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Israel's enemies take no prisoners

Max Dax interviews director Claude Lanzmann about his film "Tsahal"

On March 12 2009 Jewish director Claude Lanzmann published his memoirs in France. 'Le Lievre de Patagonie' (Gallimard) has since sold over 100,000 copies and the 600 page tome has brought Lanzmann literary stardom.

Lanzmann's immense popularity in France is explained in his biography. The 83-year old was a Resistance fighter, a signatory of the Manifesto of 121 against the war in Algeria, he was a member of the red circle surrounding Jean-Paul Sartre, he was Simone de Beauvoir's partner for many years and is currently the publisher of Les Temps Modernes, France's left-wing intellectual conscience. But Lanzmann rose to fame in 1985 as the director of his 9 1/2 hour film "Shoah" about the murder of the European Jews in the death camps. There is no need to waste any words explaining the importance of this film, suffice it to say that a German company, Absolut Medien film, has just released the film as a 4 DVD set for 75 Euro (the studio version is available for just 29,90) After "Shoah" Lanzmann made "Tsahal" in 1994, a film about the Israeli army which also appears with Absolut Medien for 39,90 Euros on June 29 and includes a discussion between Lanzmann and Ehud Barak.

The unofficial second part of "Shoah" has been the subject of heated debate since its release in 1994. The film focusses on the Israeli military and the wars it has fought. Claude Lanzmann's film is appropriately glistening with weapons and according to the director's statements, often martial in tone.
The starting point for "Tsahal" is an impossibility. How was Israel able to build the first Jewish army in history and what particular historical events have to be taken into account if we are to pass judgement on this army, and with it the State of Israel in the Middle East – especially from the German perspective. To answer this and the question of the connection between the extermination of the Jews and the self-awareness of an army that is surrounded by enemies, Lanzman spends 4.5 hours interviewing soldiers and politicians, teenagers and Palestinians. Like "Shoah" before it "Tsahal" eschews action sequences and images of war. Instead the viewer is mesmerised by interwoven monologues of the protagonists' stories.
Max Dax

taz: Monsieur Lanzmann, exactly 15 years ago your film "Tsahal" was showing in cinemas. It deals with the particular context in which the Tsava Haganah Leisrael, or the Israel Defence Forces should be seen.

Claude Lanzmann: Is it really such a long time ago?

Claude Lanzmann

Would you have made a different film after the Al-Aksa Intifada and the two Israeli-Arab wars that have happened since?

No, I don't think so. I would make the same film. "Tsahal", after all, is not reportage. The film looks at the Six Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition between 1968 and 70 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Not even the first Lebanon war of 1982 plays a role in my film. This is because the question that concerns me is a very different one: why should we judge Israel's army according to different criteria than other armies? Why is human life in Israel deemed more valuable than elsewhere? As an answer to these questions "Tsahal" is still as important as it was at when it premiered 15 years ago.

Could you try to answer your two questions using the example of the two most recent wars.

In both campaigns, in other words against Lebanon and Gaza, Israel felt exposed to constant rocket fire over a long period of time. Northern and Southern Israel respectively were showered with rockets. Thousands of them were fired, often from katyushas, onto Israeli soil, at Israeli kibbutzim, villages and towns along the border. To answer your question this bombardment was unacceptable on two accounts Firstly, because the civilian population was directly impacted, and was forced into bunkers for months at a time. Secondly the government felt it was being subjected to constant provocation. I know lots of people don't want to hear these facts any more. But real arguments do not lose their truth, just because they are repeated.

All stills from "Tsahal" courtesy Absolut Medien
Soldier Adam Ben Tolila

That doesn't answer the question of why human lives in Israel are worth more than elsewhere.

The answer goes back to the Shoah, the murder of the Jews in the Second World War. There are very few families in Israel who did not lose one or several members in the Shoah. The number of Jewish victims killed in wars and attacks must at all costs – and I mean that absolutely literally– be kept as low as possible. That is the maxim. The paradox is that the Israeli army operates on the principle of high-precision, high-impact attacks on specific targets. For example the houses, bases or offices of the Hamas. Yet no matter how precise they try to be, there are always civilian casualties. Hamas and Hezbollah on the other hands, strike at random. Day after day, month after month, year after year they fire their rockets into Israeli territories where they explode at random. Whether they hit a kindergarten or a military base is all the same to them. The main point is that people are killed. Because in the eyes of Hamas or Hezbollah, every Israeli is the enemy, children and civilians included. They want to see Israel wiped off the map. This is why the Israeli army should be judged according to different criteria than other armies.

Thousands of rockets might be fired out of Gaza and Southern Lebanon, but Israeli losses are minimal.

The problem is that the world press only condemns what it sees as Israel's inappropriate use of violence. No one ever talks about what Israel should have done instead. Not respond? Accept the hail of rockets, and chalk up more casualties. That's absurd! We all know that the wars against Israel were never about occupying Israel. No, the idea, which Iran is propagating again today, is to eradicate Israel. The Israeli army finds itself in the thankless situation that, unlike the Lebanese or Egyptian army, it cannot lose. Not once. This is a fatal situation.

David Grossman

This is what your film is about, the paradox that must be overcome.

Normal armies take prisoners; Israel's enemies don't. In my film I try to put myself into the soul of a soldier who knows that if the enemy gets the better of him, he's doomed. The pressure is inhuman. This is why Israeli soldiers are psychologically trained to look death in the eye. If a soldier with this sort of training is outnumbered and ambushed, he has the psychological means to fight back with everything in his power and without hesitation. Indeed a steady stream of assailants are caught unaware by such unexpected resistance and are forced to concede victories despite their starting off in the better battle position.

Is that the logic of war?

Of course. The logic of war is kill or be killed.

And the logic of peace?

All this endless talk about peace! And yet nothing has come of it.

In a recent interview from March 2008 which was added as an extra feature on the "Tsahal" DVD, you talk with the current defence minister, Ehud Barak. He says that Israel is partially responsible for the existence of Hamas and Hezbollah – because of the long-term occupation of Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

He is touching on a dilemma. The situation is so incredibly complicated, because Hamas and Hezbollah have no interest in reaching a solution with Israel. They don't want irredentism, in other words a multi-ethnic state like Ireland. And they don't want a two-state solution. It was during Barak's term as prime minister that the Israeli armies pulled out of Southern Lebanon. And it was Ariel Sharon of all people who ordered the retreat from Gaza. When Sharon had Abbas as a counterpart on the Palistinian side, a man who talked differently from the Palistinian leaders before him, I really did hope that something would change for the good. But then Sharon had a stroke and the process ended. It is a tragedy.

Ariel Sharon plays a central role in your film. But you hardly mention the Sabra and Shatila massacre during the 1982 Lebanon War. You were heavily criticised for this on the Palestinian side.

Not only from the Palestinian side. From the Israeli side as well. The critics like to overlook the fact that my film is not a documentary. "Tsahal" is an auteur film and I am the author. Sabra and Shatila have nothing to do with what my film is saying. There are plenty of things that I leave out of "Tsahal".

Ehud Barack

Instead of talking about Sabra and Shatila, you show images of Sharon as a shepherd surrounded by sheep.

You should not forget that the massacres in the refugee camps were carried out by Arabs on Arabs, not by Israelis. They were carried out to avenge the murders of the newly elected Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel by PLO assassins. People like to forget this.

Arafat and the PLO fighters left Lebanon and headed for Tunisia, with French help. The Israelis disarmed the militias in the camps and then retreated. So whose fault was it? The Israelis'? The PLO? The French? The international troops who left the country prematurely? Simone de Beauvoir wrote an article about it in Les Temps Modernes. Her core message was that the finger of blame would be pointed at everyone, except the murderers. But it's also clear that Sharon bore political responsibility for the massacre carried out by the Phalangist militias, because the Israeli army stood back and let the bloodbath happen. He was then forced to resign as defence minister.

But why show images of Sharon as sweet-tempered shepherd?

Because I know him personally since the war of attrition in 1968. He was a commander on the Southern Front in Sinai. I was with him at the Suez Canal, when this section of the front was under heavy fire from the Egyptian military. He saved my life there. We were being fired at and he threw me to the floor and threw himself on top of me. I was not surprised by his push for peace just before his stroke, because I knew him as a man of courage. Only courageous men can lead peace talks. I filmed him on his farm surrounded by sheep. I chose this image and it's stood the test of time.

Claude Lanzmann with Israel Tal

Was "Tsahal" difficult or easy to film compared with "Shoah"?

The difficulties involved in the research and filming were very different from those in "Shoah". It is probably pretty difficult to make a film about the military in any country. It's even more difficult to make a film about an army which has never been filmed before because it is in a permanent state of alert or war.

In "Shoah" you knew what you wanted to tell. You were dealing with a dark past which had to be wrenched from the clutches of oblivion. In "Tsahal" on the other hand, you are talking about the present. An incredibly difficult task, don't you think?

You are mistaken. In "Tsahal" I also knew exactly what I wanted to tell: the creation an army, the construction of an army, the creation of courage. This army represents a victory of the Jewish people over themselves. There had never been a Jewish army before. My film tells how Jews took their fate into their own hands to avoid ever become victims again. I show how they overcame the victim role and overcame a mental predisposition.

Claude Lanzmann, Ariel Shifman with Palestinians

This new Jewish mentality, you believe, was born in the death camp of Sobibor – where in 1943 the only successful uprising against the SS in such camps took place.

The uprising in Sobibor was lead by Jewish-Russian officers who had fought in the Red Army against the Germany. They were sent to POW camps and then deported to Sobibor, where instead of being gassed immediately like so many others, 50 of them were singled out for fatigue duty. These 50 plotted and spearheaded the uprising. This revolt, in which all involved put their lives firmly on the line, has had a decisive influence on the Jewish identity ever since. This was something new. Of course we should not forget the Jewish Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. This was another attempt to resist destiny. But as we know, it ended in tragedy.

Your film "Shoah" ends with a haunting description of the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising.

Haunting is the right word.

Reservists above Gaza

You reserved your optimism for "Tsahal".

In the Israeli army life is valued higher than anything else. And yet every soldier in the Tsahal is prepared to give his life. Unlike other armies of the world, the soldiers of the Tsahal do not die for the glory of their fatherland, they die for life alone. You should not forget that the genocide of the Jews in the Second World War was not just a murder of innocents. It was also a genocide of the defenceless. My film describes the path to overcome defencelessness. It describes how the Jewish people empowered themselves with weapons and it describes the psychological metamorphosis that the people had to undergo, in order to build an army like the Tsahal, in order to be able to defend themselves, to be able to kill.

For decades, young Israelis have been growing up with the insecurity of knowing that no-one can guarantee that "Israel will still exist in 2025". The novelist and children's author David Grossman says these words in "Tsahal". He is a member of the peace movement. His son Uri died in August 2006, only days after Grossman, together with Amoz Oz, published a petition that called upon Ehud Olmert to pull out of the conflict with Lebanon immediately. Uri, who I have known since he was 10 years old, died in the last days of the fighting, burned in a tank.

The tank is the central motif in "Tsahal". You tell the story of the Tsahal as the story of the Israeli Merkava tank. Do tanks fascinate you?

Weapons play a central role in my film. But I don't know whether I would say they "fascinate" me. That's not a fair word. Because the film is never about fascination. And yet I can certainly say that tanks are the most extraordinary machines. And the most extraordinary tank of all is the Israeli Merkava, because it was built in absolutely impossible conditions. The tank commanders love their Merkavas. The tank units spend at least three years of their lives in them. The Merkava was developed by the Israeli General Tal. He features prominently in my film. He says that Israel is an ideal country in which to develop tanks further and wage wars with them.

Amos Oz

Have you ever ridden in a tank yourself?

Of course I rode in a tank during the filming of "Tsahal". I have also shot grenades from a Merkava. It was really easy to hit a stationary target, but I found it extremely difficult to hit a moving one. I have also flown on reconnaissance missions. During the work on my film I also saw the first prototypes for unmanned flights, drones, which were invented and developed in Israel. They are very unusual machines, but they do not feature in my film.

Have you also seen the bomb?

Pardon me?

Have you seen the atom bomb?

No, no. I haven't seen that. But have have seen the rockets. They were very impressive, powerful weapons.


This interview originally appeared in the taz on
Translation: lp

Maximilian Bauer, alias Max Dax, is a journalist, photographer and grafic designer. He is the author of a number of biographies of rock musicians and has been editor-in-chief of the music magazine Spex since 2006. His book of interviews "Dreißig Gespräche" was recently published by Suhrkamp Verlag.

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