Israeli University Head Slams Research on 1948 Tantura Massacre 'Used to Advance Political Agenda'

The author 'made every possible mistake' in his thesis and lacked the training to conduct it, Haifa University's rector argues

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Palestinians leaving the village of Tantura in 1948
Palestinians leaving the village of Tantura in 1948Credit: Israel State Archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The rector of the University of Haifa slammed Tuesday a graduate research paper at the university from the late 1990s alleging an Israeli massacre of Palestinians in 1948.

The paper, based on interviews, asserts that the Israeli army perpetrated a massacre in the village of Tantura, located on the Mediterranean coast, during Israel’s War of Independence.

The episode returned to the headlines with the release this year of the documentary “Tantura,” based on Katz’s research. In the movie, several veterans who fought in the sector are recorded calling themselves “murderers” who “didn’t take prisoners.” The film also presents evidence of a mass grave dug at the site for victims.

In a letter sent to the university's faculty members, the rector, Prof. Gur Alroey, criticized the university’s response to the thesis by master’s student Teddy Katz. He declared that “faculty members used [him] and his research to advance their own political agenda.”

Alroey, a historian, claimed that Katz “made every possible mistake” in his research and “lacked the most basic training” to conduct it. The rector also said the university’s department of Middle East history “did not behave properly, both academically and professionally” in advising, examining and evaluating the research.

Katz submitted his master’s thesis in 1998, receiving a grade of 97. After news of its contents spread, a number of veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade, which he implicated in his study, sued him for libel. Katz was forced to retract his conclusion and to apologize. His thesis was disqualified, and his reputation was tarnished as the perpetrator of a “blood libel” against the combatants.

In Tuesday’s letter, Alroey stressed that he does not “pretend to rule on what happened between Alexandroni soldiers and the Arab residents” of Tantura. However, he stated, after reading the materials and meeting with Katz he came to the conclusion that there were “significant lapses” in the thesis. He said those lapses extended to the university’s treatment of it regarding research methodology, writing style and evaluation of the work.

Alroey argued that some faculty members found in the documentary proof that Katz was right and that his thesis had been disqualified due to political considerations rather than academic ones. A number of faculty members demanded that the university administration “repair the injustice and award Katz a research-based master’s degree.”

Alroey claimed that Katz is inconsistent regarding the number of Tantura residents who were killed. He wrote in one place, “At the end of that day, there were no fewer than 200 to 250 dead men.” However, he wrote in another: “We cannot determine definitively how many Tantura residents were killed during and after the conquest of the village, since we heard numerous versions on this topic, from 40 or 50 to 250.” According to Alroey, “This is a profound self-contradiction, and it was the job of the thesis adviser to draw this to the student’s attention in order to make the necessary corrections.”

Alroey also discussed in the letter Katz’s research methods, which were based on collecting oral testimony. He concluded that Katz “came to interviews without any basic training and made every mistake possible.” He said Katz never took a course on collecting oral testimonies. Moreover, Alroey asserted that “the research method of oral testimony is legitimate yet controversial” because “memory is shaky, selective and impact by events of the present.” He warned, “Using eyewitness accounts many years after the fact as an exclusive historical source is most problematic.”

Alroey also stated that Katz failed in not transcribing the interviews, which “seriously hurt the final paper and its conclusions.” He further observed that the paper contains “inaccurate or lacking testimonies.” He added the paper’s style is also subject to criticism, describing the writing as “garbled” and reading it as “nearly impossible.”

Alroey also reserved harsh judgment for the university’s evaluation of the paper. He claimed that the department where Katz studied didn’t maintain referee confidentiality – by which the student and adviser are not supposed to know who the paper’s external reader is. The purpose is so that the opinion received is independent. “The department’s M.A. committee not only didn’t maintain referee confidentiality but also sent the paper to two researchers from the same department for evaluation,” he wrote. “We have ‘academic incest’ before us.” He stressed: “The result being rotten fruit – a student’s final paper that didn’t receive proper guidance or refereeing. The department’s M.A. committee failed on this issue.”

Alroey wrote that the decision to disqualify the paper was made “after a proper academic process.” He also reviewed the corrected paper Katz submitted to the department after his original paper was disqualified. He opined that the public conversation and the court case “polluted Katz’s ‘research lab.’” Alroey stated that “it was next to impossible for him to emend his research and to deal with the many flaws found in the original version.”

At the end of his letter, Alroey called Katz a “diligent and curious student, who just wanted to write a final paper and got caught up in an academic storm that shook him physically and emotionally, not for the better.” He noted, “My heart went out to Katz and to his family.” He wrote at the end that he found it “ironic” that the film “Tantura” won Docaviv 2022’s Research Award after being based on Katz’s research.

“Tantura” director Alon Schwarz commented: “The University of Haifa continues to focus on punctuation marks and the phrasing of headings instead of the issue itself. Years of silence and nothing has changed. There is nothing new under the sun.”

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