In the opening scene of Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig, F. Scott Fitzgerald is seen to observe a curious little man as he chats with socialites at a sumptuous bash, speaking adoringly of President Coolidge and the Republican Party -- all in an upper class Boston accent. Then, an hour later, the renowned novelist is stunned to see the same man speaking to the kitchen help. Only now he claims to be a Democrat, and his accent has become coarse as if he were one of the crowd.
This scene comes to mind when observing the incessant, ideological acrobatics of the Israeli academic Benny Morris. For years, he basked in the dubious glory of being one of Israel's foremost, homegrown bashers, deriding Zionism as "a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement ... intent on politically, or even physically, dispossessing and supplanting the Arabs" and going out of his way to fabricate Israel's history so as to prove the sinful circumstances of its birth. He paraded the Arab canard of an age-old Zionist design to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs from their homes; he ignored the sustained Arab efforts to destroy the Jewish national cause and the no less sustained efforts of the Jews at peaceful coexistence, both prior to and after Israel's establishment; he dismissed the Zionist acceptance of the November 1947 partition resolution as a ruse, claiming that "large sections of Israeli society" were looking forward to war as an opportunity for territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing; he even went so far as to present the Palestinians as the real victims of the pan-Arab assault on Israel in May 1948, with the Jewish state supposedly colluding with the invading Arab states to prevent the birth of a Palestinian Arab state.
But then, all of a sudden, Morris was reborn. He acknowledged truths about the Arab-Israeli conflict that he had previously taken great pains to deny and distort, notably that "the Palestinian national movement, from its inception, has denied the Zionist movement any legitimacy and stuck fast to the vision of a 'Greater Palestine'." He even went so far as to argue that there was nothing fundamentally wrong in the notion of mass displacement of Arabs so long as it was born of dire necessity and that, over the long term, such a displacement might even have been conducive to peace. Had David Ben-Gurion "gone the whole hog" and "engineered a comprehensive rather than a partial transfer," he claimed, "today's Middle East would be a healthier, non-violent place."
This turnover astounded many Israel-bashers, who failed to grasp how the person who for over a decade had provided them with endless ammunition against the Jewish state's legitimacy could so whimsically change his colors. And as if to add insult to injury, Morris has never produced any evidence substantiating his newly-adopted, anti-Palestinian stance: Surely the launch of the September 2000 "al-Aqsa Intifada," which triggered Morris's u-turn, does not change one iota of what happened some fifty-plus years earlier. Nor for that matter, has he ever disowned his early writings, which continue to adorn countless anti-Israel sites and publications, thus placing him in the unique position of simultaneously entertaining, and expressing, wildly discrepant views to different audiences.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that when he arrived last month at the London School of Economics (LSE), perhaps the foremost leftist bastion of British academia, Morris was accosted by agitated activists protesting his public utterances. "Earlier that evening, Palestinian rights campaigners sitting in a coffee shop near the LSE, spotted Benny Morris walking down Kingsway, a busy street near Holborn Tube Station," reported a London-based pro-Palestinian website.
This was too good an opportunity to miss; in a flash, campaigners gathered around him and took turns to put questions directly to Morris about his writings and statements on the necessity of ethnic cleansing, his call for the caging of Palestinians, and the racist overtones of his descriptions of Arabs. Morris ignored the questions and instead marched on ... his demeanor throughout had been more like a criminal trying to hide from the spotlight rather than an academic confident of his ground and willing to take up the invite of open debate.
For Morris, however, this less than extraordinary encounter -- controversial speakers on British, and Israeli campuses for that matter, are often given heated reception -- was not only evocative of the Nazi persecution of the Jews but also a dark omen as to "where Britain, and possibly Western Europe as a whole, are heading." "Violence was thick in the air though none was actually used," he wrote. "Passersby looked on in astonishment, and perhaps shame, but it seemed the sight of angry bearded, caftaned Muslims was sufficient to deter any intervention. To me, it felt like Brownshirts in a street scene in 1920s Berlin -- though on Kingsway no one, to the best of my recall, screamed the word 'Jew'."
This metaphor couldn't be further from the truth. Had Morris actually run into a group of Nazi thugs on a Berlin street, he would have been fortunate to escape with his life rather than enjoy a nice cup of tea at the university's lecture hall a few minutes later, before delivering an address that by his own account "passed remarkably smoothly."
But then, humility was never one of Morris's trademarks. In a manner that would put Woody Allen's human chameleon to shame, Morris made an art of portraying his ideological acrobatics as moral decisions exacting a heavy personal and professional price. For years, he cast himself as a victim of Israel's political and academic establishments, which allegedly denied him a tenured position at a local university. This patent fabrication -- the respective faculties in Israel's universities have long been dominated by Morris's ideological fellow travelers -- won him international sympathy (and besmirched Israel's reputation for its supposed encroachment on academic freedoms), so much so that then-president Ezer Weizmann personally intervened to arrange Morris a tenured post. Now that he has changed his colors, Morris is supposedly victimized by Islamists and anti-Semites of all hues for his heroic defense of Israel.
As before, this false pretence has had its fair share of takers. Only now it is Israel's supporters who are willfully turning a blind eye to Morris's past antics, and their lingering damage to the Jewish state's international reputation, in the desperate hope of scoring a point in the rearguard action against the country's growing de-legitimization. Yet they shouldn't be holding their breath, for there are clear indications that Israel's human chameleon is laying the groundwork for another dramatic flip flop.
Thus, for example, he has recently pulled out of a high profile conference in Washington, D.C., organized by a pro-Israel advocacy group, having negotiated a sumptuous lecturer fee and travel arrangements. More publicly, he chose to conclude a recent article indicting the Palestinians of misleading the West by pretending to speak peace while holding fast to their historic goal of destroying Israel with a withering attack on the Netanyahu government "that has offered the Palestinians nothing that any Arab or the international community, including the US, could accept as a reasonable minimum the Palestinians should agree to."
Even if true, the government's behavior would be fully commensurate with Morris's prognosis in the article: For it makes no sense whatsoever to promote a Palestinian state that will become a springboard for attacks against Israel (a prognosis that was actually made by Netanyahu two decades before Morris).
Yet as we all know, far from offering the Palestinians nothing, the Netanyahu government took the unprecedented step of freezing all building activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in order to bring them back to the negotiating table, from which they walked away in the hope that the Obama administration would deliver unreciprocated Israeli concessions. Besides, isn't Netanyahu the first prime minister to have made the two-state solution the cornerstone of a Likud-led government: first in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, a mere three months after assuming the premiership, then in his May 2011 congressional address, where he expressed the readiness "to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace" that would allow the Palestinians to "enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable, and independent people in their own state [as well as] a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish"?
That Morris has been able to engage in this intricate game of doublespeak for so long, without paying any professional or personal price, is a sad testament to the shortness of public memory and the utter ruthlessness of the Arab-Israeli propaganda war. And while one can only speculate about Morris's next somersault, it is clear that this human chameleon will have no problem in finding the "facts" to back up whatever his political convictions demand at that time-and the useful idiots to applaud them.
Efraim Karsh is research professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London, director of the Middle East Forum (Philadelphia), and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.