In a Flurry of Telegrams, Israeli Diplomats Respond to 'The Gatekeepers'

From their bases across the world, Israeli ambassadors grapple with international screenings of the controversial Oscar-nominated film, debating whether or not, at its core, the film is anti-Israel.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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On February 17, 280 people crammed into the main hall of the Light House Cinema in Dublin, where the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival was being held. Despite the crush, dozens of disappointed visitors still couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out screening of the Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers,” directed by Dror Moreh.

The following morning, the deputy Israeli Ambassador in Ireland, Nurit Tinari-Modai, sent a cable to the Division for Cultural and Scientific Affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Nurit Tinari-Modai is considered the leader of the more militant stream of thought at the Foreign Office with respect to public relations and fighting anti-Israeli elements. She also has years of experience in promoting Israeli culture abroad.

Contrary to what many may have expected, the deputy ambassador wasn’t uncomfortable that the film had been shown, and even painted the event in a positive light.

“Why is there a large demand to see the film?” she wrote. “Well, it was nominated for an Oscar – which automatically attracts attention and curiosity; the obsession with Israel applies to film-lovers as well, and finally the nature of the film [attracts interest].”

She also added another interesting remark: “There wasn’t an anti-Israeli demonstration outside the cinema.” This is big news when it comes to Ireland.

“The Gatekeepers” was screened in dozens of capitals and cities around the world, and received an unprecedented amount of media exposure. Even before the Oscars – and especially after – nearly all the Israeli embassies around the world have been busy asking the question: Does the film benefit the country or does it do it a disservice?

Dozens of cables like the one from the Dublin embassy have arrived at the Foreign Ministry’s offices over the last few months. The internal debate between Israeli diplomats raises the question of whether the film reinforces the anti-Israeli narrative in the West, or alternatively paints a more complex and positive picture of Israeli society and the internal arguments that take place within it.

Some Israeli diplomats, like Israel’s ambassador to Serbia, Yossi Levy, strongly criticized Dror Moreh and his films, even if they did so indirectly. In a cable the ambassador sent several days after the one from Tinari-Modai, he claimed that Israeli directors make films about the Palestinian issue only so that they can win prizes abroad.

In contrast, Israel’s ambassador in Peru, Modi Ephraim, was positive about “The Gatekeepers,” and presented the film as a means of influencing the opinions of worldwide audiences. In a cable he sent to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, he told them about an article written by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa, in the newspaper La Republica.

Llosa – who is an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, but also sees himself as a friend of Israel – wrote that every time he becomes more pessimistic over the process of radicalization in Israel, “something happens that gives me hope,” like the film “The Gatekeepers.” Llosa said that the film was “evidence of the level-headedness and clarity of some elements in Israeli society.”

Yaron Gamburg, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Paris, was one of those who dealt delicately with the dilemma that “The Gatekeepers” posed to Israel’s official representatives abroad. He wrote a telegram describing the French media’s reactions to the film and stating that coverage was placing Israel in an extremely negative light.

Rafi Gamzu, head of the Cultural and Scientific Relations Division at the Foreign Ministry and an experienced veteran diplomat, replied to Gamburg with a telegram of his own.

“As one who served as a spokesman both in Europe and at home, I understand the challenges that an Israeli spokesman faces. Few, if any, spokesmen must deal with what we face, certainly in Europe. ‘The Gatekeepers’ definitely does not make a spokesman’s life any easier, but the ‘mandate’ imposed on filmmakers and people in the various creative fields in a democratic and open society is not to make things easier for us.

“‘The Gatekeepers,’ particularly because of the ‘collaboration’ of the six Shin Bet heads, is proof of the highest order of Israeli democracy. We will have to keep on dealing with the tension between ‘the government’s position,’ which we represent, and the spirit of Israeli democracy with its many various and even contradicting opinions and its constant engagement in self-inspection and self-criticism, and we will represent it, too, with our heads high and with professional pride.”

On February 28, “The Gatekeepers” was screened in Toronto. The audience was comprised of 350 people from the cultural field, journalists, students and representatives of the Jewish community and other ethnic communities there. After the screening, former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, one of the six Shin Bet heads whom Dror Moreh interviewed, gave a lecture. Israel’s Consul General in Toronto, D.J. Schneeweiss, also attended the screening and commented that it testified to the open public discourse held in Israel.

“The film is not easy to watch, particularly for Israeli viewers,” wrote the deputy consul general in Toronto, Hadas Wittenberg Silberstein, in a telegram she sent to the Foreign Ministry. “This is a powerful film that brings viewers into confrontation with the political-security dilemmas Israel faces.... The film is not completely unequivocal, but it is certainly tendentious in its portrayal of Palestinian suffering. Beyond those difficulties, we found the film to be a source of great pride because of its willingness to engage in soul-searching.”

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor is one of the busiest diplomats on earth. Every day, he answers hundreds of questions asked by journalists all over the world. The media response to “The Gatekeepers” made him even busier. Every day, Israeli missions abroad ask him for advice on how to deal with the questions journalists may ask about the film.

After the questions piled up, Palmor decided, together with Foreign Ministry Director-General Rafael Barak, to send all Israeli missions worldwide a recommendation on how he feels the film should be approached.

“We must understand that this is part of the internal discourse in Israel,” he wrote in part. “The one expressing this penetrating criticism is not a dissident fighting against the government, but rather people at the highest levels of the defense establishment who think in an independent and professional manner, and despite – or thanks to – their way of thinking, continued carrying out their security-related tasks for years in the belief that their work was vital and justified.”

Palmor also wrote that the justification for the Shin Bet’s activity in the territories does not appear in the film. The reason for that, he says, was a legitimate choice on the part of the director, Dror Moreh, together with the fact that the Shin Bet heads were speaking to the Israeli public, who knows the situation from their day-to-day lives.

“Other audiences need more explanation of the background to understand how the three Shin Bet heads who appear in the film went into politics and how they are an inseparable part of a whole policy, some of which they criticize from within while agreeing completely with other aspects of it. None of them is a rebel who broke the rules and quit, or a subversive who tried to carry out a revolution. They see themselves as part of the establishment and as they see it, the purpose of their criticism is to improve it, not to smash it.”

Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, responded to Palmor’s telegram as follows:

“I agree completely with your approach ... I used the screening of the film here as an opportunity to emphasize the strength of Israeli democracy ... and the doubts that policymakers in Israel must face before they order the killing of terrorists ... There are not many democracies where one can view such a discussion at all, particularly considering Israel’s security situation. This message was received here very well.”

Shahar Azani, the consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, sent a response as well. “Indeed, we agree with every word. The Israeli audience in New York feels that this is an ‘important’ film that speaks ‘Israeli,’ while our supporters in the Jewish community and outside it claimed that the lack of information about circumstances and background leads viewers to draw a conclusion that is clearly anti-Israeli.”

But the one who responded to the film in an amazingly extreme way, which was also completely the opposite of what the Foreign Ministry’s staff recommended, was Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, D.C. For reasons that remain unclear, Oren came out strongly against the film several days ago in an interview on the Israel Web portal Ynet.

“The problem is that those interviewed are not Israeli citizens of a certain opinion, but rather former Shin Bet chiefs. One of them (Carmi Gilon) says that Israel causes daily suffering to millions of Palestinians. Then another former Shin Bet head (Avraham Shalom) compares Israel to Nazi Germany, not exactly, but kind of ... and I’ve been hearing about Jews leaving the screening asking why we should keep supporting Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sent Oren to Washington as a political appointment, said even before the Academy Awards ceremony that he had no intention of viewing Dror Moreh’s film. In Oren’s defense, it may be said that unlike his boss, he at least viewed the film. However, Oren’s statements angered quite a few higher-ups in the Foreign Ministry who felt that the interview was unnecessary and compromised the united front that they were trying to present regarding the film.

The Israeli diplomats are not film critics, but the internal controversy over “The Gatekeepers” will continue to keep the Foreign Ministry busy for a long time to come. Over the next few weeks, the film’s director, Dror Moreh, will be attending a special screening of the film at the Foreign Ministry with hundreds of Israeli diplomats in attendance. Readers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, take note.

Former heads of the Shin Bet in 'The Gatekeepers.' Clockwise from top left: Jacob Perry, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin.Credit: Screenshot