Tantura massacre: Holding up a mirror to Israeli society

Tantura massacre: Holding up a mirror to Israeli society
8 min read
27 Jun, 2022
A new documentary about the Tantura massacre of 1948 reveals much about memory politics in Israel and the ever-present Nakba. But for Israelis and Jews in solidarity with Palestine, the film also forces a reckoning, writes Emily Hilton.
The Palestinian village of Tantura, where the Israeli military massacred more than 200 Palestinians in 1948, pictured in 1920. A new documentary shed lights on the crimes committed and the founding of the state of Israel.[Getty]

A few weeks ago, I sat in the Cinemateque in Tel Aviv and watched a new documentary about the Palestinian village of Tantura. Tantura, renamed Hof Dor (“Dor Beach”) after the village was conquered by Israeli forces in 1948, used to be home to over 1000 Palestinian residents.

The film examines how, in the aftermath of Israeli forces taking control of the village, they carried out a massacre of male residents and buried them in a mass grave - now a parking lot. However, such events were never acknowledged by the state. Today, ‘Hof Dor’ is a popular tourist destination, with a beautiful beach, hostel and hotel.

The documentary also tells the story of Israeli historian Teddy Katz, a former masters student at the University of Haifa. In 1998, he submitted a thesis to the department of history exposing the massacre.  His historical evidence predominantly relied on the testimony of members of the Alexandroni Brigade, who carried out the massacre.

When news of the thesis became public, there was public outcry - culminating in a defamation case against Katz, who was forced to retract his thesis and apologise, ending his academic career.

"Tantura is a mirror of Israeli society. The attitudes of those interviewed are a reflection of how Israeli society understands its histories, the foundation of the state, as well as its contemporary understanding of Palestinians"

Director Alon Schwartz tells this story alongside interviews with members of the brigade who recount their time serving during the 1948 war, at times with alarming honesty. Listening to these men, now in their 90s, recount their role in the murder, the construction of a mass grave, and the violence inflicted on this community, viewers cannot help but ask why they now so feel so comfortable admitting their involvement in such atrocities.

What took place at Tantura likely amounts to a war crime. Yet that is what makes this documentary in part so astounding; Tantura is a mirror of Israeli society. The attitudes of those interviewed are a reflection of how Israeli society understands its histories, the foundation of the state, as well as its contemporary understanding of Palestinians.

Watching the film in the aftermath of the assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh and the ongoing  state sanctioned expulsion of residents of Masafer Yatta, it is clear there is a direct line between the impunity with which these veterans recount their time in 1948 and the impunity with which Israel can attack Palestinians both within and beyond the Green Line, without any material consequences or accountability.

Similarly, amongst many diaspora Jews the knock-on effect of such erasure can be reformulated as hostility towards those who try to expose the truth of what really happened - to buck against the traditional Zionist narratives we have grown up with of Israel’s small but army defeating “the Arabs” to continue the Zionist dream and establish the socialist utopia’s of the kibbutz movement.

Never mind, of course, that the Kibbutzim were founded the fragments and rubble of former Palestinian villages. In doing so, Nakba denial transgresses the borders of Israeli society into wider Jewish identity.

The attitude of mainstream Israeli society towards Palestinian resistance and freedom can be traced back to this wilful erasure of the Nakba. In the film, an elderly Israeli woman who co-founded the Kibbutz on the land where Tantura once stood rebukes the idea of a memorial to the village being erected: “they need to understand that this is our land now” she says, speaking of the former residents.

Despite the common hasbara (“PR”) talking point of Israel having ‘no partner for peace’, understanding what really happened in 1948 evidences how since its inception, Israel’s ruling class had little intention of living side by side or in connection with a free and equal Palestine.

In the last decade, hasbara organisations have gone into overdrive to equate any kind of Palestinian activism with being anti-Semitic. Of course, this doesn’t mean that occasional incidents of antisemitism within Palestine advocacy haven’t occurred, but this is not the same as the intentional, targeted campaign by Israel advocacy organisation to render simply being Palestinian as a threat to Jews, and in doing so undermining the validity of Palestinian connection to this land. 

The blatant refusal by Jewish Israelis to confront 1948 means that the legacy of the war acts like a dormant virus in Israeli society. It forces Israel to render the mere existence of Palestinians as an existential threat. A well documented campaign by the state to quash almost any attempts at acknowledgement or education of the true historical realities means, perhaps ironically, the memory of the Nakba remains present in almost every aspect of society.

The failure to confront the violence, expulsions, and ethnic cleansing that took place is not only immoral, but it also keeps Israel trapped in a constant battle for its own legitimacy. Ultimately, this exposes the fragile ground on which modern Zionism has been built.

Attempts to cover up the past crimes of Tantura, or Manshiye, or Mi’ar paradoxically cement them firmly in the present day. Even in Israel’s liberal haven of Tel Aviv, the remnants of Palestinian buildings are scattered across the city. The Hilton Hotel is built over a Palestinian cemetery. Once you know this, it is impossible to ignore; the Nakba is everywhere you step in this land.

"Art has often been used as a tool through which to cast a critical eye where the political or public discourse has been unable to transgress the boundaries of said discourse"

The film itself is at times flawed; despite being a film about a Palestinian community, only two Palestinian speakers are actually featured throughout the documentary - both eyewitnesses to the horrors of what occurred.

Several historians are also featured, all of them male, Israeli and Ashkenazi but with differing views both on the validity of Katz’s thesis and the historical facts of Tantura. In many ways, this also reflects to the viewer how these subjects are discussed in the public sphere; much of the discussion about Palestine and Palestinians continues to exclude Palestinians themselves.

This Israeli political sphere is overflowing with older, male, Ashkenazi army generals, despite the majority of Israeli Jews being of Middle Eastern or Mizrachi descent. I like to think that this was the director’s way of getting in another subtle dig at the memory politics of Israel - to question not only the way in which Israeli teaches its own history, but also the teachers themselves.

Yet what I found to be most interesting, and arguably the most important, about this documentary is how it serves to confront the viewer with question about the role of those who belong to the oppressor or ruling class in anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles. Art has often been used as a tool through which to cast a critical eye where the political or public discourse has been unable to transgress the boundaries of said discourse.

Indeed, it is not lost on the viewer that Alon’s retelling of the story of Teddy Katz’s disgrace from academia is also a convenient opportunity to bring the story of Tantura to a new Israeli and international public.

Similar attempts by innovative organisations such as Forensic Architecture use the medium of art and archaeology to delve into the cost of Israel’s settler colonial violence. Israeli organisation Zochrot (‘Remembers” in Hebrew) has developed an app that maps out all the Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war of 1948.

Perspectives

As a growing number of Israelis and diaspora Jews seek to join the Palestinian struggle for liberation, questions on what our role should be are increasingly pertinent. Is it to solely take part in Palestinian civil society’s call for boycott, divestment and sanction tactics? Or to participate in direct action and civil disobedience with Palestinian activists?

There is a larger question as to whether expecting diaspora Jews or Israelis to take part in such co-resistance because of their identity only serves to replicate Zionist logic in some form.

There is no easy answer. But the first step, as with all processes of decolonisation, is to acknowledge the reality we find ourselves in, the historical events that led us here, and to commemorate Tantura and the many other villages lost as a result of the war in 1948. Only then can we begin to build a new future based on equality and justice for all in this land.

Emily Hilton is a Jewish activist and writer living between Israel-Palestine and the UK. She co-founded Na'amod: British Jews Against the Occupation, the Jews Against Boris Campaign (now Jewish Solidarity Action) and sits on the steering committee for the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence.

Follow her on Twitter: @emtravelodge

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.