Viewers on the far left of the political spectrum will come away from Censored Voices, an Israeli documentary about the Six Day War, with their belief in Israel as occupier and oppressor validated.
Viewers on the right will look for holes and inconsistencies in the eyewitness accounts of the men who fought what Israelis called a war of no choice, or outright disbelieve their stories, some of which show sympathy for their Arab enemies and disdain for Jewish holy places.
But many more will come away from this dark and disturbing film by Israeli Mor Loushy with the realization that the Six Day War of June 1967, in which “Israel as we know it today was born,” was both a triumph and a catastrophe for the Jewish state.
Opening Nov. 20 at Bethesda Row Cinema, Censored Voices is based on audio recordings two ex-combatants, Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira, conducted in the first weeks after the war, before the cement of myth had dried. Oz was not yet a famous novelist, and he and Shapira, an editor, led what feel like late-night talk sessions at one kibbutz after another, urging the young men just back from battle to share their feelings.
These men reveal an ambivalence so at odds with the euphoria generated by Israel’s lightning victory. Loushy illustrates this with contemporary archival footage: people smiling and cheering; kids running on top of a tank; the Kotel, in Jewish hands for the first time in millennia; Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin being kissed by bystanders; defense minister and icon of victory Moshe Dayan standing aloof. The montage is anything but militaristic. This was the victory of an egalitarian people.
Shapira published excerpts of the recordings in 1967, in a book whose English title is The Seventh Day. Army censors heavily redacted the transcripts used in the book, giving Loushy the title of her film. While famous in its time, The Seventh Day was unknown to her generation, Loushy, 33, says by telephone from Israel.
She discovered the book in graduate school, and after some investigation learned that the recordings — 200 hours in total — resided in Shapira’s closet.
In Censored Voices, Loushy pairs the voices not only with archival footage, but with images of the 70-year-old men those brash, often arrogant young kibbutzniks from June 1967 became, Amos Oz among them.
What is clear is the Six Day War began as one war and ended as another. And while victory ended the existential crisis, it created a problem that Zionism wasn’t created to solve.
“On June 5 I felt that we were fighting for our lives,” says one man. “On June 10 I find myself with Hebron, Jerusalem and Sharm al-Sheikh.”
The emergency was over in an eye blink. “It was fear that lasted several hours,” one says, “and the war was over. That’s it.”
The Israelis were shocked to discover that David was now Goliath, and the children of the powerless Jews of the Diaspora and Holocaust had become the masters of life and death.
After conquering the Sinai, the Israelis were left to respond to vanquished Egyptian soldiers wandering through the desert. One soldier kills an Egyptian officer and discovers in his things photos of his kids on the beach. The Israeli recoiled at the thought that he had just killed someone’s father. “And yet, five minutes later I catch myself killing people.”
They describe thirsty Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai, humiliated “human shadows” barely surviving by drinking urine. After the Israelis gave them water, “the Egyptians threw up on our feet and kissed us.” Loushy shows a genial older man smiling as he listens to his own words for the first time in almost half a century and saying quietly, “Nachon” (true).
Encounters with the vanquished Arabs, including the Palestinians, generate fear, disdain, pity, disgust and sympathy, and an uneasy knowledge that the Israelis could easily have been the war’s losers.
“The more horrors we did to them, the more I thought, I’m glad it wasn’t the other way around,” one says.
For some of these men, nothing, not even Jerusalem was as sacred as their comrades. One man, asked “did the fact that you were fighting for Jerusalem add a special meaning to the fighting?” answers surreally:
“The papers and radio said the paratroopers cried at the Western Wall. Look, I don’t want to destroy a myth, but it wasn’t all that shocking. It was only when we entered the Old City that I remembered the Old City existed. Only when we reached the Western Wall I remembered there was such a thing as the Western Wall. And the people crying next to me disgusted me.”
“They were kibbutzniks, the elite,” Loushy says in the interview. “The tragedy of their story is they were idealists. Zionists. They were the fighters. Suddenly they found themselves deporting families and they saw the future, and it broke them.”
“Are we doomed to bomb villages every decade?” says a voice on that ancient magnetic tape. “Are we doomed to live in the pause between wars? Or are there other ways?”
Many who view this film will come away thinking that there have not been enough other ways tried by either side, that not enough have perceived the tragedy that became clear to some of these men almost 50 years ago.
“A tragedy,” says one of those kibbutzniks just days after the Israel we know today was born, “is a situation when both sides are 100 percent right.”
Censored Voices opens on Nov. 20 at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.