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.

Grist for Israel’s defamers

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.)

The war crimes industry

In an earlier post, I flagged my Mosaic Magazine essay on the film Censored Voices, an Israeli documentary that purports to expose Israeli war crimes during the Six-Day War. The filmmakers claim that the testimony of soldiers, published in 1968, had been subjected to “brutal” censorship by Israel’s military censor, who cut 70 percent of the original material. Censored Voices, we are told, restores those “silenced” voices. In my essay, I questioned whether there had been any censorship of this magnitude, and asked whether the cases highlighted in the film were true, representative, or added to our understanding of the war.

There have been three responses to the essay:

  • Military historian and analyst Max Boot provides some fascinating insights into why certain conflicts invite charges of war crimes and others don’t—regardless of the facts.
  • Journalist and author Matti Friedman analyzes what’s wrong with the flourishing Israeli genre of what he calls “moral striptease.” Among many nuggets: “The fact that the director of Censored Voices has earned complimentary coverage in Israel’s biggest women’s weekly and in El Al’s inflight magazine hardly suggests a society ‘crushing dissent.’ In fact, it suggests a society where dissent is celebrated even in the heart of the mainstream.”
  • Asa Kasher, philosopher and author of the Code of Ethics of the Israel Defense Forces, argues that you can’t judge the justice of a war by how soldiers wage it, and if you make vague charges of war crimes against Israel, you’re making it impossible for the IDF to investigate and ameliorate. That’s immoral.

My own summation is coming up next week. In the meantime, take in these interesting responses.
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