Defending Waltz With Bashir

Reading John Rosenthal's two-part PJM article (here and here) about Waltz With Bashir, the Israeli animated documentary that has been nominated for best foreign film at the 2009 Academy Awards, is a painful experience. The only metaphor I can think of is chewing sand.

The excruciatingly long hatchet job describes a completely wrongheaded interpretation of the film, and it is riddled with errors of fact. Given the sheer number of errors and the kooky conspiracy theory (a nefarious plan hatched up by Hollywood and Germany to make the Israelis look like Nazis), one gets tired just thinking about all the points that need to be addressed.

Let's begin with the errors of fact.

Error number one: This film is not about Israel's responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Director Ari Folman has said specifically in many interviews -- like this one in Salon -- that Waltz With Bashir is a universal anti-war story. In the Salon interview he says, "This story could have been told ... by an ex-American soldier in Vietnam, or by an ex-Russian soldier in Afghanistan or by a current American soldier in Iraq. It could have been told by a Dutch soldier, a peacekeeper, who witnessed the Srebrenica massacre in June 1995, in Bosnia, where they did nothing to stop it. It's a universal story, unfortunately."

Error number two: WWB is not "premised on the assumption that Israel was indeed somehow complicit in the massacre [at Sabra and Shatila]," as Rosenthal claims. Rather, it is the story of "a simple soldier," as Folman describes his teenage self. It is about a 19-year-old who has not yet begun to shave, a boy who has hardly any life experience, and the defense mechanism he uses in order to deal with the horrors he witnesses -- i.e., the suppression of memory. Folman stresses in nearly every interview -- including the Salon piece -- that he does not feel responsible for what happened at Sabra and Shatila, and that his film is not about the politicians and generals who were later found indirectly responsible for the massacres.

Error number three: It is untrue that Carmi Cnaan is a fictional figure. Again, Folman has said in many interviews that Cnaan is a pseudonym for a real person -- a high-school friend who fought in Lebanon and now lives in the Netherlands, where he founded a chain of falafel restaurants. Cnaan agreed to participate in the film on condition that his name, appearance, and voice were not used. Cnaan's story, however, is true.

Error number four: Calling into question the courage of Ron Ben-Yishai, one of Israel's most famous and admired war correspondents, is just a silly, ignorant accusation. It shows that Rosenthal knows little-to-nothing about Israeli history and society. These are some of the feats for which Ben-Yishai is known: in 1973, while reporting the Yom Kippur War, he saved the lives of soldiers on the battlefield by performing emergency medical treatment after the medics were wounded. For this act, Ben-Yishai was awarded the Chief of Staff citation for his heroism.  During the First Lebanon War he rented an apartment in West Beirut and moved around the city as a private Israeli citizen, at a time when Hezbollah thugs were kidnapping foreigners -- for example, American journalist Terry Anderson -- and holding them for years.

Ben-Yishai went to Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1990, well ahead of the invasion of the coalition forces, and traveled around the Kurdish north, reporting for Israel television and hiding his nationality. This was a considerable risk, given that he speaks English with a heavy Hebrew accent.