Keepers at the Gates of Our Democracy

The Oscar-nominated film 'The Gatekeepers' is stirring and soul-shaking. It's also a testimony to the thriving democracy we could one day become.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

These days are quite depressing politically: The elections don’t promise any change, and the campaign primarily shows how unwilling most of Israel’s current political leaders are to tackle the country’s great existential questions. Instead, they focus on addressing their pet issues. But last Saturday I had an experience that proved to me that, behind the tired political system, Israel’s democracy is alive, well and indeed kicking.

My wife and I went to see Dror Moreh’s documentary "The Gatekeepers," nominated for best documentary in this year’s Oscar competition. The experience was eerie: The film didn’t uncover anything we didn’t know. And yet we sat spellbound, at times literally on the edge of our seats, both of us deeply shaken.

"The Gatekeepers" so far has clocked a 100% positive rating on movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes, where critics have characterized it as a harrowing, eye-opening masterpiece.

The film's narrative backbone involves a series of interviews with six chiefs of the Shin Bet, the internal security agency that safeguards Israel’s physical safety. They include Avraham Shalom, who worked there in the late 70s, through Yaakov Peri, currently running for Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party; Carmi Gillon, who led the Shin Bet at the time of the murder of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Ami Ayalon, former commander of Israel's navy; and Yuval Diskin, whose tenure ended a year ago.

These men are not soft-headed idealists. They know Palestinian society better than most. Each of them has authorized many targeted killings, some of them very high profile, like Yihye Ayash, the so-called engineer, and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder and spiritual leader. They share their pain and frustration when they failed in preventing terror attacks, and their pride when they succeeded in what Gilon called "an elegant" operation.

The film does not make use of melodrama. Its aesthetics are subdued and precise. And none of its protagonists is given to over emotionality. But as the film progresses, you realize that these hard-headed men carry both deep pain in their chests and a profound conviction in their hearts that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is a catastrophe. With the exception of Dichter, all of these men, who served Israel’s security for most of their lives, have come to the same conclusion: Israel’s occupation is eating away at the country’s political and moral substance.

One of the film’s high points is when Dror Moreh talks to Yuval Diskin about Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Orthodox chemistry professor, philosopher, religious thinker and renaissance man who, since 1967, warned that the occupation would be Israel’s end. Leibowitz had an incredible influence on my generation of intellectuals, but is today considered anathema because of how harshly he criticized Israel’s policies, and for his role as the prophet of wrath who left no taboo unturned. But Diskin doesn’t flinch from associating himself with Leibowitz, saying dryly: “Leibowitz was right.”

These heads of the Shin Bet are willing to come forward and state their position loud and clear. But they are by no means unique: I speak to many members of Israel’s security establishment who cannot be quoted, and most of them have come to the same conclusion as protagonists in "The Gatekeepers." And they are deeply concerned by Netanyahu’s apocalyptic world view. Those who can speak out publicly, like Yuval Diskin and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, do so time and again. And Ami Ayalon, formerly a fierce military leader and then the respected Shin Bet chief has spent the last 12 years of his life leading initiatives for peace including Blue-White future, an organization pushing for a two-state solution (full disclosure: I'm one of the signatories).

"The Gatekeepers" is a wake-up call. I wish it were mandatory for all Israelis to watch it, and I hope that some of Israel’s well-meaning right-wing friends, who keep telling the peace camp that we are unrealistic at best or self-hating Jews at worst, will take the trouble to find out how utterly wrongheaded their position is.

They might want to ponder that while Israel’s politicians on the right keep frightening the electorate and speaking about the impossibility of a political process with the Palestinians, the people who were actually responsible for Israelis’ security think otherwise. Their years of serving the country faithfully have made them acutely aware of the terrible moral and political price of the occupation, and they all have come to the same conclusion: End the occupation. Now!

"The Gatekeepers" is, first and foremost, a masterpiece of filmmaking. But it is also a testimony to Israel’s democracy. While these former Shin Bet chiefs do not divulge any secrets, it is no small matter that a documentary can be made and shown in which leading figures of the security establishment criticize the policies of most of Israel’s governments of the last 35 years. They do so mercilessly, declaring without any ambiguity that Israel’s citizens have been misled for decades; that the occupation does not only fail to protect Israel, it weakens it on all fronts.

We progressives, for whom Israel’s liberal character and democratic future is the number one priority, will lose these elections. Netanyahu, considered a lost case by the world’s political leaders from Obama to Merkel, will be Israel’s next prime minister, and he will drive Israel into even deeper isolation. But both Israel’s friends and its critics should watch "The Gatekeepers. They will conclude that a country capable of producing soul-searching with such depth and beauty may yet harness the creative energies of its best and brightest for a better future.

The Israeli film 'The Gatekeepers.'Credit: Toldot Yisrael