I’ve been reading a lot about The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary that interviews the six living heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. It’s not yet in wide release in the States, and I was happy to learn that it is playing in Israel. On Sunday evening, walked to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and saw it.
It is an extraordinary documentary, and difficult to watch. Straightforward interviews are powerfully juxtaposed with highly edited old photos made crisp and three-dimensional and old news footage that is graphically and emotionally raw. There is mind-blowing quote after mind-blowing quote, and little background music that influences the mood of the film. The filmmaker is clearly left-wing and his rare but probing questions become irritating mostly because they are so unnecessary: all six men speak straightforwardly, often saying things that are unbelievable to hear an Israeli security chief say. They speak mostly about Israeli-Palestinian history and relations.
Throughout the film I heard sniffling and sighing in the seats around me, particularly when graphic footage of the aftermath of First Intifada bus bombings filled the screen. The build-up to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination is also rough– seeing rallies of religious Israelis burning the PM’s photo, holding a mock funeral, a small child looking full of hatred as he strained his voice to join the crowd shouting against a peacemaker, a traitor to them. Interviews touch on the planned bombing of the Temple Mount by Jewish extremists, ethical deliberations surrounding IDF assassinations of terrorist leaders, the controversial handling of the hijacking of bus 300… the window it provides into Israel’s security-related history is so valuable for anyone trying to understand the difficult security dilemmas Israel faces.
I won’t hide that the former chiefs’ conclusions mostly jibe well with my own politics. But although the film deals with fundamentally political issues and has received both commendation and condemnation for its handling of them, the overwhelming takeaway is not a political perspective. It is sadness at missed opportunities, and urgency – urgency to work toward a better future now because we won’t have the opportunity to do so in the future. It’s a perspective that is not common here. Although the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution as part of a negotiated peace, belief in its possibility is rare. The shrinking left that not only believes in it but also wants to act on it is seen as naïve. With elections one week away, current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is widely expected to retain his seat but lead a far more extremist right coalition, filled with politicians who call for annexing the West Bank – among other strategies unpalatable to proponents of a state that is both democratic and Jewish. Although there are dozens of political parties, few if any can boast politically experienced, credible leaders devoted to and able to articulate an inspiring vision for a sustainable peace. (Feel free to start a discussion in the comments section if you disagree – I hope to be proved wrong.)
None of the previews I’ve found online do The Gatekeepers any justice. You just have to see it, and see it with someone whose hand you can hold. It’s difficult to watch but extremely worthwhile as an invaluable perspective on Israel’s past, present, and future from the Israeli security apparatus’s most knowledgeable insiders.