Israeli film opens new paths for dialogue with Palestinians

In Michal Weitz’s film “Blue Box,” her great grandfather, the JNF leader, Joseph Weitz, is demythologized. Through her readiness to discuss the sins of the past including those of her great grandfather, helped by his candid diaries, the director of the documentary opens a path to dialogue with the Palestinians.

Michal Weitz’s film Blue Box (named after the little tin box once used by Zionists for collecting coins to buy land in Palestine) is a brave and touching movie that unabashedly presents the process of deporting Palestinian Arabs in the 1930s, during the 1948 war and through to establishment of the State of Israel.

The film’s power stems from the fact that its creator, screenwriter and director, Michal Weitz, challenges her great-grandfather Yosef Weitz, a Jewish National Fund (JNF) leader who played a key role in the transfer of Palestinians by the hundreds of thousands and the takeover of their property and homes.

With documentary precision, Michal Weitz presents diary excerpts written by Yosef Weitz in real time, along with rare photographs, which illustrate the terrible disaster that befell the Palestinians during those years and has been perpetuated since by Israel, especially during the 1948 war (which Palestinians call the Naqba, the catastrophe.

The film does not go easy on its viewers. It presents reality in all its sharpness. The director confronts the facts together with her family members, who all grew up in the myth of Joseph Weitz, considered by Israel’s official historiography as the one who led the land acquisition and massive afforestation efforts.

Weitz takes stock of her family’s history. She interviews her 3 uncles, among them the   historian Yehiam Weitz, plus her father, TV broadcaster Rami Weitz. All four of them – who belong to a generation born in the 1940s and 1950s – have similar reactions, embracing the notion that there was no choice. It is a generation that refuses to critically examine its fathers and grandfathers. In what might be defined as the film’s climax, the director defies her father, telling him that what happened was a tragedy and that the questions she raises must be asked. Rami Weitz replies that he would have preferred that she not deal with these issues. For Joseph Weitz’s grandson, it’s inappropriate that a relative dub his mythic grandfather as “the father of transfer.”

It is not a historical film, but the diaries of Joseph Weitz, who wrote honestly and directly, allow us to understand that the idea of a Jewish and democratic state is a fiction, with no chance of coming about. The transfer promoted by Weitz aimed to create an area free of Arabs. Yet the refugees deported in 1948 did not disappear. In the 1950’s, Weitz turned to Israel’s leaders, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, warning them that the refugees constituted a timebomb that must be dealt with. He proposed to compensate tthem and find various solutions to relocate them. He was answered with shrugs, apparently in the hope that the Palestinian refugees would be forgotten.

The 1967 occupation reshuffled the deck. While Israel was immersed in the euphoria of victory, Weitz was appalled by the fact that the refugees deported only yesterday were now under Israeli rule in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Only a year earlier, Weitz had resigned from all his state positions, frustrated by the political leadership’s disregard of his warnings about the refugee problem. In his diary, he writes that the idea of separation had failed with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The purely Jewish Israel he had dreamed of had disappeared, and in its place another land had been created, in which Israel had millions of Palestinians under its control, deprived of their rights.

Michal Weitz describes her great grandfather’s dilemmas, but remains focused on discussion within her family. She is not angry. Or bitter. She asks questions. She fails to persuade her father and uncles to understand the injustice done by her great grandfather to the Palestinians. The film presents scenes from the intifada of 1988 and then from the demonstrations in Gaza in 2018, showing that the sins of 1948 cannot be swept beneath the rug. But her interviewees from the older generation refuse to acknowledge this.

On the other hand, we also hear another perspective: that of the director’s younger relatives, who share her position. The fact that her three cousins stand by her, including Gidi Weitz (the investigative journalist with Haaretz). is a significant fact. Michal Weitz is not a voice crying in the wilderness. She is part of a generation of Israelis who think differently. Even if this group is still a minority, it is clear from the discussion in the film that we face a generational conflict inside Israeli society between young and old.

Michal Weitz devoted 14 years to research and collect materials from her great grandfather’s period. During this research she read 5000 diary pages written by him, which enabled her to decipher the codes guiding his activity. Her film fits the world’s developing confrontation with the sins of previous generations. The US has declared a national day to mark the fight against slavery, and in Canada there is a sharp reckoning around the horrific treatment of the indigenous nations.

Blue Box does not give expression to what happened and is happening on the Palestinian side, neither then nor today. As a Palestinian writer, Odeh Basharat noted in his Ha’aretz column (July 30, 2021), that the children who fled from the destroyed villages in 1948 were left without a voice. Yet the young Arab generation of Michal Weitz’s age, in Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, Damascus, Khartoom and many other cities have taken to the streets in the last decade, starting with the Arab Spring, to challenge the older generation. While hopes for rapid democratic change have been brutally trampled by dictatorial regimes, the ideas of freedom and justice continue to thrive. Many activists are still in jail and others, including thousands of writers, musicians, journalists, artists and film directors, continue to reflect on this amazing revolutionary experience through their artistic work in exile.

Presumably the director of Blue Box does not know her colleagues across the border. The film gives the impression that this is the first time she has faced the realities of Palestinian life and history. The Arab younger generation, including Palestinians in Ramallah and Bethlehem, is likewise removed from the Hebrew language and Israeli culture.  It is as if they say, if the Israeli side denies our existence, what is the point of opening ourselves to a dialogue with it? After all, the principle that guided Yosef Weitz in all his actions, within the framework of the JNF and the Zionist movement in general, is that there exists no possibility that Jews and Arabs will live together in this country.

Yet through this film, the Blue Box, we discover that there exists another option. The great granddaughter, director Michal Weitz, offers another side of Israel. A side that is open to humane discourse inviting true dialogue. Her film inspires hope that young people on both sides will know how to break down boundaries and prejudices, and that they will find a way to create a life of equality and partnership.

About Assaf Adiv