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The Ghosts of Tantura

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Tantura residents flee their village, May 1948.
Tantura residents flee their village, May 1948. Credit: Benno Rothenberg / Meitar Collection, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The ghosts of Tantura shall not let go until the last of the witnesses and the descendants die. The ghosts of Tantura may not let go until the truth comes to light and Israel acknowledges it. That’s how it is with truth, it never relaxes its grip. Despite all the efforts to conceal it and eliminate those who expose it, it keeps popping up. Alon Schwarz’s disturbing documentary “Tantura,” that was screened Friday and Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, should have been shown at an Israeli film festival. It has the power to bring these ghosts to rest and force Israel to finally acknowledge the truth. This will not happen, of course.

There were few names in my childhood that were more loaded than “Tantura.” Tantura was the magical beach with the blue lagoons where we went to after Father bought our family’s first car, with reparations money from Germany. A trip to Tantura – who then had heard of “Dor Beach”? – thrilled us more then than a flight to New York today. But it wasn’t just the turquoise water. I knew that the white sand was drenched in blood. Tantura was where Gideon Bachrach died. He was the only son of physicians Albina (Bianca) and Arthur Bachrach, my grandparents’ good friends. I was named for Gideon. I knew that the beach at Tantura was soaked with his blood. I didn’t know, of course, that this beach was soaked with much more blood. I didn’t even know that Tantura was once a spectacular fishing village, that in any other country would have been preserved for centuries, and no one would have even considered wiping it off the face of the earth and expelling or massacring its inhabitants.

The rumors about a massacre began later. Micha Witkon, a lawyer who was the nephew of Supreme Court Justice Alfred Witkon, would rebuke me angrily every time I dared to mention those rumors. Witkon was a close friend, brother in arms, of Gideon in the Alexandroni Brigade, which conquered Tantura. Witkon died a long time ago. Yesterday, I heard his voice in the documentary, describing how a company commander killed one Arab after another with his pistol at Tantura. “He shot them with his Parabellum.” Tall Micha, as his friends called him, who was considered the most honest of men, broke his silence. In the movie, the elderly Gabriel Kaufman listens and snickers in embarrassment. He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t believe. He didn’t hear. “That wasn’t our nature. To shoot someone in the head with a Parabellum? That’s exactly what the Nazis did.”

“Tantura,” the movie, includes everything. The pathetic attempts to deny or repress, with the academic and juridical establishments mobilized ad nauseam to the cause, crushing and squashing with all their might graduate student Theodore Katz, who had written his master’s thesis on Tantura. He was persecuted and humiliated until he was forced to issue a writ of surrender that wouldn’t have embarrassed captives of the Islamic State movement. It’s shocking to see the last of the Jewish witnesses, now in their ninth decade, squirming, quibbling, denying until they finally admit, almost to a person, that there was a massacre, even if they don’t always use the term. A comic interlude was provided by historian Prof. Yoav Gelber in a particularly pathetic performance that amazes in its depiction of the Zionist academic establishment in an unintellectual and predatory light. Gelber, smug and dripping with complacency, does not believe the witnesses, not one of them. He has no interest in hearing their testimonies. To him, testimonies are folklore, not history. The same applies to the retired judge who is punctilious about calling herself “Dr. Drora Pilpel,” her little white dog in her arms, admitting that she didn’t bother listening to testimonies while adjudicating a libel suit against Katz. Or the weird sisters in “Macbeth” from the adjacent kibbutz, Nachsholim, who rule in unison, save one righteous woman, that a memorial to the victims of the massacre cannot be erected there, since “if it’s important for them, it’s bad for us.” Watch “Tantura” and see the Nakba deniers at the pinnacle of their wretchedness. Watch “Tantura” and see 1948.

Beneath the place where my father used to park his car when we traveled to Tantura, not far from the memorial that was in fact installed for the fallen soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade, was, and perhaps still is, a mass grave. A malicious hand erased its memory.

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