When the rumors began about a wholly unexpected decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to visit Israel, I was in a movie theater. My wife and I had gone to see "The Gatekeepers," one of five Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature.
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At first, we were going to put this one off. We figured, sooner or later this one will surely be on television. We thought, it's going to be talking heads, and at that, talking heads whom we know, more or less. We thought, we'll save the big-screen outings for the epic likes of "Les Miz" and "Lincoln."
We thought wrong.
What we wound up seeing in that theater in the heart of Tel Aviv, was, among other things, the best travel guide to this Israel that Obama could hope for.
Mr. President, if you haven't already, watch "The Gatekeepers" on the biggest screen you've got.
There's something in the blackness of the theater that rams home the dark words of six men who, for the benefit of the rest of us, spent most of their lives running an empire of shadow, ferocity, necessity and tragedy.
In the theater, their eyes are as big as your head. You need every bit of that kind of resolution – not only to understand, in scale, the power these men wielded over individuals and institutions, but also to see clearly the disarmingly complex lessons these men have learned, and feel an overwhelming urgency to share.
You need this writ large because these men explain Israel. Give in. Let them rip your skin off for 95 minutes. It'll grow back.
These six men know more about the occupation of the territories captured in 1967 than any Israeli prime minister, settlement advocate, diplomat, professor, leftist or rightist. They know more than anyone. Because they built it. They made it possible. They kept it going. They know exactly what it took. They saw what the rest of us did not. They directed and carried out and stomached what the rest of us were too pleased – and are still too pleased – not to know about. Not to ask about. Not to think about.
And as much as anyone else in Israel, these men want to end the occupation – perhaps more so, and for more good reasons, than anyone else.
These men are what it means to be an Israeli. We are, all of us, a part of this. Statistically, many of us in that theater, who were trained in the military for combat or medical or other support operations, had found ourselves from time to time working for the Shin Bet and for the occupation. But these six men were at the crux of it all. And they are telling us that we need to stop it.
What can a president learn from a film like this, from men like this? Plenty.
A president can learn that Israeli governments and leaders are structurally incapable of formulating and implementing strategy. But the right Israeli leader – if he or she can get past the eminently reasonable fear of right-wing assassination – can see history not only in a rear-view mirror, but dead ahead, and can lead the Israeli people through the kinds of contacts and decisions needed for an historic Israeli-Palestinian peace.
A president can learn that Israelis by and large want the occupation to end, but they have lost the sense that leaders will do what is necessary to make it end. Israelis, by and large, want settlers to stop embittering their lives and tarnishing their country's name, here and in the Diaspora, while vetoing and murdering any chance for peace.
And a president can even learn something about the American Jewish community. As soon as the Prime Minister's Office signaled its all-too-revealing dismissal of Israel's Oscar nominee ("A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," wrote The New York Times' Jodi Rudoren, "said the prime minister had not seen 'The Gatekeepers' and had no plans to") voices were raised in the U.S. to discredit the film, the former Shin Bet chiefs, and their message.
"The Gatekeepers," wrote Phyllis Chesler in the New York-based Jewish Press weekly, "will cause Israel great harm, great damage." Director Dror Moreh, she wrote, "is following a lethal narrative script against the Jewish state."
To be fair, Chesler may have been influenced as much by the "ultra-liberal" Jews with whom she watched "The Gatekeepers" at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. "And still, these safe-and-liberal Jews push and shove and behave like Jews do on a line, at the Jewish Film Festival or at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. This I find funny and slightly endearing," she wrote.
See "The Gatekeepers." With whomever you choose. Keep your mind open. This film explains Israel. Let it rip your skin off.