In “Waltz With Bashir” Art Connects Gaza to Sabra and Shatila


by James M. Wall             reduced-for-mailing-waltz

Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary film by Israeli Director Ari Folman, arrived in U.S. theaters during the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza. 

During the invasion, Gary Kamiya wrote a review of the film for He entitled it: “What Waltz With Bashir can teach us about Gaza”. Here is an excerpt from that review:

. . . . It is clear that [in the Gaza invasion] Israel has no strategic vision, no idea of what its onslaught is supposed to ultimately achieve or how to end it. When it finally ends its assault, Hamas will emerge from the rubble, Iran and Hezbollah will be empowered, Egypt and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will be weakened, and America’s standing in the region will be lower than ever. . . .

. . . . [I]n a strange case of art imitating life, at the same time that Israel is blasting a defenseless population enclosed in a tiny area, an Israeli film has appeared that depicts an earlier war in which Israel was complicit in an appalling massacre.

America’s cultural gatekeepers have rightfully hailed Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir as a tour de force and cinematic breakthrough. On Sunday night, as Israeli warplanes carried out 12 bombing raids in Gaza, “Waltz With Bashir” won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign film.

Most people who see Folman’s stunning film will probably not connect it with Israel’s current war. But if they dig a little deeper, they might realize that the film’s moral lessons apply not just to the terrible events that took place 28 years ago but also to what is happening today.

Waltz With Bashir is about Folman’s attempt to recover his lost memory of his experiences as a soldier during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and in particular the Sabra and Shatilla slaughter of Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps.

Carried out by Lebanese Christian militiamen, under Israeli protection and with its leaders’ complicity, it was one of the most notorious massacres of the 20th century. . . . (To read Gary Kamiya’s complete Salon review, click here), under the editorial direction of Tom Engelhardt, is publishing two long excerpts from a graphic memoir, Waltz with Bashir, which was developed in tandem with the film.

The novel will be in bookstores in a few weeks, but can be ordered in advance by clicking here.  The first TomDispatch excerpt is currently on line; the second will be posted by TomDispatch next Saturday. 

Waltz With Bashir is one of five nominees for the Academy Award category of Best Foreign Language Film of 2008.  This recognition could generate controversy when the winners are announced Sunday, February 22.

In his review of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, critic Ron Henderson had this to say in his Wall Writings post about Waltz With Bashir:

As though to underscore Israeli complicity in the massacre of hundreds (estimated as high as 3,000) Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Phalangists in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, soldier-filmmaker Ari Folman shifts away from animation in the final scene to jarring actual documentary footage of the few survivors leaving the camps. As a statement of conscience and shame, guilt and expiation, Waltz with Bashir stands high on the list of the best antiwar films made. 

Art and history come together in Gaza and in the Lebanon invasion that led to Sabra and Shatila.  Is the connection absolute? Of course not, no historical parallel is ever absolute. But as Gary Kamiya writes, there are “painful similarities”: 

. . . . Israel’s moral culpability for the 1982 massacre is not the same as its moral responsibility for the civilians killed in the current war. But there are painful similarities. Sooner or later the patriotic war fervor will fade, and Israelis will realize that their leaders sent them to kill hundreds of innocent people for nothing. And perhaps in 2036, some haunted filmmaker will release “Waltz With Hamas.” . . . .

Anthony H. Cordesman concludes his analysis of “The War in Gaza”, for the Center for Strategic and International Studies with blunt answers to difficult questions:

. . . . Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?

To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes. To paraphrase a comment about the British government’s management of the British Army in World War I, lions seem to be led by donkeys. If Israel has a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel has a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to help the Gazans and move them back towards peace, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to use US or other friendly influence productively, it not apparent. 

As we have seen all too clearly from US mistakes, any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni, and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends. If there is more, it is time to make such goals public and demonstrate how they can be achieved. The question is not whether the IDF learned the tactical lessons of the [Lebanon] fighting in 2006. It is whether Israel’s top political leadership has even minimal competence to lead them. For Cordesman’s complete report, click here.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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