There are some things that never made sense in the birth of Israel narrative: The moral Israeli army was different from other military organizations and that the people who had lived for centuries in areas that are now Israel left voluntarily to become refugees in another country. How can an army that is turning people out of their homes to make ways for newcomers do so without dehumanizing those driven out? Alon Schwarz’s documentary “Tantura” looks at a small village on coastal Palestine that after the spring of 1948 ceased to exist.
That an Arab village once existed there is not in dispute. There are ruins still there as well as rumors. The rumors include a mass grave under what is now a parking lot.
Of the original 63 settlers, only one man and three women remain. Their story begins cheerily enough. They arrived on 14 June 1948 to a place where there was sand and more sand and the Arab village. Each of them took a room in the Arab village.
While 1948 seems like a long time ago, during the late 1990s, a history grad student recorded hundreds of hours of oral history from the survivors, people who were in their 70s. In 1998, that student, Theodor “Teddy” Katz, submitted a master’s thesis to Haifa University about the alleged war crimes in what had been Tantura. Katz initially received a high grade (97), but after a journalist discovered paper and wrote about it, things changed. That includes the status of Katz’s degree.
Katz’s research and the challenge of his thesis by what seems to have been the whole nation of Israel, ruined his life. He warned the director of this documentary, that it also might ruin his. Yet what the director, Schwarz and his team found were some supporting documents as well as oral history (in Hebrew and Arabic) that supported Katz’s thesis.
The director noted that while one historian was critical about Katz’s extensive use of oral history, Israel itself has pushed oral history as important source documentation for the European Holocaust.
Schwarz said, “It was a hard experience for me, psychologically, to make this film. We, as Israelis, don’t know about this piece of history; we aren’t taught about it in school.” Yet the manner in which Israel was founded is important. It is just as important to think of the Arabs as people, not just as “an evil, cruel, vindictive enemy.” Otherwise, we can accept with a shrug one man’s comment, “We killed them. No qualms at all.”
In Tantura, we can see the microcosm of one Palestinian village and the macrocosm of the problem of Israel versus its neighbors. While the moral Israeli army “knew that by fighting the war we will be establishing a state,” by losing the war the Arabs were losing their homes. Should it matter that the Arabs were mostly likely Muslim?
“Tantura” tells what the so-called Israeli War of Independence meant for people who lived in those depopulated Palestinian villages and the moral dilemma this war has left for the nation. Written by Halil Efrat, Alons Schwarz and Shaul Schwarz and directed by Alon Schwarz, “Tantura” is a history preserved because of one Israeli scholar, but stands for the many histories of many villages that have been lost to time while the hubris remains.
“Tantura” made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (20 January 2022). In Hebrew, Arabic and English with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.