By David D’Arcy
With Tantura, brimming with evidence that will now be hard to suppress, director Alon Schwarz may have won an important battle in the war of conflicting narratives about Israel’s war of independence.
Nakba is an Arab word that most Jewish Israelis don’t use. They prefer the War of Independence. Tantura is another Arab word that fewer Israelis would know.
Tantura is the new Israeli documentary by Alon Schwarz that revisits the defeat of the village of Tantura, on the Mediterranean about 35 kilometers south of Haifa, in the 1948 war of independence. Arabs call that war the Nakba, the catastrophe. Tantura, replaced today by a beach resort, is now named Dor.
Schwarz’s film presents evidence and testimony from 1948 that some 200 people, maybe more, were killed in Tantura after Arab fighters there surrendered. A master’s thesis investigating those events by an Israeli researcher brought retribution that ended his hope for an academic career.
Tantura was one of the opening films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Probing and painstaking, drawing on interviews with gruff, plain-spoken Israeli veterans, the documentary focuses on the events of May 23, 1948, when an Israeli unit called the Alexandroni Brigade surrounded Tantura on three sides, as ships blocked an escape by sea. The Israelis seized the town in a few hours and rounded up the population. Then, witnesses say, Arab fighters were shot by the soldiers, who were mostly teenagers. Civilians were also shot.
Much of the testimony was originally gathered by Teddy Katz, then a graduate student who interviewed more than 100 Jews and Arabs, participants and witnesses, civilian and military. In 1998, Katz received a high grade of 97 on his master’s thesis at the University of Haifa, but became a target when his findings about the atrocities hit the press in 2000.
Veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade sued him for libel, many repudiating what they had told him about soldiers shooting prisoners. Under pressure from the veterans and from the University of Haifa, Katz, who was running out of money and poorly advised, apologized and recanted. Even after rewriting his thesis, he received a downgraded degree that made an academic career impossible.
Schwarz, 20 years later, finds some of the surviving soldiers, eliciting denials and admissions, amid lots of professed amnesia. Much of the testimony recalls the killing of prisoners and civilians that can happen on every side of every war. Some aging soldiers acknowledge that they themselves, as a rule, killed captives who surrendered, noting that they might have done just that at Tantura. One old man says he can’t say how many captives he might have killed, but he does recall with a grin that, “I had a machine gun with 250 bullets.”
As the memories pile up, Israel’s much-vaunted (and much-debated) reputation as a moral country with a moral military is a clear casualty. David Ben-Gurion, who called for the harsh treatment of Arabs, including shipping them eastward, seems anything but humane in this light.
Teddy Katz plays a role in Tantura, as a source and archivist. As Schwarz retraces Katz’s steps and his research, which is confirmed by new interviews and by technology that scrutinized the battle site, he dramatizes the plight of a man whose career was sidetracked by bullying at the hands of veterans and his university.
The judge who ruled against him, and refused to allow him to retract his capitulation, admitted that neither she nor those opposing him had ever listened to any of the tapes that Katz had recorded with the veterans who spoke of atrocities. After Schwarz lets her listen to testimony on the tapes, the judge tells him that she would have acted differently, as the dog in her lap growls and barks.
“Fifi,” she says to the animal, “that was a long time ago.”
Was Katz finally vindicated by the evidence that he collected, which a judge declined to hear at the time? Katz, a portly man with a thick mustache when he was younger, now inches around in a motorized wheelchair, looking about as feeble as the nonagenarians on the other side of the argument. Katz explains that he suffered his first stroke when his thesis came under review, and endured others after that. If he’s not broken, he’s a camera-ready battered victim in this documentary
That troubling image aside, Tantura is not a film with much visual flourish — that’s not its goal. Schwarz’s approach is to film his interviewees head-on, whether it’s the surviving fighters of the Alexandroni Brigade (sometimes with spouses), historians, Arabs with family roots in Tantura, or Katz. Some Israeli veterans are stubborn, some clearly uncomfortable talking about events from 70 years ago, sometimes squirming as Schwarz inquires repeatedly whether Arabs who surrendered were killed, and by whom.
Archival footage of the battle for Tantura looks generic, and there’s a reason for that. Once the fight was over, and villagers had been cleared out — we’re told that Arab villages were emptied, or “erased” — the Israelis brought in a crew from MGM, which has been deployed to film the forced deportations of Arabs. These scenes were routinely edited so that the footage would look as if they were charitable resettling operations. In Tantura, the MGM crew filmed a staged “attack” on the emptied village, without Arabs, a day after the real one, for propaganda purposes. From the start, image was crucial for Israel. Bodies left behind were cleared away, taken to a common grave that, according to researchers, is now under a parking lot.
Survival is an immediate but complicated concept in the context of Israel in 1948. Some of the veterans interviewed, who fought in multiple wars, note that the experience of surviving the Holocaust and the camps could have weighed on fellow Israeli soldiers who mistreated Arab combatants who surrendered. Katz also surrendered, against his better judgment, when he came under attack from those veterans and from the university that they pressured. He speaks as if he’s still suffering from shell shock, the old name for PTSD.
Tantura is at Sundance, as any film there is, so it can gather media attention and be sold for distribution in territories around the world. The documentary should find its way to the film festivals and art houses that play this kind of film, maybe eventually to Netflix or a comparable platform. (Not to Arab countries, which won’t show Israeli films.) And it will be shown in Israel, a polarized place where there could be, to put it mildly, strong resistance to revelations that were strongly resisted when Katz’s thesis became known to the public more than 20 years ago.
Back in 2004, the Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim was one of the “new historians” in Israel who called for paying attention to Katz’s research. Not all historians agreed. Shlaim wrote, “As Bishop Tutu pointed out in the South African context, it is difficult to know what to forgive unless we know what happened. In the Middle East, as in South Africa, it is necessary to understand the past in order to go forward.”
With Tantura, brimming with evidence that will now be hard to suppress, Schwarz may have won an important battle in the war of conflicting narratives. Going forward is another thing. So is forgiveness.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.