Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 23, 2021 10:50 pm 
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MICHAL WEITS: BLUE BOX (2021) - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)


Great-granddaughter explores ugly family legacy. "Looking the nakba dead in the eye", Haaretz.

Using a simple mix of footage of herself doing research, interviews with her numerous immediate relatives, and rich archival footage plus a revealing voiceover of running quotes gleaned from her great-grandfather's estimated 5,000 pages of diaries from early in the last century into the late sixties, Michal Weits explains the important role of her esteemed forebear, an early Jewish emigrant to Palestine from Russia (1908), one of the country's founding fathers active in turning Palestine into the State of Israel by cunningly, forcibly, removing the Arab Palestinian population so Jews could take over the land. Yosef Weits, her great-grandfather, is known to young Israelis as the father of Israel's forestation, especially a tree-covered territory near Jerusalem. But she finds he has a part in a "darker" history as "the architect of transfer."

The "blue boxes" of the title , made like solid metal piggy banks, were a symbol of the "Jewish Fund" that raised money to buy land in Palestine. It was Palestine then. The filmmaker is the great-granddaughter of a founding father of the State of Israel, the Jewish state of six million Jews who now reign over six million imprisoned and occupied Arab Palestinians. The Hebrew-language slogan, so often cited as justification and mentioned here, was "A land without a people for a people without land." This is a lie. Among her visual aids Michal Weits uses some maps with population figures. "1910 Palestine. Jews 80.000 Arabs 650.000." Then "1933 Palestine. Jews 175.000 Arabs 800.000." These dates and figures, Arabs to Jews, punctuate the film up to the present. Never did the Jews who emigrated to Palestine find a "land without a people."

One family member (she is interviewing mainly the male members of her family, her father and four uncles) says great-granddad Yosuf didn't "dislike" Arabs. (That can be questioned, and makes no difference.) But Zionist ideals meant a land whose majority was Jewish. This came down to the idea that there could be no Arabs. Therefore, the Arabs had to be eliminated, by any means necessary. Indeed, from the POV of the early Jewish settlers, what else could they do?

Well, the answer has to be that you can't buy a country for yourself. It's not like countries have been established by "proper" means normally. But there is no way to justify Weits' activities in acquiring land. The aim was to get it by purchase. The first source were the "effendis," landowning Palestinians who lived in Lebanon, Syria, or other countries, who were willing to sell their land in Palestine, and sometimes said they didn't care if the occupants were kicked off it. Other times land was acquired from poor farmers who didn't know what was happening. Weits sometimes expressed in his journal guilt at removing "Arabs" from swaths of land. Though Yosuf is clearly a sensitive and perceptive man, this seems somewhat of the order of the tears of Lewis Carroll's Walrus while eating the oysters.

The matter was simple, as Yosuf Weits saw it: "If the Arabs depart, the land will be vast and spacious. If the Arabs remain, the land will be impoverished and cramped." Look at this, and you will understand United Nations Resolution 3379, that Zionism is a form of racism. Weits was an ardent Zionist. There is no way one can express these thoughts and not be having racist thoughts, which can also be simply not seeing the "other" as equally human with oneself. "We cannot leave a single village," he want on, "not one tribe."

World War II filled Yosuf with "anguish." But the film breezes through to the thousands of Jewish refugees who came to Palestine as a result, the Partition, and the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. Egypt immediately attacked. This appears to directly lead to mustering of a male-female Israeli army, thence to attacks on Arab villages, the flight of Arabs from them. The use of archival and stock news footage here as throughout provides a rapid and adept Israeli history.

New map, new figures: "1948 The State of Israel. Jews 650,000. Arabs 156,000." Weits notes that approximately 750,000 Arabs were forced to flee from their villages. But 156,000 managed to remain. The 750,000 refugees scatter just beyond the borders.

Much later, after the 1967 war, Weits withdrew from his more extreme views about "transfer" of Arab populations and was not ready to sanction the seizing of Arab lands in that conflict. But then, he was head of the "Transfer Committee," whose main focus may have been to insure the Palestinians could not return to their villages and towns. Yosef records "no remorse" at viewing the ruined villages. He wrote to Ben Gurion that the empty villages must be filled with Jews so Arabs could not return to them. This is in the way of UN Resolution 194, the right of return.

Yosuf's heading of the forestation project gave him satisfaction. Growth, greenery, improvement of the land. But it was also changing the land from how it was before the Arabs fled, covering over the ruins of the villages. Michal notes that growing up, she had ignored these ruined villages, imagining they were ancient, not from 70-odd years ago.

The State of Israel wound up seizing all the fled-from land and selling it, a massive real estate deal of dubious legality. The 750,000 refugees remained in many camps scattered all around outside Israel. No Arab country would take them, fearing to do so would imply Israel was legitimate. Yosuf saw the danger of this. Michal's uncles recognize this is an ugly fact. Her father expresses his rejection of her film project. He thinks she is judging unfairly from her distant perspective and says he will not cooperate.

Now we are at "1966. Jews 2.434.000. Arabs 406.000." Then comes the June war and the great Israeli victory over Egypt. Yosuf sees through the general euphoria, that the West Banks and Gaza will be a terrible problem, because this time, the Palestinians did not flee, they remained, a million of them. Amid the joy of victory, he was depressed by the burden that would linger on for generations. As it has.

This film, with its truths of the "nakba," the Arab tragedy that the State of Israel became, is also a remarkably powerful expression of the viewpoint of a young Israeli exploring the past - in dialogue with her ancestor whose monumental and deeply revealing journal she records and pays tribute to here. A remarkable film.

Blue Box, 79 mins., debuted at Toronto Apr. 29, 2021 (Hot Docs), also shown at Tel Aviv (Docaviv) Jul. 4, 2021. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1).


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