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Tantura, BDS and surveillance in focus at 'Other Israel' film festival in New York

Organisers of film festival say it is becoming harder to ignore the narrative of the Nakba, both in Israel and outside of it
The expulsion of Tantura women, children and elderly from Furaydis to Jordan on 13 June 1948. (Photo credit: Beno Rothenberg collection)
By Azad Essa in New York City

The Nakba, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) and Israeli military surveillance will be the themes headlining a film festival in New York, in a move organisers say will further illustrate that criticising Israel is not antisemitic.

The "Other Israel" film festival, now in its 16th year, will open on Thursday with Tantura, an explosive Israeli documentary that features a lucid examination of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian village of Tantura in June 1948 - an incident the Israeli government and much of academia denied for decades.

Tantura, directed by Alon Schwarz, created a stir in Israel when it was released earlier this year as it delved into personal testimonies of Israeli forces from the Alexandroni Brigade, Jewish people who later moved into the area, and Palestinian villagers who survived the massacre, exposing historical erasure and collective amnesia.

In his film, Schwarz also examines the work of Teddy Katz, the Israeli researcher who studied and collected more than 100 hours of personal testimony that confirmed that between 200-300 Palestinian villagers were rounded up and killed by Israeli militia during a raid on the village. Outside of the film, the number of casualties varies by source in the range of 40-300.

Schwarz also used satellite imagery to prove the existence of a mass grave in the vicinity, as described by Palestinians since the 1950s. 

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Other voices

Isaac Zablocki, executive director of the festival, described the film "as one of the biggest documentaries to come out of Israel this year".

"At the core of 'Other Israel' is listening to other opinions, even and especially if they cause discomfort. Hearing other narratives that recognise the perspective of the Nakba is crucial for the Jewish community and the Israeli community," said Zablocki, who is also senior director of film programmes at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan which organised the festival.

'I think it's very hard for Israelis to admit they commit war crimes, because basically the project of Zionism has a problem'

Isaac Zablocki, Other Israel executive director

Zablocki said one goal of the festival was to illustrate that criticism against Israel was not to be conflated with antisemitism.

"Being critical of Israel does not mean that you are antisemitic," he told Middle East Eye. "Through the festival and the films this year, we are addressing the importance of taking a deeper look at antisemitism, where it exists and where it is not."

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who has written about Tantura and the Nakba, and has faced attempts to censor his work, also features in the documentary.

"I think it's very hard for Israelis to admit they commit war crimes, because basically the project of Zionism has a problem," he says in the film.

"It's a tragedy in a sense. Jews had to escape from Europe to find a safe haven, but you cannot create a safe haven by creating a catastrophe for others," he adds.

In February, Pappe lauded the documentary - but cautioned that "films or dissertations by conscientious Israeli Jews are not enough to rectify this crime".

"The massacre was part of an overall crime against humanity that Israel committed in 1948 and continues to perpetrate to this very day - a crime that is still widely denied," Pappe wrote.

Whereas Tantura showcases how Israeli society has attempted to bury the massacre in Tantura, the festival will also feature several other acclaimed films, including Boycott, which focuses on the attempt to stifle the BDS campaign; H2: The Occupation Lab which documents how Jewish settlers have impacted the Palestinian city of Hebron; and The Soldier's Opinion which looks at how the Israeli military surveilled its own soldiers' letters as a way to control them.

"We see in all of our films that there is a tension between the telling of both narratives in Israel. It is getting harder to ignore the narrative of the Nakba, both in Israel and outside of it. Tantura wants to start that dialogue," Zablocki said.

Changing attitudes

Researchers say that, since 2019, even though Americans were still more likely to support Israel, data showed Americans were beginning to warm up to Palestine. Even as opinions towards Israel have changed among young Jewish Americans, Israel is still an important part of the community's identity. 

In a Pew Research Center study published in May 2021, 45 percent of American Jews described Israel as "essential" to what being Jewish means, while 37 percent say it is "important, but not essential". 

The "Other Israel" festival is organised by the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, an organisation that describes itself as "deeply connected to Israel". The group has relations with Birthright Israel, too. 

Last year, Schwarz told Haaretz that he was not a proponent of BDS, but the festival itself did not accept sponsorship from any Israeli governmental agency.

The festival runs from 3-9 November, with screenings in person and online.

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