Last night, I went to see an important new Israeli film entitled “Tubianski” which deals with issues of justice in the early years of the State of Israel. The dilemmas that this film raises are still relevant for Israeli society today.

My interest in this film was catalyzed earlier this summer when I studied in a mini-course on “Justice and Righteousness in Modern Israeli Literature,” with Rachel Korazim, in which we read many important poems by Natan Alterman and Haim Guri, both important poets of the pre-state era and the early years of the state of Israel. This was part of a 10 day institute for rabbis from all over the world held each summer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This year’s theme was “Justice and Righteousness — Personal Ethics and National Aspirations”.

One of the poems by Alterman was called “The Traitor’s Wife”. It was about the case of Meir Tubianski, which I had never heard of before. As usual, Korazim gave us the necessary historical context which helped us understand the deep meaning of Alterman’s poetry.

The months before the declaration of the state of Israel in May 1948 were momentous if not monumental in determining the fate of the emerging Jewish state. On January 16th, thirty-five soldiers in the Palmach were killed in the famous “Lamed-Heh” incident. In February and March, convoys from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were routinely attacked, and there were many major terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. In May, Gush Etzion and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell. In short, there was tremendous anxiety in Israel and the feeling at the time was that we were going to lose the war!

All of this background helped us understand why some of the leaders of the emerging Israel Defense Forces (on June 2, the IDF was created) needed a scapegoat and felt that there must be a traitor in their midst.

Meir Tubianski was born in Lithuania. At age 21, he made aliyah as part of the idealist aliyah of the Third Aliyah, and he lived in Haifa. He served in the Haganah and in the British army. At the time of the War of Independence he was living in Jerusalem and working for the electric company.

On June 30th, Captain Tubianski goes to visit his sister in Tel Aviv. While in Tel Aviv, people from the Intelligence Division of the IDF pick him up in a jeep and take him to Beit Jis, an abandoned Arab village, hear Kibbutz Harel. He is accused of collaborating with the enemy –he allegedly gave lists to certain British people, who passed them on to the Jordanians. Accused of “high treason”, he undergoes a very quick field court martial and is executed on the spot. Nothing is said to his wife or son. She hires a lawyer and writes a letter to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who, interested in establishing military law for the IDF, eventually decides that Tubianski is innocent and that his body is to be exhumed from his grave in Bet Jis and given a full military burial. This was the only case of capital punishment in Israeli military history.

Since I had the opportunity to study this case this summer, I was glad to be able to go with my wife, Amy (who blogs about Israeli film) to see the new film about Tubianski, which was directed by Riki Shelach, in Jerusalem last night. The film portrays the case of this young officer in the early days of the IDF, without all the necessary background that I learned this summer. This makes the film too simplistic and not as complex as the situation was in real life. Also, the lead characters are very stiff and one-dimensional, and since one does not get the context of the existential threats facing the Jewish community in 1948, the viewer does not appreciate the life-and-death difficult decisions that the military leaders of the nascent Jewish state had to face.

In Natan Alterman’s poem, “The Traitor’s Wife”, which appeared in the Labor daily Davar (now extinct), the poet celebrated the fact that the widow and the orphan were successful in bringing the case before Prime Minister Ben Gurion and getting him and the judicial and governmental leadership of Israel at the time to correct the injustice that was done to the father of this family, and to see that justice was actually done. Alterman, who is one of Israel’s most celebrated poets — and was the leading poet of the Palmach generation — was critical of the early leadership of the IDF and at the same time he showed great respect for Ben Gurion for overturning the verdict of the field court martial, which lead to the establishment of justice within the Israeli army.

Notwithstanding my criticism of the film, it reveals some of the deep dilemmas of contemporary Israel. In order to survive, we must be strong. But we won’t survive well if we pervert justice and ignore morality. To this day, we need to remain vigilant if we want to preserve Israel as a just and ethical society.