The perspectives of others

For the first time, a new feature-length Israeli documentary shows the war of 1948 from the viewpoint of several parties involved in the conflict. The director has garnered praise in Israel, but also some fierce criticism. It is unclear whether the film will even be shown on the state TV channel that commissioned it. By Joseph Croitoru

By Joseph Croitoru

Several years ago, Israeli state TV invited tenders for a film project about 1948 to mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the state. The commission was won by Israeli filmmaker Neta Shoshani, who is now 43. Her two-and-a-half-hour film essay "1948 – Remember, Remember Not" depicts the events of the Arab-Israeli war for the first time using diaries and letters written by both Israelis and Palestinians.

The documentary uses rare and previously unseen footage from Western newsreels and colour film shot by amateurs. The film also looks at Israel's timid approach to dealing with the history of the war and the Palestinian Nakba, the trauma of Palestinians who were displaced or forced to flee.

Neta Shoshani's documentary aims to question familiar points of view. In an interview on Israeli state television's culture programme, she complained that the many facets of the history of this war, which has been so decisive for the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, are barely known in Israel. One of her objectives, she said, was to show as many sides involved in the war as possible.

Examining the conflict from all sides

Poster for Neta Shoshani's documentary "1948 – Remember, Remember Not" (source: film distributor)
Neta Shoshani's documentary aims to question familiar points of view. One of her objectives, she said, was to show as many sides involved in the war as possible

Her approach is clear even in the way the pre-war period is depicted.

Shoshani says that the United Nations' adoption of the plan for the partition of Palestine in November 1947 is known in Israel only from its people's enthusiastic reactions at the time. "But no one here knows how the Palestinian side reacted."

One example of this is provided by the diary entries of the musician Wassef Juariya, a resident of Jerusalem, who was shocked by the plan adopted by the UN.

And he wasn't the only one: "Everywhere he goes on the street," the director says, "Juariya meets Arabs who are worried about what is going to happen to them."

Very soon after the UN decision, Palestinian militias began to attack Jewish residential areas.

When the Jews responded with counter-attacks, the situation escalated into a civil war during which many thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, even before the State of Israel was founded in May 1948.

In the film, the events of the war, which became increasingly bloody following the invasion of several Arab armies, are depicted from several of the sides involved.

In the process, the director entirely does away with the David-and-Goliath myth that has long been propagated in Israel. The Israelis had significantly more fighters and were better organised and better armed.

Palestinians' despair and grief

As the war progressed, and despair and grief at being uprooted and dispossessed spread among the Palestinians, the militarily successful Israelis grew more confident – despite heavy losses – and more unscrupulous.

In January 1948, Israel's future Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wrote in his war diary: "Blowing up a house is not enough, a brutal and strong answer is necessary." He even called for combatants' wives and children to be targeted as part of reprisal attacks. If the hoped-for arms deliveries arrived, he noted in April, they would in all likelihood be able to fight the Syrians on their own territory.

At this point, the Israeli military was already launching its Plan D (Dalet) that would result in the targeted displacement of Palestinian Arabs.

TV premiere put on hold

In the film, representatives of both sides bear witness to the Israelis' increasingly ruthless actions against the Palestinians. A number of Israeli soldiers express not only pride in their victory, but also empathy for the fate of Palestinian refugees. To this day, there are obstacles placed in the way of efforts to process the Israeli atrocities of war – another theme of the documentary.

A report on this very subject, which was submitted to the Israeli cabinet at the end of 1948, remains classified. The state archivist Yoram Rosenzweig personally saw to this and justifies his decision in front of the camera: "Publishing this report today could damage state security, as well the state's foreign relations and public safety."

Neta Shoshani's film essay recently won a prize at the "Docaviv" film festival in Tel Aviv, but has also attracted fierce criticism from the political right in Israel for spreading the "blood legend of the Nakba". For this and other reasons, the film is a thorn in the side of Israel's ultra-right-wing government.

The government regards "Kan", the Israeli TV and radio broadcasting company that commissioned the film, as a disruptive element due to its critical reporting. Neta Shoshani's film was due to be premiered on Israeli state TV in June. Another planned broadcast in July has now been pushed back to the autumn.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2023

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin