That a portion, albeit a small minority, of Israeli society is deeply critical of its army, and even of the Zionist principles at the core of the state’s purpose, is not a secret or news. Nor is this something that is limited only to Jews and Israelis as Gilbert and Sullivan made clear when they included a line about “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own” in The Mikado. But with Israel, the stakes are higher than those for Americans or 19th century Britons who always blamed their own country first. Thus the New York Times article lauding a new documentary that seeks to portray the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six-Day War in a negative light must be seen not only as an expression of free opinion in a democracy but also an effort to undermine the Jewish state’s self defense. Censored Voices, which was shown at the prestigious Sundance Festival this past weekend, may be based on historical testimony, but its purpose seems more to be to buttress efforts to undermine the IDF’s current efforts than telling untold truths about the past.
As Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren acknowledged, filmmaker Mor Loushy is a leftist critic of her own country. Her only previous effort was a movie that sought to discredit the Israeli tourism industry as being too oriented toward bolstering the Zionist narrative of a nation reborn through pioneering struggle. But she did happen upon a treasure trove of testimony about the Six-Day War when she obtained tapes of testimony about that conflict taken down at the time, much of which was included in a seminal book The Seventh Day. That volume famously explored the misgivings of many Israelis about their unexpected triumph and the sacrifices that were required by war. In particular many spoke of their discomfort about and being the conquerors in the fighting rather than underdogs fighting against long odds. As author Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in his justly acclaimed recent book Like Dreamers, these discussions about the aftermath of that war, which was widely and rightly seen as one of self-defense and survival, presaged all the debates about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians in the decades that followed.
But not everything in the tapes used for the book were published. Some soldiers spoke of brutal behavior on the part of the IDF during the fighting as well as of claims of abuse of Arab prisoners. It is that material, obtained by Loushy from The Seventh Day’s editor Avraham Shapira, that forms the basis of her documentary.
The accounts upon which the film is based are contemporaneous and from soldiers claiming to be eyewitnesses. Thus, they must be treated as credible or at the very least as the basis for a reasonable investigation into any wrongdoing on the part of IDF soldiers. But Loushy’s motives here, as well as those that seek to laud this film, are not strictly objective. As Loushy tells the Times, she believes that if the topic of Israeli misbehavior were aired more thoroughly in the aftermath of the war, it might have made the country more amenable to accommodating its Arab and Palestinian foes.
This is, of course, nonsense. In the aftermath of its astounding victory in June 1967, Israel made clear its willingness to negotiate withdrawal from the territory that it had gained with the exception of the newly unified city of Jerusalem. The Arab world responded with its famous three “no’s”—no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations—to Israel. Nor have the Palestinians—even the so-called moderates among them—ever transcended their political culture in which rejection of Zionism is intrinsically linked with their national identity. Putting the onus for the lack of peace on Israel is not only illogical; it denies agency to the Palestinians.
But the focus on allegations of Israeli misbehavior—and it must be stressed that the incidents spoken of in the film have not been thoroughly or impartially investigated—also fails to put the issue in context. Israel was fighting for its life in June 1967. The world soon forgot the spectacle of isolated, tiny Israel in May of that year, preparing for an assault by nations whose leaders pledged to drive the Jews into the sea. Prior to the war, mass graves were dug in Israel’s cities in anticipation of large civilian casualties.
It should also be stated that if Israel’s soldiers were wary of taking prisoners or aggressive in their conduct, their activities must judged against the behavior of the troops of Arab armies toward Israelis who fell into their hands and not solely via historical hindsight.
But even if we were to concede that some Israelis didn’t live up to their army’s high standards of conduct, that hardly makes them unique in history. The same sorts of accusations in terms of abuse or killing of prisoners could be lodged against a minority of U.S. troops during World War Two—the “good war” as far as most Americans are concerned. There is just as much, if not more material to splice together an account of G.I. war crimes that could, if taken out of context, make it seem as if the Americans were the bad guys in that war and the Germans and the Japanese were the victims.
But though there are documented instances of Americans crossing the line in that conflict, such an account would tell us nothing about World War Two or about the respective combatants. Whether the war is justified or not or even if the opposing army is composed of genuine villains, war is always hell and even good people may wind up doing bad things. What matters is context. On its own, this topic constitutes a marginal footnote to history. But to re-write the narrative of 1967 to paint Israel as the wrongdoer is more of a falsification of history than anything else. If the point of Censored Voices is to add credence to the efforts to arraign Israel in the dock of international opinion or in that of the International Criminal Court for its efforts to defend the nation against Hamas terrorists, it must be seen as part of the effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.