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Review of Benny Borris's 1948 The First Arab-Israeli War

The First Arab-Israeli War

by Joseph Leven

1948 by Benny Morris is arguably the most important book ever published on the subject of Israel’s War of Independence. It is likely to remain the standard work on this topic for a long time to come. 1948 is well-written, comprehensive, balanced, very available and a pleasure to read.

Benny Morris is one of the best known historians in Israel today. He is considered to be the father of the “New Historians”, also referred to as the “Revisionist Historians” or “Post-Zionist Historians”.  His published work attempts to take a more balanced and objective view of the events in the State of Israel’s brief history than did the writings of an earlier generation of Israeli historians.  This has brought him much criticism for undermining the arguments that justified many of the actions of the Israeli state. Morris has been a controversial figure in his personal life as well, initially as a leading leftist and proponent of peace and subsequently with his well-known conversion to much harder and more right wing positions.

1948 mainly consists of a detailed description of the events immediately leading up to Israel’s declaration of independence and the year or so thereafter. Morris’s writing makes these events come alive as he frames them with well-researched descriptions and analysis of the decision-making process on both sides of the conflict. Morris skilfully mixes quotations from a variety of sources with his own comments and conclusions. Some examples will illustrate how he has done this:

If we look at the chapter called The Pan-Arab Invasion 15 May – 11 June 1948 as illustrative of his method, Morris starts off by explaining in considerable detail how the leaders of the Arab states found themselves trapped into going to war by pressure from the Arab “street”, pressure which they themselves were responsible for through their control of the media.  In the words of General John Glubb, commander of the Arab Legion: “The politicians, the demagogues, the Press and the mob were in charge – not the soldiers”; and quoting King Abdullah of Jordan: “The Jews are too strong – it is a mistake to make war”.

Morris then goes on to compare the military forces available to each side and to discuss the war preparations made on the Israeli side. He tells us how Ben-Gurion undertook to reorganize the pre-state Hagannah forces into an army capable of fighting a conventional war and how the Hagannah “scoured the globe for arms”. We are told how Ben-Gurion “had secretly recruited eighteen Jewish millionaires…to help provide the Hagannah’s needs in money and equipment”. By contrast Arab League secretary-general ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘Azzam boasted: “It does not matter how many [Jews] there are. We will sweep them into the sea.” Morris states that “ the Arab armies appear not to have had an agreed plan when they invaded Palestine on 15 May, even of a most general kind”.

The stage now set, Morris proceeds to discuss the early days of the war methodically one front at a time. This discussion systematically details each of the Arab armies, the Israeli forces facing them, the battles fought and their outcomes. He then closes the chapter by drawing conclusions. He states: “The result of the four-week contest between the Hagannah/IDF and the invading Arab armies was an Israeli victory… the strategic initiative had passed from Arab into Israeli hands and was to remain there for the duration of the war.

Throughout 1948 Morris makes extensive use of an impressive array of source materials including minutes of Israeli government cabinet meetings, British Foreign Office public records, Hagannah intelligence summaries, Ben Gurion’s diary, Israel state archives and a vast number of published books and articles. The footnotes, bibliography and index are enormous. Morris acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining source materials from Arab states, but nonetheless he is able to quote extensively from Arab sources. The book also includes some thirty maps which make the various battles described much more easily comprehended.

The quote from the New York Times review which appears on the back cover expresses it nicely: “This is a first-class work of history, bringing together the latest scholarship. It is likely to stand for some time as the most sophisticated and nuanced account of the Zionist-Arab conflict.”




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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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