‘The Gatekeepers’ Is a Harsh Portrayal of Life Outside the Ghetto of Self-denial

For lovers of Israel, the Oscar-nominated film is like a waterboarding of the soul. It is relentless. And It should be required viewing for all.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Gatekeepers is a very Israeli film. It is a film by Israelis, for Israelis and about Israelis. Even if it wins an Oscar. Even if you read the English subtitles. Even if you’ve heard that it mainly deals with the occupation, which it does, it is still essentially and exclusively Israeli.

And it is a movie about complexities. About ambiguities. About the grey areas in which we actually live, rather than the black and white in which so many of us pretend to live. It is about the battle that realism and pragmatism have been waging, and losing, against chauvinism, fanaticism and zealotry.

It is a film about both sides of the coin. About the Israel that once existed, not so long ago, before it withdrew – with the enthusiastic encouragement of so many of its so-called supporters in America – into a ghetto of self-denial and self-righteousness.

Thus, it is also a movie about Israel’s history and about its memory. It portrays actual, earth-shaking events of recent decades that we all remember well - but have nonetheless repressed: the Jewish terrorists; the first intifada; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin; Benjamin Netanyahu in Zion Square; the inexorable settlement of the West Bank that has proceeded apace, rain or shine, peace or war, Palestinian terrorism, as before, or effective security control, as now.

All of these images and events have somehow been banished from our minds. They never happened. They don’t fit the narrative. All we have now is the mantra “Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered them the moon, they refused, and they’re all terrorists anyway," and that’s it: no case to answer. The occupation, the humiliation, the disenfranchisement – all of these have been transformed into instruments of anti-Zionist propaganda, never to be recognized, never to be considered, never to be weighed, perish the thought.

The movie features extended interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, who are, each in his own way, quintessentially Israeli. Unlike the army chiefs of staff, the heads of the Shabak, as it is known, are anonymous; they shy away from public exposure and operate in the shadows. Unlike the heads of the Mossad, they have no normal operations in foreign countries, they don’t hobnob with the James Bonds or George Smileys of the world, they don’t drink martinis and they don’t bask in spy novel glamour.

Theirs, frankly, is a dirty business. They live among fanatic Jews and murderous Palestinians, they dwell in the underbelly of the occupation, between terrorists and would-be martyrs, informants and collaborators, among the detainees and the sometimes tortured.

But in a world of dreamers, fakers, shysters and liars, the heads of the Shin Bet are the straight shooters. They are the ones who talk “dugri” as Israelis like to call it. They tell it like it is, with no holds barred, no photoshops, lip-syncs or euphemisms, with the guttural, often grating cut of the authentic Israeli accent.

The film’s director, Dror Moreh, describes them as pragmatists through and through. Yitzhak Rabin is their role model, as is - to a lesser degree, perhaps - Ariel Sharon. They yearn for leaders who have earned on the battlefield the right to make the painful and fateful decisions that Israel needs.

They are the kind of people who were once considered heroes, but are now labeled traitors, because they dare cry out that the emperor has no clothes. Their motives are questioned, their sacrifice diminished, their life-long service dragged through the mud by their inferiors and lessers. Their words, genuine and heartfelt and grounded in decades of experience, are described as propaganda.

These are not your typical run of the mill lefties, knee jerk liberals or nave revolutionaries. They do not minimize Palestinian violence, don’t necessarily sympathize with their plight, nor do they care much for human rights activists. They are tough Jewish warriors, the kind early Zionists used to dream about, men with blood on their hands, who killed people or ordered them killed, men who often carried out questionable tasks by questionable means and for questionable reasons.

They were the technicians and the mechanics of the occupation. They made sure that life went on as normal on one side of the Green Line, while a regime of subjugation – no matter how enlightened, in relative terms – continued on the other. They describe, starkly and relentlessly, the price that Israel has already paid and the even steeper cost that it will bear if it does not seize the last remaining chance for a two-state solution.

The Gatekeepers is not an easy film to watch. About halfway through the movie, I found myself squirming in my seat, looking at my watch, wondering when the ordeal would be over. Not because the movie is boring, far from it – it is riveting. It holds up a cruel, crystal clear mirror that is painful to gaze at but nonetheless hard to tear yourself away from. For anyone who holds Israel dear to his or her heart, it is like a waterboarding of the soul.

Thus, it is a must-see movie for all Israelis. It is a recommended film for all concerned Jews. And it should be required viewing for some clueless supporters of Israel, such as Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee who so arrogantly interrogated Chuck Hagel last week.
It may not change their black or white, us or them, good versus evil outlook on life, but perhaps, for once, they will have at least a vague idea of what it is that they are actually talking about.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

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

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