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How Benny Morris got it wrong on Rashida Tlaib and Palestine

Lecturing the US congresswoman, the Israeli historian claims that Palestinians 'aided in the destruction of European Jewry'
US Representative Rashida Tlaib is pictured in Washington on 22 May (AFP)

Recently, Israeli historian Benny Morris published an article in the Atlantic headlined "Rashida Tlaib Has Her History Wrong". Apparently intended as a history lesson for the US congresswoman, it instead joins a long list of smears against Tlaib, whose words have repeatedly been mischaracterised.

Recently, Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick, distorted Tlaib's comments about her grandmother in the occupied West Bank. Tlaib said it gave her a "calming feeling" to know that her ancestors lost their land and livelihoods to create a safe haven for Jews after World War II.

In Cheney's parallel world, this statement was transformed into Tlaib saying the Holocaust gave her a "calming feeling".

Serious allegations

The allegations made by Morris, however, are far more serious. While it is possible that Tlaib might not know all the nuances of a conflict as long and complicated as the Arab-Israeli one, she is in good company - judging by voting records on the issue - with the overwhelming majority of the US Congress. 

Instead of devoting time to reading good history books, including those written in the past by Morris, Congress seems to prefer to rely exclusively on the talking points drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). 

It was Hitler's genocidal policy that transformed this aspiration into a necessary and compelling alternative

In his article, Morris initially affirms an uncontroversial historical truth: "After Hitler's accession to power in Germany in 1933, German and then Eastern European Jews sought escape and safe havens. But all the Western countries, including the United States and Britain and its dominions, closed their doors to significant Jewish immigration." 

Then he adds a controversial line: "Palestine emerged as the only potential safe haven."

A 'strident campaign'

The intention here is not to reopen the historical debate on the possible viable alternatives to Palestine for the Jews; it is only worth mentioning that Palestine had already emerged as an aspiration for European Jews well before Hitler came to power, as per the conclusions of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in the late 19th century. It was Hitler's genocidal policy that transformed this aspiration into a necessary and compelling alternative.

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The astonishing and outrageous aspect of Morris' article, however, relates to the following sentence: "The Palestinians indirectly, and in some ways directly, aided in the destruction of European Jewry ... from 1933 onward, Palestine's Arabs ... mounted a strident campaign to pressure the British, who governed Palestine, to bar all Jews from entering the country."

In other words, according to Morris, because Palestinian Arabs opposed Jewish immigration to their lands in the 1930s, they are therefore accomplices to the destruction of the European Jewry during the Holocaust. 

Morris does not extend such outrageous accusations to Western countries, including the US and UK, which he acknowledges adopted the same position towards European Jews.

Promoting peace

In such a miserable intellectual landscape, it is only to be hoped that some members of the US Congress may be pushed to read some of the books Morris published before 2000 when, shocked by the alleged responsibility of Yasser Arafat for the failure of the Camp David peace talks and the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada, he mistakenly changed his ideas, coming to legitimise that same ethnic cleansing policy of the Palestinians in 1948 that, as a historian, he had so accurately documented.

It is possible that such readings could improve their knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and help them to make more balanced decisions that would promote peace, coexistence and tolerance. 

Acting as real honest brokers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - in good faith and as true friends of Israel, as the US professes to be - members of Congress may find that their fairness could help to offer Israelis the future they undoubtedly deserve: full security, along internationally recognised borders, in a real democratic state side by side with an independent and sovereign Palestinian one enjoying the same rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos
Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He has served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East Peace Process Coordinator Special Envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, ambassador of Italy to Iraq.