Waltz With Bashir: A Case Study on the Complicity of the Israeli Cultural Industry with Israeli Apartheid

Still Image from the Film Still Image from the Film

As Israeli jets began the aerial bombardment of the already besieged Gaza Strip last December, the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, directed by Ari Folman, opened across North America.

 The film is an animated story of the filmmaker himself who, years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, is compelled to look into his past when an old friend tells him that he suffers from nightmares about his army service, making Ari realize that he remembers almost nothing about that time in his life. He sets about contacting soldiers from his unit to piece together snippets of memory of their participation in the invasion. The film depicts the invasion of Lebanon in graphic animated detail, culminating in Ari’s belated recollection of his unit’s participation in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The images of the massacre in the film were all too similar to those we saw on the news of the horrors inflicted on the people of Gaza, and reviews were quick to point out the timely release of the film.


Many reviewers wrote that the film was a courageous and nuanced commentary on Israel’s historical and ongoing war on Palestinians. Critics were impressed by the film artistically and politically, and took it as an example of the openness and reflective nature of Israeli society, and particularly the art world, some musing that it speaks to the power of art as a form of social commentary even (or especially) in a time of war. For some attentive to the growing awareness and activism around the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, the film presented a challenge to the boycott, as it seemed to prove that in the Israeli military state, the arts may be the one beacon of hope in the midst of a right wing consensus. Some are concerned by the boycott, feeling that films like this one intervene in important ways, and that in the absence of films like these, there would be no critique of Israel available.

Clearly there is a point to be made in general about the history and potential of artistic communities to voice critique and opposition to repressive regimes and injustice. This is, in fact, the platform of the call for cultural boycott, which came from artists specifically speaking as artists to appeal to legacies of artistic participation in movements for justice. There are countless examples worldwide and throughout history of this possibility, a particularly important one being artist activism against South African apartheid, a highlight of which was the Sun City boycott in which diverse artists committed to refusing to perform and exhibit for segregated audiences in South Africa. These artists used their production as a way to publicize the wrongs of Apartheid and demonstrate the power of united voices against the South African regime. It is crucial to note that these activities were also intended to highlight the role that the arts play in broader politics. They pointed out that not participating in the boycott was also taking a stance: to make one’s art available to repressive regimes, which, as we saw with apartheid South Africa, rely on the arts as a public relations tool to appeal to the world and demonstrate the “democracy” of the regime, is to be complicit in the regime’s whitewashing of its dirty deeds.

In the past few years, Israel has explicitly undertaken a campaign to boost its international reputation through the arts to take attention away from its inherently racist foundations and the manifestations of these foundational principles. North America has been an especially important part of this campaign, and Toronto has been chosen as the test city for the “Brand Israel” program, which aims to counter-act negative (real) portrayals of Israel as a militaristic and racist society. Film and popular culture in general is an important site for this, and the Israeli government has poured money into these new public relations campaigns. As the Israeli government is putting so much energy into these “culture as ambassador” efforts, it is important for us to examine and expose the many ways in which cultural production in Israel is related to its structure of apartheid.

Let us for a moment put aside the question of whether or not the film Waltz With Bashir indeed does produce a real critique of Israel, and clarify the terms of the cultural boycott. The boycott of Israel was called for by artists around the world, and its terms were clarified in the establishment of the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in 2004.

The campaign calls for a comprehensive boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions (not individuals) in the following ways:

-Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration, or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
-Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
-Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
-Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
-Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

The call is based in the understanding that throughout the history of the state of Israel, academic and cultural institutions have actively participated in and perpetuated Israeli apartheid at the expense of Palestinians through research for military and demographic purposes, through the promotion of a whitewashed image of Israel, and through the active suppression of Palestinian arts. This suppression of Palestinian arts, in turn, is a part of the generalized oppression of Palestinians, who live under occupation, or as second-class citizens within the state of Israel, or as refugees denied their right to return.

The film Waltz With Bashir provides a useful case study to understand the context for the call to boycott and the reasons why it is so important. Through analyzing the film’s text and context, we can begin to understand the role that Israeli cultural production often plays in the maintenance of Israeli apartheid. It is important to look at this film in relation to the call for boycott precisely because the film enables this system of repression by casting doubt on the necessity of the boycott. Now that we have clarified the call for boycott, let us examine the film and consider what work films like Waltz With Bashir can do and what kind of critique they can offer. Furthermore, we might wonder, if we were operating in the context of a widespread support for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions, what different critique might be amplified and what kind of alternative networks and processes of production might be made possible by the boycott?

To begin with, Waltz With Bashir was made with the support of the Israeli Film Fund and the New Foundation for Cinema and Television, an organization established by the Israeli Ministry of Education, Culture & Sport, with the assistance of The Israel Film Council. The website of the Film Council announces that part of its mission is “to assist Israeli filmmakers in presenting authentic Israeli stories to audiences in Israel and world-wide, thus creating an archive for the future,” and the Israeli Film Fund boasts that Israeli films have gained popularity abroad, telling audiences around the world stories of Israelis.

In its narcissism, Waltz With Bashir is pointedly an authentic Israeli story, operating through a dive into the psyche of a soldier.

The viewer is drawn in not only to the superficial perspective of Ari, but also deep into his nightmares, his guilt, his moral complexes, and his relationship with other Israelis who share these traumatic memories. While the film may be in some ways about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the take-away message from the film is not about the massacre at all, but rather that
Israeli citizen/soldiers are deeply traumatized and conflicted about their participation in the military. It is, in this sense, a uniquely Israeli story presented to the world to empathize with. Unlike in some more direct Israeli propaganda, Palestinians in this film are not depicted as guilty and responsible for their own oppression, but rather as story-less, screaming victims.

They are only background to the true victims in this Israeli story, the innocent and confused young Israelis who would rather be listening to music and playing football than waging a war on a civilian population.

This is the imprint that this film leaves on the “archive of the future,” and it works to close the historical debates on responsibility for the massacre. It is certainly not the first film made about Sabra and Shatila, so it will be added to the archive of the documents on that massacre. Its unique Israeli contribution to this archive is the perspective of the perpetrator.

It presents the larger context of war as complicated and messy, and its focus on the individual stories of the feelings of Israeli soldiers obscures the bigger story that is presented in other films and documents. The bigger story is that as a part of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the military armed and trained Lebanese Phalangist militias, prepared for their incursion into the camps, shot flares into the air and watched as they massacred Palestinians. This is not to mention the even larger context of the existence of Palestinian refugees in the first place (another “mishap” for which Israeli state and most of its citizenry refuse to take responsibility for), and the Israeli campaign against the PLO in Lebanon and beyond. Zooming in on the individual Israeli soldiers erases this context, giving the impression that somehow it was incidental that this occurred and that Israelis had no responsibility to speak of in what happened. If an army and a state is a collection of individuals, none of whom have the power to comprehend or act, then there is no way to address responsibility. This is the same style of argument made by Adolf Eichmann in his trial in Israel—that he was simply a bureaucrat concerned about his own career, not really focused on the larger Nazi project. For the Israeli government, then, this film “set the record straight” about who could be held responsible for this massacre, and it clears the name of Israelis by showing their complicated humanity.

Certainly Ariel Sharon is implicated, but it is easy to unload responsibility onto a single high-ranking character who is no longer a political player. It is a way to effectively close the books on the massacre, as something orchestrated by a now brain-dead Israeli politician and Phalangist mobs.

This individualism comes through clearly in Folman’s attitude toward the film and his work in general. In interviews about the film, Folman is explicit that he does not believe that art can make change in society and that the film was for him a tool to work through his demons. He sees himself (and perhaps the artist in general) as outside of politics. He was surprised by the support he received from the Israeli government, but shrugged it off without further comment, and toured around the world collecting praise and awards as Israeli bomber jets and ground troops crushed the Gaza Strip. Why should he care? His work was done. He had worked through his demons and told his story. His reflections on the filmmaking process are strikingly similar to the way that the soldiers are depicted in his film; neither filmmaker nor soldier have a sense of ownership or responsibility.

“Really, we didn’t know what we were doing. I believe you never do as filmmakers,” he said in an interview. He speaks about the role of the filmmaker in the same way he presents the role of soldiers in war—confused, unknowing, surprised.

And what about Palestinians, the screaming characters in his film? What about their stories? Folman is clear that he cannot tell a Palestinian story (“Who am I to tell their stories?” he says of the Palestinians. “They have to tell their own stories.”) Certainly we would not want him to try to tell the stories of Palestinians, but it is not too much to expect that he recognize how his project does not exist within a vacuum and how, in his work, he actively participates in the silencing of Palestinian voices and the further sealing off from Palestinians the space of Israeli culture (the so-called beacon of left hope).

After all, it is not that Palestinian filmmakers are not telling stories too. In 2002, filmmaker Mohammad Bakri, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, made a film Jenin, Jenin about the massacre in Jenin committed that year by Israeli soldiers. Bakri’s story did not have a place in these Israeli stories. He certainly did not receive funding from the Israeli Film Foundation, and in fact, his film was officially banned by the Israeli Film Board. While eventually the Israeli High Court overturned the ban (with the statement by Justice Dalia Dorner: “The fact that the film includes lies is not enough to justify a ban.”), Bakri was shortly afterwards charged with libel by several soldiers who participated in the massacre, and to this day faces huge legal fees and fines.

Not surprisingly, the Israeli government is not interested in just any stories from Israel, but only stories that reiterate the Jewish-Israeli image of the morally complex, strong, sacrificial character, as that is the one that will continue to excuse Israel for its ongoing and structural criminality. We should not be shocked that the Israeli film world is so actively involved in perpetuating the preferred national image. Such is the tradition of Israeli film, which has always reflected and reproduced the racism in Israeli society toward Palestinians, not to mention Arab Jews (as detailed in Ella Shohat’s book Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, 1989).

So what could Folman have done differently? Folman’s assertion that he cannot tell Palestinian stories is an egregious evasion of responsibility. Did he ever ask Palestinian artists what stories they might tell if they were afforded the possibilities that he is? Did he wonder when he received state funding to make his film and received praise even from Israeli president Shimon Peres, who is not able to make films, or whose films are suppressed while his is promoted? Does he wonder why Palestinian stories are not heard and supported broadly as is his own? Had he taken the time to listen for Palestinian voices, he may have noticed that they are telling stories despite and in resistance to their suppression. Perhaps he would have been able to hear the call of Palestinian artists to boycott Israeli institutions, rather than waiting for their stories to miraculously emerge from the institutions which silence them. A small amount of research shows that the very organization that funded his film was the target of a publicly released letter by Palestinian filmmakers who protested its support from the European Union, while Palestinian film organizations are not even considered eligible. Unlike Folman, a number of Israeli cultural producers supported the letter of protest by Palestinian filmmakers and even wrote their own letter appealing for a response to their Palestinian colleagues’ letter.

When we think about the boycott in relation to this film, it becomes all the more clear why the boycott is precisely the strategy that can call attention to the dirty relationship between some cultural production and state propaganda. The call is not to boycott Israeli individual cultural producers, but institutions. In this way, it is fully possible for individual Israeli filmmakers to imagine a different process for making films, to see themselves as a part of a collective of artists who refuse to be complicit in apartheid, and to begin from that platform in their cultural production. For those who worry that films like Waltz With Bashir couldn’t be possible under the boycott—imagine what films would be possible made from a strong grassroots network of artists who refuse to participate in the oppression of Palestinians? The boycott would not be the cutting
off of Israelis from cultural production, but a process of redistributing resources and re-imagining the possibilities for what artistic communities operating from principles of solidarity and justice could accomplish.

* Ryvka Bar Zohar is a New York based educator/activist, working with the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel and the Palestine Education Project.