“YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE” (boxer Joe Louis) – The Lex Fridman Debate

March 29, 2024

In Substack

In a recent debate moderated by Lex Fridman, I challenged Professor Benny Morris to answer my detailed book chapter on his scholarship (“History by Subtraction,” in my book Knowing Too Much). The point at issue was simple and straightforward: Morris has repudiated his original historical conclusions without demonstrating why his old evidence was wrong or even acknowledging his dramatic reversal. For example, Morris originally stated that “the fear of territorial displacement and dispossession was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism” and, further, that this Arab fear was rationally based: “transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism—because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population.” In other words, if Palestinian Arabs opposed Zionism, it was because the Zionists intended to expel them. Morris adduced a wealth of primary sources to sustain this contention. But he has now done a volte-face. He purports that transfer “had not been part of the original Zionist ideology,” and it was only later adopted by the Zionist movement in reaction to “expulsionist or terroristic violence by the Arabs.” Expulsion has inexplicably metamorphosed from an “inevitable and inbuilt” tenet of Zionism into a reaction “triggered” by expulsionist Arab threats and assaults. The root cause of the conflict was no longer the rational Arab fear of Zionist expulsion but, on the contrary, an irrational Arab hatred of Jews. Morris thus displaced the moral onus of the conflict from Zionist expulsion to Arab expulsion. It’s hard to conceive a more drastic revision. A historian is of course within his right to reconsider his prior conclusions. But Morris doesn’t provide a shred of evidence that his original conclusions were wrong; he doesn’t even acknowledge that he has diametrically reversed himself. Indeed, his current rightwing opinions amount to a negation of his very own scholarship. In the debate Morris clearly stated that he would accept my challenge (2:37:13). Alas, he recently informed me that he wouldn’t be responding. I cannot say I was altogether surprised. Discretion, after all, is the better part of valor. Herewith my reply to Professor Morris’s abrupt change of heart:


“I am in receipt of your curt reply: ‘I’m afraid the tone of the chapter precludes a serious dialogue.’ You can obviously exercise the option of establishing at the outset that you find the tone of my critique objectionable, even outrageous, yet still proceed to answer the substantive points at issue. The great sociologist Raul Hilberg—he was, incidentally, a rightwing Republican and fastidious in his professional comportment—had this to say during my abortive tenure bid: ‘leaving aside the question of style—and here, I agree that it’s not my style either—the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book [The Holocaust Industry], was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him.’ I would further submit that you yourself are not exactly renowned as a paragon of academic civility. In response to my close parsing of your book on the Palestinian refugee question, here’s how you described me and my scholarship in an academic journal: ‘forever a purveyor of Jewish malice,’ ‘palpable nonsense,’ ‘dishonesty of a high order,’ ‘dishonest and reprehensible point,’ ‘trickery,’ ‘twisted, distorted, and hoodwinked,’ ‘spurious, twisted scholarship,’ etc. (Oddly, you concluded by deploring my lack of ‘civilized academic argumentation.’) I have nonetheless, and unhesitatingly, acknowledged the indispensability of your scholarship. I did not exploit your adjectival frenzy as a pretext to evade engaging your work. Quite the contrary. I plunged into your oeuvre, read and reread it, before proceeding to critique it. I should hope that you will reconsider your decision. Millions of viewers of the Lex

Fridman debate heard you commit yourself to answering me, and many—not least myself—look forward with great curiosity to your learned response. It would be most regrettable if your failure to stand by your word is construed as an act of intellectual cowardice—to wit, you couldn’t coherently answer my substantive claim that you have reversed your original scholarly findings without adducing any new evidence.”