A guest post by AKUS
(Yesterday, accompanied by my wife and son, I went to see the recent Israeli documentary “Censored Voices”. Apart from us, there were six other people in the movie theater.)
In 1967, shortly after Israeli soldiers returned to their homes after The Six Day War, Avraham “Patchi” Shapiro/Shapira and Amos Oz, both kibutznikim at the time, interviewed kibbutz members who had been called up as IDF reservists (Amos Oz has moved to the development town of Arad in the Negev since).
The objective was to record what they felt during and after the war. The interviews were taped on a reel-to-reel machine, transcribed, and issued, in part only, it now appears, in a book called “Siach Lochamim” (“Discussions with Fighters”/”The Seventh Day”). The book had long been forgotten until this film was released.
A young Israeli, Mor Loushy, aged 32 according to Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times, came across the book while researching a history paper. Upon interviewing Patchi, she found he still retained the original recordings and transcriptions. Much of the recorded material had been censored in 1967 by the Military Censor. Loushy decided that she would make a film that would include the “censored” material in order to reveal a fuller picture of attitudes regarding the war. She claims that even now some of the material was censored and she was not permitted to include it in the film. (Though, as you can see here, claims that the film was “censored” has been effectively refuted.)
Now to the film itself.
In an interview for “Women in Hollywood” Loushy said, as the reason she wished to make this film: “This other voice that had been silenced was a voice I believe could have changed the place I live in into a better place for my children to grow up in, a voice that could have ended the occupation before it even began”.
The film uses archival material to illustrate the fighting and aftermath. Much, as Loushy says, may never have been seen before, or has certainly been forgotten in the 48 years since. The material is often riveting. There are interviews with reservists prior to the order being given to attack the six divisions Nasser illegally moved into Sinai preparatory to ‘crushing the Zionist state’, shots of paratroopers desperately trying to break into the Old City at the Lions Gate and being wounded one after the other, footage of those first moments of soldiers and then the public streaming into the Old City. Putatively historical cartoons show huge Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi forces massed along the borders of Israel before the war and then, during the war being pushed back to the Suez Canal, Jordan River, and Kuneitra on the Golan.
Then we see the Arabs – the desperately humbled Egyptian soldiers captured by the score, begging for something to drink after days without water in the fierce Sinai sun; the searches among Arabs potentially hiding among the refugees who might have been soldiers or terrorists (“fedayeen”) who had formerly attacked Israel; the Arabs being led from the Temple Mount; the now all-too-familiar shots of Arab children crying, refugees wandering the roads, destroyed homes and so on while Israeli soldiers look on or urge them on. There are images which have been seen of Arab refugees clambering across the Allenby Bridge into Jordan.
All this would doubtless pass with no more interest generated by far more horrendous events that occurred since then in the rest of the world – Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, to name but a few of the worst – were it not for the tape recordings…the real “heroes” of the film.
Much, perhaps most, of the film consists of scenes of now older men sitting quietly and listening to recordings of their own voices made in the weeks shortly after the war as they recounted their feelings, fears, often their disgust. In some cases, they reveal their perspicacious beliefs that this would not be the war to end all wars for Israel and their fears that effect of occupying another people would have on Israeli society.
What Loushy discovered while listening to the tapes were several reports among the recordings of what can only be described as atrocities – I counted perhaps three or four cases referenced. Several Egyptian soldiers were shot after surrendering or trying to surrender, some Arab men among the refugees were taken out and shot seemingly for no reason. We watch the men who offered this information to Patchi and Oz in 1967 sitting and hearing their voices again, and occasionally their recent responses to us and the younger “them” of that time. For the most part their views have not changed.
The weakness that emerges in this film is that as it progresses it ignores the fuller context of the situation Israel was in and focuses on these aberrations, which occur in any and every war. We lose the context of Israel’s desperate situation only weeks before the tapes were made. The film focuses ever more on the negative events recounted. The suffering is almost all one-sided. For the Israelis – soldiers return home to hugs and kisses. We do not see Israeli dead, though every Israeli family I know can tell of their losses or the losses of someone they knew. For the Arabs – only death, humiliation and exile presented in a manner that suggests it was all beyond their control.
Only in one instance does one of those soldiers taped mention his concern about what his fate, and the fate of Israel and Israelis, might have been had the tables been reversed.
During those days in May from the blockade of the Straits 0f Tiran and the movement of forces to Israel’s borders leading up to the June 5th war there was a desperate feeling even outside Israel that Israel could be completely destroyed. Diaspora Jews and others watched horrified as endless images of Soviet tanks, guns and planes paraded across TV screens and newspapers, accompanied with blood-curdling threats from the Arab leaders.
America, already bogged down in Vietnam, had little energy to help, and the Europeans, of course, were useless or worse. Israel was alone, and in danger of total annihilation.
If this is how we felt from thousands of miles away, how did the Israelis feel? The fear was palpable, the threat real and arguably comparable to a second Holocaust.
Ms Loushy was not even twinkle in her future parents’ eyes at that time. She has grown up in an Israel immensely stronger now than in 1967 (or 1973). When she says she wants “This other voice that had been silenced was a voice I believe could have changed the place I live in into a better place for my children to grow up in, a voice that could have ended the occupation before it even began” she forgets that the voices have never been “silenced” – her freedom to make this very film attests to that, as has the never-ending debate in Israel over these very same topics.
As is so common today we see the Arabs as victims rather than the cheering and enthusiastic supporters of leaders taking them to war. She can safely toss us the proposition (self-evident to in Israel since most serve in the IDF) that – “yes, we too, are capable of behaving like our enemies. Not everyone was a hero”. Like several other Israelis, knowing that her revelations are not very revealing at home, I believe she finds it fashionable to take her message to the world in an attempt to pressure Israel into living up to her unrealistic expectations. If she wishes to affect the discourse in Israel, why else show it outside Israel?
On the contrary, the film reveals that this small group being interviewed did live up to her expectations and we can safely assume that there were many more in Israel with similar thoughts. These young kibbutznikim were capable of introspection, of feelings of guilt, of a desire to ensure that atrocities are not part and parcel of the IDF handbook. What we see today in Syria and Iraq gives us a pretty good idea of what Israel could have experienced in 1967 and I doubt we will a “Siach Lochamim” emerging from that brutal conflict.
Audiences will take away what they want from the film, of course.
To those who hate Israel, it will reveal feet of clay. The Guardian regards the film as so useful to its anti-Israeli mandate that it ran reviews on August 30th , October 15th and October 18th to drive home the message (“These soldiers had seen the brutal way conquered civilians were treated by their comrades“).
The New York Times darkly hinted at censorship or worse when it reviewed the film on January 25th (“Disillusioned by War, Israeli Soldiers Muted in 1967 Are Given Fuller Voice”) as the film aired at Sundance and on November 19th as it arrived for showings in New York. Neither paper acknowledged the Zionist values which led these young men in the recordings to express their moral concerns in the first place, and the difficulty in sustaining such idealism in such a dangerous region. There is no editorial description of how different they were from those who shortly before had wished to eradicate them, their families and their country.
As a result, in a strange way, the film is rather inspiring as it reveals the thoughts of those young men. Results do count. They and others saved Israel from its enemies, and they deserve better than to be exploited by fellow Israelis in order to advance the political objectives of foreign delegitmizers.
Not one of them relates stories of ‘glorious combat’. There are no feelings of triumph expressed in the tapes, and no derogatory remarks about the vanquished enemies.
There is, however, disgust at what had to be done to win the war, dismay at the actions some witnessed that should not have happened, and extraordinarily accurate concerns about the future of Israel as an occupying power and the role they might have to play again in the future.
The film wraps up with a reporter from one of the American networks standing in front of a new refugee camp outside Amman, Jordan. Rows of tents line a desert landscape. The reporter mournfully points out that he only sees women and children – the men are hiding in the tents, ashamed and humiliated, unwilling to be shown on the world’s television screens. He ends with a line that goes something like this:
“In this barren landscape, no seeds grow except for those of hatred and revenge”.
True – but a few weeks earlier, those same people were anxiously waiting to follow their invading armies into the lands and homes of the Jews, as their parents had waited in 1948, with only too predictable and horrific results.
Ironically, there could have been no more effective way for Ms Loushy to demonstrate the lack of deep context in her film and her own superficial reading of history than that wrap that so quickly elides over the very reason that that refugee camp came into being. She has told Israelis little that they do not know or can guess at.
Instead, like some other too-smart young Israelis, to the extent that some will actually view this movie, she has provided yet another stick for Israel’s enemies to use to beat Israel while ignoring the far greater atrocities committed by so many others.
- Economist fails to question claim made by film that 70% of IDF atrocity testimony was censored (ukmediawatch.org)
- Was “Censored Voices” censored? (Commentary)