The Gatekeepers: ‘If this film does not lead to change, there is no hope for Israel’

NEW YORK — “If this film does not lead to change, there is no hope for Israel,” said Israeli director Dror Moreh. He was referring to his new documentary The Gatekeepers, which has been nominated for an Academy Award. The title of the film refers to the six directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who, in a series of extraordinary interviews with the director, speak about their work in detail for the first time.

Perhaps partly in response to Moreh’s personal charisma and partly out of what seems to be deep concern born of real patriotism, these men are strikingly candid and thoughtful. Avraham Shalom, head of the Shin Bet under Menachem Begin, speaks for the first time about the 1984 Kav 300 affair, when terrorists who attacked an inter-city bus were photographed alive upon arrest and were then killed in custody. Carmi Gillon speaks about his personal crisis after failing to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. They speak openly about the great danger posed by Jewish terror, particularly given that the men who plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, for example, are part of the Israeli establishment. They describe in detail the process of establishing control over occupied territory — learning to speak fluent Palestinian Arabic and memorizing the layout of every Palestinian village and town, building by building, house by house. The suffocating sense they convey is that the Palestinians living in occupied territory have no personal freedom; they are under perpetual surveillance, no matter what they are doing.

What these men describe is the process by which Israel became after 1967 a state that is ruled by the Shin Bet, rather than governed by the prime minister’s office. And in doing so, they confirm everything the so-called loony left has been saying about the occupation and its destructive effect on Israeli society.

We are winning the battle and losing the war, they say. And more: The only way to resolve this conflict is to sit down and negotiate, and yes that includes speaking with Hamas; we have made the lives of the Palestinians miserable and unbearable; the occupation has made Israel into a Shin Bet state; we are the edge of an abyss; there is no-one thinking for the people in the prime minister’s office; the future is bleak and gray.

In response to a quote from Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz about the danger to democracy and the immorality of being an occupying power, Yuval Diskin responds that he agrees with every word.

Advance reviews for the film, which goes into limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, have been very strong. New York Magazine calls it “strikingly lucid,” adding: “You know the Holy Land is an unholy mess when the professional paranoiacs with a license to kill come off like peaceniks.”

These men are not really peaceniks, although Yaakov Peri does say at one point that heading the Shin Bet makes one into “a sort of leftist.” In fact they are pragmatists and they are ruthless. Their descriptions of notorious assassinations committed by the Shin Bet, even those that involved substantial “collateral damage” (dead innocent bystanders), are cold and detached. But they blink when Moreh confronts them with the consequences of those assassinations — i.e., retaliations, counter-retaliations, more dead civilians and no end in sight. They acknowledge that they have been engaged in short term tactics without any long-term goal.

Moreh, visiting New York to promote the film ahead of its release on Friday (it was released last month in Israel, to sold out screenings and strong reviews), was at the end of a long day of interviews by the time we sat down to talk. But he was energetic and passionate and spoke volubly.

“Of course I am worried!” he said. “I was worried before I made the film and I am more worried now.” If Obama doesn’t “roll up his sleeves and use his power to make change,” he said, “We are doomed.”

He acknowledges readily that he was motivated to make the film by a desire to start a conversation in Israeli society. “I’m not interested in people who look away from their reflection in a cracked, rusty mirror because they don’t like what they see,” he said. “I’m interested in the people who can look unflinchingly at their reflection, even if they don’t like it.”

Moreh is deeply troubled by the uncritical stance toward Israel adopted by the organized Jewish community in the United States. In an interview with the Huffington Post’s Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, he said that the American Jewish view “…that they have to support Israel, no matter what” is actually “damaging the state of Israel” and “damaging their own goal of protecting Israel as a safe haven for them,” because if Israel continues on its present path it will soon be a place they would not want to live in — i.e., an apartheid state.

“The Jewish American attitude toward Israel must change,” he said to me. “AIPAC can change that attitude. Not JStreet! But AIPAC can. They have to think what’s best for Israel. You have to decide what you believe in. You cannot be for Rabin and Netanyahu. Decide what you believe in!”

The Gatekeepers is a gripping, disturbing film. The production values are unusually high, with superb editing that presents a clear narrative — which is not, by the way, particularly left wing. But because the clearly heartfelt, knowledgeable opinions of these undeniably well informed men are so disturbing to those who believe in the received narratives about Israeli security policy being morally or tactically motivated and therefore justifiable, many will find this film unbearable to watch.

The Gatekeepers will go into limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 1.