Study Guide


by Benny Morris

1948 Analysis

1948 (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The end of World War II in Europe in May, 1945, brought the full extent of the Holocaust to the attention of the world. Some six million Jews had perished at the hands of the Nazis. In the aftermath, as Benny Morris relates in 1948, the concept of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, originating with the Balfour Declaration by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917 and envisioned by a generation of European Jews, found international support with the United Nations Partition Resolution on November 29, 1947. Palestine was still under British control, the result of a post-World War I mandate, but as events unfolded the British increasingly desired to simply vacate the region.

Both Jews and Arabs had their own claims on Palestine. For the Jews the land represented their national homeland. More immediately, it represented the land to which survivors and displaced persons could emigrate after the war. Certainly no country, even the United States, showed any desire to incorporate hundreds of thousands of European Jews. Both the Franklin Roosevelt administration and that of Harry Truman initially avoided any strong support for the Jews. However, as the level of events in Europe became known, Truman modified his views to one of support for the resettling of displaced Jews into Palestine.

Arab support for the Allied armies had been minimal. At most, some six thousand had fought with the Allies, and many of those had deserted. Political support among the Arabs for the Allied cause grew only with the recognition of who the victors would be. In contrast, more than thirty thousand Palestinian Jews fought with the British army. The disparity in land was equally glaring. The five Arab countries in the Middle East encompassed more than one million square miles; the British mandate of Palestine included approximately 10,500 square miles and a population of approximately 1.6 million, two-thirds of whom were Arabs, at the end of the war.

Numerous books have been written on the subject of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, or nakba (catastrophe) as it has been called by their Arabic adversaries. Most of this material has been written from the perspective of the victorious Israelis, with an obvious, if not unexpected, bias. In part this has been the result of the availability of primary sources: Israeli sources have been readily accessible, while Arabic sources have been limited. Those sources, which are believed to exist in Egypt or Syria, remain largely inaccessible.

Morris divides the period between the earliest Jewish settlements (circa 1915) and the war of independence into three parts. The first, titled “Staking Claims,” provides the background to the conflict during the period from the end of the war until the U. N. vote on partition in November, 1947. The Israeli nascent defense forces consisted of the Haganah, the paramilitary defense force, and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the National Military Organization that evolved into a more or less terrorist organization often at odds with the Haganah. For the Arabs, the British support for pan-Arab unity resulted in the formation of a League of Independent Arab States, signed in a seven-nation pact in March, 1945. Among the demands of the Arab League was the cessation of further Jewish immigration into Palestine and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine.

The second portion of Morris’s account covers the civil war that ensued between the Arabs and Jews in the aftermath of the vote on partition in November, 1947, and lasting until the Israeli formal declaration of independence in May, 1948. Caught in the middle were the British occupying forces. The theoretical disparity in potential forces among the adversaries was most apparent during this period. The Arabs had a combined population of some forty million, while the nascent Jewish state had a population of fewer than seven hundred thousand. The numbers were misleading. Not least among the Arab difficulties was the lack of any central command structure. During this period of civil war, volunteers from a number of the Arab states formed the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), a force of between four and five thousand men led by a mix of retired officers from their respective states. Much of the Arab military, however, consisted of local militias raised by isolated villages. Weapons were often obsolete, and often these villages were as willing to help the Jews, in expectation of whom the victors would be, as they were to join their Arab brethren.

Israel declared its independence on May...

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1948 Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The Chronicle of Higher Education 54 (May 16, 2008): B6.

Foreign Affairs 87, no. 5 (September/October, 2008): 148-156.

History Today 58, no. 7 (July, 2008): 64.

Journal of Military History 72 (July, 2008): 978.

Library Journal 133, no. 6 (April 1, 2008): 94.

The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, p. 19.

The New Yorker 84, no. 12 (May 5, 2008): 72-77.

Publishers Weekly, May 9, 2008.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 2008, p. 25.