When I first began getting invitations to press screenings for Sony Picture Classics’ “The Gatekeepers”, my first reaction was to assume that it was similar to “The Law in These Parts”, the Israeli documentary that is based on interviews with the military judges responsible for creating Nuremberg type legal codes that made the Palestinians the modern equivalent of Jews under Nazi rule.. That film allowed the judges to hang themselves on their own petards as they offered self-vindicating rationales for bending the law to suit the needs of the settlers. It was all about combating “terrorism”.
I probably should have figured out that Sony was not likely to be distributing anything like that. The CEO of Sony Entertainment is one Michael Lynton who is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, Sony produced “Zero Dark Thirty”, a film that is related to “The Gatekeepers” after a fashion.
But the closest relative to “The Gatekeepers” is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, which allows the war criminal to shed crocodile tears over his “mistakes” in Vietnam. Surely, if the U.S. were able to stabilize a puppet government in South Vietnam, Morris would have not had material to work with. By the same token, if Israel did not have to contend with continuing Palestinian resistance, the Shin Bet chiefs whose interviews form the substance of Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film, would have had no reason to take part in a film that reflects Israeli “dove” nervousness about the settler state’s future.
The Shin Bet is Hebrew for the Israel Security Agency, founded in 1948. It is responsible for controlling the Arabs internally while the Mossad has the same kind of job externally. They are analogous to the FBI and the CIA respectively.
The men interviewed by Moreh agonize not so much about the Zionist project (who would expect them to) but about its difficulties, something they blame on both the unruly Palestinians and the Israeli ultraright. Terrorism of both the Hamas variety and Israeli ultrarightists of the sort who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin are obstacles to a “solution” of the Palestinian problem.
Moreh is content to allow these men to pontificate about their career with hardly any effort made to put them on the spot for illegal detention, torture, or murder. For example, in one interview, the matter of a handcuffed Palestinian being beaten to death in the aftermath of a bus hijacking is raised with Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. When Shalom defends this obvious criminal act, Moreh does little to follow up with additional questions about what this says about Israeli “democracy”. One can hardly escape feeling that while obviously being appalled by IDF war crimes Moreh attributes them to a state of affairs forced upon a peace-loving but besieged people.
In a very shrewd review of “Zero Dark Thirty”, Israeli film reviewer Noam Sheizaf describes the changing character of his country’s film industry in recent years in words that are just as applicable to a documentary like “The Gatekeepers” as it is to narrative films:
Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories – the kind of action or drama movies where the protagonist serves his country, noble against a powerful and cruel enemy. The quantity of other such works of fiction – in literature, for example – dropped as well. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos. Instead, Israeli popular culture started producing a different genre – that of the confessions. Here, the protagonists or story-tellers were usually trying to come to terms with the terrible things they were forced to do to – by their COs, by politicians or by circumstances, but never of their own choice. The genre even earned a name: “shooting and crying. “ It all seemed brave – but it wasn’t, since our heroes never assumed responsibility for their actions. The real perpetrators were others: generals, right-wing radicals, fools – and sometimes it was simply the Arab’s fault. And sure enough, all those groups didn’t make movies. It was the lefty cultural elites that needed absolution, or at least explanation for the things they did (with much enthusiasm) – usually while continuing to do them. Today I would rather have a right wing that is proud of the occupation than an agonized lefty. You don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In the left-wing protests in recent years you can often hear chants of, “don’t shoot, don’t cry – get out of the territories now,” urging people to take responsibility for their actions.
Moreh appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on January 29th to promote his film that opens tomorrow at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and at the Film Forum on February 20th.
She asks Moreh to respond to this:
In this clip, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter discusses an Israeli bombing of a home in Gaza in July 2002. The attack killed Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, but also 14 innocent civilians, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter and a family of seven living next door. Dozens were also wounded. The attack occurred just as Shehadeh was reportedly preparing to sign onto a ceasefire halting attacks on Israelis not in the Occupied Territories.
This is what he said:
Well, look, I—I have to say that I a little bit feel uncomfortable in the way that you present the things here, because you portray the things as if Israel is the brutal, aggressive all the time, with the Palestinians, that they are like doves. There is reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it’s doing there. And the fact of the matter is that you cannot say—in a way, portray Israel as the aggressive and the Palestinians are the innocent bystander who are always being killed by those aggressive forces. It’s not the case at all, and I think that this is misleading the people that are watching that.