When Israel accepts the war waltz and when it doesn't

Israeli director and former soldier Ari Folman's critically acclaimed animated film Waltz With Bashir took Best Foreign Film at this year's Golden Globes, reigniting a debate about Israeli society and public support of war. As the Gaza war rages on with a 90 percent Israeli public approval rating despite horrific scenes of civilian death in Gaza, MENASSAT's Tania Tabar asks why an 'anti-war' film like Waltz With Bashir is still not addressing the root causes of war in Israel.

A drive-by shooting in Beirut, 1982: a screenshot from Ari Folman's film Waltz With Bashir.

BEIRUT, January 15, 2009 (MENASSAT) — On Sunday night January 11, as bombs rained down on Gaza, Israelis watched one of the their own, director Ari Folman, give his acceptance speech for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes awards for his animated film Waltz With Bashir. At the end of that same night, at least 60 Palestinians were killed in what was the 16th day of  Israel's Operation Cast Lead.

Folman has described his film as "anti-war" and hopes that "it will build small bridges," and while it goes a long way in revising official Israeli history, it does not address the disconnect between the Israeli military ethos and the root causes for conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

At its core, Waltz With Bashir is a tale of a middle-aged man flashing back to his war experience as a 19-year-old Israeli soldier in Lebanon in 1982.

It specifically deals with Ari Forman's attempt at reconciling his own complicity (and the Israeli army's complicity) in the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in September 1982.

It is particular poignant at a time when 19-year-old Israelis not unlike Folman are currently carrying out a massive assault on the Gaza Strip, which has killed over 1,000 Palestinians and wounded some 4,500 so far.

Accepting atrocity

Over the last year, as Waltz With Bashir has made the rounds of film festivals throughout the world, it has also been welcomed with open arms in Israeli society, including in right-wing circles, a fact that initially surprised the director. 

"I thought people would call it a left-wing anti-Zionist film and that didn't happen," Folman said. "And more than that, the film became the darling of the establishment."

But why the warm public welcome for this government-funded anti-war film about a sensitive topic in Israeli history when Israelis are at the same time hailing the war in Gaza?

In a society where identity is largely formed around serving in the military, to the point that it has even become part of the culture—Israeli buses are full of soldiers carrying guns, women flaunt army handbags like purses, and Israeli Defense Forces t-shirts are sold in the markets of West Jerusalem—you would expect the Israeli response to be reactionary and negative to Waltz With Bashir. After all, the movie is openly critical of Israel's operations in Lebanon in 1982.
Folman himself offered an explanation in an interview with Jewish and Israel News (JTA). According to the director, "[My film] made Israel look like a tolerant country, allowing soldiers to talk openly about their experiences in the war, and when it was screened in Europe it made many people there realize for the first time that it wasn't the Israeli troops that committed the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres."

Not a political film

Folman has always maintained that his film was not a political one.

In his portrayal of the events of Israel's involvement in the Lebanese civil war, particularly the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the director presents the Israeli soldiers as naive young men who were only participating in a massacre because of the time and the place they happened to be in.

"It is a completely apolitical film. It's a personal film. If it were a political film, we would have dealt with the other sides, meaning that we would have interviewed the Palestinian and Christian sides. And it does not. It's a very personal film," Folman told France 24.

But in being apolitical, Waltz With Bashir also fails to provide context.

The film's narrative begins as Folman, the main character, travels to Europe and around Israel speaking with fellow soldiers who fought in Lebanon. He eventually begins to piece together what happened during his time in Beirut, which he had erased from his memory.

Folman doesn't shy away from presenting war as a worthless enterprise. "The basic message of my film is a cliché. War is silly and worthless. No glamor. Children are being sent by cynical leaders to fight," he said.

Waltz With Bashir does show scenes of Israeli brutality—Israeli tanks trampling cars in the narrow streets of Beirut, a soldier being chased by the 26 dogs he killed in preparation for the bombardment of a Lebanese village, and a random sniper who kills a man on a donkey.

Nevertheless, as he pieces the story together for the audience, Folman fails to provide a complete picture of Israel's role in the Lebanese civil war.

In fact, he makes it seem that the 150 or so Christian Phalangists who killed between 750 and 3,500 Palestinians (depending on the source) in Sabra and Chatila bore the full responsibility for the massacres, and that the Israeli military command, mainly former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, simply gave the green light for the operation.

"They (the Israeli soldiers) didn't pull the trigger; it was the Christian regime," Folman said. It explains why the Israeli government, which helped fund the film, was eager to promote it. "This is the type of propaganda the Israeli government couldn't buy for money. So they kept sending the movie out," Folman said.

Maybe it was too much to ask Folman to reinterpret the entire historical accounting of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in one film. But if the Israeli public is able to swallow the sensitive nature of Waltz With Bashir it is precisely because it stays away from treating the Israeli state as a long-time political actor in the systematic, ongoing violence in Lebanon.

Thus, there is no overt questioning of why Israel was in Lebanon in the first place. Israeli military actions are validated under the guise of "fighting terrorism," and this is poignant when considering how the current Gaza war will be viewed in hindsight.

Also, Waltz With Bashir fails to present Israeli soldiers as direct participants in the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. Israeli soldiers were only following orders so any responsibility lay solely with the chain of command.

As a result, and perhaps without Folman's intent, individual responsibility is deferred. In a sense, the film then buffers the actions of soldiers in Gaza today.

Lebanon 1982, Gaza 2009

Israeli public opinion, it should be noted, was very much against the massacres committed at Sabra and Shatila in 1982. At the time, 400,000 Israelis marched in the streets of Tel Aviv, pressuring the Knesset to begin an inquiry after reports of the massacre were leaked.

The ensuing investigation—the Kahan Commission Report—concluded that then Israeli Defense Minister Sharon was personally responsible for the massacres, which led to his resignation.

Now, Israeli streets are empty compared to 1982. The biggest demonstration reported in Tel Aviv numbered 10,000, and the most recent polls have shown that nearly 90 percent of Israelis support the war in Gaza. (This statistic does not include the 20 percent of Palestinians living inside Israel. Some 100,000 Israeli-Palestinians demonstrated against the Gaza operation in the village of Sakhnin.)

Israeli public support for the current war is actually soaring—even as TV screens show a rapidly mounting Palestinian death toll in Gaza. And yet, Folman's 'anti-war' film is being praised.

On his blog, Angry Arab, Professor of political science at California State University, As'ad Abu Khalil, asks what the international response would be like if a Palestinian director had made a film like Waltz With Bashir.

"If a Hamas writer were to shoot a film about his experience in Gaza, would the Hollywood community welcome him with open arms, and would the liberal media shower him with praise? With or without the 'anguish' of the Israel soldiers?

in an email exchange with MENASSAT., Abu Khalil went one step further. "Liberals in the West applaud Israeli soldiers in war, and then they applaud them in whatever they do in their next careers, whether in the movie business or the restaurant business," he said.

In the last scene of the film, the animation suddenly shifts to real TV news footage. It is of Palestinian women returning to the camp to find their children and husbands dead. The camera focuses on one woman as she screams and cries, shouting repeatedly, :Where are the Arabs? Where are the Arabs?"

Of course it is a legitimate question for someone to be asking. But for Folman, whose stated intention was to make a film about a personal experience he and his fellow soldiers had in trying to recollect the horrors they witnessed in 1982, why this scene? And why this question?



Gaza's waltz with Olmert

Beirut's "Waltz with Bashir" will pale by comparison to Gaza's waltz with Olmert, writes Ari Shavit in the Haaretz, adding: "Then we'll discover that we will not be paying the price of the past week's belligerent escapade only in Obama's America. We will be paying it with the damaged souls of our sons and daughters."
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