Director Michal Weits digs through her great-grandfather’s archives in Blue Box.
What if your ancestor was remembered as a national hero, but the truth was a lot more complicated? Would you want to know? Director Michal Weits dives head first into this conundrum in her documentary Blue Box, exploring a history that is not just familial, but the history of a nation.
Michal’s great-grandfather, Joseph Weitz, is remembered as the Father of Afforestation, a Johnny Appleseed-type figure who led efforts to cover the oft-barren Israeli countryside with new-growth forests. His legend feeds into the legend of Israel itself, which was built on the slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land.” Starting in the early 1930s, as the Zionist movement began working in earnest to establish a Jewish nation in British-occupied Palestine, the Jewish National Fund was established. The JNF used blue collection tins—the “blue boxes” of the film’s title—to collect funds from Jews all over the world for the purpose of buying up as much land in Palestine as they could and filling the land with Jewish settlers.
On the surface, this all seems like it’s on the up-and-up—after all, the JNF was buying the land through legal means, not taking it by force. But the truth was the “land without a people” most definitely had people on it—hundreds of thousands of Arabs, mostly poor subsistence farmers. And while the JNF paid a fair price for the land they bought, they weren’t paying it to the farmers who maintained and lived on the land, they were paying it to absentee landlords scattered all over the major cities of the Middle East. And much of the job of choosing parcels of land, negotiating the purchases, and evicting the current residents was conducted by—you guessed it—Joseph Weitz.
“As they began leaving the land, a voice of conscience screamed within me: ‘Are you now forcefully expelling these people who have worked the land for years and years?’,” Weitz asked himself at the time. “I silenced the voice and said to myself: ‘That’s how it goes. My people come first’.” This is just one of many powerful passages from Weitz’s diaries that show the conflict at the heart of someone trying to accomplish what he saw as a good thing through not-always-good means. His views seem to become more strident and less conflicted over time. By 1940, as Britain has officially declared a split between Jewish and Arab states, Weitz believed in a hard split: “Among ourselves, we must be clear: there’s no room for both people in this country.” By 1945, as the world repairs itself from war and the atrocities of the Holocaust are laid bare, he writes, “Building the Land of Israel will be our revenge.” After Israel was established as a nation in 1948 and immediately fell into war with its neighbors, Weitz started and led the Transfer Committee, whose mission was to “resolve the Arab question” by preventing Arab refugees from returning to Israeli land, assisting in relocating Arab refugees in neighboring countries, filling their empty houses with Jews as quickly as possible, and destroying any villages that couldn’t be immediately resettled. The ruins still dot the countryside.
It’s a fascinating history, made all the more compelling because director Michal Weits makes it personal. Other than a few archival news reports, the only words heard in the film are from members of the Weits family. Michal pored through thousands of pages of her great-grandfather’s diaries, and his words (as read by actor Dror Kenen) lay the history bare. These portions, as well as transition segments narrated by Michal, are accompanied by a mix of beautifully shot scenes of the modern Israeli countryside and an impressively ample supply of archival footage of Joseph going about his work. The film’s heart, though, comes from seeing how the repercussions of Joseph’s actions and attitudes carry over into today, as captured in a series of interviews Michal conducted with her family—her Boomer father and uncles who experienced the legend of Joseph Weitz firsthand and aren’t always willing to confront the consequences of his actions, and her Millennial cousins who hold much different beliefs. These interviews are not always comfortable, but they are insightful, and gripping in a way that a more traditional, historian-heavy, talking head documentary would not have been. The film’s impact is also amplified by its focus: at just over 80 minutes, it avoids meandering to tell a tight story that leaves the viewer pondering a lot of questions for which, as Joseph Weitz’s story makes clear, there have never been easy answers. | Jason Green
Blue Box is available for home viewing as part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival running March 6-13, 2022. The film is presented in Hebrew with English subtitles. Individual films are $15 to view while all-access passes for the festival are $98, and viewers must be in the state of Missouri to watch the films. For a full list of films or to purchase tickets, visit jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival/.