‘Blue Box’ Review: The Little-known History of Israel’s Biggest Real Estate Transaction

JNF land maven Yosef Weitz receives a nuanced, candid assessment from his great-granddaughter, and emerges as a figure of major importance in the establishment of the Jewish State.

Blue Box
Courtesy of Hot Docs

Unfolding in a compact and extraordinarily compelling 82 minutes, “Blue Box” is a brave, authoritatively documented account of how the Jewish National Fund (JNF) acquired land in Palestine before and after the creation of the State of Israel. Helmer Michal Weits uses the primary source par excellence: the diaries and papers of her great-grandfather, Yosef Weitz, to argue that from today’s perspective, some of the methods used seem morally questionable. Offering a stark contrast to the popular Israeli national myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land,” this multi-layered documentary will inspire much debate and deserves wide distribution.

Little-known outside of Israel, Yosef Weitz, a longtime JNF Director of Lands and Afforestation, is celebrated there as the father of Israel’s forests. But in her research, Weits discovers a less, er, pine-scented, side of his work in establishing the Jewish state, a side never mentioned in her family’s lore. With this film, she provides a more nuanced portrait of her illustrious forebear, one that tells a lot of painful truths but provides a good deal of candor too.

Moreover, Weits effectively creates another layer to the film by interspersing her findings with questions to and commentary from her cousins, father and uncles. Their on-camera discussions — and in some cases, justifications — encompass generational and gender differences in perspective. Although it is admittedly stretching it a bit, one might say that another connecting level is created by the eponymous blue box, the JNF’s receptacle for international fundraising. In a sense, some of those who contributed funds to buy trees in Israel might be unknowingly complicit in the more questionable actions of the JNF.

Yosef Weitz, a Russian émigré, arrives in Palestine in 1910 at age 18. Early on, he sees that the land is not empty nor uncultivated. Arab agricultural workers are present in great numbers, laboring assiduously. Here and throughout the timeline covered by the film, helmer Weits makes comprehensible the shifting locations of Jewish and Arab settlements and their relative population numbers with easy to understand, animated maps and graphics.

By 1932, in a powerful position at the JNF, Weitz’s mission is to purchase as much land as possible for Jewish settlement using funds raised from the Jewish diaspora. The landlords with whom he negotiates are usually absentee, living in such distant cities as Aleppo, Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. Then it falls to Weitz to explain to those tilling the soil that they must leave. A diary entry from the 1930s describing the evictions states, “My stomach turned the entire time.” Nevertheless, he writes, “That’s how it goes — my people come first.”

Weitz realizes that a viable Jewish entity in Palestine would require significant contiguous tracts of Jewish-owned land. As Jewish settlements begin to fill the Western half of Palestine, especially along the coasts, the Arab population revolts. They demand an end to immigration and the sale of land to the Jews. Weitz’s diaries describe the Arab resistance and his conviction that living together will not be possible.

After the partition of Palestine and the declaration of the independent State of Israel in May 1948, five Arab countries attack the new nation. The war proves a defining moment for both Israelis and Arabs. Some 750,000 Arab war refugees leave their homes and wind up in camps outside the borders of Israel. Then comes the problematic decision by Israel to preclude the return of these exiles by taking over or destroying their villages, often burying them beneath new forestation projects. In her commentary, Weits shares her new perception of the stone ruins dotting the forested landscapes.

In apparent defiance of UN Resolution 194, mandating the right of return for the refugees, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion appoints the Israeli government as custodian of the land and then sells 250,000 acres to the JNF, a non-governmental organization not subject to international law. Weitz is committed to the process as inevitable, but insistent on paying the former owners. But with a new Jewish state to build, the problem of the Arab refugees fails to rank high in Israeli government thinking. Although Weitz argues for a quick and acceptable resolution based on reasonable compensation, his superiors believe that the problem will go away on its own.

Of course, as history shows, Weitz’s superiors were wrong. After winning the Six Day War in 1967, Israel doubles its territory again, but this time the residents do not leave. Weitz, who resigned from the JNF in 1966, writes despairingly of the Occupied Territories as a new existential threat to the Jewish state.

Painstakingly researched archival footage and photos illustrate the excerpts from Weitz’s diaries which are voiced by Dror Keren. Stellar editing work by Doron Djerassi and Erez Laufer enables optimal flow. The propulsive but not intrusive score by Benoît Charest is another bonus.

‘Blue Box’ Review: The Little-known History of Israel’s Biggest Real Estate Transaction

Reviewed at Hot Docs (online), Chicago, May 2, 2021. Running time: 82 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary – Israel-Canada-Belgium) A Norma Prods., Intuitive Pictures, Yes Docu, OFF World production, in association with Radio Canada, Knowledge Network, Umedia in association with Ufund, NHK, VRT – Canvas, VPRO, RTS, with the participation of NFCT, Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Israel Film Council, Rogers Documentary Fund, SODEC, Canada Media Fund, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Fund, Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Israel Film Center, Mifal Hapais. (World sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv.) Producers: Assaf Amir, Ina Fichman, Eric Goosens, Uri Smoly, Frederik Nicolai. Executive producers: Ira Levy, Guy Lavie, Keren Gleicher, Danna Stern.
  • Crew: Director: Michal Weits. Writers: Weits, Marie-Josée Cardinal. Camera: Daniel Kedem, Avner Shahaf, Daniel Miller. Editors: Doron Djerassi, Erez Laufer. Music: Benoît Charest.
  • With: Michal Weits, Gidi Weitz, Nir Weitz, Nitan Weitz, Rami Weits, Stav Weitz, Yehiam Weitz (#1), Yehiam Weitz (#2). (Hebrew dialogue)