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Film Review

Censored Voices

Censored Voices is a brilliant and provocative documentary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War by Mor Loushy, an Israeli filmmaker. This short (84 minutes) film is riveting, complex, illuminating and disturbing. Few will see it, yet for those who do it will be memorable. The '67 War (later known as the Six Day War) was initially a war of survival for Israel as it was facing five Arab armies with overwhelming numbers who were days away from a full scale invasion of Israel. Nasser had blockaded Israel's southern port, an act of war in itself. The combined Arab air forces had double the number of aircraft that the Israeli Air Force had available, but Israeli pilots were far better trained. The Israelis' struck first with massive airstrikes against the Egyptian Air Force which led to nearly total air supremacy for the Israeli's. At the same time they began a pre-emptive invasion of Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, reaching the Suez Canal in a few short days. Using brilliant armored tactics, Israel destroyed the Egyptian Army in the Sinai in 4 days. Then the Israelis seized the Arab part of Jerusalem (under the control of Jordan), and pushed east into the West Bank territories, also held by Jordan. Simultaneously they defeated the Syrian Army and took the Golan Heights. But victory, which was so swift and complete, was not bloodless. Six thousand Israelis were killed or seriously wounded, and 400 tanks destroyed. According to Loushy, the objective of the war, simple survival, then morphed into something very different than when it first began. It ended up as a state of occupation after seizing the Sinai and the West Bank. As one soldier said prophetically "the seeds of a never ending conflict were sown."

In 1967, a young Amos Oz, now Israel's most famous novelist, sensed that many returning soldiers did not share the national euphoria over Israel's victory. Oz and other young kibbutzniks decided to tape interviews with returning soldiers, encouraging the soldiers to describe their experiences and feelings. Hundreds of hours of interviews were recorded from soldiers back only a short time, so the memories were fresh and often poignant. The tapes were censored because some of the accounts were so at odds with Israel's image. Only about 30% were released. These later ended up in a book by Avraham Shapira, The Seventh Day. Recently the rest of the tapes became available, which Loushy uses extensively in Censored Voices. The soldiers describe their feelings as the war began and its rapid conclusion. We listen to the tapes while the camera often focuses on the faces of these same veterans, now 50 years later. Their stories are not dissimilar from those of young men in most armies in combat, except that incidents that were essentially war crimes were witnessed by many. Some soldiers describe commanders as ordering: "Show no mercy." So many prisoners were captured so quickly that the Israeli Army was overwhelmed in dealing with these thousands of prisoners. As a result, some of these soldiers admitted to participating in shooting unarmed combatants and prisoners, and in some cases, unarmed civilians. Another huge source of regret to the men was that once the West Bank was secured, some Palestinian villages were razed and their inhabitants expelled.

Half of the film is archival footage, including some harrowing combat footage. Aerial footage taken of a destroyed Egyptian armored column miles long in the Sinai is stunning. But it is the expulsion of the Palestinian villagers that is absolutely heart rending and reminiscent of Jews in Europe being forced out of their ghettos and villages. One soldier said that he then understood what the Holocaust was. He felt profoundly ashamed then and now. Of course the Palestinians were not murdered after the expulsions, but it was in a sense cultural murder. If the Israelis had lost the war what would their fate have been? Probably a second Holocaust. Because of the Israeli victory, the last remaining Jewish communities in the Arab countries were forced to leave their homes with nothing. Most went to Israel. The question that the film doesn't answer is how representative these incidents were during war. It reminds me of one of the still unanswered questions about the Vietnam War: how common were incidents like the My Lai massacre? The Vietnamese say there were others. The US Army admits a few other small incidents but nothing on the scale of My Lai (at least 400 killed). Let's not forget that the platoon leader, convicted of personally killing 22 civilians, was given a life sentence but only served 3 years under house arrest before being pardoned. No other soldier went to prison.

What the Israeli soldiers almost uniformly say in the tapes is that the nature of the war changed from that of survival to occupation. An occupation that continues today and shows little sign of being reconcilable with Israel as a Jewish democratic state. Oz, who does not bother to hide his left wing views, has helped produce an enormously powerful film that will surely be controversial, especially among American Jews. At the end of the film, Oz says "I feel that we spoke the truth." This is not an anti-Zionist film but Censored Voices is disturbing. The behavior of men in war and the origin of the West Bank occupation are vital topics and deserve wider discussion. This would make an excellent pairing with the 2013 Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, consisting of interviews with six former heads of Israeli intelligence. Censored Voices is screening only at Landmark's Opera Plaza theater, and likely not for long.

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