Sundance documentary ‘Tantura’ is a flawed look at 1948 controversy - review

This academic paper might have remained within the ivory tower of academia, had its findings not been published in 2000 in Ma’ariv.

 A STILL photo from ‘Tantura.’ (photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reel Peak Films)
A STILL photo from ‘Tantura.’
(photo credit: Yonathan Weitzman/Reel Peak Films)

This year’s Sundance Film Festival began Thursday, and already an Israeli documentary has been screened, which also happens to be the only full-length Israeli film chosen for the festival. Not surprisingly, the film is extremely political and critical in nature. 

Tantura was produced by Alon Schwarz. His previous film, Aida’s Secrets, which was excellent, dealt with the legacy of World War II and was an international hit. Tantura also deals with historical legacies, this time focusing on the War of Independence. The film was named after the village Tantura, located 5 km. north of Zichron Ya’acov.

There is one issue that is not being disputed: In 1948, the village switched from Arab to Israeli hands. What is being debated is the way this took place, and this subject has been discussed in academia, the media and in the courts. 

The controversy surrounding Tantura began 50 years after the War of Independence. Teddy Katz, a master’s degree student at the University of Haifa, submitted his graduate thesis, in which he claims that the IDF soldiers from the Alexandroni Brigade carried out war crimes while taking over the village.

This academic paper might have remained within the ivory tower of academia, had its findings not been published in 2000 in Ma’ariv. This soon led to a public outcry – yes, there was such a thing even in the pre-social media era. 

THE FABLED Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  (credit: LAURI DONAHUE)THE FABLED Sundance Film Festival in Utah. (credit: LAURI DONAHUE)

Just before the Jenin, Jenin controversy began, the IDF soldiers claimed that their actions had been falsified, and they accused Katz of slander, claiming he distorted and misrepresented evidence. The case made its way to the Tel Aviv District Court, and finally to the Supreme Court. 

Katz realized he was in over his head, and so he compromised, agreeing to retract his accusations. He later regretted his decision, but it was too late. In an unusual move, the University of Haifa announced that due to mistakes in his methodology that came to light, it was disqualifying the thesis retroactively. 

Schwarz’s film re-examines Katz’s thesis, and challenges the court case that subsequently took place. According to Schwarz, retired judge Drora Pilpel had never listened to Katz’s recordings, only doing so during the filming of the documentary. 

It was clear from the film Aida’s Secrets that Schwarz is a talented director, with mastery over storyline. He carried out thorough research and produced a well-made film. In contrast with other films of this genre, which tend to offer just one side of the story, Schwarz made sure to capture on camera witnesses from the Arab side. 

Not surprisingly, and in line with the local film industry’s efforts to distance themselves from such sensitive topics, he could not find a foundation that was willing to back Tantura, and yet Schwarz still succeeded in raising all the funds necessary to carry out his project. Israeli culture and society, and the Israeli film industry in particular, are champions at suppressing difficult subjects, and yet Schwarz holds strongly to the words of Yigal Allon, which appear at the beginning of the film: “A nation that doesn’t respect its past will have a dull present and an uncertain future.”

Schwarz goes to great efforts to remain fair to both sides, and interviews witnesses who deny that war crimes were carried out in Tantura. He also includes Prof. Yoav Gelber’s stance that opposes basing historical research solely on what people heard or saw, and yet Schwarz presents these claims as haughty and detached. It’s clear which side the film leans toward, and that Schwarz is convinced the Alexandroni Brigade allegedly massacred unarmed residents, and that one soldier even committed rape. 

There’s no doubt that for the sake of our present and our future, we must be willing to confront our past. The question is whether Katz’s research is the correct starting point for this. After all, the university and the court disregarded it. Tom Segev wrote at the time in Haaretz, which is not exactly a right-wing paper, that the body of evidence, “collapsed like Shimon Peres’s election plan.” 

Dr. Ilan Pappé, Katz’s chief defender then and in general, is an extremely controversial researcher, but is not exactly in the forefront of historians. 

The main allegations against Katz were about the way in which he had transcribed the Arabs’ testimonies. Schwarz does not examine them either, and in any case, like most Jewish artists and intellectuals who delve into the history of the region, he does not speak the specific language of the witnesses, so he does not have the tools to examine this research. 

There are too many talking heads in the film, and some of them appear and disappear arbitrarily. It’s also puzzling that some of the Israeli academics speak with Katz in English. Why is that? They are all Israelis, and all the others are speaking in Hebrew, including Shay Hazkani, an Israeli academic who teaches in the US. 

Apart from the academics and the judge, almost all of the people interviewed are from Israel’s founding generation – people who in a few years might not be around to offer their testimony. 

Toward the end of the film, a few of them enter a fascinating discussion surrounding the question of whether the Arab heritage should be recognized. Should a monument be installed where the village Tantura once stood, and where Kibbutz Nahsholim was later built? 

Most opposed this idea. One suggested that, “they put up a sign like the ones you see all over Warsaw that recall the past existence of the Jews there.”

Beyond the fact that the film falls under Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies, it is also guilty of intellectual dishonesty. How can you criticize Israel for its unwillingness to acknowledge its past, and then compare it to Poland, which recently enacted a law that restricts people from telling the truth of its past?

If Schwarz were writing a master’s thesis, his research would probably have been marked up with lots of notes in red pen.

In the current climate, it’s not certain that it matters. In Israel, Schwarz will be labeled before anyone has a chance to view the film, and in liberal strongholds like the Sundance Festival, people will embrace him without asking any questions. 

Translated by Hannah Hochner. 

This story originally appeared on Walla!