Economist fails to question film’s claim that 70% of IDF ‘atrocity’ testimony was censored

“A movie theater isn’t the ideal setting for forensic analysis of something so complex as a fast-moving, three-front war that changed Israel and the Middle East”, writes Martin Kramer in his investigation into claims made in a new documentary promising to “expose the Israeli military’s censorship” of “atrocities” committed in the 1967 war.

censored voices two
Snapshot from site of ‘Censored Voices

How many Western film critics and other journalists, Kramer asks, will critically examine the claims made in such a film?

Enter the Guardian and The Economist, which both recently published articles that fail to challenge one of the central premises of the documentary: that out of 200 hours of testimony about the Six-Day War from 140 soldiers, all kibbutz members, transcribed into a book published in 1967 entitled “Soldiers’ Talk”, 70% was censored by the Israeli government

Indeed, Kramer (a renouned scholar on Middle East history) persuasively argues that this claim is simply not true. 

Here’s the relevant section from Kramer’s thorough investigation of the film, which is scheduled to be released in Britain in the fall.

Any inquiry into the editorial history of Soldiers’ Talk leads quickly to the work of Alon Gan, a third-generation kibbutznik who today teaches history at the Kibbutzim College of Education. In 2003, Gan completed a Tel Aviv University doctoral thesis on Soldiers’ Talkwith the active assistance of Avraham Shapira himself. According to Gan, Shapira gave him access to the original tapes and transcripts. Here is how a 2005 kibbutz newspaper describes that access:

[Shapira] opened his private archive to Alon [Gan], his outstanding student, and revealed to him the raw material: tens of audio tapes kept at Yad Tabenkin [the kibbutz movement’s archives] and hundreds of pages of transcripts that had turned yellow in his home at [Kibbutz] Yizrael, for preparation of Alon’s doctoral thesis.

It was Gan who first discovered and documented the discrepancies between the taped conversations and the first edition of Soldiers’ Talk. Of course, much of the raw material was bound to be cut anyway. The conversations had produced 200 hours of tape. As one of the project’s interviewers would later recall, “most of the shelved tapes didn’t make the collection for trivial editorial reasons: narrowness of perspective, space limitations, avoiding endless repetitions. Heart-to-heart conversations took precedence over conversations whose participants had difficulty opening up .” “We had a lot of material,” said one of the editors, “and just a small part of it went into the book.”

Clearly, however, other editorial principles operated as well. Discarded in particular was material that didn’t suit the editors’ political agenda. Shapira’s interviewers, for example, had gone to Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in the hope of finding religious soldiers troubled by the same doubts that afflicted the secular kibbutzniks. That five-hour conversation included soldiers who would later become some of the leading lights of the settler movement. Amram Hayisraeli, one of the kibbutzniks who participated in this dialogue, would later call it “perhaps the most important conversation” in the project. But when Amos Oz read the transcript, he broke into a rage: not one of the six religious soldiers “understood the pain, the moral problem, or that there was any problem at all.” Oz denounced them as “crude, smug, and arrogant,” and “as quite simply, inhuman.”

Shapira for his part opted to exclude the religious soldiers altogether, and then to dissimulate about it: “I decided that the conversations wouldn’t be included. . . . I didn’t reveal the real reasons to others, and I rationalized it by citing ‘technical reasons.’”

But the editors exercised self-censorship on their own side of the political spectrum, too. For instance: some soldiers had expressed either very radical leftist views or mentioned alleged atrocities against Arab civilians and POWs. In the published text, these references had been either eliminated or tucked under a heavy blanket of euphemism. As Gan’s dissertation reveals in some detail, the editors specifically tweaked and softened passages alleging actions that could be read as contradictory to the Israeli ideal of “purity of arms” or even as war crimes.

In brief, Shapira and his team carefully massaged the material that would enter the published text. Although Gan speculates that in any case “the external censor would not have permitted the editors to publish” certain materials,

it can’t be denied that the editors [themselves] created a picture that emphasized the positive side and the moral dimension in the soldiers’ conduct, and downplayed these descriptions. . . . . Different editing of the testimony would have presented the image of some of the soldiers and officers in a different light (or, more precisely, darkness).

“Of course there was censorship,” Gan concludes, “most of it by the editors themselves, whether for security reasons, or for societal-public reasons, or out of a sense of responsibility to the interviewees.” Above all, in Gan’s view, what motivated Shapira and his colleagues to make the cuts was

a sense of great public responsibility. It was obvious to them that some of the testimony was social dynamite, which should not be published in order not to divert attention from the general atmosphere that the editors wanted to make vivid to the reader.

What happened next? As Gan documents, the “first edit, undertaken by Avraham Shapira [and] done without consideration for external censorship” was printed privately for circulation in kibbutzim. Clearly marked “internal, not for sale,” and issued between drab covers in October 1967, it didn’t trigger the need for approval by the censor.

But copies soon circulated beyond the kibbutzim, and the editors also sent copies to newsmen and writers. Mentions of the conversations and even excerpts from them began to appear in the press. As interest grew, the editors decided to pursue commercial publication—a step requiring submission of the private edition to the chief military censor, Col. Walter (Avner) Bar-On. There the project became stuck: according to Gan, “the chief censor proposed to delete nearly every politically loaded sentence, every sentence describing moral dilemmas such as looting, treatment of prisoners, refugees, etc.”

Had the process ended there, Soldiers’ Talk would have been gutted. But it didn’t end there. In January 1968, the editors contacted the army’s chief education officer, Col. Mordechai (“Morele”) Bar-On (no relation to Walter/Avner Bar-On), and pleaded for his intervention. Impressed by the project, he took it under his wing, asking the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, for permission to assume responsibility for all content that didn’t expose military secrets. Rabin agreed, and Mordechai Bar-On became instrumental in seeing the project through censorship.

What deletions did the censor demand? In Shapira’s possession, there is a copy of the private edition marked with the many excisions and changes proposed by Walter Bar-On (in green) and the fewer ones suggested by Mordechai Bar-On (in blue). Together these would have made very substantial alterations to an already diluted text, constituting wholesale state censorship. Shapira and Oz rejected the proposed changes in toto; Oz was particularly vehement. A negotiation ensued. “I sat with Mordechai Bar-On,” Shapira said in a recent interview, “and together we went over the deletions of the censor, and what we could restore, we restored.”

The outcome? Gan saw the copy with the censors’ markings, and discovered that almost everything had been restored:

When one compares the public edition with the proposed changes of the censor [Walter Bar-On] and the proposals of Mordechai Bar-On, with the exception of a few changes, it is apparent that the stubbornness of the initiators of the collection to stick, almost exactly, to the first [private] edition, paid off. Mordechai Bar-On apparently accepted [the editors’] arguments and succeeded in persuading Walter Bar-On to agree to them.

The public edition, released in May 1968, carried the caveat that “minor alterations have been made” upon the editors’ judgment; Gan finds the alterations “indeed ‘minor.’” His unequivocal conclusion:

Aside from minor deletions, the public edition was largely if not entirely identical to the private edition. . . . 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.

If this is true, it is doubtful that either the chief censor or Mordechai Bar-On ever saw or heard any of the more disturbing allegations made by soldiers in Loushy’s film, all of which had been excised in advance by the editors in preparation of the private edition. Gan also quotes remarks to the same effect made in 1968 by the novelist and educator Yariv Ben-Aharon, one of the editors:

We imposed a severe censorship, we reworked and shortened and cut a lot, and also shelved. The official censorship deleted very little. It’s obvious that due to our censorship, there are some flaws in the book, and there are several misses. There are people who speak about killing in general, and the details aren’t in the book. This leaves the impression of self-righteousness.

In sum, the claim made by Loushy (and belatedly by Shapira) about massive state censorship of Soldiers’ Talk is directly contradicted by Gan’s in-depth study of the editorial history of the book. It is also directly contradicted by Yariv Ben-Aharon. And the accusation of “brutal” state censorship is similarly contradicted by Mordechai Bar-On, who was intimately involved in steering the text past the censor.

Bar-On, later one of the founders of Peace Now, is still active at eighty-six and takes some pride in the fact that he managed to get Soldiers’ Talk through military censorship with few changes. “I became the spokesperson for the book [in the army],” he recently recalled. “Here and there I softened some sentence, but overall, not much.” “I don’t remember today what we weeded from the text,” he has written in his recent autobiography, Child of the Previous Century: “not much, and anyway, they were things that the editors understood should be downplayed or softened.” When I asked him about the claim that the censor had nixed 70 percent of the material, he scoffed: “Maybe two or three percent.”

We strongly encourage you to read Kramer’s entire 6200 word essay in Mosaic Magazine which also addresses other dubious historical claims made in film.

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