A college professor once taught me that a decaying empire clenches onto power with a chokehold. Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people may not be an empire, but after nearly forty-six years, it has become a sort of reigning paradigm of Israeli life. The Israeli Left has challenged, but never truly shifted, that paradigm.
In 2009 a particularly right-wing government was established after a particularly nasty war in Gaza, and the sense of urgency among left-wing Israelis increased. Suddenly new movements and parties were established, joint Israeli-Palestinian protest actions became routine, while new, independent media emerged in the cybersphere. Three films released in the last two years opened up highly original avenues of critical inquiry, to international acclaim. Two are currently Academy Award nominees for best documentary: The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras; the third, The Law in These Parts, won a documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
Together, the films provide a hard-hitting cinematic indictment of the occupation by Israeli filmmakers. Cameras (with Israeli and Palestinian co-directors) shows the Palestinian experience of protesting against the separation wall; The Law in these Parts is a fascinating exploration of how the military (in)justice system was elaborately tailored by some of the country’s best legal minds to legitimize and entrench the occupation. Despite their success abroad, both films remain somewhat remote for mainstream Israelis, for whom Palestinian resistance to Israeli security policy is of little interest, and legal intrigue of the occupation is no great scoop.
The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh, is poised to have the greatest possible impact on the Israeli public, because it tackles the arena closest to that public’s heart: the security establishment. The film is a candid series of interviews with six former heads of the legendary Shin Bet, Israel’s Internal Security Agency, who criticize the state’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, inlaid with documentation and computer-simulated portrayals of historic events that are part of the Israeli national canon. It is also reportedly going to become a television mini-series on Israel’s state Channel 1.
Israelis deeply respect security figures, especially white male elites (like those in the film) who do not talk of “peace” and utter unsentimental lines like, “In the war against terror, forget about morality.” So says Avraham Shalom, head of the Shin Bet from 1980-1986. Tough talk like this should lend credibility to the general themes of The Gatekeepers: security clashes with morality, the occupation is bad for security and social cohesion, and there is no clear vision or leadership regarding its future. The Palestinians, for these men, are primarily objects, thought of only in terms of how they affect security. That image mirrors (and helps to determine) the prevailing attitude in Israeli society.
Moreh’s film could also fill a major gap in a left-wing narrative that has failed to provide counter-arguments to the Right on security issues. During the gory waves of terror in the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, the Right promised to fight back—security first, peace later. The Left floundered on the notion that if we push through and reach peace, maybe security would improve. Fresh experience made it impossible for Israelis to believe that and the Left was roundly discredited.
The six “gatekeepers” provide a general rejoinder that the status quo makes resistance and violence inevitable. The film uses their words, archival imagery fused with sophisticated digital animation, and ominous music to show how the 1967 war created the occupation, occupation created rage, rage created terror, and terror created tactics of repression—which are never a solution. As terror mushroomed, “We forgot all about the Palestinian issue,” says Shalom. The Shin Bet got busy suppressing the symptoms and the political disease metastasized.
Will the film become a watershed in Israeli life? Will Israeli audiences walk out of the theaters re-thinking what they thought they knew about Israel’s albatross?
The inauspicious answer begins with the fact that for Israelis, there is little that is new or revelatory about the chiefs’ confessions, nor the basic dilemmas in general. Most know that some Shin Bet chiefs criticize the state’s security policies after leaving office, that Ami Ayalon has a conflict resolution initiative with Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh, and that Yaacov Peri is active in center-left political circles (he has now entered Knesset with Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid’s centrist party).
The film must also be considered in a context where the occupation is a paradigm that rules Israeli life. Historic empires drew legitimacy from heaven; by contrast, paradigms are supposed to rest on empirical truths that are nearly unquestionable and can withstand disagreements over their finer points. For example, most Israelis believe that “there’s no Palestinian partner,” and that this is why the occupation continues. Israelis are convinced that they themselves want peace (nearly 60 percent in the December 2012 Peace Index survey support a two-state solution), but that Palestinians continue to hate and refuse to recognize Israel. According to a December poll by the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, 60 percent of Israelis believe that the long-term goal of Palestinians is to conquer Israel, and 42 percent believe that they want to destroy the Jews as well as conquer the country. (In fact, 21 percent of Palestinians want to conquer Israel, and only 12 percent favor the latter, extreme option, according a parallel survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.) Center and center-left parties are viewed as legitimate, as is the principle of a two-state solution, but only insofar as the “facts” above ensure that those parties just prolong the occupation.
Moreover, the occupation has become greater than the sum of its impractical parts: it has turned into the fulcrum for being on Israel’s side. When local lefties or foreigners criticize the policy, Israelis believe they are objectively against Israel. The founding ideology of Zionism itself is being reduced to support for military rule over Palestinians. The country’s judicial, legislative, and executive branches have all been recruited to the service of the military regime. Two generations of Jewish Israeli men and women have been inducted into an army whose primary purpose is policing Palestinians. The militarism of the occupation has seeped into civilian life and become normal.
In this environment, those who would dismantle the whole paradigm are “left” in the most disparaging sense: naïve, hypocritical, possibly self-hating traitors—or simply alien beings. When I asked a right-leaning friend if he had seen The Gatekeepers, he scoffed, “Why should I bother with a bunch of lefties?”—without clarifying whether he meant the director or the protagonists.
Therefore, the first question is whether Israelis who are not from the choir will see the film in significant numbers. The New York Times reported a large turnout in the opening weeks; winning an Academy Award can only help. How will non-choir Israelis interpret the messengers? Even the (very) faint whiff of leftism can be toxic enough to taint the credibility of mighty security figures, instead of the other way around. Lines like Yaacov Peri’s much-quoted “[after this job] you become a little bit of a leftist” are not likely to help.
And how will the film’s basic themes be filtered through those overriding narratives of Israeli life? Consider one theme, the tension between security and morality or legality. The chiefs speak head-on about targeted assassinations, collateral damage, interrogation practices, and major events such as the killings of two terrorists in captivity in 1984. The interviewees are thoughtful and probing. Foreign viewers have already commended the openness of their self-critique.
But again, little of this is new to Israelis, not even the self-critique. In 1984, Bus #300 was hijacked by terrorists then stormed by the IDF. Two terrorists were caught by Israeli forces. They were also caught by flashbulbs, alive in Shin Bet captivity, before turning up dead after the agents finished with them (Shalom, who headed the ISA then, says the army beat them unconscious first). The publication of the contraband photographs (the agents had screamed at photographer Alex Levac to hand over the film; he gave them a decoy and hid the real roll in his sock) prompted a cover-up, an exposé of the cover-up, the resignation of Shalom in 1986, and endless parsing and some soul-searching since then. Just last year, a news documentary devoted entirely to the incident aired on Israeli television.
Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that the audience believes there is a tension between security and morality. When a header appears with Shalom’s words “in the fight against terror, forget about morality,” viewers are supposed to be appalled, but many Israelis will agree instead. Shalom relates how he ordered the agents to “hit [the hijackers] again and finish them off”; some will say, “Good! These are terrorists who would have slaughtered everyone on that bus—we should kill them and their families too.” Ami Ayalon’s remonstration that “we killed a terrorist whose hands were tied, who no longer threatens us” isn’t likely to elicit sympathy for the terrorists, and probably not for Ayalon.
Viewers are just as likely to leave the theater thinking of Avi Dichter’s reaction to an American who criticized the assassination of a terrorist in Gaza, in which civilians were killed. Dichter responded, “We know your methods in Afghanistan; you bombed a wedding and seventy people were killed.”
Dichter goes on to explain that the ISA’s following operation was almost canceled, then planned so surgically that it targeted only the upper floor of a building where a large group of Hamas leaders were meeting. They turned out to be on the lower floor and escaped unharmed. Such things tend to enrage Israelis, who feel that the world is manipulated by Palestinians into seeing Israelis as brutal, while they believe that the military is in fact so moral that it sacrifices its own security to protect enemy civilians.
A second major theme might have greater resonance: the occupation is not only bad for Israeli security, it corrupts Israeli society. It nurtures violent, fundamentalist Jewish scofflaws in the settlements. Details of the Jewish plot to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque could rankle Israelis. The plot was foiled but the conspirators were soon set free.
The most troubling part for many will be Carmi Gillon’s recollection of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, on his watch. Moreh musters all the emotional force and footage of that painful era—the incitement, the Nazi imagery, the torch-lit coffins at the demonstrations—as if bringing back the horror will remind Israelis of their desire to continue down Rabin’s path. But the film cannot do what Rabin’s death failed to do. In reality, Israelis did not blame the occupation for Jewish extremism; they clung to it. They went on to elect the people who “stood on the balcony” at those demonstrations—now an iconic image linked to goading or condoning incitement: first Netanyahu, later Ariel Sharon, then Netanyahu again—twice.
Yes, Israelis also elected Ehud Barak in part on the promise of renewing a peace process and Palestinians clearly share the blame for its failure. Yes, Sharon dismantled settlements in Gaza. But Sharon also re-occupied parts of the West Bank, and Gaza’s boundaries remain firmly under the grip of Israeli authorities. When Camp David failed, Israelis reverted to a familiar approach: what doesn’t work with force will work with more force.
A third theme emphasized toward the end of the film is that there’s no one at the helm. A leadership vacuum has been filled by the expansionism of settlers, and the Shin Bet chiefs are panting to keep up. Ami Ayalon poignantly realizes that his childhood image of an “old man at the end of the corridor”—the prime minister who leads the country with wisdom—does not exist. Many Israelis share this sense of betrayal by cynical, vision-less leaders—just look at the social protest of 2011. Then look at how it steadfastly refused to address the occupation.
The film probably won’t bring down the empire, the paradigm, or even some of the basic narratives. Even if some are convinced, the men don’t provide much inspiration in terms of what can be done: their main activity in life was enabling the system. As Peri says, even if he had criticisms or advocated reaching a political agreement, “it’s not within my mandate.” This too reflects a common attitude among Israelis: even if they agree that the policy must change, it’s not their job.
But could the paradigm be shifting? Is there growing realization within Israeli society that the social, political, moral, and military basis of the occupation is unsustainable? If so, perhaps The Gatekeepers need not change people’s minds, so much as express them—giving voice and company to what people may come to suspect.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s last government mounted a multi-pronged attack on internal criticism. It passed legislation against political boycotts and against observing the Naqba, and commenced a witch-hunt against left-wing and human rights organizations. A committee under its minister of education proposed shutting down the left-leaning Politics and Government Department at Ben Gurion University, a situation that has not been resolved. The New York Times reported that Netanyahu has failed to congratulate Moreh for the Oscar nomination and reportedly has not seen the film. Defensive panic is common abroad too, seen most recently in the hysterical threat of New York City Council members to slash funding for Brooklyn College because its political science department co-sponsored a discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
These are signs that the criticism is closing in. Neither repression nor force can save a failed policy. When flaws become too glaring, and voices speak out too fast, from too many different sides, something will trigger a paradigm shift. The Gatekeepers might just contribute to that process.