Tsahal (The Israeli Defense Forces). Directed by Claude Lanzmann

Claude Lanzmann's Make-Believe Israel

Tsahal (The Israel Defense Forces). Directed by Claude Lanzmann. Five hours.
English Hebrew and French dialogue, with translations into all three languages.

Claude Lanzmann's Tsahal is a film of five whole hours which is as disap¬pointing as it is long. It is arrogant, hackneyed, propagandist and lacking any credibility. Above all it is anachronistic; even in France where Lanzmann is considered untouchable thanks to his film Shoah on the Holocaust, Tsahal looked so false that it inevitably received negative criti¬cism. In Israel, the critics murdered the film and it indeed required more than a little cheek to show the film on Israeli screens. No wonder that it was also a box office failure. When interviewed, Lanzmann claimed that he was "more pro-Israeli than many Israelis." Nonsense! He hankers after nothing but a make-believe Israel, one which exists only in his imagination.
We sat for five hours in order to see how, for example, LanzmalU1 would deal with Israel's most problematical war, the Lebanese war, a war which had shocked Israeli society, divided the people, caused the death of some 700 Israelis and over 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, and led to the res¬ignation of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Five hours without a single scene from this terrible war which in effect is still going on in South Lebanon, claiming casualties on both sides.
The film called Tsahal is silent about this war, in which the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) bombed cities, destroyed refugee camps in South Lebanon, imposed a terrible blockade on Beirut and finally took it, enabling Israel's Phalangist allies to perpetrate the horrible Sabra and Shatila massacre. Lanzmann simply blots Lebanon out of the IDF's history. This is like mak¬ing a film about the French army without Algeria, or the U.S. Army with¬out Vietnam. Yet the director had the impudence to declare before the gen¬eral release of his film that "I overlooked nothing, I concealed nothing."

A Different Army?

However, Lebanon is not the only omission in a film pretending to deal with the history and dilemmas of the IDP. Its five hours tell us nothing of the com¬plex structural problems of its units, its camps, the concern over religious coercion. Lanzmann only briefly visited pilots in training, armored units and parachutists. He ignores the increasingly critical inter-relationship between the army and Israeli society. He overlooks the existence of disguised anti¬-Palestinian units, of disgruntled soldiers, of female soldiers lacking equality and sexually exploited in the army. Not a single female soldier is inter¬viewed, even though the IDF is the only army in the world to conscript women. Neither is there any mention of the recurring accidents which nowa¬days fill the headlines of Israeli newspapers.
Indeed there is not a word of criticism in the whole film. Instead there appear fine heroic landscapes and sunsets (but we are not even treated to any music). No Israeli would have dared to produce such a tendentious work. The Israeli television shows films exposing the army as it is, with its problems. Alas, this is not for Lanzmann.
In his words at a reception in Paris, he said the aim of the film was to pre¬sent a Jewish army whose values were different from those of other armies in the world. Of course, Claude Lanzmann, having set himself an impossible task, can only get caught in his own trap. Tsahal is like every army in the world. When an army becomes an occupying army, without exception it vio¬lates human rights, oppresses the occupied people, and violates internation¬al law. This is the real picture. That the IDF soldiers are the sons of Holocaust victims, a fact which Lanzmann stresses at every opportunity, does not con¬stitute any justification, not even indirect, for trampling on Palestinian rights.

Double Standard

Lanzmann's double standard is exposed by his attitude to another phenom¬enon familiar in Israel's former wars: in times of war, people abroad would rush home to join their units. In Lebanon it was the opposite, and there appeared a mass protest movement on an unprecedented scale against the war, and the phenomenon of refusal to serve in an unjust war. The Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit) movement came out against service in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Hundreds were tried and imprisoned for this refusal and many thousands more identified with them.
This is the same Claude Lanzmann who, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, was one of the signers in 1960 of the historic manifesto of the 121 French per¬sonalities against the repression in Algeria, calling upon French youth to refuse to serve in an army which was trampling on Algerian aspirations for independence. Now, however, he is completely silent about the anti-Lebanon protest movement and a similar refusal of IOF soldiers to participate in the repression of another people. No less disgraceful is the treatment of the Intifada and the conflict with the Palestinians, in which the IDF played an important role. Approaching the subject only towards the end of the film, we see pictures of children throw¬ing stones at soldiers, with Lanzmann immediately pointing out how dan¬gerous the stones are, and telling of a parachutist who was killed by a con¬crete slab in the alleys of Nablus. Four Palestinians are wounded by Israeli fire in the only incident we see, though it is unclear whether the soldiers were in danger of their lives. The orders for opening fire became more lax as the Intifada proceeded, leading to some 1,500 Palestinian deaths and 30,000 wounded.
Innumerable reports of the repression by blood and fire of the Intifada were for years seen by millions of TV viewers the world over, yet Lanzmann couldn't spare five minutes in a five-hour film to show the Israeli army doing this job: no bones are broken at the orders of then-¬Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the early days of the Uprising; no youths and children are shot at short range; the local population is not humiliated; no houses of the families of suspects are destroyed or sealed, no public institutions closed; there are no expulsions or collective punish¬ments, like protracted curfews; no censorship, no military courts serving the Occupation.

Imaginary Scenario

In this film, as we have noted, the events and the human landscape are cre¬ations of Lanzmann's imagination. Yet some 100,000 Palestinians went through Israeli prisons during the Intifada, without passing across the screen even for a few moments. In June, 1994, Israel TV screened an excel¬lent documentary by Rami Levi on the torture of Palestinians, with evi¬dence by the tortured and the torturers alike. Had Lanzmann wanted, he could have obtained similar evidence. He didn't do so because it would have upset the imaginary scenario which he was projecting.
Only Israelis speak, hardly any Palestinians. We hear briefly from one Palestinian who is a worker going to Israel to make a livelihood for his ten chil¬dren, with Lanzmann, accompanied by a military governor, asking him why he has so many children instead of using birth control. As historian and critic Tom Segev noted in Ha'aretz, Lanzmann could win an Oscar for bad taste.
A Jewish settler in the territories, Uri Ariel, gets a hug and is another big talker. "The Arabs have built nothing, we are building," he says, while in the background we see Palestinians working in construction sites in his settle¬ment in order to earn a living in a society where employment possibilities for the local population is limited. There is hardly a hint about the question of how, with the help of the army, the occupied is dispossessed of his land.

Remote from the Reality

Another Palestinian who manages to get in a few words is seen crossing Allenby Bridge from Jordan to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He complains that the process of crossing is drawn out and we see his posses¬sions closely searched and disarranged. One gets an impression of nor¬malization but here, as elsewhere, the film distorts the reality. Having received permission to film such a delicate subject, Lanzmann should have revealed the truth about the ugly Israeli at Allenby Bridge. When I served in the reserves for three weeks at the Bridge some ten years ago, I was wit¬ness to endless acts of brutality and insults meted out daily by some of the soldiers there. Nothing of this sort is to be seen in the film.
On the other hand, there is unrestricted right of expression for several Israeli generals who compete in trotting out stale cliches about IDF moral¬ity, about the constant threat to Israel's existence and enemy plans not to conquer but to wipe out the State of Israel. Former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak peddles cheap propaganda on the IDF's purity of arms, and he is in good company. Ariel Sharon appears on his ranch like some ageing and amiable shepherd. Lanzmann grovels before them all, avoiding mention of Sabra and Shatila or of episodes like Sharon's murderous record in reprisal raids over the Jordanian border.

Not a Documentary

Since it lacks continuity and completely ignores vital events, this is a film which is unfaithful to the history of the IDF. Not without justification did one critic call it "a document on the position not of the IOF but on the mood of a Jewish intellectual in Paris" (Dr. Shlomo Zand). The same critic oppos¬es the exploitation of the Holocaust to justify a cult of force.
From the beginning, the film is full of tanks. The impression is that Lanzmann likes tanks and tankists. It is explained that the State of Israel is compelled to develop the arms industry because of the embargo against it in its early years. Though arms became one of the country's main exports, the film avoids the topic since most of the clients were Third World dicta¬torships, like the fascist Pinochet and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Hard as it is to believe, after such unconvincing glorification, Lanzmann told the Israeli press that after his film "the whole world will speak of Tsahal as it did of the Holocaust."
The contrary is true. The film will be seen for what it is, as one-sided and tendentious indoctrination. Perhaps the success of Shoah went to Lanzmann's head, leading him to believe that his new film would succeed in changing the image of Tsahal in the world from that of an army of occu¬pation. If so, the failure of the film proves that all Chutzpah has its limits.