Chapter Four: The Katz Affair

From the archive (legacy material)

Ilan Pappe | Translation from original French book: ‘The Demons of the Nakbah’ (published by La Fabrique, Paris) | 2003

In the late 1980s I gave a course in Haifa University on the history of the conflict. Students were allowed free hand in choosing how best to present their thoughts on the issue of the conflict. One relatively elderly student of mine, a member of a kibbutz, Teddy Katz, decided to look into the chronicles of his kibbutz in the 1948 war.
He discovered that his Kibbutz, Magal, was sitting on the ruins of a village called Zeyta. He further found out that this village was not occupied in 1948, but was rather confiscated after the war by the Israeli government as it was coveted by the Kibbutzim movement for its fertile soil and convenient location on the way between Haifa and Tel-Aviv. As was quite common in the years between 1948 and 1955, such a wish by the Kibbutz movement could easily turn into reality. The villagers were ordered to leave and rebuilt their village to the east. When the new kibbutzniks arrived in their novel place – they were still unhappy. They could from their windows those who were evicted so that they could have a home. So they asked, and were heeded, that Zeyta should be moved again.
Katz met the people of Zeyta and devised naively a private plan of reconciliation. Why should not the Kibbutz, he suggested in front of an assembly of its members, invited the Zeytas to visit as there were still one or two old houses in tacks and ancient olive tree to be picked and looked after.
Why not indeed. He was nearly thrown out of his kibbutz. But he was now sucked into the history, or rather, historiography of 1948. He wished to write an MA thesis under my supervision on the war. I suggested he should do it with others, so as not to ruin his chances because of my known views on the issue.
He tried several professors in his department, the department of Middle Eastern history in Haifa university, and Professor Kais Firo, agreed. After consultation with some other teachers in the department he opted for a focused research on villages near Haifa.
A very concerted effort for few years, which included long interviews with both Jews and Palestinians who witnessed the occupation of what today is highway no. 2, the main route between Tel-Aviv and Haifa, produced an excellent work. One chapter dealt with the village of Tantura occupied by the Jewish forces on May 22, 1948. Katz unfolded the events described in the third chapter of this book. In January 2001, wider publics became aware of the story through the publication of the case in Maariv.
The dissertation laid untouched for few months, before the industrious journalist, Amir Gilat of the daily Maariv discovered it, in a regular browsing of his in the university library. Two weeks later he published responses to his original piece: some of the soldiers belonging to the unit that occupied Tantura denied the massacre, but several came forward and corroborated the story; as did Palestinian witnesses.
The military veterans belonging to the unit, the Alexandroni Brigade, were unused to such publication. Like al the other veterans of the 1948 war, researches usually beseeched them to tell stories of personal heroism and gallantry, not of ethnic cleansing and massacre. They association of the Alexandroni veterans decided to sue Katz for libel and defamation, for the sum of 1 million Shekels (around 200,000 Euros). These were veterans of the brigade, not necessarily of the battalion that committed the massacre, although the commander of the battalion was among the prosecutors. I suspect some knew the truth and relied on the fact that there was very little written documentation, only few Jewish witnesses and many Palestinian survivors whose testimony never counted in Israel; others belonged to other battalions and maybe did not know, or could not believe it happened. They claimed that Katz systematically and intentionlally invented the story of a massacre to defame them.
Katz asked his university for help in the legal proceeding. But the management of the university in those days (January-February 2000) decided to shun any responsibility for his research. Moreover, the university decided to take action against Katz, even before the trial against him commenced. It erased with tipex his name from the list of distinguished students (he won a place on this list not just because of the thesis but for his overall achievements in the M.A. programme). The tipex was used as the ceremony was due more or less when the affair exploded.
After long months of deliberation, the trial was set for December 13, 2000. In the eleven months that passed between the trial against him began in December 2000. In the eleven months that passed between the publication of the story in the press and the trial, he was exposed to telephone threats, social harassment in his kibbutz.
The dates are important. At that stage in the affair, both the procedure in Haifa university and the legal process took place under the influence of the second Intifada that had broken out in October 2000. An uprising that spelled into Israel and which was also in danger in affecting the life in the Haifa Campus itself, where twenty percents of the students are Palestinians. The university authorities prohibited any political activity and exercised draconian regulations against Palestinian students who expressed the national identity – such as waving their flag or call for the liberation of Palestine – where of course equivalent actions by Jewish students were encouraged by the university in what everybody portrayed as a time of war.
These were the early days of the end of the pluralist atmosphere I described earlier on. One after the other, lectures who used to be on the left appeared with a ‘mea culpa’ in the local press or radio, explaining how now they are going to toe the general patriotic line given the betrayal of the Palestinians in Camp David. This was part of a more general atmosphere of stifling any criticism. It began in the media and soon it affected the academia.
On the eve of the trial, Katz appealed, through his lawyers, to the Judge sitting in his case, to withdraw the whole affair, as it was an academic and not criminal debate. I wrote the expert’s view, as requested in these cases in which I described the developments of the last fifty years in general historiography and in the local one in particular; concluding that historical debates have only one place in which to be discussed in the academia.
The Judge declined the request stating that it can not accept it, because the university was not supporting Katz’s claim. From her response it was clear that had the university protected a thesis it had just recently regarded as one of the best in its history of M.A Dissertations, she would have accepted Katz’s request.
Katz hired three lawyers. The Adala group, a Palestinian Israeli Ngo which represented him for free, the quite expansive leftist lawyer, Avigdor Feldman and a relative of his Amaztia Atlas. The latter’s father served in the Alexandroni Brigade. His advise to Katz from the beginning was to look for a compromise.
With all this pressure around, Katz then in his mid fifties suffered a stroke, which may explain partly what happened next. The trial began with Katz on the witness box. He was accused by the prosecutor of systematic fabrication of the material he had and which he handed voluntarily to the other side (believing this was a proof that he was mainly quoting what is said in them).
To demonstrate that Katz was falsifying systematically the prosecutor presented six cases where the text in the tapes did not fit what was written in the thesis. Although aware that these were the only misquotes to be found, out of more of than 100 accurate quotations, and ones that did not at all underline the main findings of a massacre, the prosecutor claimed that this sample indicated that the thesis as whole was a fabrication. Later on, he would surmise that there were many more misquotes, but until today he did not bring them to the fore.
The testimony lasted two days. Those who sat in the courtroom were impressed with two features of the unfolding drama. The first that the prosecution’s ammunition was small and exhausted without any impressive results. After all, the main part of the trial was to be the unprecedented appearance in an Israeli court of Palestinian survivors from the Nakbah. However the second feature was more worrying. Katz was sitting there pale and numbed by the trials and tribulations he has passed and it was doubtful whether he could go on with such public abuse.
In the evening, his relative lawyer, the university lawyer and his family met him, without the knowledge of the other legal teams. At a moment of nadir and weakness, Katz collapsed and agreed to sign a Stalinist letter of confession in which he admitted to all the allegations put forward against him; namely, that he falsified the material he had in order to blemish the Alexandroni people. A short time later, he repented his “confession”, but this document was already presented to the court and accepted by the Judge. The same judge refused to accept Katz’s retraction from his “confession”. The judge said she had not ruled anything about the massacre, the allegation or falsification. All she ruled in the end of the day that the letter of confession is valid.
This was enough for the university of Haifa; its directors declined the retraction as well and treated Katz as someone found guilty in systematic falsification of material. In January 2001, the prosecutor asked the university to disqualify Katz and to take disciplinary measures against me. I ‘caught’ his attention as someone whom Katz thanked warmly in the preface to the work, as one of the defence’s main witnesses and far important than anything else, in a university were not even one lecturer voiced dissent and indignation towards the university policies, I was a lonely voice of criticism.
Had it not been for my personal intervention this would have probably taken place. On the day his letter was published in the internal website of the campus, I said for three consecutive days and nights and listened to the 60 hours of tapes Katz gave me. I have never listened to them before. My defense of Katz until then was based on friendship and trust. Those three days and nights did not only reveal to me directly the chilling story of the murderous acts taking place in Tantura in May 1948, but also persuaded me of the need to expand the oral history projects of the Nakbah on the one hand and exposed to me the need to defend those testimonies, on the other.
I took out the most illuminative excerpts and published them for everyone to see. To my relief, for a while this disabled the university from acting swiftly against Katz. Some faculty began to doubt the wisdom of the university action. Two people, the dean of the faculty of humanities, Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, and the director of the History School, Professor Yoav Gelber, responded angrily against my intervention – attacking me ad hominem and urging the university to take tough actions against Katz and myself. I will return to these two and the department to which they belong, the Eretz Israel studies Department, later on.
As a compromise between my demand of putting an end to the disgraceful behaviour of the university and the alliance between Gelber, Ben Artzi and the prosecutor, the university decided to appoint a commission of inquiry. In reality, this was not a golden mean between the two positions, it was a facade for abiding by the demands of two powerful professors and an prosecutor. The university authorities chose people known to dislike either the whole trend of critical historiography of 1948 or to be holding extreme right wing views. The result of the inquiry were foretold. The university refused to take part in a more neutral examination offered by an academic NGO, Bashar, which wanted to widen the discussion to what is historical truth and wanted to include in it the judge sitting in the case.
Between the months of April and June 2001, the university inquiry commission was at work. It included a historian who has written in the past about the 1948 war, a biographer of Saddam Hussein and two experts on Arabic dialects and early Islamic poetry. What was common to all four was the knowledge of Arabic. They were asked to look into a matter, it should be remembered, where a student was accused of inventing a massacre, not pretending to be the world’s expert on Arabic. Indeed he never claimed to have good command of the language, although he has basic knowledge, and therefore took a translator with him to all the interviews and sat with one when transcribing the material. But very soon the committee members forgot the original task accorded to them and declared that they were not interested at all in the question of whether or not a massacre took place and were content with checking the compatibility of the tapes to quotes and summaries in the work itself. Their foreknowledge of Arabic turned to be inessential. They decided to hire the services of a professional transcriber. But even that person became redundant, as all they did was to inspect only those places which had been highlighted before by the prosecution as the worst cases of misquote and falsification.
As mentioned, the prosecution at the time listed six places of such nature, claiming they were just a sample, or a tip of an iceberg of systematic misquotes and fabrications. Until today the prosecutor failed to provide additional examples. The university committee of experts in fact reduced the number of such cases to four, regarded two cases out of the six mentioned in the trial by the prosecutor as less grave. Moreover, they did notice, after they had been alerted to it by others, that the tapes included an interview with an eyewitness to the executions, which was not used in the thesis (this was an interview with a collaborator Katz did not wish to shame in public). As for the four ‘severe’ distortions, namely four places where they found serious discrepancies between what is heard on the tapes and the quotes on the thesis, they can be divided into two categories. Two cases, which Katz admits, are problematic. In one of them he quotes evidence given by Abu Fihmi that can not be found on the tape. However, Katz claims that he has written down additional details from this witness after the tape had stopped working and still has the notes to prove it. So we are left with one inexcusable misquote out of hundreds, which does not at all undermine the conclusions of the thesis. The second category are two places in the thesis where Katz appended from a very long interview into one coherent piece as he felt he could not give in full monologues of peasants who moved back and front in their story. He did it without loosing the spirit of what was said – a procedure many leading Oral historians recommend when witnesses relate a story in a jumbled manner. Both Alessandro Portelli and Barbara Allen in their respective works stress that this is the required procedure, giving examples that resemble the cases mentioned by the committee (the members of which by the way did not relate even once to oral history, its sources, procedures or leading works on it).
An amazing mixture of cheap patriotism, fear, moral corruption and mediocrity caused relatively reasonable and sensible members of my university to invest so much effort in order to produce a procedure which will not deal with the important question – was Katz fabricating on purpose the tale of a massacre for the sake of political ends – but which suddenly found out that a work that a year before received the highest possible grade is now a total failure.
So, it is not surprising that the committee’s verdict was as harsh as that of the prosecutor. The report it produced, published in June 2001, did not say Katz invented a massacre, but it stated that there were grave problems and fallacies in the thesis, leaving it to the University to decide how this will be translated into a decision.
When judging the conduct of the committee it is important to stress again it acted within the Macarthyiest atmosphere in the academia and media described in the second chapter. The university professors produced a procedure that would not shame the darkest days in the life of any dictatorship.
Five months later, in November 2001, the council for Advanced Studies of Haifa University decided on the basis of the committee’s recommendations to disqualify Teddy Katz’s thesis. was also given reports by the two persons who were running the main campaign against Katz, the dean of humanities and the head of the history school, who shamelessly used every adjective possible to terrify the council into thinking that Katz’ work was not just an academic flop, but an act of treason against the state during time of war. Academics at best of time are not very courageous people; the Israeli Jewish ones are no exception.
He was entitled to resubmit a new thesis, within six months, should he wish to do so. In a ceremony, taken from other dark destinations in the past, the director of the library at Haifa University removed his dissertation from the shelf in the library, which hosts MA and P. HD. Theses. This last act was strident enough to arouse some sort of short-lived protest from one or two faculty members, but this outcry soon subsided.
In November 2001, the Supreme Court of Israel heard the appeal of Teddy Katz, asking the court to resume the trial and accept his decision to retract from his by now famous apology. The court rejected Katz’s appeal. However, the judge in session made two intriguing remarks. The first was that he is not going to force Katz to publish openly in the leading papers his apology (the regional court ruled in December 2000 that Katz had to publish his apology over half a page in the three major dailies of Israel). The Judge commented that the veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade could publish the apology by their own accord. Secondly, remarked the judge, Katz is entitled to publish a day after, an Ed of his, explaining why he does not stand anymore behind the apology. The Judge concluded that each of the two actions he recommended of course can lead to legal suits and counter claims that can open new trials if the two sides should wish to do so.
On November 15, 2001 the Alexandroni veterans indeed heeded the Judge’s recommendation and published in Haaretz and Yeidto Achronot an Ed in which Katz’s apology appeared, prefaced, as the Judge demanded, by a clarification that this Ed was published by them. Katz wanted to heed the Judge’s advice too and a day later sent an Ed of his own. To his great surprise the dailies concerned refused to publish an Ed which he had financed. To my knowledge and after checking with many of my colleagues in the press this had never been done before. The two dailies claimed that had they published his Ed they would have been exposed to legal suits against them and therefore refused to publish Katz’s Ed. Again he was outbalanced as before by the Media’ s biased attitude.
Teddy Katz decided to try and resubmit a new thesis, this time focusing even more intensively on the Tantura massacre. The original thesis dealt with other four villages in the vicinity. Since the affair broke out more evidence, in the IDF archives and from Palestinian sources, came to the fore and he is convinced that he has now even firmer foundations to declare in the thesis, which he did not do in the original one, that an awful massacre took place in Tantura on the night between the 22 and 23 May 1948. In a public letter I wrote at the time, I doubted very much whether this naïve approach would help to persuade an institute that succumbed to external and internal ideological pressure and had a priori decided not to allow such a thesis to be qualified, unless Katz alters his conclusions. A telling indication of what is expected from Katz comes from the final report of the Council for Advanced Studies which in most parts repeats the inquiry commission’s conclusion that there were grave deficiencies in the thesis. In addition the Council pointed out that if Katz re-writes a thesis he should mention the principal conclusions of Ephraim Karsh’s book, Fabricating Israeli History ; namely that any critical revisionism of the Zionist narrative is biased and pro-Palestinian hence suspect as professionally inept. Then of course he can write that a massacre took place. Almost a year later, he resubmitted a thesis without the six famous misquotes, not surprisingly he was failed again.
After long deliberations in May 2003 the revised thesis was fully examined by five referees. Two of them failed the thesis. One of those who failed these was rumored to be closely connected both the Dean of Humanities in the university who instigated the crusade against Katz in the first place. The second one – based on rumors and inside information I can not divulge – wrote together a book attacking the ‘new history’ of the 1948 war with a historian who provided the professional advice to the prosecution. The three who passed the thesis were disregarded by the university, as was the high mark given by Katz’s supervisor, Professor Firo, as is demanded by the university’s codex. In fact that codex demands also that the previous grades would be included in the final calculation. Hence, Katz would have been in fact re-qualified, had the University not employed these shameful tactics of deception.
The whole process within the university was cumbersome, not because of the usual complications of an academic bureaucracy. Those who wished to fail a perfectly legitimate and excellent work that exposed yet another war crime of Israel in 1948, had a simple plan and pattern of action. But they needed to mesmerize the majority of people who are only too happy not to know too much, otherwise they will have to take positions.
The survivors of Tantura keep in touch with Katz and myself. They seem to be less disappointed than any of us. They had no expectations, nor did they want an Israeli court to tell them if they lie or tell the truth about what had happened to them in Tantura. On the other hand they began to frequent Tantura on Saturday nights, which they had not done for years. On Saturday nights, they visit Tantura, clandestinely and quietly in a kind of a ritual of memory that repeats itself.
But this was not the end of the affair for me. During and after the affair I had my own struggle against Nakbah denial in Israel and I was facing a personal campaign of defamation and boycott.