Statement on the Logan Center’s Upcoming Screening of Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) strongly opposes the Logan Center’s hosted screening of Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir and urges all students, faculty, and community members to boycott this event. As explained below, Folman’s film whitewashes Israel’s role in the 1982 Sabra/Shatila genocide, centers Israeli perpetrators over Palestinian victims, and falsely portrays this genocide as an isolated incident of “tragic” violence — rather than, as is in fact the case, one atrocity among countless others in Zionism’s ongoing campaign to erase Palestinians wherever they exist.

cw: violence, sexual assault

40 years ago last month, Ari Folman participated in a genocide. 

The year was 1982, and the Israeli army, which Folman was serving in, had just completed a brutal ten week invasion of Lebanon, killing more than 10,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the process. By the war’s end in September 1982, the Palestinian militant groups Israel was fighting had fully surrendered and agreed to evacuate the country, having received assurances that Lebanon’s civilian population would be protected if they did so.

These assurances were lies. Mere weeks after the Palestinian withdrawal, Israel renewed its assault on the now defenseless, largely Palestinian population of West Beirut. This assault reached its climax on September 16-18, when Israeli soldiers – Folman among them – facilitated a brutal massacre of Palestinian refugees and others sheltered in the Sabra and Shatila camps. Having first blockaded the area and closed its exits with tanks, Israel sent a group of notoriously violent and anti-Palestinian Lebanese fascists into the camps to do their worst to the refugees inside. For the next forty hours, Israeli soldiers stood guard and fired flares to light the sky as their fascist allies systematically slaughtered, tortured, raped, and brutalized more than 2,000 civilians in the camps below.

Folman was among the Israeli soldiers firing flares, directly assisting the Lebanese fascists in what the UN later judged an “act of genocide.” Rather than reacting to this UN verdict with shame or remorse, Folman continued serving for another twenty years in the army that had, with his help, facilitated the genocide in question. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Folman had established himself in the Israeli film industry, that he decided to reckon publicly with his role in the massacre. He did this not by taking accountability for his actions, demanding justice for its victims, or denouncing the criminal Israeli military, but rather by making a film centered around his own professed PTSD from the incident.

The film Folman made, Waltz With Bashir (2008), conforms to the well-worn Israeli genre of “shooting and crying” (in which ex-soldiers make public displays of existential angst regarding atrocities they’ve been supposedly “forced” to commit against Palestinians). While Bashir does not downplay the violence suffered by Palestinians during the 1982 genocide, it uses this violence primarily as a foil against which Israeli humanity can appear more visibly and dramatically. Throughout the film, Folman and his fellow Israeli veterans are portrayed as sensitive, anguished, sympathetic souls – the kind nobly “haunted” by the bad things they saw and did in wartime – unlike the Lebanese, who are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals, or the Palestinians, who are portrayed solely as corpses or nameless victims. Simply put, this is not a film that in any way honors the memory of Sabra and Shatila’s victims. It is a film that uses these victims and their memory as background material for a dramatization of Folman’s own existential struggles.

The problem is not simply that Bashir centers Israeli perpetrators over Palestinian victims, however. It is also that the film fundamentally whitewashes and denies Israel’s well-documented responsibility in planning and facilitating the genocide. As Folman once admitted, when explaining the Israeli government’s support for Bashir, the film serves as excellent “propaganda” for the Israeli state insofar as it places full blame on Israel’s Lebanese allies and virtually none on Israel. The fact that Israel explicitly armed, trained, funded, and sent those Lebanese allies is nowhere mentioned in the film; nor is the fact that many Israeli troops were stationed within eyesight of the killings; nor, finally, is the fact that Israeli tanks actively guarded the camps’ exits during the massacre. By omitting these and other crucial details, Folman’s film creates an ahistorical and propagandistic picture of what happened in 1982 – a picture in which the Sabra/Shatila genocide was just another instance of intercommunal “Arab” violence, not something Israel played any significant role in perpetrating.

The psychological payoff of this historical revisionism is clear. It allows Folman, having made a public performance of moral anguish in the first half of the film, to walk away reassured that he and his fellow soldiers in fact had, in his words, “nothing to do with” the genocide they helped facilitate. After all – Folman insists without evidence – none of the soldiers had any idea what was happening under their watch or within their field of vision, and even if they had known, they weren’t personally the ones doing the shooting. As Folman’s friend reassures him near the film’s conclusion, “Unwillingly, you took on the role of the Nazi. You were there firing flares, but you didn’t carry out the massacre.” It’s difficult to imagine this distinction being recognized as meaningful by those murdered under the light of Folman’s unit’s flares, but here as elsewhere, Folman displays no interest in the perspective of Palestinian victims. His focus, rather, is on the anguish and trauma that tenderhearted Israeli soldiers like himself must suffer even for crimes of which they have declared themselves innocent.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly of all, Bashir abstracts the Sabra/Shatila genocide from the wider context of the colonial Zionist project, which has worked for more than a century to erase Palestinians wherever they exist. The Sabra/Shatila genocide did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred at the end of a brutal Israeli war of aggression against Palestinians in Lebanon, waged as part of Israel’s larger effort to destroy Palestinian life and identity and make way for the further colonization of Palestinian land. Omitting this crucial context obscures not only our understanding of the 1982 genocide, but also the profound continuities between this atrocity and the countless others perpetrated by Israel before and since (most recently in Gaza this year). Contrary to what Bashir implies, Sabra/Shatila was neither an anomaly nor an exception. Rather, it was one particularly stark revelation of what, in practice, Zionism has always meant for Palestinians: dehumanization, displacement, and destruction.

The victims of Sabra and Shatila deserve better than Folman and his propagandistic, self-absorbed, self-exculpatory film. They deserve not to watch participants in their slaughter be welcomed, hosted, platformed, and celebrated at institutions like the University of Chicago. Above all, they deserve justice for their genocide’s perpetrators, reparations for their suffering, and – like all Palestinian refugees – the right to return to their original homes and villages. If Folman had any heart for the Palestinians whose murder he helped facilitate, he would devote his life to demanding all this and more for the camps’ survivors – not to mention the survivors of Israel’s other past and present atrocities. Until then, he has no business opening his mouth about Sabra/Shatila or being given platforms to do so. 

Further Reading

Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, ch. 4

Bayan Nuwayhed Al-Hout, Sabra and Shatila: September 1982

Steven Salaita, Israel’s Dead Soul, ch. 5

Naira Antoun, Review of Waltz With Bashir (Electronic Intifada)