Falsifying the Six-Day War

As Censored Voices makes its American debut, my advice to American Jews is this: save your tears—the Six-Day War was decently waged and morally just.

Egyptian prisoners and Israeli soldiers in the Sinai during the Six-Day War in June 1967 in Egypt. Fondation Gilles CARON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Egyptian prisoners and Israeli soldiers in the Sinai during the Six-Day War in June 1967 in Egypt. Fondation Gilles CARON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Last Word
July 27 2015
About the author

Martin Kramer teaches Middle Eastern history at Shalem College in Jerusalem and is the Koret visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His most recent book is The War on Error (2016).


In a recent interview, Daniel Sivan, the producer of Censored Voices (and partner of the director Mor Loushy), describes the effect of their film on pro-Israel American Jews who saw it at Sundance in January:

From their point of view, even to murmur the word “occupation” is treason. But they couldn’t rage against our film, because we didn’t invent the questions within it. They were posed by young soldiers, days after the battles of 1967. So we opened up something with these pro-Israeli Jews. Older people came out crying, they said they’d always been proud of that great victory, but now they feel confused, undermined, and embarrassed.

Yes, Censored Voices will provide fodder for Israel-haters (it already has). But as Sivan rightly points out, such people don’t need Censored Voices to hate Israel. Its more significant effect outside Israel will be to demoralize a generation or two of American Jews for whom the Six-Day War was a source of pride, and who will now be told that it really comprised wanton murder and dispossession.

My purpose in writing “Who Censored the Six-Day War?” has been to make these viewers aware that Censored Voices is predicated on a deception in its very title. I focused on this issue because I see it as exemplary of a larger problem of misrepresentation. The film’s false claim of “brutal” official censorship begets a larger manipulation: ripping a few events from their context, and presenting them as if they told the whole story of the Six-Day War. The fabricated narrative of how the book Soldiers’ Talk evolved thus facilitates a blatant distortion of the war itself.

 

Of course, the details of the film’s bogus claim of official censorship are (to put it redundantly) detailed, and so is my treatment of them. I understand why my respondents Max Boot, Matti Friedman, and Asa Kasher have nothing to add on this point. But Matti Friedman did go to the trouble of contacting Sivan, the producer, to ask him about the censorship claim. Sivan told Friedman that he and Loushy “have in their possession the original transcripts as ‘censored by the Israeli army’ in 1967.”

No doubt there are plenty of deletions marked on those original transcripts, which comprise some 200 hours of discussions. The original editors themselves would have had to make them, in preparing a much shorter text—perhaps twenty hours’ worth?—for publication. According to Alon Gan, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the subject, the military censor worked from a copy of that edited version, which at first had circulated in kibbutzim and which the editors then proposed to publish. In Israel, you submit to the censor what you propose to publish, after you’ve edited it. That’s all the censor needs or wants to see.

There is an unbridgeable gap between what Avraham Shapira, the book’s principal editor, now claims—”yes, there was censorship, and it wasn’t by us,” of “70 percent” of the material—and what a fellow editor, Yariv Ben-Aharon, claimed in 1968: “we imposed a severe censorship, we reworked and shortened and cut a lot, and also shelved. The official censorship deleted very little.” If Shapira and the makers of Censored Voices now want to establish their revisionist claim, I urge them to deposit in Yad Tabenkin, the kibbutz movement’s archives, all of the material in their possession. This will make it possible to reconstruct the editing and censoring of the text along a timeline, using the professional methods employed by historians.

The only person trained in these methods who has seen the material so far is Alon Gan, and his conclusion is straightforward: “On the basis of this evidence, it is apparent that the role of external censorship was small, in comparison to the censorship imposed by the initiators of the collection before the censor’s intervention.” This verdict will be impossible to overturn so long as the evidence is closely held by a few interested parties bent on exploiting it.

As for Loushy’s claim that the censorship was “brutal,” this contradicts the testimony of Mordechai Bar-On, the army colonel whose intervention with the censor made publication of Soldiers’ Talk possible. This is what Bar-On says in his memoirs about the process:

Our meetings were held in a good spirit, out of mutual understanding…. In a special introduction that they added to the public version, the editors thanked me warmly for my assistance. A bond of friendship was formed between me and the editors of Soldiers’ Talk, which continues until this day, although we don’t meet very often.

While Bar-On remembers clashing with Amos Oz (whom he found to be “arrogant”), he claims the editors saw him as “a friend of the book.” As I wrote in my essay, Bar-On also told me directly that the censor cut “maybe two or three percent,” not more. That the filmmakers, during years of preparing Censored Voices, didn’t even contact Bar-On is a huge failing that casts still more doubt on their good faith. Since their narrative implicates him in facilitating an act of “brutal” censorship, they should have had the decency to seek him out and hear his version.

 

I proceed to substance. Two of my respondents focus on charges of war crimes in broader contexts. Asa Kasher argues that a war waged for the legitimate purpose of self-defense—and the Six-Day War falls squarely in that category—doesn’t lose its legitimacy because some soldiers and officers commit crimes in its prosecution. The war must be waged proportionately and suspected crimes must be investigated. But even the most professional force is bound to sin and err. The perfect war has yet to be fought, so the legality and legitimacy of a war stand independently of its (inevitably flawed) execution. Kasher makes the further point that vague accusations of war crimes—Censored Voices is replete with them—don’t enable full investigation, and therefore do nothing to improve the military’s performance or ameliorate suffering. That renders such accusations immoral.

All true, but we live in a world of multiple standards. Being a superpower means never having to say you’re sorry. Being Israel means not only having to say you’re sorry but also discovering that your apology is never good enough. And it means that your wars are judged as much on how they’re waged as on why you’ve waged them. NGOs that traffic in such accusations (Kasher cites Breaking the Silence) depend for their existence on this Israel-specific standard. The effect of such charges, if not their aim, is to deny Israel the right to defend itself under any circumstances, because it can only do so by committing some crime, somewhere.

This is why Max Boot’s insights are apt—up to a point. Drawing on American examples, Boot posits that crimes have occurred in all wars, but those committed during popular wars are forgotten while those committed during unpopular wars are exaggerated. And so, he concludes, those who see the Six-Day War as ushering in an endless “occupation” are especially eager to uncover and exaggerate crimes committed in the war’s prosecution, to deprive the war of its just status.

Boot is right, and the absurdity involved in this line of reasoning should be self-evident. After all, one can hold that the “occupation” is unjust and unnecessary and still think that the 1967 war was both just and necessary. Israel didn’t wage war to expand, it waged war to lift a mortal threat. The war’s results didn’t close Israel’s options, it expanded them. It was decisions made after the war, year after year, by Israelis and Arabs, that produced the situation now deplored by Loushy. To portray the war as evil, by blowing a few excesses out of proportion, locates the blame for “occupation” in the wrong place—exactly like blaming the censor for the work of the editor.

But while it would be comforting to think, with Boot, that Israel and the United States share this dilemma, it would also be self-deluding. No one is still trying to reverse the outcome of World War II or the Korean war or the Vietnam war. But many of Israel’s critics want to reverse not only the outcome of 1967, but of 1948. They seek to show not only that Israel’s borders are the product of criminal acts, but that Israel was founded on crimes. If you claim that My Lai was only one of many massacres, you stir a debate among a few historians. If you claim that Israel massacred its way to victory in 1948 or 1967, you fuel international condemnations and campus boycotts, and leave confused American Jews in tears.

Matti Friedman thinks that at least some of Israel’s own “moral stripteasers” aren’t aware that they are feeding this beast. When, he writes, Israeli soldiers among themselves compare their actions with those of the Nazis, they understand it as rhetorical flourish. But when this is retailed more widely, it reinforces haters who seriously equate Israel with Nazi Germany and Gaza with Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto. And this Holocaust inversion doesn’t just happen on the fringe but in leading American universities (as I showed last year), precisely among people who attend film festivals. I hope that Friedman is right, but when I saw Nazi comparisons made by Israeli soldiers surface in Censored Voices, I couldn’t but wonder whether they were a deliberate play to the gallery of haters. They buy theater tickets, too.

And yet, I’m not sure that Censored Voices belongs in the same category as Breaking the Silence, the NGO that purports to uncover Israeli war crimes, especially in Gaza. Breaking the Silence is intended to make it impossible for Israel to wage war in its own defense, which is why the organization stands entirely outside the Israeli consensus. Censored Voices, with its focus on 1967, is an implicit indictment of the continuing Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank. Endorsed by Amos Oz, the film belongs to the “Peace Now” slice of the left. This is why its director can be interviewed for El Al’s inflight magazine (in Hebrew), appear as the “woman of the week” in Israel’s biggest women’s weekly, and even receive a five-page spread, including a “special interview,” in Bamaḥane, the Israeli army’s weekly magazine for soldiers.

To my mind, the film is closer on the spectrum to Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” in his bestselling book, My Promised Land. Loushy, like Shavit, casts herself as an Israeli patriot who wants her child to grow up in an Israel freed from the burden of occupying the Palestinians. She, too, claims there is a “black box” (that’s Shavit’s term) concealing something dark in Israel’s past. Long-hidden crimes are adumbrated, then wrenched out of context and exaggerated, not to cripple Israel, but to heighten a sense of guilt and raise the price of the atonement owed to the Palestinians. In the array of arguments for ending the “occupation,” this one has purchase among enough Israelis so that the film can be embraced by the mainstream left.

The “brutal censorship” trope gives Censored Voices an anti-establishment patina, but it was produced with the full collaboration of the Israeli cultural establishment. Yes, there was German funding, and Matti Friedman is right to pose questions about it. (He’s not alone. An interviewer asked Avraham Shapira whether he was aware of the German funding, and how he felt about it. Shapira’s answer: “I am not involved in the film, but if it is so, that doesn’t seem positive to me.”) But the film is a co-production with YesDocu, Israel’s leading documentary channel. It also received funding from Israeli sources, including the Israeli national lottery Mifal Hapayis and the Rabinovich Foundation (supported in turn by the Tel Aviv municipality and the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sport). And why not? After all, Censored Voices is essentially an expanded version of Soldiers’ Talk, and back in 1968, Israel’s Foreign Ministry distributed Soldiers’ Talk as a kind of calling card (causing the editors some consternation at the time).

 

In an interview, Loushy has said that Censored Voices “tells a different story” of the Six-Day War, namely, “that it’s also tragic to win a war.” There isn’t one Palestinian, or one Arab, who would ever say such a thing. That’s because they know just what it is to experience a crushing defeat. (If you want a sense of what defeat can do, even to a very strong man, watch this clip of Jordan’s King Hussein.) Of course, victories can give rise to hubris, and they can be wasted (often by people who didn’t win them). But the victory stands on its own. And it is a victory for which we should still be grateful. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is the memory of 1967—known in Arabic as the naksa, the “setback”—that still underpins the willingness of Egypt and Jordan to sustain peace with Israel.

I read Soldiers’ Talk not long after its publication (as a teenager volunteering on a kibbutz), and the message that stayed with me is that every victory, however sweeping, comes at some cost. But at about the same time, I read another book, published in 1969 in English, which also became a bestseller in Hebrew translation and, like Soldiers’ Talk, would later be forgotten altogether. It was an exercise in counter-factual history called If Israel Lost the War. In graphic language, it imagined a true tragedy. Its message also stayed with me: defeat in 1967 would have come at an unbearable cost to Israel and the Jewish people.

So when American Jews begin to view Censored Voices—it makes its Jewish film-festival debut on the weekend of August 1-2 in San Francisco—my advice to them is to save their tears. Don’t succumb to deception and manipulation. As wars go, the Six-Day War was decently waged, fairly won, and morally just. Israel has made mistakes. The Six-Day War wasn’t one of them.

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