In 2000, a Newspaper Headline Opened a Wound in Israeli Society. It Still Hasn't Healed.
The fight over alleged war crimes from 1948 is a window into the kaleidoscope of history and memory in Israeli culture
On a breezy day late last summer, just after the Jewish new year, I found myself on the road to Kibbutz Magal, a small community on the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank. The radio was playing interviews with hotel managers who supplied luxury suites free of charge to chayalim bodedim—“lonely soldiers” without family in Israel who didn’t have anywhere to spend the holiday weekend. These interviews, held by tearful presenters, were interspersed with a maniacal ad jingle for eyewear—“The craving for glasses!”—that I heard 20 times or more as the hilly central Israeli landscape gave way to the Sharon Plain.
I soon arrived at my destination: the home of Teddy Katz, a 70-year-old kibbutz member and peace activist who played a central role in one of the most fascinating controversies to shake Israel in the past two decades. On Jan. 21, 2000, the weekend edition of the Maariv newspaper fronted a headline that blared “The Massacre in Tantura!" Written by the journalist Amir Gilat, the article purported to describe a war crime cover-up approaching the scale of My Lai. Research carried out by Katz, Gilat wrote, had unveiled “an array of atrocities including the shooting of men in the streets, in their homes and, in a concentrated fashion, in groups of six to 10 at the village cemetery.” In total, the article said, more than 200 noncombatants had been killed during the War of Independence in 1948 by Israeli soldiers from the Alexandroni Brigade, their bodies dumped into mass graves that were eventually covered over by a beachfront parking lot now shared by the seaside resort villages of Kibbutz Dor and Kibbutz Nachsholim. The basis for the “scoop” was a 150-page thesis Katz submitted for a master’s degree at Haifa University in March of 1998, two years before Gilat’s story was published.
Katz’s house is a long, single-story structure with a vibrant green yard that slopes down to the road below. A golden retriever was sleeping in a patch of sun on the porch when I walked up. Shushu, Teddy Katz's wife, came out to greet me. She is a small woman with short brown hair, deep-set eyes, and the lined face of a habitual smoker. She led me into the cool darkness of their living room, where the decor gently evoked the couple’s years spent in Latin America on shlichut promoting the kibbutz movement.
Katz sat in a big chair. He has a handsome face, with high cheekbones, a full beard, and a rakish widow’s peak. On the table next to him lay a pile of documents and newspapers, a notebook, and a magnifying glass. When I entered the room, he began the slow, arduous process of standing up. Half of his body is paralyzed. He lost his English and his Arabic to a stroke, though he has taught himself to walk again and to read and speak again in Hebrew. “To give up is to be imprisoned,” he told me. (All translations are my own.)
Both he and Shushu come from Haifa, where Jews and Arabs co-exist in relative peace. They were raised on the myth that Israel was empty when the Jews arrived—“the land without people,” Shushu said, with a heavy dose of sarcasm—but it eventually became impossible for them not to notice the older houses that still stood amid the newer Jewish construction. When Katz began his master’s course at Haifa University, his professors told him that the subject of the Arab flight from Haifa had already been covered and suggested he look at smaller villages in the area. He chose Tantura, a village on the Mediterranean coast near Zichron Ya’akov. “We knew Tantura because we were there as children at the beach,” Shushu said. She remembers the day Teddy came home and told her, “Listen, you’re not going to believe it, in Tantura there was a big massacre.”
Katz spent years seeking out former residents of Tantura in order to corroborate stories that originally appeared in the Palestinian press in the early 1990s. His thesis was awarded a grade of 97—a mark professors say may be the highest the university has ever awarded a thesis. Then it was shelved and forgotten, until Gilat, who was also a student at Haifa University, discovered it—and published its findings as a news story, setting off a public firestorm.
Veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade immediately organized to mount a response to what they argued was an assault on their honor. They sued Katz for libel, claiming 1.1 million shekels, or about $300,000, in damages. During the trial, the veterans’ lawyer exposed multiple errors Katz had made in the thesis. Some were quite egregious, such as including quotes that were not reflected in transcriptions of the taped interviews. Katz’s lawyers never presented a defense at trial, because Katz, who began to suffer an aneurysm during the proceedings, settled—or was pressured to settle, depending on whom you believe—outside of court.
While most of Tantura’s former inhabitants wound up in the West Bank or Syria, a handful still live in Fureidis, a few miles from where Tantura once stood and a half-hour drive from Katz’s home in Kibbutz Magal. Shushu prepared Teddy for travel. Since he can’t walk more than a few steps, Teddy sat in a wheelchair, and Shushu pushed him to my rental car. Together we helped him into the passenger seat and then packed the wheelchair in the trunk.
On the way to Fureidis, Katz reassured me that we need only ask at the kiosk, and whoever was there would direct us to people from Tantura. As we approached, the village came into view, cascading down one side of a mountain in the Arab style, as opposed to Jewish villages, which tend to be built at the top of a mountain and spread out symmetrically on all sides.
I pulled the car up on the curb in front of a mini-mart. Katz started calling to a young man on the sidewalk, a slim fellow in black jeans and a black T-shirt and white sneakers. The young man sent us around the corner to another kiosk, where we were given the address of a woman who was from Tantura. I drove up the near-vertical streets and came to the house in question, behind a green gate. A middle-aged woman in a white hijab and an olive-green smock stood in front of a stone house opposite the one we had come for. I asked her if I could park in front of her home, and she immediately dispatched two of her sons to move garbage pails to make space for my car. Then she disappeared inside, emerging a minute later with water, cookies, and grapes, insisting we eat and drink before proceeding.
Katz said he could make it to the house across the street, so Shushu lent her body to his and we slowly crossed the street. The woman in the olive dress followed us. She banged on the door and called out in Arabic to the old woman who lived there. After a while, a high and surprisingly strong voice emerged from the house. She would not see us, she said. She was too sick, and too old. Please, we asked, but she refused. We walked Katz back to the car.
The woman in green, whose name I never learned, was still outside. She told us she thought she knew a man from Tantura. The way she said the word, it had a musical quality that was lost in the Hebrew translation: Tantuuurrra. She sent her son to the prayer house down the road to find the gentleman she had in mind. In the meantime, she invited us to sit on her porch and eat more grapes.
Soon the boy returned with a distinguished-looking man in his eighties, with a white skullcap, a neat white beard and no mustache. He wore black pants and a blue-and-white striped shirt. He approached the car swiftly. “You’re asking about Tantura?” he demanded, addressing Katz, the male of our party, in perfect Hebrew. “Go find Teddy Katz. Ask him! He betrayed us! He said he lied, but he didn’t lie. Go find Teddy Katz and ask him what happened in Tantura!”
“I am Teddy Katz,” Katz replied.
The man stopped. A look of horror, and then sadness, crossed his face. “God have mercy, what has happened to you,” he wailed. “You said we were liars!” The man looked at Katz accusingly. “You went back on it.”
“Never mind that,” Katz replied. “This woman has come from America to speak to you.”
Today Katz remains known throughout Israel as the man who fabricated quotes and admitted to libeling heroes of Israel’s independence. After the trial, Katz—who subsequently suffered a second aneurysm and the stroke that left him disabled—received threats. “People like you bring destruction,” read one postcard, and then, ominously, “You’ll be hearing from us.” For the right, he is an enemy of Zionism, an ideologue bent on smearing the heroes of 1948. In left-wing circles, he has become a cause célèbre—a man perceived as the victim of academic censorship, and the subject of boycott campaigns aimed at Haifa University.
“It's a typical fight between left and right,” said Uri Avnery, the founder of the peace movement Gush Shalom and a friend of Katz’s. “It's not so much about what happened in ’48 as what's happening now. It's an attack by right-wing people against somebody who is well known as a left-wing activist, and it's a part of the battle about what happened in ’48, the biggest question in Israeli history: Were the Arabs in '48 driven out by force or did they flee of their own free will? It's one of the major debates in Zionist history. And this landed right in the middle of it.”
Historian Benny Morris has written that, based on interviews he conducted, he believes something terrible likely happened in Tantura, though not the massacre Katz alleged in his thesis. “Atrocities—war crimes, in modern parlance—appear to have occurred,” he wrote in a 2004 article for The Jerusalem Report about the Katz case. (Many of the documents relating to the Tantura controversy are available on a website created by an academic named Dan Censor, who was a professor of electrical engineering at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.) But ultimately Morris views what he has called “The Tantura Affair” differently than Avnery. “Teddy Katz is emotional,” Morris told me in an interview. “He has his left-wing prejudices that lead him in a certain direction.”
Neither the passage of time nor the considered revisions to the historical record precipitated by Katz’s initial inquiry have done much to mitigate the emotional response, on both sides. Indeed, the case seems to linger like an open wound—one that continues to fester just as academic freedom and protected speech are coming under attack in Israel. The Knesset recently considered a bill under which any publication defaming the Israel Defense Forces or its soldiers could give rise to a civil cause of action, even if no individual soldier was explicitly or implicitly defamed.
The persistence of the controversy illustrates the dangers of subjecting historical scholarship to courts, both of law and of public opinion. And it also underscores the difficulty—perhaps even the impossibility—of establishing a commonly accepted narrative about Israel’s founding more than 65 years after the fact.
I met Henyo Ben Moshe and Yaakov Erez, both Alexandroni veterans who participated in the battle for Tantura, in Ben Moshe’s home, on a busy street in Tel Aviv. The apartment was decorated in softly muted beiges and suffused with the comforting scent of expensive aftershave. A large photo of Ben Moshe’s beautiful grandchildren on a yacht hung on one wall. When I initially called Ben Moshe, now in his eighties, from the United States a month earlier, he had been suspicious. He kept asking me whose side I was on. But when I arrived in his home, he was warm and welcoming.
Ben Moshe was wearing a pastel polo shirt, shorts, and house slippers in which he padded around refilling my glass of water and serving honey cake and raspberry tarts. Erez, slightly larger, had a robust presence that filled the room. “What are you, a bird?” he complained loudly when I didn’t eat the honey cake fast enough for his liking. He wore a gold watch on one wrist and a gold bracelet on the other. When I told him it was an honor to meet such a decorated veteran, he scoffed: “That’s about you and your feelings.”
Erez came to Palestine from Poland in 1925, when he was a mere 9 months old; Ben Moshe arrived a few years later, from Czechoslovakia. The two men met in the Alexandroni, an infantry brigade that began as a Haganah unit. Over their military careers, Erez achieved a higher rank—he became a lieutenant colonel, while Ben Moshe was a platoon sergeant—and something of this difference in status still colors the interaction between the two men.
It was Erez who started to tell me the story of the battle for Tantura. His words came out in well-formed sentences and even paragraphs; he has recounted the tale plenty of times before. In Hebrew, he told me about how the decision was made to conquer Tantura in May 1948, after an attempt to broker a peace deal with the village’s leaders failed. Such a deal had succeeded in Fureidis, the neighboring Arab village, but in Tantura, Erez explained, there was a debate between the sheikh and hotheaded youths who “thought they were heroes and could defeat tzahal”—the IDF. Because Tantura was the only remaining northern port the Arabs held after the Israelis took Haifa and Caesarea, victory there became imperative for the Jewish fighters.
At this point in the narrative, Ben Moshe interrupted. “Excuse me. Is it possible to pause?” Erez stopped. “I want to know,” Ben Moshe went on, turning to me. “Who are you working for? Whose side are you on? I already asked you, because we have suspicions when it comes to the subject of Teddy Katz. You know who that is? So we have suspicions.” His voice was full of emotion. “What side are you on? On the right or on the left?” Erez cut him off, asking me in a friendlier tone, “What is your actual purpose?”
“I am on the side of truth,” I said, too sanctimoniously. It was an honest response, but it felt somehow false. I knew they wanted to be believed, but they wanted more than that—they wanted me to agree that what they had seen in their corner of the battle could count for what had happened in the village in its entirety, and this I couldn’t grant them. I believed that they were honestly telling me what happened to them, and yet I could not give them the power to call this the whole truth of what happened in Tantura.
Ben Moshe took this as his opportunity. “This whole business started one bright day in 2000, the newspaper Yediot Aharonot comes out, a big page with a picture: ‘Massacre in Tantura!’ The 33rd Battalion of the Alexandroni massacred between 200 and 250 fighters without arms—“
“No!” Erez yelled. I expected him to correct Ben Moshe, to point out that he had misremembered, that it was Maariv, not Yediot Aharonot, in which the article appeared. But that wasn’t the error Erez noticed. “Unarmed!” he shouted. “Unarmed,” Ben Moshe conceded, then went on. “We were in shock. How—how could it be? We knew it was a hard battle,” he said. “The commander of my kitah got a bullet.” Ben Moshe had taken the gun off his commander's corpse, leaned with his elbow on the dead body, and covered two soldiers who threw grenades into the house the snipers were shooting from, killing everyone inside.
Erez had a similar story. “Next to me, there was my friend, the Madrich Bagadnah"—instructor—“and he had come to me and said, ‘Yankele, I’m dying. All the days I'm busy with training, and I haven't had the chance to fight, I didn’t do anything. I want to participate in the battle.’” Erez paused, then continued: “But from all the years of teaching youth, he couldn’t distinguish between the protection of a rock and hiding behind a bush, and he hid behind a bush, and an Arab sniper shot him and killed him.” Erez looked at me. “What I want to tell you here,” he said, his voice suddenly softening, “about the care for one another, the worrying, for example if someone was killed, someone who was my best friend, with whom I’ve studied since the third grade—it hurts. It hurts a lot. But when you are busy with the battle, you don’t think about it; you also don’t know who was killed, you know only after.”
All in all, between 80 and 100 Arabs were killed during the battle for Tantura, Erez said. I asked if anyone was killed after being disarmed, as Katz reported in his thesis. “No, no, no,” Erez replied. “Listen, we’re not vandals. What are you talking about?” He chuckled.
Ben Moshe explained that he had been the secretary of the 33rd Battalion’s veterans group when Katz approached him. “He didn’t tell me about what, what his purpose was. We thought, in our innocence, that it would be good for us. Ninety-nine percent said there was no massacre. One didn’t remember, said here and there something, but 99 percent said there was no massacre.” After the Maariv article came out, Ben Moshe explained, “we woke up, and started to make a rumpus. Teddy Katz challenged us, and said if I am wrong, sue me in a court of law. He said: If I am wrong, sue me, be my guest.”
So they did.
Israeli libel law, following English case law, defines libel as any publication that degrades a person in the eyes of others. The gravity of the harm and thus the amount of compensation that the injured party can recover is influenced to a large degree by how many people actually saw the libelous material. The more people see the libelous material, the greater the damages are likely to be. In the case of Teddy Katz, one would have expected the object of the suit to have been the document that hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers saw—the Maariv story—rather than the graduate thesis that only three advisers read. But Giora Erdinast, the lawyer hired by the Alexandroni, shrewdly went after Teddy Katz, and not Maariv. “Teddy Katz was the one who wrote the thesis,” Erdinast explained to me over the phone. “Maariv only made it public. I thought if the story was true, it is worth publishing. If a journalist finds a thesis which received A+, at the Haifa University, I think it is his professional obligation to publish the story. He had no reason to suspect it.”
At least one person believes that the ugliness of the trial was not inevitable: Yoav Gelber, a professor in the Department of Israel Studies at Haifa University, who taught Katz as an undergraduate. The two are about the same age and were once on friendly terms. Gelber invited me to his flat in a development in Nesher, a town just east of Haifa. We sat on the balcony, which from its perch 14 stories up had an unobstructed view of the Haifa port, a sight both intoxicating and terrifying. It felt like we were floating over the ocean. We were periodically interrupted by his three pugs, Mango, Banana, and Mish-Mish, or apricot. “Fruit salad!” Gelber said, with a grin.
Gelber explained that when Katz was writing his thesis, he used to call occasionally to talk about his work. “I told him, you have nothing, it’s all rumors, it’s all gossip,” Gelber told me, in English. “He decided he had a scoop on his hands, so he didn’t listen, and the thesis was submitted and approved with flying colors.”
Gelber was also on friendly terms with some of the Alexandroni vets who had occupied Tantura, and when the story broke in Maariv, they called him demanding to know how Katz’s thesis could have been passed at all, let alone given the impossibly high grade of 97. Gelber felt moved to act. “I thought it was a scandal,” he said. “I knew some of them. I couldn't believe it of this unit of all units.” The Alexandronis, he explained, were known as the British Army Brigade because the officers had fought in its ranks during World War II. “This was a very strict-discipline brigade.” So, the charge that they had committed a cold-blooded massacre, he said, “didn’t make sense. And then they came and they complained. When they came, I said, ‘What ground do you have to complain? You talked with him?’ ‘Yes, but this is not what we said,’” Gelber ventriloquized the Alexandronis. “‘He quoted us, and we didn’t say it.’”
On the veterans’ behalf, Gelber reached out to the rector, Gad Gilbar, to whom Gelber says the Alexandronis “wanted to present their case and persuade him to abolish the recognition of the thesis, or at least to submit it to a re-evaluation.” Gelber believes that had Gilbar acknowledged and accepted their appeal, they would have been satisfied.
But Gilbar’s recollection was slightly different. “I met with the Alexandronis,” he told me when we spoke on the phone. “I think what they really wanted was to receive the tapes that Teddy Katz used in order to write the thesis. He recorded the former inhabitants of Tantura, and they asked for the tapes so they could listen and hear what the witnesses exactly said, and the reason why they went to court was that Teddy Katz refused to allow them, or to enable them to listen to the tapes, to the recordings. That was the idea of the meeting, that was the reason why they met me.” The dean, he says, contacted Katz formally to request that he deposit the tapes at the university library. “That was an absolutely legitimate request, to listen to the tapes,” Gilbar said. “And Teddy Katz refused, rejected this demand.” Katz, for his part, called this “one big bluff” and claims he delivered the tapes to Amalia Levanoni, the chair of the M.A. committee at the university’s department of Middle East history. “I am invested in the tapes being heard,” he told me. But, he added, “Of course, once there is a lawsuit, they don’t get anything.” In any event, Levanoni wrote me in an email that she never received the tapes, and ultimately, the dispute wound up being heard not at the university, but at the Tel Aviv-Yaffo courthouse.
Katz’s trial began on Dec. 13, 2000, a Wednesday. Erdinast started by focusing on one of Katz’s interviewees, a man named Abu Fahmi. In his thesis, Katz quoted Abu Fahmi as saying that after the battle ended, the Jewish soldiers entered the village and gathered all the men in groups on the seashore, next to a building that was there: “The soldiers walked on either side of us with Bren guns, and every once in a while they shot and killed and wounded people.” But transcripts of Katz's interview with Abu Fahmi revealed a different picture: “They stood us in a row on the beach, put a Bren here and a Bren there, in order to shoot us where we were,” Abu Fahmi said. “But three came from Zichron Yaakov,” he continued, “and said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you killing people in the streets?’ They told them, ‘They are Iraqis and Syrians.’” The Zichronites protested, Abu Fahmi recalled. “They told them, ‘They are of Tantura, and in the summer we come to them. They give us their houses and they sleep outside. We spend the summer here at the sea. Why are you doing this?’ So, they sat us down.”
In other words, Abu Fahmi did not accuse the soldiers on the beach of killing people with their Brens, but only of intending to do so. Katz’s Arabic translator said explicitly, “He wants to know if they killed people after the surrender or not.” Abu Fahmi replied, “What we know, no.” But the translator then assured Katz that Abu Fahmi believed people were killed after the surrender. “Are you sure they killed people after you surrendered?” Katz asked. “100 percent?” Abu Fahmi replied, “We didn’t see them kill after we raised hands.” Katz tried again: “What I want to know exactly is, did they shoot people after they surrendered?” But Abu Fahmi repeated his answer. “No. We didn’t see,” he told Katz. “This you don’t know,” Katz said. Again, Abu Fahmi repeated, “I don’t know, we didn’t see.”
From this and a handful of other instances of apparent omission and misquotation, Erdinast painted a portrait of Katz as a fabricator who tried to squeeze evidence from those who would not offer it, as opposed to the aspiring scholar making novice mistakes that his defenders believe him to have been. “It’s not a dispute between new historians and old ones, not a dispute between those who claim that oral testimony is allowed to be counted on by historians as opposed to those who are against it, it’s not a question of being left-winger or a right-winger,” Erdinast told me on the phone. “It’s a question of forcing evidence or not.”
On the first day of trial, Erdinast began by putting Katz on the stand. “We heard Abu Fahmi deny that they killed four times, you try to persuade him that they killed after the eviction, and he tells you they didn’t kill,” Erdinast said. “Where does that appear in your thesis?”
“In every interview,” Katz answered, “and in this one too, there were things where a person started out saying one thing, after which sometimes he was not sure of himself.” He went on, “I had to weigh the entire testimony, and also weigh testimony against testimony.” The trial then devolved into every graduate student’s nightmare. “Why didn’t you quote the things exactly as they were said and why did you allow the reader to understand that you are quoting exactly?” Erdinast asked. “Things appear in an academic work in quotations as a quote and it’s accepted to quote precisely, don’t you agree?” Erdinast went on, “You added a sentence that changes the original text when that witness tells you he didn’t see killing four times.”
“He didn’t say it four times,” Katz said.
“He says twice they didn’t kill and twice we didn’t see.”
“That’s not the same thing. When he says they went with a Bren here and a Bren there, and right after it’s asked, ‘Why did you kill in the streets?’ The streets are exactly the path that leads to the sea. It’s not my interpretation,” Katz insisted. “The things quoted here have the same meaning as what I wrote in my notes.”
The next day went equally disastrously for Katz. Erdinast picked at a few more instances where Katz’s words didn’t seem to line up with the transcript. But on the third day, Katz started to make some good points. “Your thesis at the end of the day is a collection of gossip about what this one or the other said and the reader is supposed to decide?” Erdinast asked, contemptuously. Katz answered, “I suggest we put it to the judgment of professionals to decide what it is worth.” Erdinast asked Katz to explain why, if a massacre had occurred, no one had previously come forward. “No one ever asked them,” Katz answered. “That’s what I did.”
Court soon ended for the day. Katz had begun to feel unwell. It later turned out that he was in the beginning stages of an aneurysm, though no one knew it at the time. “We didn’t understand exactly what happened,” one of his lawyers, Amatzia Atlas—a cousin of Katz’s—told me. Atlas organized a sit-down with the parties—the Alexandroni veterans, Teddy Katz, Shushu Katz, Erdinast, and Haifa University’s lawyers, who joined after Katz had sued to have his school named as third party in the case. And after five hours, they arrived at a settlement: Katz would sign an apology that would run in Maariv. “It was a very good deal,” Atlas said. “We all thought it was a great deal.”
Almost instantly, Katz says, he regretted having caved to what he perceived as pressure. He still believed what he had written, and he felt he couldn’t back down. The next morning, when he told Atlas he wanted to take back his apology, Atlas quit. Katz’s other lawyers quit, too. By the time Katz returned to court, the judge determined it was too late for Katz to withdraw from the settlement agreement. A subsequent appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court was denied, and the settlement stood.
But Katz refused to run the apology in Maariv. So, the Alexandronis did it for him. "It is my desire to clarify that after I sat and checked into the matter it is clear to me beyond any doubt that there is no foundation in the claim that in Tantura murder was carried out,” read the ad. “I did not mean to say that in Tantura there was a massacre… I believe the people of the Alexandroni who denied the massacre in its entirety.”
“We waited for the letter,” Ben Moshe told me, at his apartment. “He didn’t write it.” Erez jumped in. “He didn’t write it, so we wrote what he was supposed to write,” he echoed. “On our own dime!” Ben Moshe went on. “On our dime,” Erez repeated. “We brought a suit against him and he didn’t want to pay. You know what we did? We took his car! We closed the account! We wrote him a letter saying if he doesn’t pay by a certain date, we will demand that he be arrested. The next day he paid in cash with interest. Interest! We profited off of him!”
In the wake of the trial, administrators at Haifa University opened a re-evaluation of Katz’s work. It was determined that he should rewrite the thesis, which he did, including all the material he had edited out of the first version. The thesis, now more than double its original length, took him more than a year to redact. Arnon Golan, a professor of Geography at Haifa University whose research focuses on 1948, was appointed to a university committee tasked with reevaluating Katz’s second draft of the thesis. “I was asked by the rector to read it carefully,” Golan told me, “to read really every word, because of the importance and the interest in the work. And this is what I did.” Golan says he was forced to fail the thesis. “Having read 650 pages, I don't have the slightest idea if there was or was not a massacre, because nothing was proved there,” he told me. “He brought everything, every material he found, whether it was a document or an interview, and he made hundreds of interviews. He didn't do the basic thing that every person that writes a dissertation does—select the relevant material and what is less relevant, irrelevant, he puts outside his work. Not in this case. In this case, everything was inside.”
I suggested that Golan might have liked the first, shorter version better. It seemed deeply ironic that Golan failed Katz’s revision for including all of his interview material, when Giora Erdinast, the Alexandronis' lawyer, had accused Katz in court of cherry-picking his evidence. Later, I asked Katz if he felt he had made errors in his scholarship. “Those mistakes, they don’t change the thing itself,” he told me, referring to the errors presented at his trial. He still says he believes his fundamental conclusions were right. “Maybe next year Benny Morris will come out with another book which will be even closer to us,” Katz added. “The number is not terribly important. Every person is a person.”
Katz is full of ideas about geopolitics, about Israeli culture, about assimilation. He is a passionate and stubborn man who gets embroiled in ideas and entranced by them and then pushes forward full steam ahead. It's easy to see how, once convinced of the massacre, he could have easily made errors in the fervor of his conviction. Though this type of person rarely makes for a careful researcher, academia is full of such people. “The thing about my father is, from the moment he heard the story, he would not have ever let it go,” Katz’s daughter, Reut, told me. “He would never back off and say, ‘This is risky, this is not pleasant, we will have a backlash.’ He doesn’t consider this kind of thing.”
Katz also has a contrarian streak, coupled with a deep sense of social indignation. “If I speak orally about Palestinians,” he told me, with a raised finger, “it’s an invention, and I am participating with those who oppose the State, those who destroy it.” At this point, he says, he can’t do other than continue to believe that a massacre took place—even though he readily admits that he can’t know the exact circumstances. “I can’t say that it didn’t happen, because I myself interviewed the people,” he explained. “It’s not that I asked someone and he told me, ‘I spoke with them…’ No! I interviewed them! So I can’t tell stories to myself.”
“Look, no one wants to deal with ‘48,” Shushu said, bringing honey cake and coffee to the living room as we spoke in their house. “The whole response to 1948 is like to a big bomb. The whole story of the refugees, they always push it under the rug, and it always comes up again, and he was the sacrifice of this whole issue. Because it was very comfortable to say, ‘It never happened and that he's bullshitting and he’s just a liar.’” Shushu shrugged. “Everything Jews say is true, we always say that, whatever any Jew says it goes into the archive and it’s OK. Whatever a Palestinian says—lies. It’s a lie. On principle, they are liars.”
The Palestinian gentleman we met in Fureidis seemed acutely aware of the perception of Palestinians as liars. He insisted he didn't want to speak with me, that it would only bring him trouble. “I have nothing to tell. I told you everything already!” I told the man I would not write his name, and would not cause him problems. Finally, he began to speak. He told us he was 13 in 1948, and about how his family waited out the battle in their home with a few neighbors. He said that after the battle was over, a soldier came and took them outside, and sent him to wait with the other children. Then another soldier came and asked him where he was going. “I said I'm going where the children are. So he said, ‘Go, tistalek’”—get out of here—“So I said, ‘I'm going also without you saying tistalek.’ He hit me with his gun here.” The man pointed to his head, then explained that he fell and lost consciousness, and when he woke, he saw a big pile of clothing. He said he remembers thinking to himself, “They’ve already started looting.” He said to the man who woke him, “Are they taking clothing?” And the man said to him sadly, “Yes, habibi, go, go.”
His father and his brother and about 10 others were in that pile of clothing, he said. All of them, he insisted, had been alive when the battle for Tantura ended. “Killed them all. In the graveyard, they put them all in one pit. That's it, I don't have patience for it, I can't tell anymore. I can't take it, to be full of nerves. A few years ago, I could, but now, today, I can't look anymore,” he said. “When I go to the graveyard, I go straight to the hospital.”
Right after the battle, he said, he had experienced what would now be called PTSD. “For 12 months, I didn't know anything. Someone would speak to me, I didn't remember anything. Someone would say something, after five minutes, I would forget,” he said. “Every year, at this time, I forget. I have no memory. If I talk to Teddy, 10 minutes later I forget I spoke to him, until I remember four months later.”
I asked who the soldier was who hit him. He didn’t want to give me his name, but he told me the soldier used to eat in the home of an 80-year-old Arab man in Tantura. Then, after the battle, the soldier had come and pointed at that same 80-year-old man, his former host, and said, “You’re not from Tantura, you’re from Syria.” The old man protested that he was from the village. “And he took the 80-year-old, he would eat by him every day in his house, and he shot him.”
A few days later, I met Benny Morris at a small hummus joint in Jerusalem. As a scholar, Morris doesn’t put much stock in oral history. He explained that he finds people paradoxically too easy to believe. “I interviewed one survivor, one refugee from Tantura,” Morris told me. “He says there wasn’t any massacre of the sort which Teddy Katz describes.” But the man, Morris went on, told him that people were indeed killed who should not have been. “He on the other hand did describe a small massacre occurring in the streets of Tantura, where they shot down a certain number of people, a half dozen, a dozen people,” Morris continued. “He sounded like he was telling the truth.” Yet when he spoke to Israeli veterans of Tantura, they had a different story. “You talk to veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade’s 33rd Battalion who conquered the village and they completely, flatly reject the charge of massacre,” Morris said. “The Israelis sound just as sincere, just as genuine, just as honest. They say, ‘We didn’t commit any massacre, this is really libelous, this whole thing, they’re blackening our names, we aided in this famous victory, and this isn’t true.'” Morris went on, “They all sound honest and convincing. The Arab was also convincing, I believed him completely, what he said he saw in the streets there.” The point, he repeated, was that everyone sounds persuasive telling their version of events that happened decades ago. “But I wouldn’t put any trust in it,” he said, finally. “In this particular case, they cancel each other out.”
Morris said he can’t know for sure what happened in Tantura because there’s no good documentation about it. Almost every massacre that occurred in 1948 carried a paper trail—including Deir Yassin and Lydda. Tantura did not. I asked Morris whether it was possible that massacres occurred that weren’t documented. “It’s possible,” he allowed. “It’s highly unlikely.”
The only documentation from Tantura mentions rape, not massacre. Morris infers from this that if a large massacre of civilians had occurred, the woman who reported the rape would probably have reported that as well—though not necessarily that she would have reported other atrocities, like the killing of prisoners of war. “In all civil wars (as in all wars) both sides commit (what are today regarded as) war crimes,” Morris wrote me later, in an email. “In 1948, this appears to have been fairly common after villages that had resisted were conquered by the Jewish forces. For both sides, you need to take account that until mid- or end of May 1948, neither side had proper facilities to hold prisoners (PoW camps)—and Britain was the sovereign until 15 May so neither side could openly set up and run such camps. This of course resulted in the practice of killing prisoners (the alternative was to let them go—and they would return to the fray the next day).”
At the hummus place, I told him about the man I had met in Fureidis, and the story he told about the soldier executing his former host. Morris knew immediately whom the man had most likely been describing. “He may have killed people. I don’t know.” Morris shook his head. “There’s a lot of things where you just will never know.”
Knowledge is not produced independently of context. It is the task of academic institutions to shield scholars so that they are free to weed out truth from untruth—but they are also tasked with ensuring that their students are trained in and held to rigorous standards of what the truth is. In the case of Teddy Katz, those who were involved seem to have the sense that something crucial went wrong in the academic process. Arnon Golan, who reviewed the second version of the thesis, called the decision to allow Katz to revise his thesis at all “a big fumble”—one he believes was driven by anxiety surrounding the court case. “At the end of the day, the university didn’t rise up well from this matter,” he told me. Nevertheless, a sense of regret suffused Golan’s words. He is a compassionate man, and he seemed to be still smarting from the episode. “I felt that I may have been too harsh with Teddy Katz,” he said, which led him to conduct his own investigation into the events of Tantura.
The dean at the time, Gideon Fishman, did not respond to requests for comment, but Prof. Aaron Ben Ze’ev, who was the rector in the period just after the trial, spoke to me on the phone. “The court’s stand was very clear,” he told me. “Teddy did not tell the truth.” A professor of philosophy, he explained that in the wake of the trial, he was faced with the choice: either to discipline Katz on the basis of the original thesis in light of the court settlement, or to handle the matter in the “academic manner” and allow Katz to revise the work. I asked him why he did not discipline the supervisors who granted Katz a 97 on the original thesis. “I could assume that they could not know about this deception, so I didn't see a reason to bring them to the disciplinary committee,” Ben Ze’ev replied.
Ben Ze’ev said he also felt it was unnecessary to do his own independent inquiry into the fundamental question of whether Katz’s thesis in fact did contain fabrications. “We are not police. We are not an investigation committee,” he told me. “If the court said it, we are not supposed to re-open police investigation. I don’t see it as our duty to do so.”
The trouble with that logic is that, of course, there was no police investigation. There was the start of a trial and then a settlement—which illustrates why, as a general matter, courts are terrible places for establishing facts of the sort scholars look for. “This isn’t their function,” Benny Morris told me, when we met. “They’re not supposed to do that and they’re not capable of it. They’re not equipped for it, and they shouldn’t determine it. It’s historians who determine that.”
From a distance of nearly 15 years, most trustworthy observers now agree that at the very least, Teddy Katz was misguided in his efforts to learn the art of scholarship. His work lacked the rigor required for superior academic discourse. He consistently chose the highest numbers possible when estimating the death toll. He made a number of transcription errors, and he more than once interpreted reluctance to speak as confirmation that the worst had occurred.
And yet anyone learning the work of an academic is familiar with these pitfalls. To prosecute them in a court of law is to tamper with the process of establishing historical and scholarly truths, as well as the process whereby scholars learn their craft. A million shekels is a high price to pay for making mistakes in an exercise whereby one practices being a scholar. And discarding a whole body of oral testimony because of a few mistakes seems also unfair.
In the wake of the trial, other specialists, like Morris, began to explore what happened at Tantura, and today some now agree that atrocities were indeed committed in the battle, albeit on a much smaller scale than Katz claimed—irregularities that would have remained obscured without Katz’s initial research. Indeed, the first edition of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris’ seminal 1987 book on the events of 1947 to 1949, made no mention of anything untoward taking place in the battle for Tantura, but by 2004, when Morris released a second edition, it had entered his lexicon. “It is doubtful whether there was a massacre at Tantura,” reads a footnote in the updated text. Then, on the next page: “On the other hand, there is evidence that Alexandroni troops that day here and there executed POWs.” In his Jerusalem Report piece, he elaborated on the issue. “Many of the Tantura dead, even if they only numbered 70-75 as Alexandroni veterans would have it, were unarmed civilians or disarmed militiamen,” he wrote. “A number of Alexandroni veterans said as much in undisputed interviews.”
Moshe Zuckermann, a professor of history and philosophy at Tel Aviv University, gave a colloquium after the trial at which he spoke about the ramifications of Katz’s case for the study of history. Of the 80 or so interviews that Katz collected, about 8 mistakes had been found, Zuckermann told me over the phone. “Because of the interviews that were distorted or false, the whole historical case of the massacre about which Teddy Katz was reporting was dropped,” he said. “So if some 10 percent of the interviews were not correct, it was turned, in a way that was not acceptable for me, into a negation of all of the research. I think it was not right to go about it the way they went about it.”
Because the trial was cut short before the defense presented its case, most of the material Katz collected was never entered into the court record. Among the stories that never made it to light at trial was that of Micha Vitkon, an Alexandroni soldier who died a few years ago. On the topic of corrupt wartime behavior, Vitkon told Katz of a person who “with his own gun killed one Arab after another because they wouldn’t disclose where they hid their weapons.”
Those who have heard Katz’s tapes say that the majority of Katz’s interviewees actually claim that there was a massacre. “Most of the Palestinians testified to massive killing (in various forms) that occurred after the battle, and that several Jewish witnesses (some of the veterans as well as some other Jewish witnesses from the area) testified to a large number of Palestinian dead (150, 230) and made some ‘suspicious’ statements, mentioned all kinds of ‘extraordinary deeds’ that were done there,” Katz’s daughter Reut—who has listened to the tapes—wrote to me in an email.
Now 29, Reut was in seventh grade when her father was writing his thesis and remembers him coming home to replay the tapes. “I would hear the tapes running all night long,” she recalled on a recent phone conversation. (She is currently helping her father edit a book about his experience.) “In some places, it's true, there was a small error, but you have to understand, my dad was transcribing hundreds of quotations, word by word, while listening to the tapes and sometimes out of his notes,” Reut went on. “So, some things were found not on the tapes but in his notes, which is an accepted practice in oral history. It’s not even mandated that one uses tapes for oral histories. Imagine he hadn't even taped them. There were maybe three places where my dad acknowledged that yes, there was a misquote, but they completely blew that out of proportion.”
The same day we drove to Fureidis, Shushu and Teddy Katz and I drove to Tantura. We passed the old glass factory, and the school, and drove into the parking lot that sits atop the graveyard. To the right was Kibbutz Nachsholim, to the left, Kibbutz Dor, established mere weeks after Tantura was conquered. An attendant asked us for money, but Teddy somehow got us in without paying. It took a while to get the wheelchair down to the beach, where one last house of old Tantura still remains. The water sparkled a brilliant turquoise in the evening sun. It is, to this day, an enviable location.
Cover image: Haganah soldiers patrolling the beach at Tantura, 1948. Photoillustration Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; original photo Frank Scherschel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images