This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on July 30.
For those who have followed the discussion of my essay on the documentary film Censored Voices, I bring your attention to my “last word” on the subject at Mosaic Magazine. There I suggest that the film is fairly close on the spectrum to Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” (in his bestselling book My Promised Land and in The New Yorker), which I dissected at length a year ago, also at Mosaic Magazine. That’s a resemblance worth further elaboration, so here it is.
Shavit purports to reveal the details of a forgotten Israeli massacre of Palestinians in July 1948, which he rediscovered by interviewing Israeli veterans twenty years ago. For his account, he went back to his tapes. The director of Censored Voices, Mor Loushy, purports to reveal the censored details of Israeli war crimes committed in June 1967 against Palestinians and other Arabs—crimes she rediscovered in tapes of discussions among Israeli soldiers.
The notion of hidden war crimes preserved on privately-held tapes is almost irresistable. Is anyone bothered that no one else has access to these tapes, which (like all evidence) need to be scrutinized critically? Does anyone care if the case for war crimes rests on isolated quotes, summations, and soundbites? I’ve called on Shavit and Loushy to place all their material in a public archive where it can be examined by historians. It’s reprehensible to put these “crimes” on the public agenda, yet continue to monopolize the supposed evidence for them.
Both Shavit and Loushy use numbers—in fact, the same number—to embed their narratives in the minds of readers or viewers. Shavit claims that Israeli soldiers, in the course of a broader massacre, cut down seventy persons who had taken refuge in a mosque in Lydda—a number he repeats five times in his book. This is what I call a sticky statistic. When I told a friend that I would be looking closely at the mosque “massacre,” he replied: “Where seventy were killed, right?” I was taken aback: the statistic, through its repetition, had stuck. As I later showed, the “seventy” isn’t attested by any source except local Palestinian lore, and contemporary Israeli sources put the number at less than half of that. (They also totally contradict the “massacre” claim.)
Loushy (and her partner and producer Daniel Sivan) use the same number to describe the scale of the “brutal censorship” that kept the Six-Day War “crimes” secret for so long. They allege that seventy percent of the original testimonies of soldiers were cut by the Israeli military censor in 1967, and thus consigned to oblivion. (For example, Sivan repeats the figure twice in this one interview.) This statistic is also sticky, and it has surfaced in just about every review of the film, as well as in the Economist, where you expect statistics to have been vetted. As I show, this “seventy” is a fiction. The extent of official censorship of the original testimonies, according to a careful assessment by their foremost historian, was negligible.
The agonized soldiers, the forgotten tapes, and the memorable numbers are all vehicles to deliver this message: Israel is guilty of crimes in the two wars that gave it independence and its current borders, 1948 and 1967. It is too late for individuals to be tried for these crimes, but there must be atonement. For Shavit and Loushy, that atonement is self-evident: Israel must end the “occupation.” Only thus can it cleanse itself of sins.
The ascendence of this argument in the Israeli mainstream left isn’t accidental. The Second Intifada, the debacle of Gaza, Palestinian refusal to talk—all of these have undercut the rationale for peace as a transaction between Israelis and Palestinians. How can Israelis and Jews be persuaded that a Palestinian state is still an urgent necessity—so much so that it might even justify unilateral withdrawal? Some invoke demography, but others instill guilt. Yes, a Palestinian state is a huge risk. Yes, there is no partner. Yes, the rockets may fall. Yes, the blood may flow. But if we end the “occupation,” we will cleanse ourselves of guilt. If this is the aim of such revelations, then the desired effect is only enhanced by exaggerating the “crimes,” ripping them out of context, and claiming they were somehow covered up.
This is the present-day purpose of these historical exposés. But that isn’t necessarily their present-day effect. Israel’s critics adduce the claims of Shavit and Loushy as evidence that Israel repeatedly commits and covers up the same crimes. Israel’s history, writes one defamer (while generously quoting from Shavit), is “a history of Lyddas piling up into a mountain, remembered or almost forgotten except by the survivors.” A reviewer of Loushy’s film insists that “year after year since 1967, including in recent weeks, Palestinians, with faces and names, are still expelled, imprisoned without trial and killed.”
Incredibly, both Shavit and Loushy are oblivious to this use of their work. Shavit: “Even the most difficult parts of my book were not used by Israel’s enemies because they were afraid to quote something that is written by a really devoted Zionist.” Loushy: “I find it difficult to believe that someone would attack Israel because of the film.” Shavit and Loushy grossly underestimate the resourcefulness of Israel’s enemies, who will mine any vein for historical evidence of Israeli misdeeds and then deploy it to condemn Israel in the present. This isn’t a reason to avoid research critical of Israel’s history. It is a reason to establish facts scrupulously, from a full range of sources, and put them in broader context. Famed journalists and beginning directors don’t get a pass on that.
Much of Israel’s self-critical output makes its way to discussions at American synagogues and Sabbath tables. Even sophisticated audiences often take too much of it at face value. As Censored Voices moves into Jewish film festivals and American theaters, I’ll be watching to see who passively accepts it and who reports the evidence that its very premise is fabricated. I’m guessing most viewers won’t question what they see on the screen. How many is “most”? Oh, probably around seventy percent.
(Again, my “last word” at Mosaic Magazine, here.)