Created by Assaf Banitt and Maryland professor Shay Hazkani, the film focuses on the viewpoints of ordinary soldiers, rather than military leadership.

Israeli soldier writes home during the aftermath of the Suez Crisis on November 1, 1956. (Courtesy of Government Press Office)

Charlie Summers

News Editor


Students gathered in an H.J. Patterson lecture hall on Thursday evening for a screening of “The Soldier’s Opinion,” a film created by Shay Hazkani, a Jewish studies professor at this university, and director Assaf Banitt.

The film is based on Hazkani’s 2021 book “Dear Palestine” and delves into the inner workings of Israel’s Postal Censorship Bureau, a government body which intercepted and copied personal letters of Israeli soldiers to compile public opinion briefings for military leadership. These letters, which together paint a complex picture of Israel, were the basis of Hazkani’s book.

Relying on interviews with former officers at the bureau and personal letters, the film revealed how officers in the censorship unit tracked soldiers’ mental health, drug use, romantic relationships and views on the army.

“The defense minister’s highest priority was to know what the soldiers think,” said Shlomo Gazit, former head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, in the film. “He runs an army; he has to control them.”

The censor’s officers monitored army units assigned to them by their superiors, leading many to develop intense one-sided relationships with individual soldiers, through only their letters.

“We were voyeurs but in service of the state,” Osnat Ofri Samani, a former officer, admitted on screen.

One of the more tense scenes of the movie was when the filmmakers brought a former soldier and the officer who read his letters together for a conversation. The soldier, Sinai Peter, wrote with disgust about the cruel way other soldiers treated Arabs and confessed to having suicidal hallucinations, during his military service in the 1970s.

As written letters declined with the advent of cellphones, the Postal Censorship Bureau slowly fell out of use — it finally shut down in 1998. The army has since shifted to monitoring soldiers’ social media posts.

Sophomore history major Risa Wagner attended the screening after hearing about it from her Jewish studies professor earlier that day.

“I was actually shocked at the part when they were talking about how the military would read the letters, and if they thought that someone was gay, they would mark that down, and report it,” she said, referring to a practice common in the unit in the 60s and 70s.

Einav Tsach, a freshman journalism major, said that although the details of the movie were shocking, he wasn’t too surprised, having heard similar stories before.

“Obviously when you look at the film and you see the extent to which this is being done, it’s shocking. But as an Israeli, it’s not my first time hearing about obviously wrong behaviors that are happening in the military,” he said. “It makes me happy that we have a platform where support for Israel is clear, but we know also how to criticize it.”

After the screening, Eric Zakim, an associate professor of Jewish studies and film, led a panel with Hazkani and Banitt in which they explained the film’s genesis and their creative process.

Banitt was inspired to make the film after reading an article by Hazkani on soldiers’ letters during the Yom Kippur War, reminding him of his days in the army.

“When I joined the army, I had a girlfriend in New York and I wrote tons of letters. I knew they were being read, but I had no idea that it was not for the security of Israel, but for intelligence collection,” Banitt said.

Although Hazkani’s book draws on letters from outside of the Israeli army and concentrates on the 1948 Arab-Israeli War much more than the film does, he still felt the movie was a way of exposing his research to a larger audience.

“I started this work as an academic, but what I care about, Israel and Palestine, it was very clear to me that most people would not read [my book]. When Assaf had contacted me I thought: ‘Yes, that’s the way to get this story out there,” Hazkani said.

When asked whether the movie presents any solutions to the practice of military surveillance, Banitt answered to the contrary, expressing that he didn’t feel that was his role as a director.

“I turn a flashlight to the crack in the wall,” he said, describing his approach. “I try to point very delicately to what I think should be done, but it’s not up to me.”


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