It was an early summer’s night. A group of men had gathered in a room inside Kibbutz Geva. Outside, the Jezreel Valley was quiet. The men sat indoors, confused and hesitant. Only 10 days had passed since the end of the Six-Day War they had fought in, and the impact of what they had witnessed had refused to leave them. It actually provided the impetus for their gathering. When the initial excitement died down, a young literature teacher who would become one of Israel’s leading authors opened the discussion.
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“A few guys had an idea of putting together an unconventional book that would try to provide an authentic record of what people returning from war feel,” this guest from Kibbutz Hulda, Amos Oz, said. It was an introduction he would repeat dozens of times over the next few months. “Generally, this booklet will try and explain what we’ve all encountered – namely, that people returned from the battlefield without any [sense of] joy.”
Oz’s words can be heard in the documentary “Censored Voices,” directed by Mor Loushy. It has been playing since Thursday in cinemas and will be aired this summer on Yes TV’s Docu channel, which helped finance the production.
What lends this documentary its unsettling effect for Israeli viewers, particularly ones from a certain generation, is that it acts as a reality-changing time capsule, one that no one has disturbed for 48 years since the original audio recordings were made. This selection of testimonies has a power that can shatter truths at the very heart of the State of Israel.
Israeli soldiers with Egyptian captives in Sinai. June, 1967. Israel film service
The original “Siach Lochamim” (“The Seventh Day”) was a collection of testimonies compiled by Avraham Shapira, a historian and editor who had been a pupil of Martin Buber and Gershom Shalom. Assisting in the compilation were Amos Oz, David Alon, Amram Hayisraeli, Yariv Ben-Aharon, Abba Kovner and others, all of them kibbutz members from across the country. As Oz explained, it was born out of the sense of oppressiveness with which so many of them had returned, which stood in such stark contrast to the sense of elation felt by most of the public. “There was a tense emotional polarity across the whole country,” Shapira remembers in the documentary.
A few days after the war ended, Shapira and Oz were summoned to the Kibbutz Movement’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. The purpose of the meeting was to produce a commemorative booklet in honor of fallen soldiers. A few days later, Oz told Shapira he was going to meet some friends in Geva. This tentative meeting was the first in a series of meetings and unplanned nightly discussions, without any schedule, timetable or agenda. As the conversations unfolded, initial hesitation was replaced by gut-wrenching confessions about war and its costs, about the corrupting effects of violence, and about what happened to Israel after what started out as an act of self-defense. Some 200 hours were recorded, but when the editors got ready to publish the recorded material, the censors stepped in. Seventy percent of the material submitted to them was stored in the archives, so as not to tarnish Israel’s image.
Three months after the war ended, the collection of conversations was published. “The Seventh Day” was a 286-page book, comprised mainly of reflections and soul-searching by agonized young men encountering violence and death; testimonies of harsh confrontations with enemy soldiers and civilians; and comments that would be considered heresy nowadays. These included questioning whether the conquest of [East] Jerusalem was really necessary, and whether, in exchange for peace, it [East Jerusalem] should be returned to Jordan. There were no testimonies describing war crimes.
IDF soldiers in Sinai. June 7, 1967. Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Even though this was a softened version, it turned out to be sufficient to make waves. In the sea of victory albums and tales of heroism – and in total contrast to its antithesis, the best-selling book “The Tanks of Tammuz,” by Shabtai Teveth – “The Seventh Day” became a sensation. The book’s print run was 150,000, and it was translated into English, Spanish, Swedish, German, French, Arabic and Yiddish.
When it was first published in October 1967, it was intended only as an internal booklet for kibbutz members. But reports of it and quotations from it led to its dissemination among the general public.
The book was received in two ways. Its supporters viewed its antiwar character and universal sensitivities to the horrors of war as decisive proof of moral superiority. Discussion about the burden of fighting, recoiling from violence and the oppression of victory – all were perceived as yet another justification for being victorious. However, most people saw it as something completely different. Among all the victory albums, the adoration of the military, of holy places and of liberated swaths of land, this book was perceived as a defiant downer. Some people considered the censored and lean testimonies to be sanctimonious, or miserable wailing. The book even got the derogatory moniker “Shooting and Crying,” while some people described it as an apology for winning the war. The subversive, competing narrative of the book was ridiculed, and the winners were also victorious in the underlying battle over national memory and the country’s history books.
Over the decades, the book slowly receded from memory, along with its voices – both the ones heard and the ones censored. Some tapes were kept by Shapira, but most were deposited in Yad Tabenkin, the Kibbutz Movement’s research and documentation center. Even though prominent journalists and media figures urged him to release his audio tapes over the years, Shapira refused to do so.
After finishing her studies at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, Loushy returned to Tel Aviv and did a degree in history and literature. She took a history course and came across “The Seventh Day,” which she hadn’t been aware of. “I read it and my stomach turned,” she relates. “I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t heard about it until then, this book that came out three months after the war, with its strong antiwar message. I told myself we had all grown up with one clear narrative, and only [Prof.] Yeshayahu Leibowitz was known to have had other opinion. But here were conversations with 400 soldiers, all of them talking against wars – that did something to me. I was angry that this book didn’t even exist for my generation.”
Mor Loushy, director of "Censored Voices" film about Six-Day War. Tomer Appelbaum
At first, Shapira ignored Loushy’s requests – until she ambushed him at a conference where he was speaking. After that, they met at his kibbutz. “From the first meeting,” she recalls, “I felt both of us understood that we were now at a point in time where these things should come out. I told him these issues were relevant to us, to our society, and that we should look at our past with open and realistic eyes. Also, that this moral discourse must be publicized again. He understood.”
Loushy, 33, lives with her production partner, Daniel Sivan (he also edited the film). This is her second film, after “Israel Ltd.,” which followed young Jewish people on their trips to Israel financed by the Jewish Agency. She has already started work on her next film, “The Oslo Diaries.” It will deal with the secret channel of talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, viewed through the private diaries of diplomats and other central figures.
The long hours involved in making “Censored Voices” began in Loushy and Sivan’s apartment. She listened to and transcribed 200 hours of recordings. She admits to being greatly affected by the conversations and getting sucked in, as if she were reliving that period herself.
“It’s usually people looking back at their experiences as they remember them today, many years later. I had a document that captured authentic testimonies immediately after the [Six-Day] War,” she says. “The way they analyze their experience is sincere and true. This was a pre-media era; they didn’t know how it would turn out and they talked freely, uncompromisingly and unapologetically.”
This impacted the way she constructed “Censored Voices.” It doesn’t deal with “The Seventh Day” itself, and there are no talking heads, intellectual analyses, historians or experts. Instead, there are recordings from the original audio tapes, accompanied by archival photos or, in some cases, the faces of the speakers listening to themselves, nearly 50 years on. The confusion and enthusiasm are replaced by grave, mature faces, sporting shocked expressions.
Rafael Eitan (right) in Rafah. June, 1967. Michal Han, GPO.
It’s impossible not to reflect on this moral discourse. There seems to be a clear line stretching between the shock felt by the soldiers of 1967, testifying about war crimes that they or others committed, and Israel in 2015, including its social and political situation. The movie serves as a clear invitation to renew the debate about moral issues. That’s why it seems that, just like the original book, the new documentary also faces being rebuffed.
Earlier this week, in an interview to radio’s Channel 7, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan announced his intention to censor the documentary. Even though he hadn’t seen it, he called the movie “part of a trend aimed at discrediting Israel.”
It’s reasonable to assume that criticism will soon be brought against the testimonies that link some of Israel’s wartime actions with the Holocaust. “There is no comparison between war crimes and the Holocaust in this movie,” says Loushy. “The Holocaust is mentioned twice: once by Menahem Shalem, who was a child refugee himself. He, as a soldier, looks at refugees and remembers his experiences as a child. Another instance was very similar – these are very personal testimonies.
“The Holocaust was the dominant backdrop to the recordings in 1967,” she continues. “This was 20 years after it happened, a short time [six years] after the Eichmann trial, and questions of whether we were similar to them [Nazis] featured very prominently. We treated it with kid gloves. Not everything should be viewed through a prism of propaganda, or of Israel haters. We need to have the courage to contend with our own morality during wars. It’s in our interest as a society to review the past and face our demons.”
“I’ll tell you something I didn’t say in that book,” says Oz in the film. (During the war, he was a reservist in an information-dispensing unit.) “At 8 A.M. on June 5, as the fighting began, I stood among the tanks of Maj. Gen. [Israel “Talik”] Tal’s division opposite Rafah, and at 8:30 A.M. they moved in, with us behind them. For the first time, I saw a dead body along the road side. An Egyptian soldier lay on his back with outstretched arms and legs, his head on the ground with his eyes open. I looked at him and said to myself, ‘I’ll never be able to drink or eat again in my entire life.’ Six or seven hours later, I was standing in Sheikh Zuweid, surrounded by Egyptian casualties. I drank water from my canteen and listened to music on my transistor radio between news reports. The transformation I went through within seven hours was hard to comprehend.”
Amos Oz, from "Censored Voices" film about Six-Day War. Avner Shahaf.
Loushy asks Oz how he views the modern Israeli reality in relation to “The Seventh Day.” “I see more apathy in today’s society, more lack of sensitivity. What happens in the territories sometimes crosses a red line, constituting a war crime, but it’s [viewed as happening] there and not here. There is some mechanism of repression and disengagement at play. Many people don’t read news items relating to the occupation when they come across them. Thus, the media doesn’t adequately cover what happens there. Every day, every hour, Palestinians suffer humiliation, harassment at checkpoints, in their villages – the settlers’ sewage flows downhill into Arab villages.”
Did you already sense the consequences of the war back in 1967?
“Already during the fighting in Sinai, I felt that this victory was sowing seeds of deep hatred toward Israel. I thought we were justified in conducting that war, that we were acting in self-defense. I felt it was a just war, otherwise I would have refused to serve. I knew we were at the beginning of a long and difficult road of a bloody war with the entire Arab and Muslim world. I knew that peace could not come from the defeat and humiliation of the Arabs.”
Reflecting on the atmosphere in Israel after the 1967 war, Oz says, “The sense of relief was understandable, and I shared it. We thought we were facing annihilation. We were still under the shadow of the 1948 War of Independence, and many of us remembered living through it as children. We remembered siege, hunger, shelling, living in shelters, numerous casualties, terrible losses, prolonged suffering. No one thought this war would be so short. People were shocked when it ended after six days. It’s no wonder that a whole nation became euphoric – especially one that for thousands of years experienced force only as inflicted on its whipped backs. It’s probably natural that a people such as this gets a bit drunk with its physical prowess. But my friends and I saw the other side of the coin as well.
“I remember the sensation and I remember that a Holocaust hovered above us twice. Once was during the waiting period before the war, when many people feared annihilation – since the Arabs were more numerous and powerful, equipped with modern Soviet weapons. They had the initiative and felt cocky. The prevailing feeling was they would come and exterminate us, just like in the Holocaust. The second time was when we saw the convoys of refugees, those who fled. Just as Menahem Shalem said in the recording you just played, as a former child refugee he saw himself in a Palestinian child carried in his parents’ arms, fleeing from an abandoned village into exile. I strenuously object to such comparisons. I always believed in different degrees of evil. Anyone who cannot rank different degrees of evil may end up a servant of evil.”
What did you feel when the collection of stories was distributed across the country?
“I remember feeling a bit alarmed when I saw the completed book. I thought to myself, What have we done? Maybe we are party spoilers, putting a wet blanket over the national celebration? I knew that many people would be angry with us, that the book would be attacked. But I felt at one with myself, that it was good we had spoken out. I never thought it would become a best-seller. I thought it would be read mainly in kibbutzim.”
In retrospect, are you pleased with that heritage?
“Yes, I’m pleased with it, pleased that this voice was preserved. I’m sorry it is no longer heard at this time.”