(JTA) — In the wake of Israel’s seemingly miraculous triumph in the Six-Day War in 1967, the country’s victorious soldiers were lionized as heroes.
But in private, even just one week after the conflict, many of them didn’t feel that way. One describes feeling sick to his stomach in battle and collapsing into a trench.
“I wanted to be left alone,” he says. “I didn’t think of the war.”
Another talks about watching an old Arab man evacuated from his house.
“I had an abysmal feeling that I was evil,” the soldier says.
The voices come from tapes made just weeks after the war’s conclusion and now presented, some of them for the first time, in the powerful new documentary “Censored Voices,” which premiered Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival here.
Piece by piece and story by story, they tear apart the heroic narrative of Israel’s great victory in favor of something far messier, more chaotic and more human.
The tapes were made by fellow kibbutzniks Avraham Shapira and the novelist Amos Oz, who were driven by a sense that amid the triumphalism, more ambivalent emotions were not being expressed.
“It was a sadness that could only be felt in the kibbutz because we were living so close to each other,” Shapira recalls in the film.
Traveling from kibbutz to kibbutz with a borrowed reel-to-reel tape recorder, Shapira and Oz convinced fellow veterans to open up about their feelings, their memories and their misgivings from the war. But when they moved to publish what they had gathered, the Israeli government censored 70 percent of the material. Shapira published the remaining 30 percent in his book “The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War.”
Now, thanks to the efforts of director Mor Loushy, who convinced Shapira to give her access to the tapes, all of the soldiers’ stories can be heard. Films in Israel can be subject to censorship, but according to producer Hilla Medalia, “We were able to release the film as we wanted it.”
The voices from the tapes are combined to great effect with archival footage, photographs, contemporary news accounts and film of the now-aged veterans to tell the story of the war and its aftermath.
What emerges is a vivid portrait of the war as it was lived by those who fought in it. In the tradition of soldier’s-eye narratives like “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Red Badge of Courage,” the movie allows the soldiers to depict themselves as confused, selfishly afraid, often stupefied by the sight of death and dying, and morally troubled when they encounter the enemy as fellow humans.
There is little doubt that prior to the war, the soldiers saw the build-up of hostile Arab forces on their borders as an existential threat.
“There was a feeling it would be a Holocaust,” one says.
Yet once the battle was joined, the soldiers find themselves besieged by a welter of conflicting emotions. They watch their comrades die. They feel terror. They find themselves killing.
“I was impressed at the calmness with which I was shooting,” says one veteran, recalling himself gunning down Egyptian soldiers. “I felt like I was at an amusement park.”
The veterans also graphically describe multiple instances of Israeli soldiers — including themselves — shooting unarmed soldiers and civilians.
“Several times we captured guys, positioned them and just killed them,” one veteran recalls.
They also recall the shock and anguish of being forced to confront the humanity of the men they were killing. One tells of sorting through the papers of a dead Egyptian officer and finding a picture of his two children on the beach. Another recounts captured Egyptian soldiers pleading for water and mercy, and frightened teenage soldiers who soil their pants. One watches Arab families carrying their belongings from Jericho and thinks of his own family fleeing the Holocaust.
Even the recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall evokes mixed feelings far from the iconic images of conquering soldiers weeping for joy. One participant says that when a shofar blows at the wall, it “sounded like a pig’s grunt.” Others are troubled by the sense that they are conquering not soldiers in the Old City but civilians in their homes.
“It wasn’t a freed city, it was an occupied city,” one says.
It is that sense of occupation and displacement of Palestinian natives — that Israel was not merely defending itself, but acting as a conqueror — that troubles the soldiers.
“I was convinced the war was just. It was about our existence,” one says. “But then it became something else.”
There is so much raw, varied and shocking material in the movie that parts can easily be wielded or attacked to serve particular political arguments. But the film is courageous enough to embrace contradictions and leave them unresolved. It offers an unflinching look at Israeli atrocities without being unpatriotic or anti-Zionist, recounting the horrors of the war without suggesting that Israel should have refused to fight it. It is critical of the Israeli occupation, yet doesn’t claim to offer answers.
“This film is about listening,” producer and co-writer Daniel Sivan puts it after the screening.
At the end of the film, Oz, now 78, is asked what he thinks of the tapes.
“I feel we spoke truth,” he replies.
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