The Gatekeepers (2012) is perhaps the most engrossing documentary I have ever seen. From all reports, it is to 2012 what The Act of Killing (2012) is to 2013. Somehow The Gatekeepers lost the Academy Award to an interesting story about a forgotten musician. I was tempted to chastise the Academy for valuing human interest over scale or depth, but that’s at least half unfair. The Gatekeepers is essentially the history of Israel since 1967 as told by all of the surviving directors of the Shin Bet (or Shabak)–Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin–the agency tasked with domestic security (read: intelligence) of Israel and its occupied territories. The popular selling point when it was in theaters was the idea that such a group of presumed hawks all supported the two-state solution and bemoaned the settlements. Well, there’s plenty more that The Gatekeepers offers in its criticisms that are far more interesting than that.
About a third of the way through the film, one is astounded by what these men have to say. Their honesty and (relative) openness to self-criticism is shocking when you compare it to the wagon-circling tactics of American policymakers. In a way, I even admire Avraham Shalom (1981-86), a person not unlike Dick Cheney, who has the clarity of vision–which is extreme and dangerous–to say what he thinks and without a bit of spin. There is no morality in the face of the threat of an attack for Shalom. [How’s that for an irony.] But Shalom isn’t big on bombs–he thinks that’s overkill, unwise, immoral–and fears that the occupation, because of its length and the extent of popular involvement, may have turned Israelis into cruel people. He also believes in talking to anyone at any time because “there is no alternative.” It’s almost as though these men haven’t even seen their talking points. It’s a refreshing change.
The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh, certainly paints a picture of Israel over the past 45 years and it isn’t flattering for the Israelis. To American eyes, it is the endgame to every fear we have of the NSA and drones warfare. Footage–from where, I know not–of men walking about until a cloud of dust explodes around them is unnerving after the third or fourth time. The callous references to collateral damage are equally uncomplimentary. Some of the directors say quiet clearly that their campaign against enemy leadership is not productive. One might say counter productive since the PLO’s absence from the terrorism game left room for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to use suicide bombers in the 90’s (to today) making life in Israel even worse than it ever was before. And it doesn’t seem likely to improve.
For those interested in Israel and the politics of the region, The Gatekeepers is a valuable primer. What other conflict is so enmeshed in the history between the parties? To a man, every director said that the central issue is trust and trust is built on a common history. And looking at this history, both parties are going to have to apologize for a wide range of offenses and The Gatekeepers doesn’t shy away from those of Israel. If anything, there is very limited discussion of specific Palestinian offenses. The most damning, possibly, is the theory that victory for Palestine is in seeing Israelis suffer. But this is where the solution can be found. It is easier to resolve when both sides are wrong than when both sides are right.