'This Film Must Not Be Allowed': When Israel Deemed ‘MASH’ a Threat to Its Soldiers' Morale

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Donald Sutherland, left, and Elliot Gould in the 1970 film “MASH.”
Donald Sutherland, left, and Elliot Gould in the 1970 film “MASH.”
Rafi Mann
Rafi Mann
Rafi Mann
Rafi Mann

Five judges of the Israel Defense Forces Military Court of Appeals, among them President Brig. Gen. Shmuel Goder, reported in April 1970 to the Tel Aviv Cinema. They had not come to deliberate an appeal of a ruling by a lower court or make any other judicial determination. The task at hand was to watch the new American anti-war comedy “MASH,” and offer an opinion as to whether it would suitable for screening in local movie theaters.

Three high-ranking officers from the Manpower Directorate also watched the movie: deputy head Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Elron, Chief Education Officer Col. Yitzhak (Tolka) Arad, and Col. Pinchas Lahav, head of the human resources administration. Also present was one civilian, the only person who was not mentioned by name in the document that summarized the event, but identified solely by his title: “chief aide to the person in charge of the security services” – i.e., the Shin Bet.

The summary of the discussion does not reveal the opinions and arguments of each of the individuals present in detail, but rather offers only one laconic declaration: “Everyone – without exception – was of the opinion that this film must not be allowed as long as we are in a state of war.” The document was signed by the person who had invited the officers to weigh in on the film: Levi Geri, chairman of the Theater and Movie Censorship Board of the Interior Ministry.

What connection did the IDF have with the decisions of that board, the main cultural censorship body in the country? The authority to determine the fate of movies and also of plays in those days lay in its hands. There had been, since the time of the establishment of the state, appeals by the board to the defense establishment.

In 1951 one such appeal led to the banning of Yehoshua Bar-Yosef’s play “Storm at Sea,” at the instructions of the chief of staff and the commander of the navy, with the knowledge of then-Prime Minister and Defense Minister, David Ben-Gurion. The play was about the abuse of sailors by officers of the Israeli fleet on a naval ship and it was also banned when Bar-Yosef submitted a revised version in which the plot of the play was relocated from Israel to Nicaragua.

“MASH," a comedy directed by Robert Altman, featuring stars like Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland and Sally Kellerman, was a different story entirely. It was not an Israeli film at all, but rather an American movie produced at the height of the strong controversy in the United States over the war in Vietnam, about the adventures of U.S. military doctors at a field hospital during the Korean War that had been fought two decades earlier.

However, from the movement a copy of the film landed in Israel in early 1970, it was judged by the authorities here almost solely in the local context, at a time of increasing unease among the Israeli public during the War of Attrition. The war was dragging on during those days, being waged by the Egyptian army along the Suez Canal and also along Israel’s eastern border, through which Palestinian terrorists infiltrated and carried out attacks on civilians and soldiers alike.

The term “war of attrition” had entered Israeli discourse early in 1969, when the Egyptian attacks on IDF positions along the Suez Canal increased. That year Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser officially declared the strategy of attrition vis-à-vis Israel and it was manifested in a growing number of fatalities, especially along the canal, as the result of artillery fire, bombings, incursions and sniping.

Israeli soldiers sitting in a bunker near the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition.Credit: GPO

Following reports that in the months of July, August and September of 1969, 87 IDF soldiers had been killed, as was reported by Dalia Shechori in the left-wing and now-defunct newspaper Al Hamishmar: “This situation can give rise to anxiety, and we don’t always see the imperative of not letting our spirits fall and not allowing the War of Attrition to achieve its aim.”

The spirit of the time was encapsulated in a few sentences by journalist Eli Nissan in Davar (another now defunct, left-leaning daily) in May 1969. “The popular question – formulated as ‘Where will it end?’ – is the real dilemma that’s been facing this nation for nearly two years,” he wrote. “This is the question of the bereaved families; this is the question of the anxiety of the parents of soldiers in the line of fire; this the question of the unease of the civilian who is dismayed every day by the sight of the names of the fallen framed in black; and ultimately this is Israel’s diplomatic, military and national question.”

In early 1970, when the discussion about showing “MASH” in Israel began, the war got even worse. The Israeli Air Force launched attacks deep into Egyptian territory and, for its part, the Soviet Union responded by stepping up its involvement in the conflict; the anti-aircraft rockets it had provided to Cairo were used to shoot down Israeli aircraft.

Also that year, general anxiety morphed into criticism of the government’s policies, especially after it was reported that Prime Minister Golda Meir had opposed a trip by Dr. Nahum Goldman, president of the World Jewish Congress, to meet with Nasser.

The most prominent embodiment of the protest in those days was the “12th-graders letter,” in which dozens of high-school seniors wrote: “We and many others have doubts about how we will be able to fight in an endless war with no future, at a time when our government is directing its policy such that the chances for peace are being missed.”

In addition to the Goldman affair and the 12th-graders’ letter, there was also controversy over the decision by the Cameri Theater to stage Hanoch Levin’s sharply anti-war play “Queen of the Bathtub”; the show was initially allowed to go on after two scenes were removed from it. However, public pressure and disturbances by angry audience members led to the production folding after a short run.

National-security ethos

In his wide-ranging 2017 book, “Attrition – The Forgotten War” (Dvir, in Hebrew), Prof. Yoav Gelber devotes a chapter entitled “Cracks in the Consensus” to various trends and processes that reflected “a weakening of the society’s strength.”

In his book, the historian does not mention the prohibition on the screening of “MASH” as yet another manifestation of the anxious atmosphere at the time, nor does he mention the complex relationship between cultural censorship in Israel and the country’s defense establishment.

Showing “MASH” to army officers and then deciding to ban it was typical of the official censors’ outlook and activities: They usually acted to maintain the national-security ethos on the silver screen and on theater stages.

The way this movie was treated also reflected the views of certain elements in the governing establishment concerning the power of the cinematic medium to mold public consciousness with regard to national and security-related issues, and its potential effect on the morale of civilians and soldiers alike.

“Cinema can uplift and take down a nation,” Eliezer Liebenstein (later Livneh), a senior member of the pre-state Haganah militia, and later a Mapai MK) told David Ben-Gurion in 1948.

Sally Kellerman as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in "Mash" (1970).

In the 1950s, the IDF regularly allocated funding to the producers of the Geva and Carmel Herzliya newsreels that were screened in the movie theaters, in return for positive coverage of army life. In 1960 Ben-Gurion asked Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira to consider banning the locally made “Blazing Sand” on the grounds that it “dishonors the fallen.”

Most of the information presented here about “MASH” comes from the Israeli Theater and Movie Censorship Board file on the film that is kept at the Israel State Archives. Like other files there, this one affords a glimpse of the circuitous ways in which the local bureaucracy tries to deal with issues related to values and public discourse. The spirit of the times wafts from the typewritten or handwritten documents, which don’t always mention the historical context that had subconscious effects on the statements, discussions and decisions involved.

One of the first documents in the file contains a summary of the plot of “MASH” in English, and a partial and slipshod translation into Hebrew, back-translated here: “The story of three doctors in the Korean War. The three of them were rugby players at university and the three of them despise the military bureaucracy. It is hard to tell from their behavior that the three of them are doctors. At that same military hospital are Lt. ‘Dish,’ a gorgeous nurse, and Capt. Waldowski, known for his sexual prowess. Of course a team like this has to ‘have a good time’ and indeed that is what happens.”

When the movie was initially submitted to the censorship board for screening approval, it was given the Hebrew title “Doctors on Active Service.” Only after several months had gone by and the movie had won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival and worldwide fame, did local distributors decide to stick with the initials “MASH” – which for those who don’t remember stand for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

On February 6, 1970, the application was submitted by the Israeli agent for the American film corporation 20th Century Fox, which also owned the Tel Aviv Cinema where the closed screening for the IDF officers and the Shin Bet man were to be held. The board acted swiftly: Within a week the film was seen by the members of a subcommittee consisting of chairman Geri and a certain Ms. Eshkoli. The two of them determined that further discussion among the plenary of the board was necessary – but Geri had already formulated his opinion: “It does not seem to me that in our current situation it is possible to screen this film!” he wrote in the margins of his form, even before consulting with the military officers.

The chairman’s firm opinion reverberated when the entire board convened to watch “MASH” and decide its fate. A report on the discussion, on March 16, notes that six of the members of the plenary concluded that it should not be screened.

One of the members, Commander Yaakov Nash, the Israel Police spokesman, proposed allowing it to be shown with age restrictions and certain excisions – the graphic surgery scenes. There was only one member of the board who believed the movie should be screened uncut: senior journalist Shalom Rosenfeld, of the mainstream daily Maariv.

Minutes of the March meeting state that the film depicts the medical service of the U.S. Army in the Korean War in a cynical way: “In the opinion of the majority of the members of the board who saw the film, it is liable to hurt public feelings in Israel at this time, even though it is a good satire from the artistic perspective. Thus it has been decided not to allow it at this time.”

On March 18 the board’s ruling in the matter of “MASH” was conveyed to its distributors. “I hereby inform you that the board believes that screening the above-mentioned film in Israel at this time is liable to hurt the public’s feelings and therefore it has decided not to allow its screening now, but will reconsider it at the appropriate time,” wrote board secretary H. Karniel.

What exactly bothered Geri and the members of the theater and movie censorship panel? Why did they make a connection between the antics of the three surgeons in Korea and the security reality in Israel? Were they bothered by the possible damage to public morale and the feelings of soldiers’ parents? Did they want to uphold the status of the army? Or did they fear an injection of American-style anti-war spirit, which could perhaps lead to public protests like the mass demonstrations in New York, Washington and other cities with the demand to get out of Vietnam?

Scary surgical scenes

In his energetic attempt to ensure that the members of the board would not try to change their position and approve the screening of “MASH,” Geri cited a report published in the American military newspaper Army Times and quoted in The New York Times in March 1970.

Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in "Mash" (1970).

According to the report, the Army and Air Force Motion Picture Service had prohibited the screening of the film on U.S. military bases since It presented the military system in a non-positive way.

Some 25 personnel, public relations and medical officers along with a number of military chaplains were invited to watch the film – and they had made that recommendation. According to the report, the officials felt that the film would “damage the average soldier’s faith in everything having to do with medical treatment he could receive in a time of battle.”

In May, Geri was slated to be away for a while and left a page of instructions for the board secretary. He asked Karniel to bring to the board members’ attention what Geri called “informal information” regarding the ban on screening “MASH” at U.S. military bases. That information constituted the basis for the unambiguous conclusion with respect to a local ban on the movie, echoing the Israel ethos of a “fighter nation” as encapsulated by Yigal Yadin’s declaration two decades earlier, to the effect that “a civilian is a soldier on an annual furlough of 11 months.”

In Geri’s view, in May 1970, “As in Israel today the entire country is a military camp – and the entire nation, an army – in my opinion this film should not be permitted now.” He also issued a directive that the “Opinion of the Special Forum” (apparently the name he gave the group of military judges and Manpower Directorate people who had seen the movie) be brought before the board. And the bottom line: “In case there is an appeal, I am absolutely opposed to changing the board’s decision.”

The local distributors of the film did not rush to share the information about the ban with the media: Only three months later did this become known to the public.

In early June, an item about the banning of the film was published in Maariv. The reporter, Yoram Porat, wondered what was behind the censorship decision. When he contacted the board secretary, Karniel, he was told: “Most of the members of the board found instances of cruelty and horror in the film, along with scenes of brutality that aroused unpleasant associations with our own situation at this time.”

Karniel stressed that the decision was not political and did not reflect any particular interests apart from the desire to protect the public’s feelings.

In Haaretz, film critic Yosef Sryk noted the enthusiastic response to “MASH” by even the pickiest film critics in New York: “To my regret,” he wrote, “I have bad news. The Israelis are not entitled to watch a film that was awarded the first prize at the Cannes Film Festival that has the Americans doubled over with laughter that goes on and on with no discomfort. Only those who are on the censorship board are entitled to see it. We, the others, are bit mentally disabled. Apparently our feelings are liable to be hurt by our laughter – for now.”

The reports in local newspapers gave rise, as usual, to parliamentary questions in the Knesset.

Shalom Cohen from the Haolam Hazeh party and Tawfik Toubi of Rakah asked the Interior Ministry, which was ultimately responsible for censorship of films and plays, whether the movie had indeed been banned and why. Levi Geri sent Interior Minister Yosef Goldschmidt (National Religious Party) suggestions for how to address the parliamentary questions. There were differences in the board’s formulations of possible replies to these questions. In one, the screening ban was justified by the assessment that the depictions of what goes on in a military hospital “would offend the sensitivities of many citizens whose relatives are on active duty at the front.” In the other reply, there was concern expressed about “the feelings of a large part of the public.”

Explanations were also appended, regarding the censors’ decision: “The film is a sharp anti-war satire but it is made at a very high level ... The plot is set in a military field hospital and many scenes depict operations performed on soldiers in great detail, with blood flowing like water. The board is of the opinion that it should not be allowed at this time because it is liable to be hurtful not only to military people but also many other circles, such as families of soldiers.” Moreover, it was written, “This week the distribution company submitted a request for an appeal and is prepared to make considerable cuts in the surgery scenes. The board will discuss the appeal in the coming days.”

In the meantime, however, reality changed: On August 7, 1970, a cease-fire agreement was reached between Israel and Egypt, and the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal ended. Ten days later the board decided to allow the film to be shown to viewers over the age of 16 provided the distributor cuts the “blood scenes” during the surgical operations and the board examines and approves this.

In early September, “The board members expressed their satisfaction with the deletions,” after seeing that the 10 minutes of bloody scenes in the operating room were cut. Permission to screen the movie was then granted – but the citizens of Israel had to wait for a few more months, this time due to the distribution considerations.

It was only at the end of November that “MASH” was shown at the Tel Aviv Cinema, this time for the general public. After the screening, the film critics wrote not only about the movie but also about what happened at the censorship board before the cease-fire.

“Hesitation of that sort once again shows just how much scorn the censor has for the maturity of the Israeli public,” wrote Ron Evron in Lemerhav – yet another now defunct left-leaning newspaper.

Yaakov Haelyon stated, in Maariv, that the board had erred in its initial decision to prohibit the screening of “MASH” during the war of attrition – an opinion shared by Shlomo Shamgar in the mainstream Yedioth Ahronoth daily. He wrote: “There is of course no comparison between the butchers in ‘MASH’ who practice military medicine and the treatment received here by every wounded soldier, but they [the board] didn’t think about that.”

For his part, Levi Geri insisted that the ban had been correct. “The film was brought before us during a very heated time, when a lot of blood was being spilled here,” he said in an interview to Maariv. “We thought it was not the appropriate time to show a film in which a lot of blood is spilled, and which depicts ice-cold cynicism on the part of doctors.”

Local critics praised “MASH,” although in the provocative weekly Haolam Hazeh, at least, a reservation was attached to the positive review: “Our censor cut the scariest bits in the doctors’ work and as a result part of the film’s sting was lost, which today could look like a bunch of doctors having fun.”

This is a reminder that even partial censorship is liable to modify a cinematic work to a significant extent and also damage its essence no less than a total ban on its screening.

Michael Murphy, James B. Douglas and Elliot Gould in "Mash" (1970).

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