If you asked a random group of Israelis and a random group of Palestinians to describe the events that surrounded the founding of Israel in 1948 (chief among them the War of Independence, which lasted close to a year), you’d probably come about as close as you could get to a world political “Rashomon.” The Israelis would likely tell the story of their nation’s founding as a heroic saga of Zionist destiny cloaked in historical justice. Palestinians would most likely tell the story of their struggle for independence. LostThey would like to evoke this loss by using the phrase they have used for years: The Nakba (“The Catastrophe”).
In 1948, Israeli forces destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns. At least 750,000 Palestinians fled. However, it is still possible to utter these words today. “The Nakba”It is taboo in Israeli society. Alon Schwarz’s documentary “Tantura”It explains why this is. The film explores what has been, in Israel, and for the most part in mainstream American media, a forbidden area. The film is a record of what went on during the War of Independence — a much uglier and more brutal story than Israel has ever wanted to acknowledge. The film includes graphic testimony, and it comes from the most authoritative sources possible: those who fought in the war and lived it — the Palestinians, but also the Israeli soldiers themselves.
The film’s central figure is a man named Teddy Katz, who is now in his late 70s and has suffered several strokes, but is still a spry interrogator of history. In the late ’90s, when he was doing graduate work in the Middle Eastern Studies department at the University of Haifa, he put together a thesis about what had gone on, just weeks after the proclamation of Israeli statehood by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948, in Tantura, a Palestinian fishing village built around two small bays on the Mediterranean coast. Katz interviewed witnesses from both Palestine and Israel, including half of those who were Jews. He recorded their conversations on 135 hours cassette tapes. This documentary is a compilation of these interviews. He discovered the story of a massacre, and it was all he needed to know.
The battle for Tantura was brief; we’re told that only 10 people died in it. “Tantura”It is almost exclusively concerned with what happened after battle, when the villagers surrendered. It’s about the fate of civilians and the soldiers who were taken prisoner. And what we hear — almost entirely from veteran Israeli soldiers — is horrific. Stories of people being shot and lined up are common. There are also stories of rape. People have been killed by flamethrowers. Stories of looting and robbery are common. There’s a story about a man in a pith helmet who comes up and shoots a bunch of civilians in the head. Many stories tell of bodies being dumped into a mass cemetery. The grave was paved over by a parking garage in Tantura, an idyllic spot that now looks like a holiday getaway in Greece.
What we hear “Tantura,”The tapes and some soldiers who were interviewed today do not contain a description about the pain of battle. What we hear are descriptions of ethnic cleansing and war crimes. It’s estimated that 270 to 280 people died during the Tantura massacre. This figure is a rough estimate of the number Vietnamese civilians killed in the My Lai massacre. It ranges from 350 to 500. “Tantura”It is a record both of atrocity, and tragedy.
This is, however, not the main thrust of the documentary. It was approved by the university when Katz submitted his thesis for the first time. But, not much was made of him. But when a journalist from the daily newspaper Ma’ariv got wind of Katz’s findings and published them, the story blew up. The Israeli Defense Forces denied there was any reality to the thesis, and the Israeli soldiers — the very ones who had given their testimony to Katz — recanted what they said and sued Katz for libel. The entire Israeli system was against him. He was not allowed to even play his tapes before the court.
Schwarz returns to the tapes and interviews many of them, all in their 90s. “There were many Arab casualties, and they were scattered, like garbage,”One witness. “It’s forbidden to tell,”Another person responds with an awkward smile. Schwarz is open to a range views, including some confessions, some denials, and some balancing of books. Yet much of the story can be read on the soldiers’ faces. My impression is that they are all too sincere in their old age to lie.
“Tantura” is about how the knowledge of Israel’s conduct during the war was suppressed, denied, and covered up in Israel by a counter-mythology. Adam Raz, a historian, describes the process. “the DNA of the Zionist story”The Israelis are the most morally upright army on the planet. Ilan Pappe is professor emeritus at Haifa University. “I think the self-image of Israel as a moral society is something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. We are the ‘Chosen People.’ This is part of the Israeli self-identification. And I think it’s very hard for Israelis to admit that they commit war crimes. Because basically, the project of Zionism has a problem…You cannot create a safe haven by creating a catastrophe for other people.”
Also, this is the deep accusation that was made. “Tantura” — that Israel committed war crimes in 1948 and covered it all up — isn’t merely a matter of calling out Israel for moral hypocrisy. It’s a case of the chickens coming home to roost. It’s about how the repressed reality of Israel’s founding is a key aspect of what has driven the Arab-Israeli crisis for seven decades. All observers around the world may ask, “So what else is new?” If you’ve read your Noam Chomsky, none of this comes as news. The extent to which this reality has been concealed in Israel and the United States is shocking.
“Tantura”Also, the 1948 expulsion from Palestine of its Palestinian settlers is documented. This was made possible by the support of the global media. Schwarz documents the Israelis’ use of camera crews from all around the world to fake-news the Palestinian expulsion. “Tantura”David Ben-Gurion gets a black eye by recording how, in 1950s, he requested studies and demanded that these illustrate his thesis that the Arabs had left on their own.
Given how much criticism Israel has received in recent years for the ruthlessness of its settlements program, and for a system that no less judicious and sympathetic a statesman than Jimmy Carter described, in 2007, as apartheid, a documentary that records the buried sins of Israel’s military past may seem to have only a distant relevance. Yet, as “Tantura”These lies are haunting Israel, and it is clear that they are ghosts. That’s the very reason the lies persist: because the Israelis know that their occupation of a “moral high ground”These lies are made into myth. “Tantura”It is far from being the final word on the topic. It’s more like a salvo blast that, for Israel, raises the stakes of truth.