‘Tantura’ director: Israelis have been lied to for years about alleged 1948 massacre

With his shocking documentary out this month, Alon Schwarz says Israel can only move forward as a Jewish democratic state by being honest about the killing of Arab villagers

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Teddy Katz, as seen in 'Tantura,' directed by Alon Schwarz. (Yonathan Weitzman, courtesy of Reel Peak Films)
Teddy Katz, as seen in 'Tantura,' directed by Alon Schwarz. (Yonathan Weitzman, courtesy of Reel Peak Films)

In the late 1990s, an Israeli researcher named Teddy Katz produced a master’s degree thesis for the University of Haifa that claimed Israel committed mass murder against non-combatants in the Arab village of Tantura in 1948.

The massacre, he said, was perpetrated by troops of the IDF’s Alexandroni Brigade in the early stages of Israel’s War of Independence. He based his work on 140 hours of audio-taped interviews he conducted with 135 witnesses to the event — half Jewish, half Arab.

The thesis, which received a high mark, went unnoticed until the Israeli newspaper Maariv published its findings in 2000. The Alexandroni Brigade veterans went to war against Katz, suing him for defamation. The judge assigned to the case threw it out without listening to Katz’s tapes. Katz was pressured to sign a letter of retraction stating that the massacre did not happen, and the university revoked his degree.

Katz quickly regretted signing the letter and asked to continue defending himself. The request reached the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.

“They were able to create the bluff, the fake news, because no one listened to Teddy’s tapes. If they had, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that something horrible happened at Tantura. There was widespread killing,” said filmmaker Alon Schwarz, whose provocative documentary “Tantura” had its world premiere this month at the Sundance Festival.

Schwarz digitized and listened to all 140 hours of the taped testimonies. The filmmaker told The Times of Israel that he is convinced that Israeli soldiers killed between 200 and 250 male residents of Tantura following the battle to take the prosperous and strategic village on the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa.

June 13, 1948: The expulsion of Tantura women, children and elderly from Fureidis to Jordan. The Red Cross is supervising. (Beno Rothenberg collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives. All rights reserved.)

“There are different versions [in the testimonies] of what happened, but when you listen to all of it, it’s horrific… and you get the picture of what happened there. People were killed in different ways and in different places in the village. It took almost two weeks to bury them… There are testimonies about bodies on the site that were not buried for eight to 10 days,” Schwarz said.

With regard to the buried bodies, Israelis and tourists who visit the popular Dor Beach, near where Tantura once stood, might want to know that there is possibly (if not probably) a mass grave beneath the parking lot.

Katz’s — and now Schwarz’s — claims are backed up in the film with documents obtained from the IDF archive and historical aerial maps analyzed by experts, including some in the IDF who Schwarz said wished to remain unidentified. The IDF has declined to comment on the film or the allegations of a massacre, AFP has reported.

Schwarz also interviews Katz and New Historian Ilan Pappe, as well as now-nonagenarian veterans who were in Tantura and admit to the killings (if not by themselves, then by fellow soldiers).

The director also includes interviews with some visibly uncomfortable veterans who continue to deny the killings, as well as academics who double down on their dismissal of Katz’s methodology and findings.

According to Schwarz, it is time to bring the difficult history related to Israel’s establishment to light; to bust the country’s founding myths, as painful as it may be. He worries for the future of Israeli society if it cannot bring itself to acknowledge what the Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe), or the ethnic cleansing and population transfer of hundreds of thousands of local Arabs necessary for the establishment of a Jewish state.

The village of Tantura in 1948, as seen in ‘Tantura,’ directed by Alon Schwarz. (Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress. All rights reserved.)

The filmmaker acknowledged that for many Israelis his film will be difficult to watch. He is more than willing to push them out of their comfort zones, and to take the heat for doing so.

“A lot of people in the left-wing Zionist camp, like myself and my family, have voted for Meretz and Labor over the years. But when it comes to the Nakba, the majority either don’t know, or don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to deal with it,” Schwarz said.

“We have to realize the truth. The truth is important in this post-truth world. The truth will clean out the black hole that’s been with us for the last 73 years that we have not confronted,” he said.

The following conversation with Schwarz has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you find out about Tantura and Teddy Katz’s saga?

Alon Schwarz, director of ‘Tantura.’ (Avner Shahaf)

I felt very strongly about doing something political in nature because I was very afraid for the fragility of our young democracy. I originally pitched a three-part series about Israeli democracy, with one chapter about how the government, and even people on the left, have come to discredit and alienate the press and NGOs like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

That project didn’t pan out, but I found myself one night in front of Google looking up the history of how people broke silence in Israel, and I came across Teddy Katz and a story that looked to me strange. How could it be that someone recorded so many hours and was called a liar and the courts ruled against him? I felt maybe something was wrong here. So I called Teddy up and he answered me. He said he’d love for me to come over and talk. I was amazed that he gave me all his tapes.

What was your reaction to mainstream historians you interviewed, like Yoav Gelber, who admitted to not listening to any of the tapes, but who dismissed Katz’s conclusions based on his methodology? With regard to the relative value of different kinds of sources, Gelber said, “I don’t believe witnesses.”

History doesn’t belong to historians. Oral history is legitimate. If not, they can go close Yad Vashem. I don’t buy that argument. Even if we found skulls they would say it isn’t so. I understand today that historians were among those who silenced [Katz]. [They created] fake news. These respected historians were protecting the Israeli narrative [of righteousness and purity of arms].

How was it that the Alexandroni Brigade veterans were willing to be interviewed on camera?

I didn’t tell them I was going to ask about Tantura.

You didn’t tell them what your film was about?

I told them I wanted to ask them about the war, about Alexandroni. I told some of them that I was interested in Tantura, and some of them I didn’t. It depended on the connection I had with them.

When a police investigator interrogates a murder, he doesn’t tell the murderer what he is going to ask them… It is 100% legitimate. This was a mass murder investigation.

In talking about their war experience, a few of them jumped to the Tantura story immediately. It was shocking for me. It shows you the trauma that was left on them as perpetrators.

What was it like to listen to these old men?

I don’t dislike them. These people are like my grandparents. I am not angry at these people… They did terrible things. Most of them didn’t do the killing themselves, but they saw their friends kill and moved to the side. This is the essence of it all.

I am not judging them. It was a war. But even if you transfer or ethnically cleanse people from the land, which is also a war crime — which had to be done — you don’t go and kill people after a battle. You don’t do that.

Illustrative; Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Southern Front Commander Yigal Allon (to his right) and Yitzhak Rabin (between them) pictured on the southern front during the 1948 War of Independence. (IDF / Wikipedia)

You are becoming emotional. Why?

It’s so painful for me to discover this truth about our country, and the lying. I understand what happened. I am angry at the fact that we have been lied to as a people for 73 years, and that it’s destroying our lives in this country. We are destroying our future by not recognizing our part in the war.

There were massacres of Jews by Arabs in Gush Etzion and other places, but to tell ourselves this founding myth that we are pure, we didn’t do this, and only they are the evil ones hurting us.

What should Israel do?

All countries have histories like this. The Americans did it to the Indians, the Australians did it to the Aborigines, New Zealand did it to the Maoris – in every state this happens. The only difference is that some states mature and say this was wrong, and that we are in modern times and we need to recognize these local people and the wrongs done to them. This is what we have to do. We need to see the pain of the other side.

What does this mean in practical terms?

It means that in Tantura we should erect a monument [commemorating the Nakba and what happened there]. What we need is for the prime minister to publicly say that every nation has its dark history and we recognize ours. It was two-sided, and what we did was wrong, and that we look forward and extend our hand toward peace.

Illustrative: Palestinian and Israeli residents of the coastal city of Jaffa near Tel Aviv, hold a banner as they take part in a rally on May 15, 2021, as Palestinians mark the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation in 1948 (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

What do you say to those who would say that you are not a Zionist and that this film is anti-Zionist?

I am a big Zionist. People think I am not, but they are wrong. I am more Zionist than the right-wing people who want to settle the territories and then have one state, which would end up not being a Jewish state.

I am not saying bring back the Arabs into Tantura and clear out the Jews. That is not what I am saying. That is not what should happen. I am not for the right of return by any means. I want a Jewish state. My grandparents came from the Holocaust.

What do you say to Israelis who are afraid to recognize the Nakba because they don’t want it equated with the Holocaust?

The two events are not the same. In 1948 there were no gas chambers, no railroads, and Ben-Gurion did not have a master plan for an industrial genocide. But there was an ethnic cleansing of sorts that we must recognize. We can’t keep on saying, nakba charta” [the Nakba is bullshit].

Are you worried that Israel haters, who falsely accuse Israel of massacres and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians today, will use this film to further delegitimize Israel?

Israel haters will keep on hating Israel regardless. I can’t control what happens to this film. I can only create a cinematic piece.

We don’t need anyone’s recognition. Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel. We have a Jewish state. We need to be a beacon of hope and morality to the world, and we can’t be this beacon if we hide our skeletons in the closet. The Nakba is our skeleton in the closet.

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