Within Israeli culture, there is a whole category of hand-wringing media focusing on soldiers or former soldiers grappling with the psychological impact of their actions during their army service. (Any criticism of the legality, validity, and/or morality of the treatment of Palestinians is optional.) This sub-genre is often called “shooting and crying,” and it’s a proven magnet for prestige — Ari Forlman’s 2008 Waltz with Bashir was Oscar-nominated, while the Netflix series Fauda is an international hit. It can be thought of as the Israeli version of a trend that Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle wryly observed in American film: “Not only will [they] kill all your people … they’ll come back … and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.”
The 2021 documentary Blue Box, which screened at New York’s Film Forum from August 25 to September 7, is not about a soldier but about Joseph Weits, a prominent former Israeli civil servant. In Weits’s voluminous journals — which span a time period stretching from the Jewish Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine through the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and until his death in the early ’70s — the film traces a disturbing arc of a man “planting trees and crying.”
Weits is popularly known as the “Father of the Forests” in Israel, as he oversaw and directed mass efforts to plant trees throughout the country, both expanding native forests and creating new ones. Blue Box director Michal Weits, his great-granddaughter, describes visiting the Jerusalem Forest as a child and feeling like it was part of her family’s legacy, as well as the pride that came with that. But, as she explains to the viewer, it was not until she was an adult that she learned of a different nickname for her great-grandfather: the “Architect of Transfer.”
A fervent Zionist, Joseph Weits immigrated from the Russian Empire to Palestine as a teenager in 1908. In the 1930s, he became a prominent agent of the Jewish National Fund. (The group’s iconic collection boxes, with which representatives beseeched the international Jewish community for aid, are what give this film its title.) In that capacity, he sought out absentee landowners — often Turks who had left when the region transferred from Ottoman to British control — and purchased their holdings to turn into Jewish settlements. This process often entailed removing the current Palestinian inhabitants of the land, and it’s in the early stretch of the film that Michal Weits finds the most disquieting parts of her ancestor’s recollections.
Joseph Weits writes in his journals of how “my stomach turned the entire time” he was evicting these families, that “a voice of conscience screamed within me.” Each time, he writes, “I silenced the voice and said to myself: That’s how it goes. My people come first.” Chillingly, he rationalizes: “We aren’t stealing the land. We paid good money for it.” In just a few lines, he sums up the ethos of settler colonialism. Even more alarming is how Weits’s professed moral qualms seemed to evaporate over time. By the mid-1940s he says he’d “already realized that living together [with the Arabs] wouldn’t work out,” and he goes on to describe the Palestinian Nakba and other mass displacement of Palestinians much more dispassionately.
“I didn’t flinch at the sight of the villages. No remorse or regret, as if it’s the way of the world,” he writes. In those early decades of the Jewish state, he was a strident advocate of Arab “transfer” — the preferred euphemism for mass deportation, or so-called ethnic cleansing.
Because Weits’s sentiment is mostly in line with the standard Israeli narrative of the country’s founding, the portions of the film that cover this period aren’t quite as revealing. The pointed use of footage of Palestinian refugees under much of the narration at this point effectively undermines the attempt at mythmaking, but there’s nothing that’s unknown to anyone versed in basic anticolonial history and thought. What’s more interesting is how Michal Weits turns this material over to her own family, challenging them to keep standing by the myth even against the evidence of the suffering their patriarch and their nation have caused. She is met with equivocations, minimizations, and weak justifications, like an uncle calling the idea of Joseph being the architect of transfer “a bit exaggerated.” I wish she had spent more time on this thread; as it is, these fascinating encounters are more like check-ins from the main archival narrative than a fleshed-out reckoning between past and present.
In fact, despite its archival focus, some of the best parts of Blue Box are the filmmaker’s contemporary observations of the land her great-grandfather shaped. Joseph Weits’s career demonstrates how even a seemingly noble activity like conservation can be coopted by nationalism and colonialism. His forests did not merely hold back the desert and provide wildlife habitat, shade, fruit, and timber — they were used to make it impossible for Palestinians to return to their former homes, or to conceal evidence of their ever having lived there. Michal Weits explains how a seemingly random cactus patch will mark the site of a graveyard, and how overgrown stone ruins aren’t ancient at all. Urban planning and landscape design can abet historical erasure. “We pass the ruins but choose not to see them,” the director muses — all the easier when they’re behind pleasant greenery.