I have been waiting to see this film since I first read about it several months ago. It finally opened this past week in Vermont, where I and three other people took in a Monday matinee. It did not disappoint. In fact it exceeded my expectations because in about 100 minutes I was given a more brutal yet painfully honest picture of the story I have been chasing since I traveled with Israeli troops to the Suez Canal during the June 1967 Middle East War.
In the nearly 50 years that have followed, I’ve probably clocked thousands of hours on diplomatic shuttles and have seen rare glimpses of the peace that might be. But much more often there have been gruesome acts of terrorism, targeted assassinations and many more wars. And in the end, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute seems further from resolution than ever.
“If there is an organization in Israel that understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict better than anybody else, it is the Shin Bet. These are the men that walked in the alleys of the refugee camps, and they know the conflict, as they say, from the bottom of the sewers. I’m trying to tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from their point of view.” So said Dror Moreh, the Israeli filmmaker who created and directed the “The Gatekeepers,” which was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of 2012.
The men who are featured in “The Gatekeepers” are not soft-hearted peaceniks nor anti-Israeli foreigners. They are hard-as-nails realists who are super Israeli patriots. They are the men who from 1980 to 2011 led Shin Bet, the Israeli agency responsible for internal security and counter-terrorism in the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel following the June ’67 war.
Director Moreh began this work more than three years ago, when much to his own surprise, he was ultimately able to persuade all six living former Shin Bet security chiefs to speak openly and frankly about their careers. That they did, and their candor is remarkable. But so as not to bury the lead of this story, the more remarkable fact of this documentary is that all six former Shin Bet chiefs — from different eras and different political parties have come to the same conclusion — Israel’s long-term survival depends on the resolution of this conflict.
When Moreh was asked about this unanimity, he explained that their views evolved from Israel’s failure finally to suppress Palestinian nationalism no matter what measures it employed, He summed it up: “These are people who tortured, who assassinated, who interrogated. … They figured out that power can prevail only to a certain point and after that you have to be a pragmatist.”
The film progresses more or less chronologically, focusing on some key events involving Palestinian terrorist attacks, and Israeli reprisals. There is a judicious use of historical film so that it doesn’t just come across as “wallpaper.” There are also useful computer-generated graphics that help explain each event. But the substance of the film is what the security chiefs say, entirely in Hebrew with easy-to-read subtitles. For me, these were some of the notable quotes:
“In the war on terror, forget about morality.”
“We wanted security. We got more terrorism.”
“To the enemy, I was also a terrorist.”
“You can’t make peace by military means”
“The tragedy is that we win every battle, but we lose the war.”
The most controversial quote of the film is from Avraham Shalom, who was the Shin Bet chief from 1980-1985. He was the one who dismisses morality when fighting terrorism. But later in the film he says, “On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. Similar, but not identical.” He tries to clarify this by adding that he is talking about how the Germans dealt with the nonJews in their occupations of Poland, France and other countries. But pro-Israeli critics of the film were greatly offended.
Alan Johnson is an academic and a pro-Israel activist in Britain where the film opened just recently. In the Daily Telegraph, Johnson wrote, “‘The Gatekeepers’ … is a visceral experience. Its combination of technical brilliance, political urgency and moral seriousness left me reeling.” While Johnson’s review is largely positive, he does air criticisms from the pro-Israel community in Britain.
“The writer Melanie Phillips attacked the Shin Bet leaders as ‘shooting their mouths off’ and ‘their laughably simplistic views’ will only ‘hearten Israel’s enemies.’” Johnson mentioned criticisms along those lines from other pro-Israeli groups and then added, “Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, accused (director) Moreh of cherry-picking those parts of the interviews that showed Israel in a bad light. Like Philips, Oren argued that the film would aid Israel’s enemies.”
Here in the US, that is a minority view, and the film has received rave reviews across the political spectrum from The New Yorker to The Wall Street Journal. As for the New York Times, A.O. Scott was absolutely glowing. Some excerpts:
“(An) amazing, upsetting film. … It is hard to imagine a movie about the Middle East that could be more timely, more painfully urgent, more challenging to conventional wisdom on all sides of the conflict. ... What is most astonishing about the interviews is how candid and critical these six spymasters are, inflicting stories with pointed, sometimes devastating assessments of the failings of successive governments. … And their shared professional ethos of ruthless unsentimental pragmatism is precisely what gives such force to their worries about the current state of Israeli politics.”
“The Gatekeepers” did not win the best documentary Oscar. If it had, director Moreh had planned to dedicate the award to the memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli. Moreh planned to say, he was killed “because he dared to dream about peace.” In fact, Rabin gets his due in the film itself — which, for anyone who wishes to better understand the Middle East, is an absolute must-see.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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