The Gatekeepers Chizfilm Jewish Movie Reviews
March 22, 2013

How New Is the Message of “The Gatekeepers”?

by Jonathan Chisdes

The Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, has finally gotten a major theatrical release in the US. This film, in which the six living former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet (their secret service dedicated to the security of the country) candidly discuss their highly-informed opinions of the Occupation and other security issues, has been making waves in the film community. Critic after critic, with a few minor exceptions, have been praising the doc for its unique insight into the complex issues of terrorism which divide Israel, the Middle East, and the world. A. O. Scott, Joe Morgenstern, and Manohla Dargis all consider it one of the best and most important films of 2012.

Director Dror Moreh amazingly gets these six individuals to let down their guard and speak frankly about one of Israel’s most secret governmental organizations. Though the six are certainly not of a single mind—they do in fact disagree on some points—it’s quite remarkable how much they do agree on. After years of dealing with the intricate details and the overriding policies which govern Israel’s response to terrorism, all six have come to the same conclusion: that the current policies are not working, the Occupation is bad for both Israel and the Palestinians, Israel needs to talk with the Palestinians, and that they should have their own independent state. Peace is possible.

This seems quite the shocking unanimity, especially coming from heads of a top-secret secret intelligence agency. All six come across as extremely thoughtful and reflective; not at all political and jingoistic. All recognize that, contrary to the “popular wisdom” spouted by Likkud political candidates who believe the only solution is to keep killing them, these issues are not black-and-white but rather complex shades of grey.

Among the events discussed in the film is the targeting of individual terrorists like Yahya Ayyash; he was taken out by Shin Bet but innocent bystanders were also killed. This not only had political fallout but increased revenge terrorist attacks. Also examined are the roles of right-wing Israelis who frustrate the peace process by settling land claimed by Palestinians, upping the anti-Palestinian rhetoric, and in some cases even attacking them. The most horrendous act occurred on November 4, 1995, possibly the darkest day in Israel’s history, when Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, who was leading the way to peace, was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli. This changed everything, derailing the peace process, ushering in the second Intifada, increasing terrorism.

It’s ironic to note that killing one terrorist does no good in the long run, as he becomes a martyr and many step up to replace him; but if you kill one man of peace like Rabin, no one takes his place, and everything changes for the worse.

Also of particular interest is the Bus 300 incident. In 1984, two terrorists hijacked a bus; when Shin Bet agents finally seized the bus and took the terrorists into custody, they were beaten to death rather than arrested and brought to trial. Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom gave those orders. As part of the political fallout, Shalom was forced to resign. When Shalom discusses this on camera with Dror Moreh he expresses regret only in that he was caught, not for the actual order. Of the six, he’s the one who comes across as the most conservative, the least interested in the moral implications of his actions. And yet his philosophical reflections at the end of the film are the most condemning. “We’ve become cruel,” he says.

In fact, it’s the contemplations at the end which really bring the whole issue into focus. One of the Shin Bet heads muses that Israel has won most of the battles but is losing the war. Another wonders who, really, is the enemy.

For those who pay close attention to and give considerable time to ponder the events of violence in Israel, these thoughts may not seem so radically wild and new—which makes me wonder how many of these film critics who have said this film is innovative actually have gone out of their way to read other opinions besides those same tired clichés of AIPAC and Likkud spokesmen. Plenty of groups on the Left, both inside and outside Israel, have been saying for decades that the Occupation is wrong. Like so many, I’ve been against the Occupation for over two decades. So I can almost shrug it off—you’re preaching to the choir here. Instead, I just wonder where all the critics have been.

On the other hand, there really is something new here, and that is who is saying it. Mainstream audiences tend to dismiss hopeful peace talk as coming from people with no experience on the ground—they don’t know what they are talking about. But these six individuals cannot be dismissed so easily. As Dror Moreh says in an interview in the New York Times, the film’s “power is not so much the message as the messengers.”

Moreh further explains that he was inspired to make this documentary after seeing Errol Morris’ film “The Fog of War” in which former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara who carried out the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson discussed frankly, 35 years later, how he eventually came to believe he was wrong and the war was immoral.

That film got strongly condemned—well, not so much the film as McNamara himself—by former Vietnam protesters who objected to McNamara’s depiction of himself as the wise old man with unique insight. He implied that only by going through the purging fire of the daily details of the war for several years could he or anyone come to the profound understanding that war is bad; completely ignoring the fact that millions of anti-war protestors were screaming this same message at him every day for years. Once he had made that discovery in 1968 and stepped down, he said nothing publicly, keeping silent for 35 years, speaking up only long after it could have had any effect on policy. Had he come forward at the time, the former protesters charged, his voice could have been a powerful one and helped end the futile war much sooner, saving countless lives.

While “The Fog of War” and “The Gatekeepers” have much in common—both depicting wise old men who have come to learn the futility of non-ending violent response—the major difference is that the latter still could have an effect on current policy. In 2003, it was way, way, way too late to say, “You know what, Vietnam is a bad idea; let’s end it,” but now, in 2013, it’s still not too late to listen to the advice of these six wise old men and reverse the policies which have led to the unjust, ongoing, and impractical Occupation.

Sometimes the message itself is not enough; it’s who’s saying it that attracts the attention.