Zionist Icon or Arab Oppressor? A Filmmaker Explores the Mixed Legacy of Her Great-grandfather

Yosef Weitz, who led the Jewish National Fund, was revered by his family. But a new film, set for release next week at the DocAviv festival, delves into some of the more troubling policies he promoted in Israel's early years

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Yosef Weitz on the job as director of the land department at the JNF, a scene included in the documentary 'Blue Box.'
Yosef Weitz on the job as director of the land department at the JNF, a scene included in the documentary 'Blue Box.'Credit: Daniel Miller / Courtesy of Yes Docu and Docaviv
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

As a little girl, Michal Weits recalls, her dad often took her on long drives around Israel. Whenever they’d pass a beautiful green forest, he would stop the car at the side of the road, point out the trees and proudly note that this was the doing of “Sabba.” By Sabba, he meant his grandfather and her great-grandfather Yosef Weitz.

Although Weits never met her great-grandfather, who died in 1972 before she was born, Sabba Yosef was almost a mythical figure in her life. Born in 1890, he belonged to a generation of young, idealistic pioneers who left behind the shtetls of Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century to participate in the creation of a Jewish national homeland. He would eventually fill one of the most powerful positions at the Jewish National Fund – the organization tasked with purchasing land for the new state and beautifying it with forests. Described by his offspring as the “ultimate Zionist,” Weitz was a prominent member of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, who mixed and mingled regularly with the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett.

As she got older, Michal grew increasingly curious about her famous great-grandfather and set out to learn more about him. It didn’t take much surfing around the internet to discover that Yosef Weitz had a darker side rarely discussed in the family: He strongly believed that in order to survive, the Jewish state in the making must rid itself of the indigenous Arab population. Indeed, he was a key architect of a policy designed to prevent those Arabs who had fled or were forced to leave during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence from ever returning. “The Father of the Forests,” as he was fondly nicknamed by his admirers, was known in other circles, it would emerge, as “Mr. Transfer” – a term commonly used to describe the expulsion of Arabs.

Drawing its title from the iconic JNF pushkes, “Blue Box,” Michal’s latest documentary film and her directing debut, is an attempt to come to grips with the very complicated legacy of an ancestor she had been taught to revere. The 82-minute film will have its national premiere on July 4 at the DocAviv international film festival in Tel Aviv and is scheduled to be broadcast on YES, the Israeli satellite television provider.

Director Michal Weits gazing at the ruins of a Palestinian village destroyed after the 1948 war in her documentary "Blue Box."Credit: Daniel Kedem / Courtesy of Yes Docu and Docaviv

In her quest to learn more about her great-grandfather, who served for 35 years as head of both the department of land and the department of forestry at the JNF, Michal begins with the diaries – 5,000 pages worth – that he left behind. Much to her astonishment, this treasure trove of personal and national history, on prominent display in the family home, had never been read in full by any of her close relatives.

The film interweaves readings from the diaries with interviews with four of Weitz’s grandchildren – Michal’s father and three uncles – along with some of the other great-grandchildren. It makes extensive use of archival footage, including numerous clips of her great-grandfather in action – whether negotiating land deals with Arab landlords in the pre-state year, leading groups of young pioneers to the sites of new settlements, or planting trees with his own hands – that greatly enhance the film.

JNF’s blue boxes, as Michal notes as she narrates the film, might be considered the first attempt in the world at crowdfunding. The pennies pushed into those small tin boxes by Jews around the world in the pre-state era were used by her great-grandfather to buy land from wealthy Arab landowners for the new Jewish homeland. This was not always a pleasant task, as his diaries reveal, because it often involved evicting poor Arab tenants from the land they had been living on for generations. “I told myself that that’s life,” wrote Weitz in reflecting on such situations. “My people come first. At least we didn’t steal it.”

In a diary entry dating back to 1940, Michal discovers what she would later describe as the “painful truth” about her great-grandfather. “The only solution is a Land of Israel devoid of Arabs,” he wrote in no uncertain terms. “There is no room here for compromise. They all must be moved. Not one village can remain, and not one tribe. Only through this transfer of the Arabs living in the Land of Israel will redemption come.”

The poster for the movie "Blue Box," directed by Michal Weits.Credit: Courtesy of Yes Docu and Docaviv

Had he uttered those words in this day and age, Weitz would surely have been denounced as an extreme right-winger whose views are beyond the pale. When the shocked filmmaker confronts her father and uncles with her discovery, they urge her not to be judgmental. Those were different times, they say. The Arabs were out to get us. So were the British. The Jews of Europe were being slaughtered, and all we wanted was to survive.

“For sure, he never thought of transfer in terms of trucks and trains,” says one of her uncles, hoping to reassure her.

Razing villages, planting forests

During the War of Independence, an estimated 750,000 Arabs were expelled or fled the newly created Jewish state. Weitz firmly believed that Israel should not allow them to return because the Jews might then quickly lose their majority status. Instead, he proposed that Israel pay restitution to those who had been displaced and make sure they were properly resettled elsewhere. Weitz was able to convince Israeli leaders that the best way to guarantee the refugees never returned was to raze their homes and villages. As he wrote in a letter to Ben-Gurion, discovered by his great-granddaughter: “As long as the abandoned villages exist, there will be pressure for the refugees to return.”

As Weitz saw it, planting millions of trees would not only serve the purpose of decorating the Israeli landscape in green, but also of covering up the Arab villages that had been destroyed so they could never be rebuilt.

This would also be a goal of the great forestry project over which he presided. As Weitz saw it, planting millions of trees would not only serve the purpose of decorating the Israeli landscape in green, but also of covering up the Arab villages that had been destroyed so they could never be rebuilt. Indeed, during Weitz’s tenure at JNF, tree planting came to be known as “the national sport.”

Despite the views he held and the policies he embraced, Weitz would not have fit in well with Israeli right wingers today. He certainly did not support annexation of the West Bank or the settlement movement. Unlike most Israelis at the time, as his diaries reveal, Weitz did not feel euphoric over his country’s swift defeat of three Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War. In fact, just the opposite.

“I fear the consequences of this war,” he wrote in an almost prophetic post about the price Israel would be forced to pay for being an occupying force.

Director Michal Weits researching her great-grandfather Yosef Weitz in one of Israel's national archives in a scene from her documentary "Blue Box."Credit: Daniel Miller / Courtesy of Yes Docu and Docaviv

“My heart is heavy with the feeling that a big economic, spiritual and social burden will fall upon us,” he wrote more than half a century ago in reference to Israel’s conquest of the West

Bank. “All the more so on future generations.”

One can’t help but wonder what “the father of the forests” would have thought of the recent controversy at his beloved JNF over plans to expand and formalize land purchases in the West Bank, which have meanwhile been stalled following international condemnation. On second thought, it should be clear which side he would have taken.

“Blue Box,” Israel/Canada/Belgium, 2021. 82 minutes, in Hebrew, with Hebrew and English subtitles.

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