Was “Censored Voices” censored?

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on November 24.

Censored Voices posterCensored Voices, the manipulative documentary film by Israeli director Mor Loushy on the Six-Day War, had its U.S. theatrical release last Friday. It’s now playing in Manhattan and Bethesda, Maryland, and it will open in Los Angeles this weekend. Loushy, it will be recalled, resurrects conversations among Israeli soldiers recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War. Some of these testimonies were published a short time later in a book called Soldiers’ Talk. But Loushy retrieved material which had been omitted from Soldiers’ Talk—according to her, by order of the Israeli military censor, partly because the soldiers discussed Israeli war crimes. These weren’t just a few redlined paragraphs: the censor, Loushy alleges, cut seventy percent of the original testimonies.

As I showed at Mosaic Magazine over the summer, this quantified claim is entirely bogus. It’s an out-of-thin-air “statistic” that seems to have been fabricated in order to boost the marketing of the film. And it still works. See, for example, the latest review by film critic Daniel M. Gold in the New York Times: “The Israeli military permitted only about 30 percent of the material to be published then.” What’s the evidence for this claim, aside from the bald assertion of the filmmakers? None whatsoever. I won’t repeat my forensic analysis of who did censor the voices—go to my Mosaic piece for the full story. It matters because the relentless repetition of this mythical number is exemplary of the filmmaker’s propensity for elision and distortion in her spin of the Six-Day War itself.

Now that the film is out, I want to pose a different question. Was Censored Voices, the film now on the American big screen, censored by the Israeli military censor? Loushy suggested as much to New York Times correspondent Judi Rudoren, who reported on the film in a news piece back in January, after the film premiered at the Sundance film festival:

She [Loushy] was deep into the project before she discovered that the film, too, would be subject to censorship, she said.

Israel forbids the filmmakers to reveal how much they were forced to change, and the military censor’s office refused to discuss it.

“For us as a society to mend and to improve ourselves, we can’t censor,” Ms. Loushy said. “I think it’s important that we look the truth in the eyes.”

Rudoren’s wording suggested that the censor had indeed “forced” changes; the only question was “how much,” and that couldn’t be known because Loushy was gagged and the censor wouldn’t talk. Critics of Israel immediately seized upon this passage to claim that Israel was still censoring some of the same voices it had allegedly censored nearly fifty years ago. At the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, far-left academic Stephen R. Shalom wrote this:

Rudoren’s article also provides the significant information that even Censored Voices was censored and hence doesn’t tell the full story of the war crimes that occurred: “Israel forbids the filmmakers to reveal how much they were forced to change, and the military censor’s office refused to discuss it.”

Loushy’s next reference to censorship of her film came in a March interview:

Unfortunately, I had to submit my film to the censorship, like all filmmakers in Israel. Luckily it was only minimally censored. Maybe Israeli censorship has become much more liberal since 1967.

According to Loushy, then, the “much more liberal” censor still had compelled her to take some small amount of material out of the film. In some way, however “minimal,” Israel continued to silence voices.

So it stood until this fall, when Loushy began to talk about her encounter with the censor. In an October interview at a London film festival, she said that she couldn’t say much about it, but “the film wasn’t censored at all, eventually” (here at minute 3:00). Then this month, at another film festival in New York, she gave a fuller account. Setting aside the unverifiable details in her dramatic telling, the bottom line was this: “Eventually, the film was not censored at all” (here at minute 19:00). Not only did the film make it past the censor with no changes. According to Loushy, this outcome was settled before the Sundance premiere—and, so, before Rudoren’s article appeared.

If so, then why did Loushy lead Rudoren to believe that the censor might have “forced” changes in the film? (That prompted Rudoren to put in a query to the censor.) And why did Loushy say, in a subsequent interview, that the film had been censored, “minimally”? Why has she not consistently repeated this simple sentence: “The film was not censored at all”? I haven’t an answer to these questions.

I do know that the notion of Israel as the ever-vigilant censor, forever “silencing” voices, is the convenient bogeyman of Censored Voices. Israel censored then, and it censors now. But in truth, both then (as I showed in my long piece) and even more so now (as Loushy admits), censorship in Israel isn’t a diktat, it’s a negotiation. If you’re savvy and pushy, and don’t traffic in military secrets or classified information, you can get nearly everything approved (the case of Soldiers’ Talk, the book), or even the whole thing approved (the case of Censored Voices, the film).

Despite the doubts that envelope this film, it keeps marching on. Reviews in the American Jewish press have been admiring, and Jewish reviewers have gushed enthusiastically in the Washington Post (“an essential documentary”) and the New York Times (“an essential amendment to the historical record”). All of which is more proof that liberal American Jews remain vulnerable to bedtime stories of Israeli misdeeds and cover-ups, provided they’re accompanied by we-have-sinned chest thumping and end-the-occupation agitprop.

Censored Voices has qualified for the big field in the running for an Oscar. Stay tuned.

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Do you know the Mufti man?

During the brouhaha surrounding the “Mufti speech” of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I tweeted a photograph. It purported to show the Mufti Amin al-Husseini seated alongside David and Paula Ben-Gurion. I’d first seen the photograph during a lecture (in Hebrew) on Ben-Gurion delivered by Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s most distinguished historians, at Shalem College in February 2014—a lecture I myself chaired. When the photograph flashed on the screen above the podium, a gasp of recognition went through the audience: The Mufti with Ben-Gurion! Yes, said Shapira, that’s who it is.

Later, Shapira selected the photograph for inclusion in her (wonderful) new biography of Ben-Gurion, both in English and Hebrew. The Hebrew caption surmised that it was taken in the mid-1930s, apparently at an event under the auspices of the British High Commissioner. She credited the photo to the Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which apparently didn’t preserve any identifying information. Shapira didn’t make anything of the encounter—the caption noted that Ben-Gurion and the Mufti never had a meeting—but the image of the two of them seated side by side hinted at one of those alleged “missed opportunities” that litter the historiography of Israel.

So when the “Mufti speech” made waves, I tweeted the photo, giving Shapira credit for discovering it.

Mufti Tweet

This became the most retweeted and favorited tweet I’d ever posted. Many of the retweets added sarcastic commentary, some of it amusing, some less so. But one set of Twitter responses troubled me, from a Palestinian journalist, Ibrahim Husseini:

Ibrahim Husseini tweets

Looking closer at the photograph, I could see the problem. Setting aside the improbability that the Mufti would place himself in this position, he didn’t look quite like himself. Yes, the iconic headgear was there, but that wasn’t at all exclusive to the Mufti. Yes, the facial hair looked approximately right, but that was also standard grooming. (Actually, the Mufti did have white tufts on the chin of his beard, but this could have been lost in a photograph, depending on the lighting.) It was the eyes, or more specifically, the bags around them, and the slightly sunken cheek, that seemed anomalous. The Mufti had a smooth and full face. Here he is after testifying to the Peel Commission in January 1937.

Mufti in 1937, Peel Commission

Was this the same man as the one in Anita Shapira’s photograph? It started to look doubtful. So I wrote to Shapira, who is a friend of long standing. She replied by thanking me, and told me that after publication of her book, a retired employee of the Israel State Archives told her that this wasn’t the Mufti. “Pity,” she added.

Since I played a supporting role in disseminating this photograph, I felt more than the usual obligation of a historian to set the record straight. If not the Mufti, who was this man, who was of sufficient stature to warrant a place next to David Ben-Gurion? So I started posting queries on Twitter and the Facebook pages of Israeli and Palestinian archives and research centers. I got a lot of agreement that it wasn’t the Mufti, but didn’t get any leads. I even heard from someone who had known the Mufti. “Perhaps acceptable for a Hollywood rendition,” he wrote, but definitely not the Mufti. Yet he had no suggestions as to who it might be. An archive director in Israel sent my query to all his peers. No answer.

The person most likely to have known the answer died on November 1 of last year. He was Shabtai Teveth, author of a (never completed) multi-volume biography of B-G. He’d actually been silent for much longer, having suffered a debilitating stroke twelve years before his death. Teveth had been my good friend, and I’d published an appreciation of him earlier this year. I knew that, were he alive and well, his eyes would have twinkled at the question, and he would have provided an on-the-spot answer, because he loved detail, and no detail of Ben-Gurion’s life was too small.

I began to wonder whether there might be some clue in Teveth’s voluminous writings. His biography of B-G had nothing. I had slightly higher hopes from his 400-page book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, which appeared in Hebrew in 1985 and also in an abbreviated English translation (which I helped him prepare). Alas, nothing there, and no photographs in either the Hebrew or the English editions.

Stymied, I began to run Google searches of Teveth with improbable search terms—long shots, because I was quite sure I’d consulted everything Teveth had written on Ben-Gurion and the Arabs. During one of these desultory searches, I stumbled across the pdf of a Hebrew article by Teveth entitled “Ben-Gurion and the Arab Question,” which, to my amazement, I’d never seen. It appeared in the journal Cathedra in March 1987. I couldn’t imagine why Teveth wrote it, since he’d already published a whole book on the subject. As I scrolled down through the piece, I saw a few images—Cathedra illustrates its articles. Then suddenly, close to the end, I came upon this:

Here was the image, published for the first time not by Shapira but by Teveth, more than twenty-five years ago! And apparently, unlike Shapira, he had the “metadata” for the photograph. His caption reads: “Ben-Gurion alongside Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi, president of the Supreme Muslim Appeals Court, before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, 1946.” It was as though I’d asked Teveth my question, and he’d found a way to lead me to the answer.

Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi wasn’t comparable to Ben-Gurion in any way. He’d served as a qadi, or religious judge, from 1920, working his way up through the Islamic courts around the country before reaching Jerusalem. In 1940, he became president of the appeals court; he fled for Lebanon in 1948. As far as I can tell from the records of the Anglo-American Committee, he didn’t actually testify. (The testimony of three other “Moslem Religious Dignitaries” is recorded.) And the text of Teveth’s article said nothing about him. It turns out there isn’t much of a reason to include this photograph in any biography of Ben-Gurion. Lots of other interesting photographs could fill that prime real estate.

If this story is worth telling at such length, it’s to serve as a reminder to historians (especially me) that first instincts can mislead, and that in history, as in investing, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But above all, it’s an encouraging story of how historians never go silent, even when they’re gone. You just have to ask them.

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Commentary symposium: The Jewish Future

Commentary CoverThe November 2015 issue of Commentary magazine is comprised of a symposium entitled The Jewish Future, in which “70 Jewish Leaders, Thinkers, and Clergy Respond to the Question: What Will be the Condition of the Jewish Community 50 Years from Now?” Below is my contribution. Download the entire symposium (pdf) here.

The phrase “Jewish history” is misleading. There is only history, of which the Jews are a part, sometimes as movers, other times as objects, too often as victims. The Jews of Europe were destroyed because a force arose that nearly destroyed all of Europe in a total war. The Jews of America have prospered because America has prospered, thanks to its mastery of democracy and capitalism. The Jews of Russia were freed because all of Russia freed itself from Soviet Communism. World-historical forces have made “Jewish history” as much as the Jews have made it, if not more.

Those forces made it in 1948 as well. The 600,000 Jews who created the State of Israel showed incredible grit. But they never would have succeeded had the Arabs not been debilitated and divided. Israel arose at an opportune moment, when the Arabs were still reeling from colonialism. That weakness has persisted to our very day and has manifested itself in our time in an Arab civil war. But by 2065, the Arabs will be a full century into postcolonial independence. Is it possible that they might finally be poised to destroy Israel, perhaps with the help of other Muslims, such as Iran?

“Israel is indestructible,” former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has said time and again. “I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.” This is true—for now. But as Halevy has repeated again and again (in the debate on the Iran nuclear deal), “10 years is an eternity in the Middle East.” Israel has enjoyed a widening advantage over its adversaries since its establishment, especially since 1967. It is the inherent advantage of the West over the East. But might 50 years—Halevy’s eternity multiplied by five—be enough to erode or overturn it?

This is certainly the Palestinian-Arab view of Israel. According to a recent poll, more than half of Gazans and almost 40 percent of West Bankers think Israel will no longer exist at all in 30 to 40 years. They are about evenly split between those who think that Israel “will collapse from internal contradictions” and those who expect that “Arab or Muslim resistance will destroy it.” Ask them if Israel will exist as a Jewish state in a century, and the percentage of those who answer yes falls almost to single digits. This is the persistent idea of Israel as a Crusader outpost, fated to dissipate as a reunited Islam recovers and recoups its losses.

Over the next 50 years, Israel by its actions must show, decade after decade, that it is the Arabs, including the Palestinians, who have the most to fear from the future, unless and until they recognize Israel’s durable permanence. They are only halfway there. Two states bordering Israel have made a grudging peace, but Islamists, Sunni and Shiite, still think they can whittle down Israeli sovereignty by a thousand cuts. These are the people whom Israel must defeat and demoralize over the next 50 years. Forty years ago, in January 1976, Bernard Lewis accurately predicted “The Return of Islam” in these pages. The retreat of Islam as a radical political force is something that Israel must work to effect, by causing it to fail as thoroughly as Arab nationalism failed in 1967.

Because the Jews are now fully sovereign, they can act on history in ways once unimaginable, and Israel has the potential and the imperative to make history for others. It must plan to bend the arc of the Middle East yet again, in its favor. If Israel is to be secure, let alone flourish, it will have no choice.


Mecca: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Today is Eid al-Adha, culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, now marred by yet another tragedy that has left hundreds dead in a stampede. (Earlier, it was a crane collapse.) In a new photo gallery, I offer some commentary on the stupendous transformation of Mecca in our time. If you haven’t followed it closely, and (like me) you don’t have any plans to visit Mecca anytime soon, the images (and the numbers) may astound you. The effect on Islam? Unpredictable. Follow this link.

Mecca photo gallery

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The original truck people

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on August 31.

Austrian authorities on Thursday discovered an abandoned truck on a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposed bodies of 71 dead migrants, including four children. While migrants have perished at sea in the multitudes, this tragedy has put Europe on notice: The horrors from which the migrants flee, and that regularly play themselves out in the middle of the Mediterranean, will soon become commonplace in the heart of the continent unless something changes.

Now how addled and obsessed must one be, to use this event as a stick to beat Israel? About as addled and obsessed as Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan and popular blogger on the edge of the left. See as evidence this post: “Austrian Truck Tragedy echoes Palestinian Story, reminding us of 7 million still stateless [Palestinians].”

What is that Palestinian story? It is a 1962 novella by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani entitled Men in the Sun. The allegorical storyline is about three Palestinians who flee the misery of Lebanon’s refugee camps to Iraq, in the hope of reaching the Xanadu of Kuwait. They are smuggled across the desert from Basra in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck. But because of a delay at the Kuwaiti border, the three suffocate to death. (The novella was made into a film in 1972.)

I won’t make an issue of the “seven million still stateless” Palestinians. (The upper-end estimate is closer to five million.) And far be it from me to quibble with anyone’s free associations. But Cole tops off his with this statement, which purports to be historical: the Palestinians’ “home has been stolen from them by the Israelis and they were unceremoniously dumped on the neighbors or in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. They are stateless. They are the original truck people.” (My emphasis.)

This concluding dramatic flourish, identifying the Palestinians as “the original truck people,” jolted me. The first people made stateless, dispossessed, stripped of their humanity, and packed into sealed trucks where they died horribly, all in the very heart of Europe, were many thousands of Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination machine.

As anyone who has read even one history of the Holocaust knows, before there were gas chambers there were mobile gas vans. These were air-tight trucks which could be packed with as many as sixty persons, who would be killed by cycling the carbon monoxide exhaust back into the cargo area. Himmler ordered the invention of the method to spare the Germans in SS killing squads the damaging psychological effects of shooting thousands of victims, one at a time. The trucks were deployed primarily to kill Jews, who were loaded into them without separation by gender or age. I will spare readers the horrific testimonies of the operators of these trucks, and the documentary evidence of how technicians worked to perfect them. I’ll only quote this argument, made by a technician, for keeping the cargo area lit:

When the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door. The reason for this is that when it becomes dark inside the load rushes toward what little light is left. This hampers the locking of the door. It has also been noticed that the noise [i.e., screams] provoked by the locking of the door is linked to the fear aroused by the darkness. It is therefore expedient to keep the lights on before the operation and during the first few minutes of its duration. Lighting is often useful for night work and for the cleaning of the interior of the van.

Hundreds of thousands died in these trucks, at least 150,000 in Chelmno alone. According to that same technician, three vehicles succeeded in killing 97,000 persons in the six months prior to June 1942. However, it turned out that the mobile gas vans were subject to breakdown on the back roads where they operated away from sight, and even then they proved impossible to keep secret. (Passersby could hear the screams.) Gas chambers located in extermination camps finally replaced the vans.

Of course, one mustn’t confuse botched human trafficking with planned genocide. But part of what is so shocking about the Austrian truck tragedy is the earlier precedent of men, women, and children packed into trucks and asphyxiated to death in the heart of Europe. If the horror on the Austrian motorway should evoke anyone’s fate, it is that of six million exterminated Jews, not five million living Palestinians. To anyone who knows history, death trucks on European highways recall why the “original truck people,” the Jews, needed the refuge finally secured by the creation of Israel.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942. Photo: Yad Vashem.

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