Charles Keener


A new documentary challenges Israel’s narrative about 1948 and the forced displacement of Palestinians.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL so fears its own history that it passed a law, in 2011, penalizing anyone who commemorates the day of its establishment as one of mourning rather than celebration. Dubbed the “Nakba law” after the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which Palestinians have always used in reference to the establishment of the Israeli state and their own displacement, the law captures the existential anxiety of a country that has never acknowledged its past even as it continues to struggle with its ramifications.

Israel’s narrative of its own birth is tightly orchestrated and controlled. Before the military opened its archives of the 1948 war, it issued a policy forbidding the release of any documents detailing the forced deportation of Palestinians; any human rights violations, including war crimes, committed by Israeli forces; or anything that might “harm the [Israeli Defense Forces]’s image” or expose it as “devoid of moral standards.”

Few in Israel are interested in finding out anyway. What happened in the days leading up to and following Israel’s establishment, at what cost their country came to exist, are questions that generations of Israelis have refused to ask. “For Israelis, the founding myth is that the Palestinians just ran away by themselves,” Alon Schwarz, an Israeli filmmaker, told me when we recently met. “Israel is lying to itself.”

Even in the so-called Zionist left circles in which Schwarz grew up, questioning the events surrounding 1948 was always “taboo,” he noted. So after his first film about a Holocaust survivor was widely celebrated in Israel — because “it fit the national narrative,” he said — he set out to tell another story, that of the horrors that young men and women carried out in order to build an Israeli state where Palestinians once lived.

The result is “Tantura,” the product of more than two years of research and interviews with dozens of those men and women, now in their 90s, about events most of them had never talked about and many of them once outright denied. In “Tantura,” named after a Palestinian beachside village near Haifa that was wiped off the map during the Nakba, Schwarz sets out to investigate the massacre of an unknown number of villagers that was carried out just a week after the establishment of the Israeli state.