Documentary recalls the horrors of Ma’alot school massacre

Ma’alot-Tarshiha is a quiet Jewish-Arab city in the Galilee within walking distance of Israel’s border with Lebanon. But 37 years ago, it was the scene of a horrific attack by Palestinian terrorists who took more than 100 students hostage in a school building, killing 22 and gravely wounding 68.

On May 9, the eve of Israel Independence Day, a new documentary about what is known as the Ma’alot Massacre will have its world premiere in a one-night-only screening in 250 theaters nationwide.

The mass screening of “Their Eyes Were Dry,” by 24-year-old Los Angeles filmmaker Brandon Assanti, is as much a tale of one young man’s commitment to telling this heart-wrenching story as it is testimony to the pain and suffering of the survivors who for decades kept their memories to themselves.

“Up until now, in fact, I had to keep inside what had happened and begin my life over again, as if this never happened,” says Tzipi Maimon-Bokris, one of a half-dozen now middle-aged survivors of the school massacre who agreed to tell their stories on camera for the first time.

The bare bones of the story: In the early-morning hours of May 15, 1974, three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical anti-Israel group, snuck across the border from Lebanon. Dressed as Israeli soldiers, they made their way to Ma’alot, where they killed three members of the Cohen family—apparently chosen at random—before entering an elementary school that was hosting more than 100 teenagers and teachers from a religious school in Safed for the night.

The terrorists held 115 hostages, including 105 students, and threatened to kill them if Israel did not release 23 prisoners being held on terror charges. For more than 12 grueling hours the young Israelis huddled in a booby-trapped classroom, abandoned by their teachers, until the terrorists turned on them with guns and grenades during a bloody rescue effort by the military.

The world reacted in horror to the targeting of children in the name of politics.

“Their Eyes Were Dry” tells the story as no one has told it before.

“As far as I know, it’s the first full-length film about Ma’alot,” said Marina Rozhansky, communications director for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, which has lent its name to the screenings.

Assanti spent five years on the project, his first full-length film. His parents are co-producers.

He was 18 when he met Shlomo Bohbut, then the mayor of Ma’alot and a cousin of his father’s, at a family dinner in Los Angeles. Captivated by the story Bohbut told, and inspired by the fact that the oldest of the teen hostages were a year younger than he was at the time, Assanti spent a year researching the incident.

“There was very little material available,” he told JTA in a phone interview from his L.A. home.

At 19, Assanti took his camera to Israel over spring break and summer vacation to track down survivors willing to share their memories. He doesn’t speak Hebrew, so he traveled with a translator and his Moroccan-born father, who spent a few childhood years in Ma’alot. Most of the interviews are conducted in Hebrew, with English subtitles. Assanti also has produced a Hebrew-only version hoping to distribute the film in Israel.

For the next 2 1/2 years he edited at night and did his college work during the day, managing to graduate from Loyola Marymount College with a degree in finance, albeit somewhat behind schedule.

“I put everything on hold for this,” he said.

Assanti steps back and lets those who suffered through the horrible day unwind the story, hour by hour. Their almost dispassionate retelling, born of years of submerging painful memories, is interspersed with stunning archival footage but no narration. Assanti says he wanted his subjects to tell the story themselves, without outside commentary. The powerful technique works to his advantage.

Inured as people may be now to children being murdered in wars and terrorist attacks, it’s rare that one has the opportunity to go inside an actual hostage situation and view it through the eyes of the children suffering through it. That’s what Assanti and his subjects give us, and it is strong medicine indeed.

Yishy Maimon, the former mayor of Safed, was 17 at the time, and he describes standing by an open window in the classroom about to jump to safety when he remembered his younger brother, Shimon, was still being held. How could he go home and face his parents having left his brother behind?

Maimon-Bokris, who was famously photographed being carried to safety in her brother’s arms, recalls the terrorist leader telling the children that they were “all going home now” before spraying them with gunfire and hurling a grenade at them.

“Throughout the day we tried to persuade them not to kill us,” she relates in the film. “One said, soon you’ll be soldiers—we have to stop you now.”

Major Gen. (Res.) Amiram Levin, who commanded the rescue operation, relates the conflict that raged that day between Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who urged decisive military action, and Chief of Staff Moshe Gur, who favored caution.

When he finally reached the classroom and saw the carnage—flesh clinging to the walls, headless bodies swimming in pools of blood—Levin’s heart broke.

“The whole operation took 30, 35 seconds,” he tells the camera. “If we’d been able to do it in 10, how many more could we have saved?”

The Ma’alot Massacre has become an iconic part of Israeli history. But by focusing on the personal stories of the children themselves, Assanti tries to universalize the horror. The politics fade into the background as the minutes tick by.

“Just watching the news about the Fogel family, it’s so obvious why this film is so important,” says Assanti, referring to last month’s murder of five members of a West Bank Jewish family by Palestinian terrorists. “Terrorism is still prevalent, and children are still targeted, still caught in the crosshairs of politics between countries. That should never happen.”

The Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles is working with Jewish Life Television and StandWithUs to promote the May 9 screenings, which are being presented by NCM Fathom and The Machine Management in 250 participating theaters nationwide through NCM’s Digital Broadcast Network. The screenings are billed as “An Evening of Reflection and Song” and will include a pre-recorded musical performance by the Cantors’ Assembly featuring the acclaimed Cantor Alberto Mizrahi.

Tickets and theater locations are available online.

College Minus Boys, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll


Ronica Yomtoubian used to sit in lecture halls at UCLA listening to Torah tapes on her headphones until the moment the professor started speaking. As an Orthodox woman, she tried to fulfill her academic requirements as a biochemistry major “with blinders on,” shutting out immodest clothing and speech — and secular values.

Then, after a summer studying in Israel, she decided to transfer to Maalot, an accredited college program for Orthodox women who want a traditional Jewish environment and also wish to study Judaic topics while earning their bachelor’s degree. Maalot, a branch of the Maalot Aidner Institute in Jerusalem, on Third Street just west of La Brea Avenue, has granted approximately 35 bachelor’s degrees since it opened in 2000. There are currently 60 women enrolled.

Many Maalot students say they chose the school because they wanted a small college that supports their Torah values, provides the opportunity to learn from Jewish sources and prepares them for graduate schools and for a variety of professions, school registrar Nechama Landesman said.

The presence of Orthodox higher education in Los Angeles brings the city into the debate over the value and risk of having yeshiva students attend a secular college. A growing number of yeshiva graduates are leaving Orthodox observance when they get to college.

Some argue that yeshiva high schools need to make Judaism a more integral part of a student’s identity so that the student has something to hold on to when she leaves the sheltered environment of high school. On campuses across the country, including UCLA, the Orthodox Union and Hillel teamed up a few years ago to start the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which brings young Orthodox couples to college campuses to create opportunities for Torah study as well as a social circle appropriate for yeshiva graduates.

But others advocate keeping young men and women in a sheltered environment throughout college to assure that yeshiva students don’t give in to previously unavailable temptations. Undergraduate programs such as those at Maalot, or Yeshiva University and Touro College in New York, fill that niche.

Next fall, Touro College will open branches in Los Angeles for men and women, offering a four-year bachelor’s degree with a traditional core curriculum as well as Jewish studies classes, said Esther Lowy, the school’s dean in Los Angeles.

More than 200 women have opted for Maalot since it opened less than five years ago. The student body consists of women straight out of high school, some who transferred from other colleges, and others, including some young grandmothers, who interrupted college careers to start families.

Maalot offers classes in business and finance, education, graphic arts, psychology, Jewish religion and philosophy. The school accepts credit for course work at other colleges. Several students have gone on to graduate school.

The school has no dorms, and the few students from out of town live with families in the area or in apartments.

“Religious girls are often thinking about marriage and starting families when they are college-aged,” Landesman said. “This means they need to get their degrees in the most time-efficient and cost-effective way possible. Maalot students can cut their time in college from four years to two by testing out of many lower-level classes.”

Landesman acknowledges that allowing women to test out may detract from students’ broader knowledge, but she believes that the Judaic studies add depth to the experience.

“The Rambam, the Maharal and Luzzato are the philosophers from which we learn,” she said. “Students get more out of a halacha [Jewish law] class than they would from a class in Chinese culture.”

Judaic classes teach the women topics they can apply in their professional and personal lives, such as business ethics or interpersonal-relationship skills.

“Maalot’s Kodesh classes impart a tremendous sense of mission, and that mission is to be a better human being,” Landesman said. “You don’t get that at a regular college.”

Many students choose Maalot precisely for what they do not get at regular colleges. Approximately 20 percent of the school’s population are students who left UCLA, Santa Monica Community College and other schools not in synch with the students’ beliefs as Orthodox Jews.

Shira Cohen-Gadol, who graduated from Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and transferred to Maalot from Santa Monica Community College, said coarse language and inappropriate male-female interactions made her start thinking about changing schools. What clinched it was when a sociology professor screened a pornographic film.

Cohen-Gadol says her classmates at Maalot influenced her decision to deepen her level of Jewish observance.

“After seeing the girls at Maalot stop what they were doing every afternoon to daven mincha, I began to join them,” she said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the director of Hillel at UCLA, insists that the secular environment of universities is not fatal to Orthodox observance.

“We have up to 35 people who come [to pray] at our daily mincha/maariv minyan,” Seidler-Feller said. “We have a Shabbat community and learning in our beit midrash all day.”

Seidler-Feller sees the culture of college campuses as the first of many encounters with the world for which Jews need to be prepared. He said it’s important for students to have intellectual conversations with people who are different from them, and to contribute their own viewpoint to the wider conversation.

“It is also important for university students to encounter both new and classical ideas of the world that are not necessarily Jewish,” he said.

Rabbi Nachum Sauer, who teaches Jewish studies at Maalot, puts Torah study on a higher plane than other subjects.

The pursuit of “all learning and parnassah [earning a living] should be guided by the light of Torah,” Sauer said. “Maalot offers students the opportunity to continue to grow in Torah, while learning the skills necessary to contribute to the finances of their families.”

For more information on Maalot call (323) 938-5196. For information on Touro call (310) 246-1231.