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. The Palestinians would likely tell the story of how they lost their nation, and would evoke that loss with the phrase they have always used to describe it: The Nakba (“The Catastrophe”).
Hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed by the Israelis in 1948, and at least 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. To this day, however, to utter the words “The Nakba” is a taboo in Israeli society. Alon Schwarz’s documentary “Tantura” explores just why that is. And it does so by digging into what has been, in Israel (and, for the most part, in the mainstream American media), forbidden territory. 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, half of them Palestinians and half of them Jews who were members of the Alexandroni Brigade, recording their words on 135 hours of cassette tapes, which we hear throughout the documentary. What he uncovered, without much prodding, was the chronicle of a massacre.
The battle for Tantura was brief; we’re told that only 10 people died in it. “Tantura” is concerned almost entirely with what happened after the battle, once the villagers had 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. There are stories of people being lined up and shot. There are stories of rape. There are stories of people being killed with flamethrowers. There are stories of robbery and looting. There’s a story about a man in a pith helmet who comes up and shoots a bunch of civilians in the head. And there are stories of bodies dumped into a mass grave. In Tantura, which is now an idyllic spot that looks like a vacation getaway in Greece, that grave has been paved over by a parking lot.
What we hear in “Tantura,” on the tapes and from some of the soldiers interviewed today, is not a description of the agonies of battle. What we hear is a description of war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It’s estimated that 270 to 280 people died during the Tantura massacre. To give that figure some perspective, the number of Vietnamese civilians who were killed in the My Lai massacre is said to be 350 to 500. “Tantura” is a record of atrocity and tragedy.
But that, in an odd way, is not even the thrust of the documentary. When Katz first turned in his thesis, it received approval at the university, and not that much was made of it. 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 whole Israeli system turned against him. He was not even allowed to play his tapes in court.
Schwarz goes back and interviews many of the men on the tapes, all now in their 90s. “There were many Arab casualties, and they were scattered, like garbage,” says one witness. “It’s forbidden to tell,” says another with an awkward smile. What Schwarz gets is a range of views (some confession, some denial, some balancing of the books). Yet much of the story can be read on the soldiers’ faces. My read is that most of them are too sincere, in their old age, to lie well.
“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. In the documentary, the historian Adam Raz describes how “the DNA of the Zionist story” is that the Israelis were the most moral army on earth. Ilan Pappe, professor emeritus of Haifa University, says, “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.”
In other words, the profound accusation made in “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. Of course, observers from all over the world might say: So what else is new? If you’ve read your Noam Chomsky, none of this comes as news. Yet the extent to which the reality has been covered up in Israel, and to a large degree in the United States, remains daunting.
“Tantura” also documents the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homelands in 1948, and how that was accomplished with the aid of the global news media. The Palestinians were torn from their houses and villages as the Israeli soldiers waged what was, by design, a campaign of fear. But Schwarz documents how Israel brought in camera crews from all over the world, including one from MGM, to stage a fake-news version of what was happening, making it look relatively benign. “Tantura” gives a black eye to David Ben-Gurion by recording how, in the 1950s, he commissioned studies and demanded that they illustrate the thesis that the Arabs had left of their own accord.
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” makes clear, these lies are ghosts that have kept coming back to haunt Israel. That’s the very reason the lies persist: because the Israelis know that their occupation of a “moral high ground” is based on elevating those lies into myth. “Tantura” is far from the last word on the subject. It’s more like a salvo blast that, for Israel, raises the stakes of truth.