‘Tantura’ documentary: Well-intentioned but poorly executed - review

The film would like to convey the message that acknowledging this should not cause fear in Israelis; recognizing injustice is not at odds with our right to exist in the Land of Israel.

 A STILL from ‘Tantura.’ (photo credit: Lea Oshorov of Alexandroni Brigade)
A STILL from ‘Tantura.’
(photo credit: Lea Oshorov of Alexandroni Brigade)

Alon Schwarz’s Tantura, a documentary examining the validity of an alleged massacre by the Alexandroni Brigade in the 1948 War of Independence, was released online with English subtitles last week, giving the film a larger audience than its 2021 limited theater release.

The documentary centers on a University of Haifa thesis written by then-doctoral candidate Teddy Katz documenting IDF soldiers’ actions immediately following the city’s capture.

In Katz’s thesis, which created a press storm and ultimately led to a defamation lawsuit by members of the brigade and the subsequent retraction by Katz and by the university of his academic paper, Katz claims that after capturing the city, male members of Tantura were lined up and massacred by Israeli troops. He makes these allegations after interviews conducted by more than 130 people – Israeli troops and former residents of Tantura.

Where the film goes lacking is in its singular focus on the events of Tantura. By all objective accounts, there was certainly one soldier, and potentially a few others, who engaged in immoral acts following the capture of the city. Those that admit atrocities occurred justified it as being in direct response to Arab mutilations of Jewish soldiers in their brigade. It is not clear whether a massacre – as is alleged – happened, though the film’s singular focus on this truth is ultimately where it fails.

The message Schwarz hopes to convey, both from the film’s content and his statements about it in the press, is that it is incumbent on Israeli society to recognize the inherent truth in Palestinian claims that a “nakba,” or catastrophe, occurred with the foundation of the state. However, the film failed in that mission.

The singular focus on an alleged massacre in a town of fewer than 1,500 people distracts from the larger points. That limited focus can lead the viewer to believe that this was an isolated incident in the midst of a war, which as one former soldier said, “war is war.”

Guests of the documentary

Some of the documentary’s guests are historians who point to broader claims of “ethnic cleansing” by troops or bring up the idea that the IDF being “the most moral army in the world” is a fallacy. Yet again they fail at proving larger trends, focusing on Tantura – avoiding delving into the claim that the IDF is not moral, or more so, what is the role of the military during wartime? Is the responsibility of an army to act morally, or is it to act with the force necessary to deter any future enemy aggression?

Moreover, while the historians and Katz try to make a distinction in the IDF’s actions, nothing is mentioned of converse massacres committed by Arabs against Jews during the war. Needless to say, could we imagine what would have befallen the Jews of Tel Aviv had it fallen? These questions are unfortunately left unanswered despite the attempt to bring them up.

More than anything, it leaves the viewer wondering, “what is the point of the film altogether?” When asked himself “what is the point of all of this?” Katz has no answer. Ultimately it is fine to acknowledge that aggressions happened, but whether or not we litigate, it has no bearing on the present reality of Palestinians.

Amid the larger trends in the Western world for nations to look to their past and reconcile horrid events that may have led to their creation, Israel is no stranger to this. This debate that has been waged within Israel and outside of it since its inception theorizes that recognizing the traumas that Palestinians face today, as well as the hardships they encountered during the state’s creation and to this day, can help Israeli society move forward.

The film would like to convey the message that acknowledging this should not cause fear in Israelis; recognizing injustice is not at odds with our right to exist in the Land of Israel – this right was established thousands of years before 1948. However, Schwarz wholly fails to make a convincing argument for it, leaving the viewer unsure, not convinced of anything. A terribly missed opportunity is the result.