Controversial Documentary on Six-Day War Hits New York City

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Israeli soldiers with Egyptian captives in Sinai. June, 1967. Credit: Israel film service

On a summer night on a kibbutz sometime in 1967, a young journalist sits with a tape recorder facing a reluctant face.

So where are you from? How old are you? You grew up on this kibbutz? Tell me about your family.

It’s Amos Oz  – with the help of educator Avraham Shapira. They slowly let their interview subjects open up; the young men begin to tell them about those six days.

In what would eventually become a best-selling book titled “Siach Lochamim” (‘The Seventh Day”), Oz and Shapira captured the rawest of the Six-Day War’s testimonies. They interviewed Israel’s elite soldiers, the golden sons of the kibbutz, mere days after they returned from the battlefield. The subject was less what they did and more how they felt throughout the war.

Decades later, director Mor Loushy studied the 200 hours of recordings, and after tracking down the veterans interviewed, invited them to listen to themselves speak alongside Oz and Shapira. That spawned Loushy's documentary "Censored Voices."

Drawing also on an astounding wealth of war footage, Loushy artfully shows the graying veterans listening to their young selves, their eyes squinting, their shoulders sagging as they return to the trenches of Sinai and the walls of Jerusalem. It is their expressions, these moments of silent reflection, that are the film’s most powerful moments.

The documentary begins with the first rumblings of war in May. ABC News footage shows an American anchor warning of war, and a map with far too many arrows closing in on Israel. One feels the shock, the paralysis; apartment doors opening to a military man holding a draft notice, tanks lining up in the desert.

A file photo of Amos Oz, March 16, 2012.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

Some of the film comes off as antiwar propaganda: extended images of POWs, descriptions of how Egyptian soldiers kissed the feet of their Israeli captors, sober music and dark eyes staring into the camera.

“I was a Jew,” one soldier says. “A Jew and everything that it entails — not a soldier, a hero, but a lawyer, doctor, tailor. A coward. Now I was a conqueror. It felt good.”

Secular Jews’ lament

The New York audience seemed to respond well, laughing as the kibbutznik paratroopers appear irreverent about Jerusalem. They remember Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s shofar blast not as the messianic moment of legends, but as a “pig’s grunt.” Soldier after soldier says how little he cared that it was Jerusalem.

“I forgot that the Old City existed until we entered it,” one says. “Even pro-peace groups say that we can’t live without Jerusalem,” another says. “People count to me. Not rocks.”

The shocking part is the Israeli army’s evacuation of refugees. “In war, every civilian, every person, is your enemy,” one veteran says. The war was justified, the soldiers repeat throughout their interviews, but it grew into something monstrous, something they weren’t keen to fight for. “They never said, ‘Leave no one alive,’ but they said, ‘Show no mercy,’” one soldier quotes his officers bitterly.

Palestinian men are seen holding their hands above their heads, foreheads against walls, with women and children told that their village would be bombed; then they’d be shipped away in trucks to refugee camps.

“A society that is not ready to tell itself the truth is in trouble. Big trouble,” one veteran says, just one testimony à la those in Dror Moreh’s 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers.”

Loushy’s film too seems a good way to produce better-educated advocates for Israel, whether at American Zionist synagogues or elsewhere. After the screening, I was impressed to find in the audience the chairman of the modern-Orthodox Ramaz School’s Hebrew department and animated high school seniors.

“We open them up to everything, to all sides of the conflict,” said the teacher, Dana Barak. “We need to prepare them for life afterwards, wherever they go. In the beginning of the year, I tell them that they must strip away every mantra, every assumption, and then the rest of the year, we spend asking questions.”

Indeed, the film’s selling point, that the military had censored 70 percent of the original recordings before allowing the book to go to print, is a point for debate.

Where are the religious soldiers?

Martin Kramer of Shalem College in Jerusalem argues that the recordings were censored by their own editors before going to the military censor. According to Alon Gan, who teaches at the Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv and who studied the original recordings years ago, the tapes included hours of conversations with religious soldiers (some of whom were featured in Yossi Klein Halevi’s 2013 book “Like Dreamers”), but these interviews were omitted entirely.

The religious soldiers, in their convictions in fighting for the Land of Israel, did not feel enough doubt, or disillusionment, to merit inclusion in the conversation.

The film, like the book it’s based on, aims to show what historian Tom Segev has called “innocent young soldiers, humanists in distress.” It is quintessentially Israeli in its ability to agonize so eloquently. “We are human too, we too are disturbed,” it cries.

Yet more stories seem to be lurking here, stories that are perhaps less interesting for a liberal filmmaker. And in the name of accuracy, one expects a broader and thus more complicated story.

Who were the soldiers who did not have moral dilemmas? Zealots, patriots, hardened Holocaust survivors? Who were the soldiers who felt compelled by religion or nationalism to fight for the land, who believed fiercely that the stones were indeed worth dying for?

That might provide a more nuanced portrait of the war, of Israel, especially of Israel today — an Israel torn between dark apathy and messianic fervor.

“Censored Voices,” thus, painful as it is, comes out as simple — the agenda is predictable, not so shocking; chest-beating in the name of being “critical,” as the director urged in her talk after the screening. But it would be easier to hold a real conversation on today’s Israel (as the film clearly aims to do), with a fuller picture of Israeli testimonies.

The film was received with great excitement in New York — the screening, at the Other Film Festival’s opening night at the JCC on the Upper West Side, was sold out. During the screening, when a soldier spoke of the occupation, of his inability to live with his conscience, the audience (largely upper-class New York Jews) erupted in euphoric applause. A bit of Israeli moral agony, followed by cocktails.

“Censored Voices” will be screened 7 P.M. Saturday November 7 at Cinema Village as part of the Other Israel Festival. It then opens on November 20 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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