PJ Media

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.

One day after the August 2006 ceasefire that ended the Second Lebanon War, Ben-Yishai went to the dahiyeh, the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs, and compiled a report for Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel’s largest-selling daily newspaper. The newspaper published a photograph of him standing on the ruins of a building that was bombed by the Israeli Air Force during the war. Ben-Yishai also traveled incognito to Syria in September 2007, shortly after the Israeli Air Force bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria; he visited and photographed the bombed site and wrote a report for Yedioth.

The accusation that Ben-Yishai is lying about having telephoned Ariel Sharon to alert him to a possible massacre in Sabra and Shatila is equally ridiculous: Ben-Yishai was very close to Sharon, as he is to many other senior politicians and army generals. As a famous and widely-respected journalist in a small, tightly-knit community like Israel, the idea that he would risk his reputation by making up a story for the benefit of Folman and the viewers of his film just defies credibility.

Error number five: There is nothing unusual or nefarious in an Israeli film director/producer seeking funding from European sources. In fact, all Israeli filmmakers are forced to seek funding abroad because the Israel Film Foundation gives partial grants and the Israeli market is too small to be a source of adequate private funding. In every case, the filmmaker puts together a package of funding from the Israeli Film Foundation, European grants, and a little bit of private money (if they’re lucky). The Germans and the French simply happen to be unusually generous patrons of the arts, so Israeli filmmakers turn to them for funding. This does not make the film less Israeli, for heaven’s sake. Just check the list of sponsors for Israeli films that have been distributed abroad over the past few years — like Walking on WaterThe Bubble, and The Band’s Visit. By the way, Arte also sponsored a video documentary series called Gaza-Sderot, life in spite of everything. Take a look and then tell me if you really think Arte is biased against Israel.

The factual errors are bad enough, but Mr. Rosenthal’s conviction that WWB is actually anti-Semitic, or that it contributes to anti-Semitism, is worse. It is a twisted misinterpretation that is an insult to the director, who is the son of concentration camp survivors. It also speaks to the author’s deep insecurity, bordering on paranoia, about his Jewish identity.

A portrait of a dissolute IDF officer who likes to watch porn is, according to Mr. Rosenthal, an anti-Semitic image. Does the writer believe that Jews abstain from watching pornography — that we are purer than other human beings? Or is he positing that Jews should deny watching porn, in order to avoid upsetting the anti-Semites (who probably watch porn too)?

The porn clip in WWB is German, by the way, because the most risqué porn in the 1970s and early 1980s came out of that country.  The German phenomenon, which gained momentum after West Germany became the first European state to legalize porn, was called the Sex-Welle, or sex wave. It was little known in then-provincial Israel, circa 1982, because video cassette players had not yet arrived and porn cinemas did not exist. The scene of the officer watching the film made a strong impression on Folman as a young soldier simply because that was the first time in his life he saw a porno flick.

As  for Rosenthal’s description of “a veritable orgy of Israeli violence and vulgarity,” I suggest he read a little war literature. War is violent by definition. Soldiers always behave with vulgarity. Innocents are always killed in the confusion. Soldiers are always afraid and clueless. Israeli soldiers are no different. There is nothing particularly “Israeli” about the violence and vulgarity in Waltz With Bashir.

It is certainly true that Holocaust references are a recurring theme in WWB. That is because Israel was created “from the ashes of the Holocaust.”  Anyone who grew up in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s, as Folman did, would have been surrounded by survivors the age of his parents, and he would have studied the Holocaust in school. References to ghettos, death camps, and gas chambers are, unfortunately, a recurring cultural meme in Israel society. Of course Folman knows that Sabra and Shatila were not Auschwitz. He never makes that claim in the film, either. Ron Ben-Yishai does say that the sight of a young Palestinian boy holding up his hands under the guard of armed men reminds him of the iconic image of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto. These are the cultural metaphors that Israelis use as verbal shorthand. Folman is simply documenting the way Israelis think and talk within the framework of the Jewish people’s collective trauma.

I would also like to point out that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has been actively promoting Waltz With Bashir, via its embassies and consulates all over the world. Does Mr. Rosenthal genuinely believe that the Israeli government would promote an anti-Semitic film?

Everyone I know who has seen WWB — Israeli and non-Israelis, film critics, and film buffs — has been deeply affected. All of my friends who did their military service either in Lebanon or in the occupied territories told me that watching the film had unleashed flashbacks and made them realize that their time in the army had left them more scarred than they had cared to admit. One of the ongoing conversations within Israeli society is, and has been for years, the emotional price that mandatory army service exacts from our young men and women. That is why Folman’s film has touched a nerve with Israelis: he succeeded in giving a balanced, nuanced, moderate voice to those inarticulate emotions that so many Israeli combat veterans carry with them.

Israel is a fantastically creative society. The literary, cinematic, musical, and theatrical output is impressive by any standards; for a small country, it is astonishing. On any given night in Tel Aviv, a city of less than half a million, there are so many cultural events, from opera to fringe theater, that I simply don’t have time to see and experience everything. One of the driving forces for all this creativity is an admirable ability to engage in self-examination and self-criticism. Israelis like Ari Folman long ago learned that there is no contradiction between loving one’s country and acknowledging its flaws and errors. What a pity that Mr. Rosenthal’s fear of anti-Semitism blinds him to the artistic value of one of the best films to come out of Israel this past decade.

Update: A response from John Rosenthal:

In her attempted defense of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, Lisa Goldman asserts that my two-part exposé of the film is “riddled with errors of fact.” This would be a serious charge — except that Goldman appears not to know what a fact is. A look at her examples reveals that what she calls matters of fact are just her opinions — matters of interpretation, let us say — elevated to the status of fact. Goldman contests my characterization of WWB as depicting a “veritable orgy of Israeli violence and vulgarity,” but she does not deny any of the facts on which this characterization is based. She does not deny that Israeli soldiers are depicted killing defenseless animals. She does not deny that Israeli soldiers are depicted killing a family in a blue Mercedes. She does not deny that scenes of Israeli shelling are accompanied by a rock soundtrack blaring “I bombed Beirut every day, Sure we kill some innocent along the way.” She does not deny that an Israeli officer is depicted sitting in his underwear in an occupied Lebanese villa watching porn. She does not deny any of this. She merely insists that somehow the scenes are not “about” what they appear to be about, because “war is hell” and people watch porn and, anyway, Folman says so.

Goldman even manages to stylize a series of extensively documented facts about the financing of the film into a “kooky conspiracy theory.” I did not propose any “theory” in this connection. The facts are what they are: the film was largely financed by German and French sources, with the Franco-German public television ARTE being, in Folman’s own words, the “principal sponsor.”

Goldman raises only one point that even appears to be factual: namely, as concerns the status — fictive or real — of “Carmi Cnaan.” It is Cnaan who recounts the “blue Mercedes” scene in the film. It is also Cnaan who “recalls” seeing Palestinian body parts stored in formaldehyde. Goldman asserts that “it is untrue that Carmi Cnaan is a fictional figure.” Well, in the promotional materials that I cite, Folman is asked, “Are the persons interviewed in the film all real?” He responds “seven out of nine.” The two figures that he identifies as not being real are Boaz Rein-Buskila and Carmi Cnaan. Now, what would Goldman call a person who is not real? Apparently, she would call him “fictional,” since this is the term she uses, even though, as it happens, I did not use the term in my article. Moreover, “Cnaan” is not merely a “pseudonym,” as Goldman puts it. It is a pseudonym connected to a pseudo-voice and a pseudo-face — thus creating the illusion of a real person like the other “seven out of nine” real people interviewed in the film. It is this mixing of fact and fiction, of the real and the imaginary, that renders Folman’s film such an effective tool of propaganda, but surely disqualifies it from being taken seriously as “documentary.”

As I already noted, Folman insists that the recollections of “Cnaan” are based on the testimonial of a real person. We have no way of knowing how closely or remotely or whether it is even so. Maybe there really is an Israeli falafel salesman in the Netherlands with whom Folman served in Lebanon. Or maybe not. But there is one thing we do know: if this person exists at all, he refused to have his name — or voice or image — associated with the narration in Folman’s film.