they claimed, had "violated" the status quo principle that had governed the site in the old Ottoman days. They accused the Jews of "unlimited greedy ambitions" against Islamic sites. They escalated it to the British but the government did not intervene. The Zionists took it as a point of national honor and on August 14, 1929, 6,000 Jews marched in Tel Aviv, some with batons, chanting "The Wall is Ours"21. I would say the equipment of batons was not without reason, Hajj Amin Al-Husseini had spread flyers quite before the incident signed by "The Committee of Holy Warriors in Palestine" stating that the Jews had raped women, killed babies, dishonored Islam and that they should be punished22.

The rest is history.

On "Palestinians"

"Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince". So wrote Mark Twain in 1867. The borders of Palestine, Falastin in Arab tongue, Land of Israel or Eretz Yisrael for the Jews, was actually defined in the British rule from 1918->1945 as the area bounded by the north by a range of hills; in the east by the Jordan River and the Dead Sea; in the west by the Mediterranean sea and Sinai Peninsula; and in the south by the Gulf of Eilat. I do not believe there is controversy on the naming in what I just mentioned.

It was only after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of the British, in the last years of WWI, that the Palestinians began their slow maturation towards actual organization and peoplehood. The Zionists might, and did, complain that Britain was not facilitating Jewish immigration and settlement as vigorously as might have been expected from the country that issued the Balfour declaration, but, on the whole, during the period between the two world wars, the enterprise unfolded under two wings of protection: The British rifle and the ingenious administration and lobbying of the Jewish agency.

The Arabs, on the other hand, broken and unorganized, tried violence in order to kill both the settlers and persuade the British to forgo of the Zionist enterprise. Jewish casualties, however, were spread far and away in comparison to their resolve and progress. The Jewish immigration, and in brief periods, was still very much active and mature. Besides the British and foreign powers’ sympathy to the bloodied underdog, it also spurred them to improve their militia, The Haganah, which served the Yishuv well as it fought the crucial battles of 1947-1949 with a devastating victory.

By comparison, the Arabs with their fragmented, broken, venal political elite, failed to put together effective national institutions that could have guided them towards self-sufficiency and statehood. Their arrogance could have only been overshrowded by their fatal attempts to organize a national militia or even organize self-taxation to counter the Hagannah.

Let us get back to Mr. Ben-Gurion. Confronted with the Peel Commission recommendations of July 1937, the movement stood its first real political-ideological test. The recommendation offered 20% of the country to the Jews, with most of the rest going to the Arabs. After painful soul-searching and wrangling, a majority of the Zionist leadership reluctantly agreed to lick their wounds and live to fight another day. Leaders like Ben-Gurion, while saying yes, continued to entertain in their hearts the vision of the "Greater Israel". One of the counter-offers made by the Zionists to the Peel commission was a transfer of the Arabs out of the intended Jewish areas. Later on, the Peel commission actually adapted the "non-voluntary" transfer of the Arabs. London, however, shelved the proposal until further notice. You’ll find many historians linking this event to the 2005 Gaza unilateral transfer23.

Back to Mr. Ben-Gurion, he understood that compulsion would probably be required, and if the British did not exercise force, the Jews would have to do the job. In his mind, he merged the possibilities of expansionism and transfer. He refused to forfeit his "right" to 1/5th of "Greater Israel" that Peel had outlined; the Negev and Transjordan would also have to become Jewish:

Because we will not be able to countenance large uninhabited areas which could absorb tens of thousands of Jews remaining empty… And if we have to use force we shall use it without hesitation—but only if we have no choice. We do not want and do not need to expel Arabs and take their places. Our whole desire is based on the assumption—which has been corroborated in the course of all our activity in the country—that there is enough room for us and the Arabs in the country and that if we have to use force—not in order to dispossess the Arabs from the Negev or Transjordan but in order to assure ourselves of the right, which is our due, to settle there—then we have the force.24

Ben-Gurion in this passage seems to be saying one thing and its opposite. I’ll refrain from judgment, but it is worth mentioning that the thrust of his thinking in favor of both conquest and transfer seems clear. The contradictions here merely point to the moral dilemmas he and the rest of the leaders were faced with.


Faisal and his father Hussein got what they wanted and only fiddled with the idea of acquiring Palestine after quite a bit of time, which I think they wanted for the sole purpose of amplifying their power. The British left the table happy and got a piece of the land. The Zionist enterprise had a place to call home. What was left was the natives of the land, whom no one asked for their opinion, had no voice to represent them, not even their kins and so-called "fellow countrymen".

The handling of the Wailing Wall issue in 1929 cannot be attributed to the Jews or the Zionist leadership: they were simply defending themselves against a larger crowd and whatever defenses they took was justified, at least to my eyes, so I will not mention it here, but I will say that Arabs are very quick to associate their national identity with that of Islam. This is a crucial point since the objective observer must distance this issue with religious conflicts, even though it had a high impact on the overall treatment. The issue at hand is between the Palestinian Arabs, the Zionists, the disinterested neighboring Arab leaders, and the British elitist colonization.

A few factors shaped this mentality:

Firstly, the routine European colonist mentality of the "natives" was in effect here. Colonists tended to relate to the natives as part of the "scenery", objects to be utilized when necessary, and not as human beings with rights and legitimate aspirations.

Secondly, was the self-defense mechanism. How could the Zionist enterprise succeed against the surrounding sea of Arabs in comparison to their expansionist dreams? Better not to look at the odds but simply to go about one’s daily business while ignoring the existence of "The Arab Problem", which the early Zionists eventually came to call it.

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2495871?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Hess

  3. Herzl, Theodor. The Jews’ state: A critical English translation. Jason Aronson, Incorporated, 1997.

  4. Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998, pt.2, ch.1. Vintage, 2011.

  5. Herzl, Theodor. The Diaries of Theodor Herzl. Vol. 1, entry for June 12, 1895. Grosset & Dunlap, 1962.

  6. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/theodor-binyamin-ze-rsquo-ev-herzl

  7. Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998, pt.3, ch.1. Vintage, 2011.

  8. McMahon-Hussein Correspondence
  9. Shlaim, Avi. Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, revisions, refutations. London: Verso, 2009.

  10. Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998, p.g. 69. Vintage, 2011.

  11. Friedman, Isaiah. "The Response to the Balfour Declaration." Jewish Social Studies 35.2 (1973): 105-124. Quoted from Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims and the Wikipedia article on James Balfour.

  12. Friedman, Isaiah. "The Response to the Balfour Declaration." Jewish Social Studies 35.2 (1973): 105-124. Quoted from Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims and the Wikipedia article on James Balfour.

  13. Weizmann-Feisal agreement, jan 1919
  14. https://erenow.com/modern/the-modern-middle-east-a-history/30.php

  15. Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998, p.g.81. Vintage, 2011.

  16. https://israeled.org/henry-morgenthau/ quoted from Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims and the Wikipedia article on James Balfour

  17. Gilmour, David. "The Unregarded Prophet: Lord Curzon and the Palestine Question." Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, 1996, pp. 60–68. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2538259. Quoted from Morris’s Righteous Victims

  18. Caplan, Neil. Palestine Jewry and the Arab Question, p.g. 42. 1917-1925 (RLE Israel and Palestine). Routledge, 2015. Quotes from Morris’s Righteous Victims.

  19. Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998, p.g.89. Vintage, 2011.

  20. https://www.jta.org/1928/09/26/jewish-holidays/yom-kippur/british-police-interfere-with-jewish-worship-at-wailing-wall-yom-kippur

  21. March to the Western Wall
  22. Morris, Benny. Righteous victims: a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict, 1881-1998, p.g.111. Vintage, 2011.

  23. https://chomsky.info/20140814/

  24. In a letter to his son, Amos: http://www.palestineremembered.com/download/B-G%20LetterTranslation.pdf